Familiar Letters of William James

This collection of letters, edited by his son Henry James Jr., was originally published in three installments.
To Carl Stumpf

CAMBRIDGE Feb. 6, 1887.


Your two letters, from Rugen of Sept. 8th, and from Halle of Jan. 2, came duly, and I can assure you that their contents were most heartily appreciated, and not by me alone. I fairly squealed with pleasure over the first one and its rich combination of good counsel and humorous commentary, and read the greater part of it to my friend Royce, assistant professor of philosophy here, who enjoyed it almost as much as I. There is a heartiness and solidity about your letters which is truly German, and makes them as nutritious as they are refreshing to receive.

Your Kater-Gefuhl, however, in your second letter, about your Auslassungen* on the subject of Wundt, amused me by its speedy evolution into Auslassungen more animated still. I can well understand why Wundt should make his compatriots impatient. Foreigners can afford to be indifferent, for he does n't crowd them so much. He aims at being a sort of Napoleon of the intellectual world. Unfortunately he will never have a Waterloo, for he is a Napoleon without genius and with no central idea which, if defeated, brings down the whole fabric in ruin. You remember what Victor Hugo says of Napoleon, in the Miserables--'Il genait Dieu'; Wundt only geners his confreres; and whilst they make mincemeat of some one of his views by their criticism, he is meanwhile writing a book on an entirely different subject. Cut him up like a worm, and each fragment crawls; there is no noeud vital in his mental medulla oblongata, so that you can't kill him all at once.

But surely you must admit that, since there must be professors in the world, Wundt is the most praiseworthy and never-too-much-to-be-respected type of the species. He is n't a genius, he is a professor--a being whose duty is to know everything, and have his own opinion about everything, connected with his Fach. [Field] Wundt has the most prodigious faculty of appropriating and preserving knowledge, and as for opinions, he takes au grand serieux his duties there. He says of each possible subject, 'Here I must have an opinion. Let's see! what shall it be? How many possible opinions are there? three? four? Yes! just four! Shall I take one of these? It will seem more original to take a higher position, a sort of Vermittelungs-ansicht [Mediating attitude] between them all. THAT I will do,' etc., etc.

So he acquires a complete assortment of opinions of his own; and, as his memory is so good, he seldom forgets which they are. But this is not reprehensible; it is admirable--from the professorial point of view. To be sure, one gets tired of that point of view after a while. But was there ever, since Christian Wolff's time, such a model of the German Professor? He has utilized to the uttermost fibre every gift that Heaven endowed him with at his birth, and made of it all that mortal pertinacity could make. He is the finished example of how much mere EDUCATION can do for a man. Beside him, Spencer is an ignoramus as well as a charlatan. I admit that Spencer is occasionally more AMUSING than Wundt. His Data of Ethics seems to me incomparably his best book, because it is a more or less frank expression of the man's personal ideal of living--which has of course little to do with science, and which, in Spencer's case, is full of definiteness and vigor. Wundt's Ethics I have not yet seen, and probably shall not 'tackle' it for a good while to come.

I was much entertained by your account of F--, of whom you have seen much more than I have. I am eager to see him, to hear about his visit to Halle, and to get his account of you. But [F----'s place of abode] and Boston are ten hours asunder by rail, and I never go there and he never comes here. He seems a very promising fellow, with a good deal of independence of character; and if you knew the conditions of education in this country, and of preparation to fill chairs of philosophy in colleges, you would not express any surprise at his, or mine, or any other American's, small amount of 'Information uber die Philosophische Literatur.' Times are mending, however, and within the past six or eight years it has been possible, in three or four of our colleges, to get really educated for philosophy as a profession.

The most promising man we have in this country is, in my opinion, the above-mentioned Royce, a young Californian of thirty, who is really built for a metaphysician, and who is besides that a very complete human being, alive at every point. He wrote a novel last summer which is now going through the press, and which I am very curious to see. He has just been in here, interrupting this letter, and I have told him he must send a copy of his book, the Religious Aspect of Philosophy, to you, promising to urge you to read it when you had time. The first half is ethical, and very readable and full of profound and witty details, but to my mind not of vast importance philosophically. The second half is a new argument for monistic idealism, an argument based on the possibility of truth and error in knowledge, subtle in itself, and rather lengthily expounded, but seeming to me to be one of the few big original suggestions of recent philosophical writing. I have vainly tried to escape from it, I still suspect it of inconclusiveness, but I frankly confess that I am UNABLE to overthrow it. Since you too are an anti-idealist, I wish very much you would try your critical teeth upon it. I can assure you that, if you come to close quarters with it, you will say its author belongs to the genuine philosophic breed.

I am myself doing very well this year, rather light work, etc., but still troubled with bad sleep so as to advance very slowly with private study and writing. However, few days without a line at least. I found to my surprise and pleasure that Robertson was willing to print my chapter on Space, in Mind, even though it should run through all four numbers of the year. So I sent it to him. Most of it was written six or even seven years ago. To tell the truth, I am off of Space now, and can probably carry my little private ingenuity concerning it no farther than I have already done in this essay; and fearing that some evil fiend might put it into Helmholtz's mind to correct all his errors and tell the full truth in the new edition of his Optics, I felt it was high time that what I had written should see the light and not be lost. It is dry stuff to read, and I hardly dare to recommend it to you; but if you do read it, there is no one whose favorable opinion I should more rejoice to hear; for, as you know, you seem to me, of all writers on Space, the one who, on the whole, has thought out the subject most philosophically. Of course, the experimental patience, and skill and freshness of observation of the Helmholtzes and Herings are altogether admirable, and perhaps at bottom worth more than philosophic ability. Space is really a direfully difficult subject!

the third dimension bothers me very much still....

[During the very hard-working period of the 'eighties James had little time for long letters, but the short notes and the post-cards which he threw off daily were perhaps the more vivid for that fact. He was almost certain to respond with a word of comment to whatever interested him, and a book which he had enjoyed often called forth what Mr. Howells once called 'a whoop of blessing' to its author.]

To W. D. Howells

JAFFREY, N.H., July 21, 1886.


I 'snatch' a moment from the limitless vacation peace and leisure in which I lie embedded and which does n't leave me 'time' for anything, to tell you that I have been reading your Indian Summer, and that it has given me about as exquisite a kind of delight as anything I ever read in my life, in the line to which it belongs. How you tread the narrow line of nature's truth so infallibly is more than I can understand. Then the profanity, the humor, the humanity, the morality--the everything! In short, 't is cubical, and set it up any way you please, 't will stand. That blessed young female made me squeal at every page. How can you have got back to the conversations of our prime?

But I won't discriminate or analyze. This is only meant for an inarticulate cry of viva Howells. I repeat it: long live Howells! God grant you may do as good things again! I don't believe you can do better.

With warmest congratulations to Mrs. Howells that you AND she were born, I am ever yours,


To Miss Grace Norton

[Post Card] [CHOCORUA|, Aug. 12, '88.

It would take G[uy] de M[aupassant] himself to just fill a post-card chok-full, and yet leave naught to be desired, with an account of Pierre et Jean. It is a little cube of bronze; or, like the body of the Capitaine Beausire, 'plein comme un oeuf, dur comme une balle'--dur surtout! Fifteen years ago, I might have been ENTHUSED by such art; but I'm growing weak-minded, and the charm of this admirable precision and adequacy of art to subject leaves me too cold. It is like these modern tools and instruments, so admirably compact, and strong, and reduced to their fighting weight--one of those little metallic pumps, e.g., so oily & powerful, with a handle about two feet long, which will throw a column of water about 4 inches thick 100 feet. Unfortunately G. de M.'s pump only throws dirty water--and I am BEGINNING to be old fogy eno' to like even an old, shackly, wooden pump-handle, if the water it fetches only carries all the sweetness of the mountain-side. Yrs. ever, W. J.

The dying fish on p[in]s stick most in my memory. Is that right in a novel of human life?

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