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Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

December 1910

William James

by James Jackson Putnam

The news of Professor William James's death overwhelmed with deep sorrow the large circle of his friends and colleagues in every land, and the still larger circle of those who without knowing him had felt for him a sense of personal affection. But the grief at the loss of this warm-hearted friend and charming companion, this inspiring teacher and courageous advocate of justice, must soon have allowed room for the thought of what a noble and useful life he had led, and for gratitude that his frank, straightforward ways had made it possible to think of him as still animating the varied scenes with which he was identified so closely. He was so eager, so soldierly in spirit; his philosophy had so little of what he used to call 'the Dead-Sea-apple flavor,' that it will be a lasting pleasure to think how he would act if present; what humorous, generous, illuminating, or indignant utterance he would bring forth.

Those who knew him personally think of him most easily as he appeared in private life, and indeed it was easy to forget--so simple were his tastes and so unaffected his manner--that he was a great man and lived also in the eye of the world.

Surrounded at home by all that he really cared for,--family, friends, books, everything except robust health,--he did not seek the fame that found him. Yet he prized the honors that had come to him so abundantly, although mainly because of the assurance which they brought him that he had done and was doing the best work he was qualified to do. [See Endnote 1].

I well remember the earnestness with which he said to me, two years ago, that the results he had achieved were, in kind, just those he had aspired to achieve; that he had asked no more than to succeed--by dint of personal weight and by striking a note appropriate to his day and time--in accentuating certain tendencies in the minds of thinking men which he believed to be wholesome and of vital significance.

James's ideals were generous. He cared less to see his private views prevail than to see philosophy counting as a real influence in men's lives. He longed to see the day when the advocates of a philosophic doctrine should recognize that the best warrant for its value lay, not in their ability to defend its claims against all comers, but in its power to inspire them with a desire for ever-increasing knowledge, greater liberality, a more courageous life. His attitude was at once an appeal against indifferentism, and for the recognition of a common meeting-ground of all philosophic tendencies of thought. In this sense pragmatism was a move toward mediation and conciliation, and this was one of the main interests of his own life.

James's foreign colleagues were quick to note this tendency and promise of the new-world thinker's work. The distinguished historian, Guglielmo Ferrero, has written eloquently, in a letter to the Figaro of September 22, of results already won among the philosophers of the Continent by this refreshing breath: 'Neither in Europe nor in America will men soon forget the simple, modest courage with which this student of philosophy proclaimed that men have need, not alone of philosophic and scientific truths, but also of peace, happiness, moral balance and serenity, and declared that no philosophic doctrine can be considered adequate, however solid its logical foundations, unless it satisfies the aspirations that lie deep within the mind.'

Many of his papers and addresses, though not strictly popular in tone and matter, were purposely kept free from needless technicalities, and so carried a wide appeal. People of all sorts found that through one or another of his writings, and equally through the impression of the writer, that went with them, they got something which made their do their own work better and led them to adopt a broader, more considerate, and a kindlier view of life.

He, in his turn, was always eager to show sympathy and to notice signs of merit. Biography, and especially autobiography, was his favorite reading, but his search for noteworthy personal chronicle was by no means confined to the lives of famous men. His Religious Experiences will testify that he was fond of discovering and making known all outspoken lovers of the truth, especially if obscure. He went about like a herald or torch-bearer, among those who seemed to him deserving of recognition or in need of stimulation, as if calling to them, 'If you have anything to say on which you are willing to stake yourselves, follow me and I will help you to get heard.' This habit sometimes brought him into queer company and exposed him to many jests. He was not, however, greatly disturbed by this, thinking more of the chance that he might find some grains of intellectual or moral wheat which would otherwise have remained unfound. With all the warmth of a very warm nature, he tried to bring it about that every one whose needs he knew should be given the opportunity to set himself free, to choose for himself, to develop on his own lines.

This sense of the value of individuality in thought and act, which lay so deep in his heart and was woven into the texture of his thoughts, was chosen by him as the theme of his speech on the reception of his degree of LL.D. from Harvard University in 1903. He spoke as one who, in spite of his long contact with the university, had always looked on it somewhat from without. So he could clearly see, he said, 'two Harvards.' One of these had certain special educational functions, and served, also, in a very visible way, as a sort of social club. The other was 'the inner, spiritual Harvard....The true Church was always the invisible Church. The true Harvard is the invisible Harvard in the souls of her more truth-seeking and intelligent and often very solitary sons. The university most worthy of imitation is that one in which your lonely thinker can feel himself least lonely, most positively furthered and most rightly fed.' In this respect he believed that Harvard 'still is in the van.'

James's love of personal liberty made him always ready to break a lance in its defense, even when in so doing he incurred the displeasure of many a respected friend and colleague. He came forward, unasked, as an advocate of those who wished to keep the privilege of consulting Christian Scientists and other irregular practitioners, when their standing was at issue before the legislature; he was an ardent defender of the rights of the Philippine Islanders, and a tireless supporter of all measures tending toward universal peace. Since his death several of those who stood with him on these and kindred issues have written warmly and gratefully of his aid. His belief that the Anti-Imperialist League had a real task to perform in national affairs never ceased, and he was one of its vice-presidents until his death.

This is no place to discuss the merits of the public questions here alluded to. I will say only that I have several letters written by him immediately after his speech at the State House, urging that no legislative action should be taken against the Christian Scientists and 'Mind Healers,' in which he declares that it was solely a love of right and the public welfare that had prompted him to come out against his medical colleagues. 'If you think I like this sort of thing you are mistaken. It cost me more effort than anything I have over done in my life. But if Zola and Colonel Picquart can face the whole French army, cannot I face their disapproval? Far more easily than the reproach of my own conscience '

To know William James thoroughly one should have seen him in company with a great variety of his friends in turn, so many notes did phe gamut of his nature hold. These various notes were by no means out of harmony with each other; it was rather that he had many striking traits which no one person could bring out with equal emphasis. It was an especially rare treat to see him in friendly contest with one or several colleagues from whose views his own diverged. Such encounters brought out his own attitude and theirs as if with a rapid series of flash-light illuminations. He realized also that the fire of genius is distributed widely among men, as radium is found in minute quantities among baser minerals, and his generous instinct and intellectual zeal prompted him to seek its traces out.

Throughout his abundant social life he was so frank and so obviously friendly that it was impossible to take offense at anything he said, and this made it easier for him than for most men to strike the personal note in human intercourse. He could get at once upon a footing which made a basis for intimacy, if occasion called for this; a footing, which, in any case, left each new acquaintance feeling the gates of his own mind unlocked for him. He said jokingly, one day, that when he met a new person he asked him first his age and then his income, and this was almost literally true. Furthermore, these friendly relationships that he was so ready to establish did not always end with social courtesies. Cenerous in deed as he was in word and thought, he gave without stint, now, perhaps, a contribution of money to a friend in Reed, now a book from his library, now time and friendly counsel, offered to show appreciation and sympathy or to meet distress. This sense of kindliness was thorough-going. He had made it a principle, so he told me, to abstain from unfavorable personal criticism unless called for by some need. It was a rare event to hear him pass an unfriendly judgment, and he disliked to hear ip done by others. He appreciated keenly the peculiarities of his acquaintances, and could characterize them with accuracy and wit. But such comments were always kindly or marked by a light and playful touch, devoid of sting.

My first meeting with William James was in 1866, at the Harvard Medical School, then on North Grove Street, and in thinking of him there I am reminded of the old dissecting-room in the basement of that building, where the students gathered every afternoon to recite and listen to the demonstrator of anatomy. Perhaps I recall this with especial distinctness for the reason that James congratulated me on having made a good recitation; but I was greatly impressed at once with the frankness of his expression, the generosity of his manner, and the peculiarly attractive quality of his voice. There must be few of his friends who have not felt the same glow that I felt that day, at the sound of his ever-ready and welcome words of praise. He was five years my senior, but his education had been of an unusual sort and he had come late to medicine, so that we were fellow students. I learned afterwards that he had spent much time in Europe as a boy and youth, had then studied for one or two years at the Lawrence Scientific School, and had finally decided to follow a strong instinct and make himself an artist. In pursuance of this plan he had entered the studio of Mr. William M. Hunt, then living at Newport. In Hunt's studio he made the acquaintance of Mr. John Lafarge and they became close friends. But he soon gave up painting and allowed his talent to lapse, though he always remained capable of expressing himself freely in line-drawings.

The next move was again toward natural science. He studied comparative anatomy for a time with that delightful teacher, Professor Jeffries Wyman, and later he made one of the company of naturalists and students who accompanied Professor Louis Agassiz on his journey of exploration among the rivers of Brazil. Here his skill in drawing came into good service.

James's foreign training had given him a thorough mastery of French and a good familiarity with German, and, better still, habits of mind and thought which helped him to take a more cosmopolitan, and thus a more independent and personal, view of American affairs. To hold and to express such views, on matters political, social, and moral, was soon to become an opportunity for great usefulness.

During the medical-school period and also later, I saw James from time to time at the house of his father, Mr. Henry James, on Quincy Street in Cambridge. His father, his mother, and his sister were then living and at home, and one or another of his brothers was usually there. My memory of this house, and of each one of its occupants, is a memory warm and mellow with half-pictured scenes of gayety, kindliness, and charm. William, the oldest of the five children, was very like his father in feature, in manner, and in mind, and his father was an excellent person to be like. Both of them had the instinct generously to espouse unpopular causes, where the principle of personal liberty seemed at stake, and in both the advocacy sometimes went to the verge of what many persons called the fondness for a paradox. But this impression usually disappeared upon more familiar acquaintance.

In conversation both of these men had a delightful sense of humor, and a remarkable richness of vocabulary. A peculiarity of both was the habit of delaying speech for an instant, while the mind was working and the telling sentence was framing itself for utterance--a brief interval during which the lips would gather slightly, as for a sort of smile, and the eyes and face take on an indescribable expression of great charm. Then would burst forth one of those longer or shorter epigrammatic or aphoristic sayings which all their friends recall so well, full of meaning, full of kindliness and humor, never sarcastic, but always keen. Occasionally, too, they were full of fiery wrath. This James humor has often been referred to as of Irish origin. If so, it certainly throve well on American soil. It pointed also to the wide vision of real culture and to experience with men and books, thus showing itself to be cosmopolitan or universal, rather than racial. Certainly old and young, rich and poor, foreigner and native, appreciated its great charm and penetration. Sometimes a mere trifle would call out one of these rich, explosive extravaganzas of speech. I remember listening one day with trepidation when Mr. James, Senior, gathered his face into a half-humorous, half-thunderous expression and then rolled out a series of denunciations on the people who insisted on misusing the word 'quite.'

As I remember James at home, during the period of which I have been speaking, he was somewhat quieter and gentler in manner than he afterward appeared to be, though always full of playfulness and fun. His laughter was never boisterous, but no one could be quicker than he to see the chance for merriment, let the joke be with him or against him.

He had been much of an invalid, but he never lost for long his courage or his buoyancy. He believed that one should industriously cultivate the bearing, the expression, and the sentiments that go with health, and one of his former pupils has recently tol` me of his making an appeal to his college class on this subject. He succeeded, too, as a rule, in practicing what he preached, in spite of a real tendency to occasional depression, which might easily have been allowed to get control of him. I believe that through these frequent contests with his health James materially modified his character and, indirectly, his philosophic tendencies and views. This lack of vigor kept him at that time much at home, and he had a small laboratory there where he did a good deal of work.

James's mother, quiet in temperament and manner, was a very real power in the family, beloved by all, and holding all together; and this was also true of her sister, Mrs. Walsh, who for a long time made her home with them.

All the members of the James family were gifted with rich, melodious voices, and William's had a resonance and charm which those who had once heard it, especially in conversation, never could forget.

James took his medical degree in 1869, but never practiced. He had already become greatly interested in physiology and comparative anatomy, and was early invited to teach these subjects to the undergraduates at Harvard. From physiology he slipped into psychology, and so onward until finally he became the chief figure in the department of philosophy, one of the best departments of the college.

From the time of our first meeting until a few months before his death I had the privilege of seeing James fairly often, and of knowing something of his intellectual interests and work. From 1876 onward he made almost yearly visits to a charming spot in the Adirondacks, where there lies, in the midst of mountains, brooks, and forests, a little group of rough houses forming a sort of camp. James was formerly part owner of this very satisfactory establishment, and appreciated to the fullest extent its simple but copious resources.

These visits meant an opportunity of meeting a variety of acquaintances and friends under the most informal of conditions, and usually meant also a fresh deal of health. As a walker, he used to be among the foremost, in the earlier years, and it was a pleasure to watch his lithe and graceful figure as he moved rapidly up the steep trails or stretched himself on the slope of a rock, his arms under his head, for resting. He had the peculiarity, in climbing, of raising himself largely with the foot that was lowermost, instead of planting the other and drawing himself up by it, as is so common. This is a slight thing, but it was an element counting for elasticity and grace. There were periods when he took the longest walks and climbs, but after a time he felt that very vigorous exertion did not agree with him; and this belief, combined with his love of talk with some congenial person on some congenial subject, usually kept him back from the vanguard and rather at the rear of the long line, where he could walk slowly if he liked and find the chance to pause from time to time in order to enjoy and characterize in rich terms the splendid beauty of the steep forest-clad slopes, with the sun streaming through the thick foliage and into the islets between the tall trees.

There were certain spots which he particularly liked to visit, and even to visit alone or with a book--for he was always industrious and often did his fifty pages of solid reading daily. One such place, a ledge forming the verge of a superb precipice, with two fine pine trees overhead and the heavily wooded valley of the Ausable River rising steeply toward the north and descending into a broad plateau toward the south, was named for him many years ago by a warm friend and admirer. Another beautiful spot, well up on a steep side of Round Mountain, I remember reaching with him toward the end of a still and golden September day. We had been walking for a number of hours through the thick, dark woods, and this beautiful bit of cliff, nearly inclosed by the dense spruces of the forest, and carpeted with moss of a rich yellowish-green tint, afforded the first chance for the afternoon sun to stream in and for the trampers to obtain a glimpse of the hazy valley winding off far beneath, and of the sun-deserted mountains closing in the deep ravine, along one side of which runs the narrow trail. I recalled this spot to his memory in a letter written several years later (in 1899), when he was in Europe, seeking health at Nauheim. He wrote back, saying, 'Your talk about Keene Valley makes me run over with homesickness. Alas, that those blessed heights should henceforward probably be beyond my reach altogether! It is a painful pang!'

Fortunately, this prediction was not fulfilled. He improved greatly on his return to America after this trip, came several times again to revisit old haunts, and even did a fair amount of walking.

He was very fond of stirring poetry, and one or another of our fellow campers has spoken of verses by Kipling or Walt Whitman or Goethe as associated with the thought at once of him and of some special mountain-top or forest walk. Occasionally, also, in the afternoon, he would read us portions of his own writings, at which he almost always was at work, and thus we had the first chance at bits of several of his best papers.

James was married in the spring of 1878 to Miss Alice H. Gibbens, and began at once to improve in health and to lead a fuller and more active life. He soon became widely known in Europe both through his writings and his fairly frequent visits, and it was felt by all his colleagues there that the Harvard faculty had rarely been represented by a brighter light than he.

In the autumn of 1892 he established himself in Florence with his wife and children for the winter, and thus amusingly describes their housekeeping:--

'If we can escape freezing this winter the retrospect of next spring will doubtless be a good one. Our apartment (just moved into) is snug, clean and sunny, and though devoid of every "domestic convenience" except one stop-cock and a hearth in a kitchen some ten feet by six, seems a place in which housekeeping can go on. Our cook, Raphaello, with whom we converse by means of raw Latin roots without terminations, seems nevertheless to grasp our meaning and evolves very savory dinners out of the nudity of his workshop. A one-sou fan is his principal instrument--by it he keeps the little fires from going out. I ought to say that we have a big Bernese governess, who looks like Luther in his more corpulent days, and, knowing more Italian than we do, has been quite useful as interpretess. But her appetites are ungovernable, she has no tact, and we shall have little use for her when the boys get to school, so we shall soon say farewell and give her a recommendation to some very full-blooded family.

'I'm telling you nothing of our summer, most all of which was passed in Switzerland. Germany is good, but Switzerland is better. HOW GOOD Switzerland is, is something that can't be described in words. The healthiness of it passes all utterance. The air, the roads, the mountains, the customs, the institutions, the people. Not a breath of art, poetry, aesthetics, morbidness, or "suggestiveness." It's all there, solid meat and drink for the sick body and soul, ready to be turned to and do you good when the nervous and gas-lit side of life has had too much play. What a see-saw life is, between the elemental things and the others. We must have both; but, aspiration for aspiration, I think [that] of the over-cultured and exquisite person for the insipidity of health is the more pathetic. After the suggestiveness, decay, and over-refinement of Florence this winter, I shall be hungry enough for the eternal elements to be had in the Schweiz.'

From the very beginning of their married life in Cambridge, Mr. and Mrs. James showed a hospitality which made them a marvel to their friends. In season and out, all were made welcome. This was especially true of visitors from Europe, whether those at whose hands James had received hospitality in his turn when abroad--for he was everywhere a welcome guest--or those who came to Cambridge attracted by his writings and reputation. All such visitors were made at home, for shorter or for longer periods, and only the friends of their hosts realized how much trouble was taken to make their stay successful.

What his home was to others, to him it was more, a thousand-fold. Every one who watched him saw clearly that he owed a distinct portion of his steady growth in tranquillity and power of accomplishment to the home influences--intellectual, physical, and moral--that formed the main background of his life. If the vital force was native and resident in him, its development was fostered by the untiring devotion which was constantly at his command. And this he himself knew. Seconded by his wife, he made friends in every land, some of them through personal intercourse, which he always sought, and some through correspondence only. He was as sociable as Montaigne, both from principle and from true love of his fellow men.

One of the many foreign friendships which he greatly valued and frequently referred to was that with M. Renouvier, the able editor of the Critique Philosophique. There was a strong personal and intellectual sympathy between these two men. James was also an occasional contributor to the Critique. He wrote French with fluency and grace, and infused into it some of the elements that made his English style so engrossingly effective.

He had thought much, also, cosmopolitan as he was, about the relative advantages of the life in Europe and in America, and was always ready to talk about this subject. With his sensitiveness and his fine taste, he loved the cultivated, aesthetic atmosphere of France and England, and there were times when he longed for it and felt that he must gratify the longing. But he was at heart an American, and even a way-breaker, as well as an artist. One of his friends remembers his quoting from Gray's 'Eton,' the lines ending, 'And snatch a fearful joy,' with reference to the satisfaction and at the same time the sacrifices which American conditions offer and require. His attitude on this question illustrates his attitude on many questions. He could feel a warm glow in favor of two opposing sets of interests, each in turn, and yet one could predict which, in the end, would prove the stronger. I recall hearing him speak one day, in the dining-room of our Adirondack camp, of certain 'bitter-sweet' articles of food, of which it was 'hard to say whether one likes or dislikes them most.' But there are many bitter-sweets in life, and he was alive to the value of both elements that they contained. His readers will recall a charming essay [See Endnote 2] in which he describes a journey in the mountains of North Carolina and tells of passing by a large number of unkempt, squalid clearings, littered with the stumps and boughs of fresh-cut trees, and savoring of destruction, devastation, and discomfort. As he was in the act of drawing this lesson, he said to the mountaineer who was driving him,--

'What sort of people are they who have to make these new clearings?'

'All of us,' the man replied. 'Why, we ain't happy here unless we are getting one of these coves under cultivation.'

James 'instantly felt' that he 'had been losing the whole significance of the situation.' 'The clearing which to me was a mere ugly picture on the retina, was to them a symbol redolent with moral memories and sang a very paean of duty, struggle, and success.'

Few persons have written more charmingly or more lucidly than Professor James, or with greater evidence of personal conviction. This last feature of his books and papers was indeed so marked, what he said came so obviously from his heart, that to speak of his 'style' seems inappropriate. He was through and through an artist, in writing as in speech, and yet he used his art so obviously as a way of making his meaning clear that the reader thinks of his charming and telling manner mainly in terms of the conclusions that it enforced. When one reads his books it is a pleasure to assume one's self in full accord with him, even in the face of disagreement, so delightfully does he call learning, humor, fancy, abundant, and apt citation, the homeliest of illustrations and the most daring of analogies, to the aid of his incisive argument. In all this he shows himself not only expert in knowledge and in literary skill, but a broad reader and an intimate knower of human thoughts and passions in wide range. He was of course a delightful correspondent, and he wrote copiously and to many persons. Even when very ill or very busy he managed to keep in touch in this way with a large number of his friends, though he was sometimes forced to call in the ready service of his wife as amanuensis.

He began to make scientific communications within a few years after his entrance on academic work. The earlier papers dealt with physiological questions. Even in these his psychological and philosophical interests were foreshadowed, while, on the other hand, his early training as a physiologist affected all his later work. One of the early papers, on 'The Law of Forward Action in the Nervous Systems' in which he showed that the impulses in nerve fibres run always in one or the other direction, according to the function of the nerves concerned, is cited as important by the eminent English physiologist, Sherringten. His well-known papers on the absence of dizziness in deaf-mutes, on 'The Sense of Effort,' and on the 'Perception of Space,' are partly of physiological and partly of psychological interest.

It would be out of the question to review here his contributions in the psychologic field, but attention may be called in passing to his insistence on the very important part played by sensation in the feeling of emotion and even of consciousness itself. This doctrine, which was brought out at about the same time by the Swedish psychologist Lange, promptly became famous, the world over. It has a decided interest here as being closely related to some of his later philosophical generalizations. Sensations of various subtle kinds, as those coming from the circulatory and digestive apparatus, well known to be excited in the strong emotions, were recognized by him as deserving of more attention than they had received; and when he came to analyze the feeling of emotion closely it seemed to him that the honest observer could not assert that anything else was there. Strip off 'sensation' from emotion and what is left? he asked. At a later day the sense of consciousness was analyzed in the same fashion.

I cannot discuss the merits of these difficult subjects here, but I desire to point out that just as he felt that he must fully reckon with the influence of SENSATION, the most tangible element in EMOTION, before he would allow that anything else was there, so he felt that the influence of EXPERIENCE should be fully reckoned with before other means of judging of the TRUTH were turned to.

This seems to me a distinct illustration of the way in which his mind worked. Although thoroughly alive to the existence of influences in the world which can only be reached through a free use of a trained imagination, his love of simplicity and directness led him to estimate at their full value the factors that had the merit of being relatively commonplace, and therefore more familiar to the ordinary mind and to exert all his powers of observation to note more of these than others had discovered.

The earliest of his philosophical papers, so far as I am aware, was one written for the Critique Philosophique; and the next, on much the same subject, was that which was published later as the first part of The Sentiment of Rationality. This was first given as an address in 1879, and was finally brought out, in 1897, together with other valuable papers, in a volume called The Will to Believe, and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy.

His first enterprise in actual bookmaking was in 1885, when he edited The Literary Remains of Henry James, the preface to which was partly his own work, partly made up from extracts from his father's writings. All those who wish to gain insight into the evolution of Professor James's mind by noting the influences which were early at work on him, should read this admirable volume. The theology there defended is sufficiently simple and sufficiently well adapted for men's needs to have commanded James's respect and both the character of the sentiments and the splendid language of the father strongly remind one of the son's thought and style.

His next book was the important two-volume Psychology, published in 1890 and written for the most part during a trip to Europe. This book proved an immense success. It has continued to win popularity and fame and has been translated into a number of languages, the latest being the Italian. Professor James told me only recently that this success had surprised him greatly. He had not taken especial pains, he said, to make a monumental work. But his mind and thoughts were so untrammeled, so keen and fresh,

that he could not help writing a good book. He was one of the few scientific writers whose productions became a source of revenue. He made sundry trips to Europe, largely on the income derived from the Psychology, the Talks to Teachers, and the Religious Experiences, and the sale of his last two books also has been large.

In 1898 he delivered the Ingersoll lecture on Personal Immortality.

In 1899 he gave and published his now famous Talks to Teachers on Psychology; and to Students on Some of Life's Ideals, a book of great charm, great wisdom, and true scientific penetration.

In 1901 and 1902 he delivered at Edinburgh his first English lecture course, the Gifford Lectures, which at once appeared in book form as the Varieties of Religious Experiences; a Study in Human Nature. It was understood that he had long been collecting the materials for this book, for his object was not so much to give his own religious convictions as to show under how many and how varied aspects, convictions that could be called religious had impressed themselves on a variety of men and had helped to mould their lives. In the closing chapter he makes statements which indicate how he felt at that time on certain subjects which were being studied by his English colleagues of the Society for Psychical Research. He always took intense and appreciative interest in the investigations of both the English and the American branches of this society, though he did not bear so active a part in them as many people have supposed. The more prominent workers, both in England and America, were his personal friends, especially Richard Hodgson, the devoted secretary of the American branch. For a number of years James served as president of this branch.

Finally, in 1907 and 1909, respectively, came out the two books on Pragmatism and on Pluralism, and a third, The Meaning of Truth (1909), which formed an explanatory supplement to the course on pragmatism. He also wrote a large number of scientific papers and minor addresses, such as the fine tribute to Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, and several delightful biographical sketches, as those on Professor Louis Agassiz and on Thomas Davidson.

Professor James's attitude toward the general problems of philosophy is well known. He called himself a 'radical empiricist,' a 'pragmatist,' a 'pluralist,' and it is fair to say that these terms, indicative of his beliefs, indicate also important features of his own character. It is evident that he approached the deeper problems of life as a lover of men and a sympathizer with human needs, but also with the conscientiousness of a person trained to careful observation, and yet fully realizing that in the desire to make observation 'careful' it is very easy to make it narrow. He insisted on making 'experience' the touchstone for determining the value or the truth of a belief. But experience was construed by him in a far wider sense than by many others, and he was always ready to extend its scope. If a man could truly say that his life was made richer in any important respect by the acceptance of a given doctrine, vision, or intuition, then, in so far, the doctrine should count as true for him. He felt strongly that each person should strive to satisfy the demands, not only of his reason, but also of his aspirations and his sense of the power to accomplish something new and real, which every man possesses in some measure. Just because he felt the deep practical significance of the task which philosophy assumes, in trying to explain the rationality of a world filled with suffering and sorrow, he shrank from encouraging the acceptance of interpretations which might sound well but which a deeper searching of one's observation did not verify as helping to a true and a sounder life. He objected strongly to the method of education which enabled the scholar glibly to 'throw the rule at the teacher' but left him unable to do the sum to which the rule applied.

It is safe to say, of course, that but few of the colleagues with whom he joined issues over philosophic problems would consent to be classed as opposing these propositions stated in this broad way. Every one acknowledges the claims of observation, thoroughness, and honesty, and so every one is a pragmatist and an empiricist. But James believed in drawing trenchant distinctions as an aid to clearer thought and more fruitful discussion, and conscientiously believed that the existence of a distinct difference of emphasis between his views and those of certain of his colleagues pointed to the practical need of a distinctive name. He longed to go to the furthest possible limit in his estimate of spiritual freedom and the possibility of a real unity and harmony underlying the distracting signs of multiplicity and discord in the world, but he felt that he should best help this cause, which he had so much at heart, by indicating distinctly the features by which each man might hope to recognize the sought-for angel of his truth, when met, and by making it perfectly clear what degree of success he himself had had. He came, eventually, to direct his search, not for THE truth but for TRUTHS. For the attempt to assert the truth makes it necessary to depart from the pathway of experience--so he thought--and to trust one's self to forms of reasoning which, after years of study, he had found himself unable to accept as binding. His description, in The Pluralistic Universe, of this contest in his mind is full of the deepest interest.

In this crusade against an intellectualism which he considered ultra, James found a powerful ally in the admittedly great French philosopher and psychologist, Bergson, who with keen arguments asserts that the ultimate facts of life are only to be appreciated by immersing ourselves in life's stream and feeling it. Life implies motion, and motion we can create but cannot picture or describe. What we can do is to use the intellect for approaching nearer and nearer to the point from which, with the aid of intuition, we may get the sense of dipping into the fountain of reality.

Closely related to James's confidence in experience was his belief in the creative power of a voluntary act. He recognized that the practical issues with which philosophy indirectly concerns itself are so momentous for the everyday life of men, that it is unwise to wait too long before committing one's self to the view which seems the best. He therefore urged that every one, after looking at the facts as fairly as he could, should choose and act, even at the risk of choosing and acting from reasons that he might afterwards judge to have been mistaken. In thus acting, men might be, he thought, not only discovering the truth, but helping to create it.

It might be supposed, by one who did not know Professor James, that with his fixed confidence in experience as the proper touchstone of the truth, he would have been led straightway into the materialistic camp, or, at least, into the camp of those who though idealists are practically determinists. But not only was it untrue of Professor James that he took that road, but a fair reading of his arguments makes one agree with him that he was at liberty, logically, to refuse to take it. Every book, every essay, of his is redolent with the doctrine that if a man takes his whole self into account, realizing that he is not only a reasoning being but a feeling and aspiring being, and that his very reasoning is colored by emotion, then choices, preferences, leaps-in-the dark, the 'presentiment of the eternal in the temporal,' become justifiable in so far as they are real. This was one of the pragmatic outcomes of his RADICAL empiricism.

While his course of lectures upon pragmatism was in progress I wrote to him, saying that although the practical value of his recommendations to rigid honesty in applying the test of experience seemed undeniably of value, yet I thought the TENDENCY of his doctrine might be to encourage, among some persons, a too narrow conservatism of a materialistic stamp. He wrote back, saying for himself at least,--'Surely you know there is an essence in me (whatever I may at any moment appear to say) which is incompatible with my really being a physico-chemico-positivist.'

This quality in Professor James's mind which enabled him to maintain his stout adherence to scientific accuracy and to assert the necessity for taking experience as the court of last resort, yet at the same time to recognize the existence of influences that transcend the evidence of the senses, kept him in touch at once with science and with religion, and made it possible for him to believe in a real spiritual freedom.

Instinctively devout and possessing religious sentiments, and sympathizing doubtless with his still more strongly religious father, he found no difficulty, in spite of his critical attitude with regard to the doctrine of an all-absorbing 'Absolute,' in reconciling his conception of an imperfect, perhaps essentially disjointed and pluralistic universe, helped along by the combined efforts of the spiritual powers resident in men, with a belief in the possible and probable existence of a greater spiritual personality, between whom and ourselves and all the phenomena of the world a perfect intimacy must exist. We cannot prove this, he declares, but there is no argument or evidence which can prevent us from assuming it if we will, and if our assumption is sound our acts help to make the truth efficient for our needs.

It is idle to say, he would insist, that this procedure is unscientific; that the truly scientific man does not assume but always proves the truth. For not only does every progressive scientific man necessarily use his imagination in forecasting his results, but the attitude of holding back from a decision for the chance of a greater certainty is in itself an emotional, and not alone a rational, attitude. There are times when you must 'believe what is in the line of your needs, for only by such belief is the need fulfilled....You make one or the other of two universes true by your trust or mistrust--both universes having been only maybes, in this particular, before you contributed your act.' Applying this principle to the question of religious belief, he says, [This] 'command that we shall put a stopper on our heart, instincts and courage, and wait--acting of course meanwhile more or less as if religion were not true--till doomsday, or till such time as our intellect and senses working together may have raked in evidence enough--this command, I say, seems to me the queerest idol ever manufactured in the philosophic cave.' Again, 'Better face the enemy than the eternal Void.'

In the same essay from which the last sentence is quoted, James points out that the chief and primary function of the intellect is to bring practical results to pass; to answer the question, 'What is to be done?' and says, 'It was a deep instinct in Schopenhauer which led him to reinforce his pessimistic argumentation by a running volley of invective against the practical man and his requirements. No hope for pessimism unless he is slain.' In the whole set of inspiring essays which The Will To Believe leads off as with a trumpet's note, this thesis, that the will, if strong enough to lead to action, is a real factor in the world's progress, is maintained with strong emphasis; and in the lectures on the Pluralistic Universe the same theme is taken up again and reinforced.

Even in his psychology he foreshadowed a certain portion of this philosophic attitude by asserting it as at least possible, and scientifically quite as admissible as the opposite assumption, that in the act of attention the will adds something new to the forces therefore present in the world. This was a great step for an academic psychologist to take.

Though frankly iconoclastic and outspoken, and a hard-hitter in an intellectual combat, Professor James made no enemies, but usually drew closer and closer, as time went on, the ties of early friendships. Soon after his complete retirement, his colleagues of the department of philosophy at Harvard asked him to let them have his portrait painted, to be hung upon the walls of the Faculty Room in University Hall. When the portrait was finished, Professor James entertained the whole division of philosophy at his house. The occasion was a memorable one, and especially so for the reason that Professor Royce, who had always been one of James's most loyal friends and admirers, made an exceedingly warm-hearted and eloquent address. I quote here a few of his sentences, though the choice is difficult where everything was so good:--

'Nothing is more characteristic of Professor James's work as a teacher and as a thinker than is his chivalrous fondness for fair play in the warfare and in the cooperation of ideas and of ideals. We all of us profess to love truth. But one of James's especial offices in the service of truth has been the love and protection and encouragement of the truth-seekers. He has done much more than this for the cause of truth; but this at least he has always done.

'He has lately warned us much against thinking of truth as a mere abstraction. And indeed it has always been his especial gift to see truth incarnate,--embodied in the truth-seekers,--and to show his own love of truth by listening with appreciation, and by helping the cause of fair play, whenever he found somebody earnestly toiling or suffering or hoping in the pursuit of any genuine ideal of truth....Other men talk of liberty of thought; but few men have done more to secure liberty of thought for men who were in need of fair play and of a reasonable hearing than James has done.'

James was one of the first among professional psychologists to recognize the full bearing of the contributions which medical observation--that is, the psychology of the unusual or the slightly twisted mind--has made to the more classical psychological attitudes and insights. In the early portion of his short but stirring address, The Energies of Men, he says, 'Meanwhile the clinical conceptions, though they may be vaguer than the analytic ones, are certainly more adequate, give the concreter picture of the way the whole mind works, and are of far more urgent practical importance. So the "physician's attitude," the "functional psychology," is assuredly the thing most worthy of general study today.'

The truth of these propositions has been amply verified, and the fact that he made them is but one more illustration of his power to see and seize upon the significant elements of a situation, as a skillful commander recognizes the points of strength and weakness of his adversary's lines.

William James was a manly and a radiant being. Loving and loved, he made all men think, and helped many a doubting soul to feel a man's glow of hope and courage, each for his own work This was a noble task.


1. He was a member of the National Academies of America, France, Italy, Prussia, and Denmark; and was Doctor of Letters of Padua and Durham, a Doctor of Laws of Harvard, Princeton, and Edinburgh, and a Doctor of Science of Geneva and Oxford.

2. "On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings." Talks to Teachers, p.231.

The Atlantic Monthly; December 1910; William James; Volume 106, No. 6; pages 835-848.
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