of William James - I
Edited by his son, Henry James, Jr.
This collection of letters was originally published in The Atlantic Monthly in three installments. See the August, 1920 installment. See the September, 1920 installment.
William James corresponded with many people of many sorts. Sometimes he
communicated by postcards, or short notes; at others he wrote copious letters.
Whether he was compressing his correspondence into the briefest messages, or
allowing it to expand into letters of friendly badinage and extended comment,
he was incapable of writing a half page that was not characteristic, free, and
vivid. But in the short space available here it will be impossible to do more
than give a few letters, and accordingly a small number which illustrate
different traits of his character and correspondence have been selected.
A brief preliminary reminder of certain biographical facts will help the reader
to follow them.
William James was born in 1842, had an irregular education in New York,
Newport, and Europe, and entered the Lawrence Scientific School in Cambridge in
1861. His tastes and inclinations defined themselves but slowly, and during the
ten years that followed he was frequently compelled to interrupt or abandon his
work on account of illness. He studied chemistry for a while, and then
comparative anatomy under Jeffries Wyman; entered the Harvard Medical School;
broke off to go to Brazil with Louis Agassiz's expedition; went to Germany for
a year and a half in pursuit of physiology and health without making much
progress in either pursuit; returned to Cambridge and, after taking his medical
degree at Harvard, spent three years under his father's roof without any
definite occupation. He passed through distressing periods of mental depression
during these years of frustration. This first phase of his manhood may be
considered to have lasted until his appointment to teach physiology at Harvard
During the next seven years he had regular and stimulating responsibilities.
His health improved, his powers of work developed; he 'found himself.' He
turned definitely to psychology as his immediate chief interest, and started
the first psychological laboratory in America.
His life, during the thirteen years between 1878 and 1891, was laborious and
productive. It was during these years that he prepared the chapters of the
Principles of Psychology and published them in Mind and other journals. Toward
the end of the 'eighties (which is also the end of the time covered by the
letters selected for this number of the Atlantic) he had not only attained to a
position of influence in the Harvard world, but was known on both sides of the
Atlantic as a brilliant and original contributor to psychological science.
The student days and the following period of uncertainty and enforced idleness
in which there was more time for sociability than there ever was later, may
first be illustrated by four letters.]
To His Mother
CAMBRIDGE [circa September, 1863.]
MY DEAREST MOTHER,--
To answer the weighty questions which you propound: I am glad to leave Newport
because I am tired of the place itself, and because of the reason which you
have very well expressed in your letter, the necessity of the whole family
being near the arena of the future activity of us young men. I recommend
Cambridge on account of its own pleasantness (though I don't wish to be
invidious towards Brookline, Longwood, and other places), and because of its
economy if I or Harry continue to study here much longer....I feel very much
the importance of making soon a final choice of my business in life. I stand
now at the place where the road forks. One branch leads to material comfort,
the flesh-pots, but it seems a kind of selling of one's soul. The other to
mental dignity and independence, combined, however, with physical penury.
If I myself were the only one concerned, I should not hesitate an instant in my
choice. But it seems hard on Mrs. W. J., 'that not impossible she,' to ask her
to share an empty purse and a cold hearth. On one side is SCIENCE, upon the
other BUSINESS (the honorable, honored and productive business of printing
seems most attractive), with medicine, which partakes of [the] advantages of
both between them, but which has drawbacks of its own.
I confess I hesitate. I fancy there is a fond maternal cowardice which would
make you and every other mother contemplate with complacency the worldly
fatness of a son, even if obtained by some sacrifice of his 'higher nature.'
But I fear there might be some anguish at looking back from the pinnacle of
prosperity (NECESSARILY reached, if not by eating dirt, at least by renouncing
some divine ambrosia) over the life you might have led in the pure pursuit of
truth. It seems as if one COULD not afford to give that up for any bribe,
however great. Still, I am undecided. The medical term opens to-morrow, and
between this and the end of the term here, I shall have an opportunity of
seeing a little into medical business. I shall confer with Wyman about the
prospects of a naturalist and finally decide.
I want you to become familiar with the notion that I MAY stick to science,
however, and drain away at your property for a few years more. If I can get
into Agassiz's museum I think it not improbable I may receive a salary of $400
to $500 in a couple of years. I know some stupider than I who have done so. You
see in that case how desirable it would be to have a home in Cambridge. Anyhow
I am convinced that SOMEWHERE in this neighborhood is the place for us to rest.
These matters have been a good deal on my mind lately, and I am very glad to
get this chance of pouring them into yours. As for the other boys, I don't
know. And that idle and useless young female, Alice, too, whom we shall have to
feed and clothe! Cambridge is all right for business in Boston. Living in
Boston or Brookline, etc., would be as expensive as Newport, if Harry or I
stayed here, for we could not easily go home every day.
Give my warmest love to Aunt Kate, Father, who I hope will not tumble again,
and all of them over the way. Recess in three weeks, till then, my dearest and
best of old mothers, good-bye.
Your loving son,
Give my best love to Kitty and give cette petite humbug of a Minny* a hint
about writing to me. I hope you liked your shawl.
[*His cousin Katherine Temple, later Mrs. Richard Emmet, and her younger
To His Sister Alice
CAMBRIDGE, Nov. 14,
Cherie de Jeune Balle,--
I am just in from town in the keen, cold and eke beauteous moonlight, which by
the above qualities makes me think of thee, to whom, nor to whose aunt, have I
(not) yet written. (I don't understand the grammar of the not.) Your first
question is, 'where have I been?' To C. S. Peirce's lecture, which I could not
understand a word of but rather enjoyed the sensation of listening to for an
hour. I then turned to O. W. Holmes's*, and wrangled with him for another hour.
You may thank your stars that you are not in a place where you have to ride in
such full horse-cars as these. I rode half way out with my 'form' entirely out
of the car overhanging the road, my feet alone being on the same vertical line
as any part of the car, there being just room for them on the step. Aunt Kate
may and probably WILL have shoot through her prolific mind the supposish: 'How
wrong in him to do sich! for if, while in that posish, he should have a sudden
stroke of paralysis, or faint, his nerveless fingers relaxing their grasp of
the rail, he would fall prostrate to the ground and bust.' To which I reply
that when I go so far as to have a stroke of paralysis, I shall not mind going
a step farther and getting bruised.
Your next question probably is how are and where are father and mother?...I
think father seems more lively for a few days past and cracks jokes with Harry,
etc. Mother is recovering from one of her indispositions, which she bears like
an angel, doing any amount of work at the same time, putting up cornices and
raking out the garret room like a little buffalo.
Your next question is, wherever is Harry? I answer: 'He is to Ashburner's, to a
tea-squall in favor of Miss Haggerty.' I declined. He is well; we have had
nothing but invitations--six in three or four days. One, a painted one, from
'Mrs. L---,' whoever she may be. I replied that domestic affliction prevented
me from going, but I would take a pecuniary equivalent instead, viz., To 1
oyster stew--30 cts.; 1 chicken salad--0.50; 1 roll--0.02; 8 ice creams at 20
cts.--0.60; 6 small cakes at 0.05--0.80; 1 pear--$1.50;
1 lb. confectionery--0.50.
6 glasses hock at 0.50 $3 .00
8 glasses sherry at .30 0.90
Salad spilt on floor 5.00
Dish of do., broken 3.00
Damage to carpet & Miss
L----'s dress frm. do. 75.00
3 glasses broken 1.20
Curtains set fire to in dressing
room 40. 00
Other injury frm. fire in room 250.00
Injury to house frm. water
pumped upon it by steam
fire engine come to put out
I expect momentarily her reply with a check, and when it comes will take you
and Aunt Kate on a tour in Europe and have you examined by the leading
physicians and surgeons of that country.
M---- L---- came out here and dined with us yesterday of her own accord. I no
longer doubt what I always suspected, her penchant for me, and I don't blame
her for it. Elly Temple stayed here two days, too. She scratched, smote, beat,
and kicked me so that I shall dread to meet her again. What an awful time Bob
& Co. must have had at sea! and how anxious you must have been about them!
With best love to Aunt Kate and yourself, believe me
Your af. bro.
[*O.W. Holmes, Jr., now Mr. Justice Holmes.]
To O. W. Holmes, Jr.
[BERLIN] Jany. 3, 1868.
MY DEAR WENDLE,--
Ich weiss nicht was soll es bedeuten, dass ich so traurig bin, to-night. The
ghosts of the past all start from their unquiet graves and keep dancing a
senseless whirligig around me, so that, after trying in vain to read three
books, to sleep or to think, I clutch the pen and ink and resolve to work off
the fit by a few lines to one of the most obtrusive ghosts of all--namely the
tall and lank one of Charles Street. Good golly! how I would prefer to have
about twenty-four hours talk with you up in that whitely lit-up room--without
the sun rising or the firmament revolving so as to put the gas out, without
sleep, food, clothing or shelter except your whiskey bottle--of which or the
like of which I have not partaken since I have been in these longitudes! I
should like to have you opposite me in any mood, whether the facetiously
discursive, the metaphysically discursive, the personally confidential, or the
jadedly CURSIVE and argumentative--so that the oyster-shells which enclose my
being might slowly turn open on their rigid hinges under the radiation, and the
critter within loll out his dried-up gills into the circumfused ichor of life,
till they grow so fat as not to know themselves again. I feel as if a talk with
you of any kind could not fail to set me on my legs again for three weeks at
least. I have been chewing on two or three dried-up old cuds of ideas I brought
from America with me, till they have disappeared, and the nudity of the cosmos
has got beyond anything I have as yet experienced. I have not succeeded in
finding any companion yet and I feel the want of some outward stimulus in my
Soul. There is a man named Grimm* here, whom my soul loves, but in the way
Emerson speaks of, i.e., like those people we meet on staircases, etc., and who
always ignore our feelings towards them. I don't think we shall ever be able to
establish a straight line of communication between us.
I don't know how it is I am able to take so little interest in reading this
winter. I marked out a number of books when I first came here, to finish. What
with their heaviness, and the damnable slowness with which the Dutch still
goes, they weigh on me like a haystack. I loathe the thought of them; and yet
they have poisoned my slave of a conscience so that I can't enjoy anything
else. I have reached an age when practical work of some kind clamors to be
done--and I must still wait!
There! Having worked off that pent up gall of six weeks' accumulation I feel
more genial. I wish I could have some news of you--now that the postage is
lowered to such a ridiculous figure (and no letter is double) there remains no
SHADOW of an excuse for not writing--but still I don't expect anything from
you. I suppose you are sinking ever deeper into the sloughs of the law--yet I
ween the Eternal Mystery still from time to time gives her goad another turn in
the raw she once established between your ribs. Don't let it heal over yet.
When I get home let's establish a philosophical society to have regular
meetings and discuss none but the very tallest and broadest questions--to be
composed of none but the very topmost cream of Boston manhood. It will give
each one a chance to air his own opinion in a grammatical form, and to sneer
and chuckle when he goes home at what damned fools all the other members
are--and may grow into something very important after a sufficient number of
The German character is without mountains or valleys; its favorite food is
roast veal; and in other lines it prefers whatever may be the analogue
thereof--all which gives life here a certain flatness to the high-tuned
American taste. I don't think any one need care much about coming here unless
he wants to dig very deeply into some exclusive specialty. I have been reading
nothing of any interest but some chapters of physiology. There has a good deal
been doing here of late on the physiology of the senses, overlapping
perception, and consequently, in a measure, the psychological field. I am
wading my way towards it, and if in course of time I strike on anything
exhilarating, I'll let you know.
I'll now pull up. I don't know whether you take it as a compliment that I
should only write to you when in the dismalest of dumps--perhaps you ought
to--you, the one emergent peak to which I cling when all the rest of the world
has sunk beneath the wave. Believe me, my Wendly boy, what poor possibility of
friendship abides in the crazy frame of W. J. meanders about thy neighborhood.
Good-bye! Keep the same bold front as ever to the Common Enemy--and don't
forget your ally.
That is, after all, all I wanted to write you and it may float the rest of the
letter. Pray give my warm regards to your father, mother and sister; and my
love to the honest Gray and to Jim Higginson.
[Written on the outside of the envelope]
Jan. 4. By a strange coincidence, after writing this last night, I received
yours this morning. Not to sacrifice the postage-stamps which are already on
the envelope (Economical W.!) I don't reopen it. But I will write you again
soon. Meanwhile, bless your heart! thank you! Vide Shakespeare: sonnet XXLX
[*Hermann Grimm, a son of the younger of the universally beloved brothers of
the Fairy Tales, a philologist and Professor of the History of Art in
To O. W. Holmes, Jr., and J. C. Gray, Jr.
[Winter of 1868-69]
Gents! entry-thieves--chevaliers d'industrie--well-dressed
swindlers--confidence men--wolfs in sheep's clothing--asses in lions'
skin--gentlemanly pickpockets--beware! The hand of the law is already on your
throats and waits but a wink to be tightened. All the resources of the
immensely powerful corporation of Harvard University have been set in motion,
and concealment of your miserable selves or of the almost equally miserable
(though not as such miserable) goloshes which you stole from our entry on
Sunday night is as impossible as would be the concealment of the State House.
The motive of your precipitate departure from the house became immediately
evident to the remaining guests. But they resolved to IGNORE the matter
provided the overshoes were replaced within a week; if not, no CONSIDERATIONS
WHATEVER will prevent Messrs. Gurney & Perry* from proceeding to treat you
with the utmost severity of the law. It is high time that some of these genteel
adventurers should be made an example of, and your offense just comes in time
to make the cup of public and private forbearance overflow. My father and self
have pledged our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor to see the thing
through with Gurney and Perry, as the credit of our house is involved and we
might ourselves have been losers, not only from you but from the aforesaid G.
and P., who have been heard to go about openly declaring that 'if they had
known the party was going to be that kind of an affair, d---d if they would not
have started off earlier themselves with some of those aristocratic James
overcoats, hats, gloves and canes!'
So let me as a friend advise you to send the swag back. No questions will be
asked--Mum's the word.
[*Ephraim W. Gurney and T.S. Perry.]
[The next four letters may be taken from the late 'seventies and early
'eighties--after James had become absorbed in teaching and while he was at work
upon his Psychology and upon his first philosophic papers. It should be
explained with reference to two of them, that he then considered Charles
Renouvier and Shadworth Hodgson to be the most important contributors to
contemporary philosophic discussion. They were both somewhat older men than
himself, Renouvier being, in fact, twenty-seven years older, and Hodgson his
senior by ten years. He had exchanged letters with Renouvier as early as 1872.
In 1881-82 he met and became warmly attached to both men during a winter that
he then spent in visiting European universities and in making the acquaintance
of a number of the British and Continental colleagues whose writings had
Before he made this particular European trip James had undoubtedly been in a
very modest frame of mind about his own equipment for teaching philosophy and
psychology, and had also been uncomfortably conscious of the inadequate way in
which those subjects were then dealt with in most American colleges. But closer
contact with men and methods on the other side of the Atlantic, far from
discouraging him or confirming his misgivings, led him, as will appear in the
next letter but one, to certain comforting conclusions and confirmed him in his
fondness for the liberal atmosphere of Cambridge, and for his place in the
brilliant little group who were then building up the Harvard philosophical
To Charles Renouvier
CAMBRIDGE, July 29,
MY DEAR SIR,--
I am quite overcome by your appreciation of my poor little article in the
Nation. It gratifies me extremely to hear from your own lips that my
apprehension of your thoughts is accurate. In so despicably brief a space as
that which a newspaper affords, I could hardly hope to attain any other quality
than that, and perhaps clearness. I had written another paragraph of pure
eulogy of your powers which the editor suppressed, to my great regret, for want
of room. I need not repeat to you again how grateful I feel to you for all I
have learned from your admirable writings.
I do what lies in my feeble power to assist the propagation of your works here;
but STUDENTS of philosophy are rare here as everywhere. It astonishes me
nevertheless that you have had to wait so long for general recognition. Only a
few months ago I had the pleasure of introducing to your Essais two professors
of philosophy, able and learned men, who hardly knew your name!! But I am
perfectly convinced that it is a mere affair of time, and that you will take
your place in the general History of Speculation as the classical and finished
representative of the tendency which was begun by Hume, and to which writers
before you had made only fragmentary contributions, whilst you have fused the
whole matter into a solid, elegant and definitive system, perfectly consistent,
and capable, by reason of its moral vitality, of becoming popular, so far as
that is permitted to philosophic systems. After your Essays, it seems to me
that the only important question is the deepest one of all, the one between the
principle of contradiction, and the Sein und Nichts.* You have brought it to
that clear issue; and extremely as I value your logical attitude, it would be
uncandid of me (after what I have said) not to confess that there are certain
psychological and moral facts, which make me, as I stand to-day, unable wholly
to commit myself to your position, to burn my ships behind me, and proclaim the
belief in the ONE and the many to be the Original Sin of the mind.
I long for leisure to study up these questions. I have been teaching anatomy
and physiology in Harvard College here. Next year, I add a course of
physiological psychology, using, for certain practical reasons, Spencer's
Psychology textbook. My health is not strong, I find that laboratory work and
study too are more than I can attend to. It is therefore not impossible that I
may in 1877-8 be transferred to the philosophical department, in which there is
likely to be a vacancy. If so, you may depend upon it that the name of
Renouvier will be as familiar as that of Descartes to the Bachelors of Arts who
leave these walls. Believe me with the greatest respect and gratitude,
I must add a vivat to your Critique Philosophique, which keeps up so ably and
bravely. And although it is probably an entirely superfluous recommendation, I
cannot refrain from calling your attention to the most robust of English
philosophic writers, Hodgson, whose Time and Space was published in 1865 by
Longmans, and whose Theory of Practice in two volumes followed it in 1870.
[*Being and non-being.]
To Henry James
PARIS, Nov. 22, 1882.
Found at Hottinguer's this A.M. your letter with all the enclosures--and a wail
you had sent to Berlin. Also six letters from my wife and seven or eight
others, not counting papers and magazines. I will mail you back yours and
Father's letter to me. Alice speaks of Father's indubitable improvement in
strength, but our sister Alice apparently is somewhat run down. Paris looks
delicious. I shall try to get settled as soon as possible, and meanwhile feel
as if the confusion of life was recommencing. I saw in Germany all the men I
cared to see and talked with most of them. With three or four I had a really
nutritious time. The trip has amply paid for itself. I found 3rd class
'Nichtraucher' almost always empty and perfectly comfortable. The great use of
such experiences is less the definite information you gain from any one, than a
sort of solidification of your own foothold on life. Nowhere did I see a
university which seems to do for ALL its students anything like what Harvard
does. Our methods throughout are better. It is only in the select 'Seminaria'
(private classes) that a few German students, making researches with the
professor, gain something from him personally which his genius alone can give.
I certainly got a most distinct impression of my own INFORMATION in regard to
MODERN philosophic matters being broader than that of any one I met, and of our
Harvard post of observation being more cosmopolitan. Delboeuf in Liege was an
angel and much the best teacher I've seen.
The Century, with your fiery good portrait, etc., was at Hottinguer's this
A.M., sent by my wife. I shall read it presently. I'm off now to see if I can
get your leather trunk, sent front London, arrested by inundations and ordered
to be returned to Paris. I never needed its contents a second. And in your
little American valise, and my flabby black hand-bag and shawl-straps and a
small satchel, I carried not only everything I used, but collected a whole
library of books in Leipsig, some pieces of Venetian glass in their balky
bolsters of seaweed, a quart bottle of eau de Cologne, and a lot of other
acquisitions. I feel remarkably tough now and fairly ravenous for my
psychologic work. Address Hottinguer's.
To Shadworth Hodgson
NEWPORT, Dec. 30, 1885.
MY DEAR HODGSON,--
I have just read your 'Philosophy and Experience' address, and re-read with
much care your 'Dialogue on Free Will' in the last Mind. I thank you kindly for
the address. But is n't philosophy a sad mistress, estranging the more
intimately those who in all other respects are most intimately united--although
't is true she unites them afresh by their very estrangement! I feel for the
first time now, after these readings, as if I might be catching sight of your
foundations. Always hitherto has there been something elusive, a sense that
what I caught could not be all. Now I feel as if it might be all, and yet for
me 't is not enough. Your 'method' (which surely after this needs no additional
expository touch) I seem at last to understand, but it shrinks in the
As for the Free Will article, I have very little to say; for it leaves entirely
untouched what seems to me the only living issue involved. The paper is an
exquisite piece of literary goldsmith's work,--nothing like it in that respect
since Berkeley,--but it hangs in the air of speculation and touches not the
earth of life, and the beautiful distinctions it keeps making gratify only the
understanding which has no end in view but to exercise its eyes by the way. The
distinctions between vis impressa and vis insita, and compulsion and 'reaction'
MEAN nothing in a monistic world; and any world is a monism in which the parts
to come are, as they are in your world, absolutely involved and presupposed in
the parts that are already given. Were such a monism a palpable optimism, no
man would be so foolish as to care whether it was predetermined or not, or to
ask whether he was or was not what you call a 'real agent.' He would acquiesce
in the flow and drift of things of which he found himself a part, and rejoice
that it was such a whole. The question of free will owes its entire being to a
difficulty you disdain to notice, namely that we CANNOT rejoice in such a
whole, for it is NOT a palpable optimism and yet, if it be predetermined, we
MUST TREAT it as a whole. Indeterminism is the only way to BREAK the world into
good parts and into bad, and to stand by the former as against the latter.
I can understand the determinism of the mere mechanical intellect which will
not hear of a moral dimension to existence. I can understand that of mystical
monism, shutting its eyes on the concretes of life for the sake of its abstract
rupture. I can understand that of mental defeat and despair saying, 'It's all a
muddle, and here I go, along with it.' I can NOT understand a determinism like
yours, which rejoices in clearness and distinctions, and which is at the same
time alive to moral ones--unless it be that the latter are purely speculative
for it, and have little to do with its real feeling of the way life is made
For life IS evil. Two souls are in my breast; I see the better, and in the very
act of seeing it I do the worse. To say that the molecules of the nebula
implied this and SHALL HAVE IMPLIED IT to all eternity, so often as it recurs,
is to condemn me to that 'dilemma' of pessimism or subjectivism of which I once
wrote, and which seems to have so little urgency to you, and to which all talk
about abstractions erected into entities, and compulsion vs. 'freedom' is
simply irrelevant. What living man cares for such niceties when the real
problem stares him in the face, of how practically to meet a world foredone,
with no possibilities left in it?
What a mockery then seems your distinction between determination and
compulsion, between passivity and an 'activity' every minutest feature of which
is preappointed, both as to its whatness and as to its thatness, by what went
before? What an insignificant difference then the difference between
'impediments from within' and 'impediments from without'--between being fated
to do the thing WILLINGLY or not! The point is not as to how it is done, but as
to its being done at all. It seems a wrong complement to the rest of life,
which rest of life (according to your precious 'free-will determinism,' as to
any other fatalism), whilst shrieking aloud at its WHATNESS, nevertheless
exacts rigorously its THATNESS then and there. Is that a reasonable world from
the moral point of view? And is it made more reasonable by the fact that when I
brought about the THATNESS of the evil WHATNESS decreed to come by the thatness
of all else beside, I did so consentingly and aware of no 'impediments outside
of my own nature'? With what can I SIDE in such a world as this? this monstrous
indifferentism which brings forth everything eodum jure? Our nature demands
something OBJECTIVE to take sides with. If the world is a Unit of this sort
there ARE no sides--there's the moral rub! And you don't see it!
Ah, Hodgson! Hodgson mio! from whom I hoped so much! Most spirited, most clean,
most thoroughbred of philosophers! Perche di tanto inganni i figlii tuoi? If
you want to reconcile us rationally to Determinism, write a Theodicy, reconcile
us to Evil, but don't talk of the distinction between impediments from within
and without when the within and the without of which you speak are both within
that WHOLE which is the only real agent in your philosophy. There is no such
superstition as the idolatry of the Whole.
I originally finished this letter on sheet number one; but it occurred to me
afterwards that the end was too short, so I scratched out the first lines of
the crossed writing, and refer you now to what follows them.--[Lines from sheet
number 1] It makes me sick at heart, this discord among the only men who ought
to agree. I am the more sick this moment as I must write to your ancient foe
(at least the stimulus to an old Mind article of yours), One F. E. Abbot, who
recently gave me his little book Scientific Theism--the burden of his
life--which makes me groan that I cannot digest a word of it. Farewell! Heaven
bless you all the same, and enable you to forgive me. We are well and I hope
you are the same.
Ever faithfully yours,
[From the final sheet.] Let me add a wish for a happy New Year and the
expression of my undying regard. You are tenfold more precious to me now that I
have braved you thus! Adieu!
[Professor Carl Stumpf of Prague and later of Berlin, to whom the following
letter was addressed, will be recognized by all readers of psychology. James
had met both him and Professor Wundt in 1881-82, had established the most
cordial relations with Stumpf, and always cherished a warm regard for him.]
To Carl Stumpf
CAMBRIDGE Feb. 6, 1887.
MY DEAR STUMPF,--
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
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
MY DEAR HOWELLS,--
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
WM . JAMES.
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
To W. D. Howells
CAMBRIDGE, June 12, 1891.
MY DEAR HOWELLS--
You are a sublime and immortal genius! I have just read Silas Lapham and Lemuel
Barker,--strange that I should not have read them before, after hearing my wife
rave about them so,--and of all the perfect works of fiction they are the
perfectest. The truth, in gross and in detail; the concreteness and solidity;
the geniality, humanity, and unflagging humor; the steady way in which it keeps
up without a dead paragraph; and especially the fidelity with which you stick
to the ways of human nature, with the ideal and the unideal inseparably beaten
up together so that you never give them 'clear'--all make them a feast of
delight, which, if I mistake not, will last for all future time, or as long as
novels can last. Silas is the bigger total success because it deals with a more
important story. I think you ought to have made young Corey angrier about
Irene's mistake and its consequences, but the work on the much obstructed
Lemuel surely was never surpassed. I hope his later life was happy!
Altogether you ought to be happy--you can fold your arms and write no more if
you like. I've just got your Criticism and Fiction, which shall speedily be
read. And whilst in the midst of this note have received from the postman your
clipping from Kate Field's Washington, the author of which I can't divine, but
she's a blessed creature whoever she is. Yours ever,
[No picture of James's life would be fair which ignored its domestic side. He
married in 1878, and his marriage was happy in the fullest sense. By 1891, the
date which these letters have reached, four children were growing up; he had
built himself a house in Cambridge, and had also acquired a little place at
Chocorua, where he spent most of each summer with his family. This bundle of
letters may fittingly close with three which were addressed to his sister and
his two little boys. It need only be explained that the sister was living in
England and had consequently never seen the Chocorua place, 'Mrs. Gibbens' and
'Margaret' were his mother-in-law and sister-in-law.
To his sister, Alice James
CAMBRIDGE, Feb. 1887.
We are getting along very well, on the whole, I keeping very continuously
occupied, but not seeming to get ahead much, for the days GROW SO SHORT with
each advancing year. A day is now about a minute--hardly time to turn round in.
Mrs. Gibbens arrived from Chicago last night; and in ten days she and Margaret
will start, with our little Billy, for Aiken, S.C., to be gone till May. B. is
asthmatic, she is glad to go south for her own sake, and the open-air life all
day long will be much better for him than our arduous winter and spring. He is
the most utterly charming little piece of human nature you ever saw, so packed
with life, impatience, and feeling, that I think father must have been just
like him at his age....
I have been paying ten or eleven visits to a mind-cure doctress, a sterling
creature, resembling the Venus of Medicine, Mrs Lydia E. Pinkham, made solid
and veracious-looking. I sit down beside her and presently drop asleep, whilst
she disentangles the snarls out of my mind. She says she never saw a mind with
so many, so agitated, so restless, etc. She said my EYES, mentally speaking,
kept revolving like wheels in front of each other and in front of my face, and
it was four or five sittings ere she could get them FIXED. I am now,
UNCONSCIOUSLY TO MYSELF, much better than when I first went, etc. I thought it
might please you to hear an opinion of my mind so similar to your own.
Meanwhile what boots it to be made unconsciously better, yet all the while
consciously to lie awake o' nights as I still do?--
Lectures are temporarily stopped and examinations begun. I seized the
opportunity to go to my Chocorua place and see just what was needed to make it
habitable for the summer. It is a goodly little spot, but we may not, after
all, fit up the buildings till we have spent a summer in the place and
'studied' the problem a little more closely. The snow was between two and three
feet deep on a level, in spite of the recent thaws. The day after I arrived was
one of the most crystalline purity, and the mountain simply exquisite in
gradations of tint. I have a tenant in the house, one Sanborn, who owes me a
dollar and a half a month, but can't pay it, being of a poetic and
contemplative rather than of an active nature, and consequently excessively
poor. He has a sign out, 'Attorney and Pension Agent,' and writes and talks
like one of the greatest of men. He was working the sewing-machine when I was
there, and talking of his share in the war, and why he did n't go to live in
Boston, etc., --namely that he was n't known,--and my heart was heavy in my
breast that so rich a nature, fitted to inhabit a tropical dreamland, should
have nothing but that furnitureless cabin within and snow and sky without to
live upon. For, however spotlessly pure and dazzlingly lustrous snow may be,
pure snow, always snow, and naught but snow, for four months on end, is, it
must be confessed, a rather lean diet for the human soul--deficient in variety,
chiaroscuro, and oleaginous and mediaeval elements. I felt as I was returning
home that some intellectual inferiority ought to accrue to all populations
whose environment for many months in the year consisted of pure snow. You are
better off,--better off than you know,--in that great, black-earthed dunghill
of an England. I say naught of politics, wars, strikes, railroad accidents or
public events, unless the departure of C. W. Eliot and his wife for a year in
Europe, be a public event.....
[The next year the children were taken to Aiken for the worst months of the
winter and spring by Mrs. James. A pet dog remained in Cambridge and will be
recognized under the name 'Jap.']
To his son Henry (aetat 8)
CAMBRIDGE, Mar. 1, 1888.
You lazy old scoundrel, why don't you write a letter to your old Dad? Tell me
how you enjoy your riding on horseback, what Billy does for a living, and which
things you like best of all the new kinds of things you have to do with in
Aiken. How do you like the darkeys being so numerous? Everything goes on
quietly here. The house so still that you can hear a pin drop, and so clean
that everything makes a mark on it. All because there are no brats and kids
around. Jap is my only companion, and he sneezes all over me whenever I pick
him up. Mrs. Hildreth and the children are gone to Florida. The Emmets seem
very happy. I will close with a fable. A donkey felt badly because he was not
so great a favorite as a lapdog. He said, I must act like the lap-dog, and then
my mistress will like me. So he came into the house and began to lick his
mistress, and put his paws on her, and tried to get into her lap. Instead of
kissing him for this, she screamed for the servants, who beat him and put him
out of the house. Moral: It's no use to try to be anything but a donkey if you
are one. But neither you nor Billy are one. Good-night! you blessed boy. Stick
to your three R's and your riding, so as to get on FAST.
The ancient Persians only taught their boys to ride, to shoot the bow and to
tell the truth. Good-night!
Kiss your dear old Mammy and that bellyache of a Billy, and little Margaret
Mary for her Dad. Good-night.
To his son William (aetat 5)
18 Garden Street,
Apr. 29, 1888, 9:30
This is Sunday, the sabbath of the Lord, and it has been very hot for two days.
I think of you and Harry with such longing, and of that infant whom I know so
little, that I cannot help writing you some words. Your Mammy writes me that
she can't get YOU to WORK much; though Harry works. You MUST work a little this
summer in our own place. How nice it will be! I have wished that both you and
Harry were by my side in some amusements which I have had lately. First, the
learned seals in a big tank of water in Boston. The loveliest beasts, with big
black eyes, poking their heads up and down in the water, and then scrambling
out on their bellies like boys tied up in bags. They play the guitar and banjo
and organ; and one of them saves the life of a child who tumbles in the water,
catching him by the collar with its teeth, and swimming him ashore. They are
both, child and seal, trained to do it. When they have done well, their master
gives them a lot of fish. They eat an awful lot;--scales, and fins, and bones
and all, without chewing. That is the worst thing about them. He says he never
beats them. They are full of curiosity--more so than a dog for far-off things;
for when a man went round the room with a pole pulling down the windows at the
top, all their heads bobbed out of the water and followed him about with their
eyes aus lauter curiosity. Dogs would hardly have noticed him, I think.
Now, speaking of dogs, Jap was NAUSEATED two days ago. I thought, from his
licking his nose, that he was going to be sick, and got him out of doors just
in time. He vomited most awfully on the grass. He then acted as if he thought I
was going to punish him, poor thing. He can't discriminate between sickness and
sin. He leads a dull life, without you and Margaret Mary. I tell him if it
lasts much longer, he'll grow into a common beast; he hates to be a beast, but
unless he has human companionship, he will sink to the level of one. So you
must hasten back and make much of him.
I also went to the panorama of the battle of Bunker Hill, which is as good as
that of Gettysburg. I wished Harry had been there because he knows the, story
of it. You and he shall go soon after your return. It makes you feel just as if
you lived there.
Well, I will now stop. On Monday Morning the 14th, or Sunday night the 15th of
May, I will take you into my arms; that is, I will meet you with a carriage on
the wharf, when the boat comes in. And I tell you I shall be glad to see the
whole lot of you come roaring home. Give my love to your Mammy, to Aunt
Margaret, to Fraulein, to Harry, to Margaret Mary, and to yourself.
Your loving Dad,
This collection of letters was originally published in The Atlantic Monthly in three installments. See the August, 1920 installment. See the September, 1920 installment.
The Atlantic Monthly; July 1920; Familiar Letters of William James I;
Volume 126, No. 1;