Durant 1926: Personal (William James)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter XI Section 2.1 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The  contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.

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II. WILLIAM JAMES

1. Personal

The reader will not need to be reminded that the philosophy which we have just summarized is a European philosophy in everything but the place of its composition. It has the nuances and polish and mellow resignation characteristic of an old culture; one could tell from any paragraph in the Life of Reason that this is no native American voice.

Santayana’s philosophy, though composed in America, is more European. 

In William James the voice and the speech and the very turn of phrase are American. He pounced eagerly upon such characteristic expressions as “cash-value,” and “results,” and “profits,” in order to bring his thought within the ken of the “man in the street”; he spoke not with the aristocratic reserve of a Santayana or a Henry James, but in a racy vernacular and with a force and directness, which made his philosophy of “‘pragmatism” and “reserve energy” the mental correlate of the “practical” and “strenuous” Roosevelt. And at the same time he phrased for the common man that “tender-minded” trust in the essentials of the old theology which lives side by side, in the American soul, with the realistic spirit of commerce and finance, and with the tough persistent courage that turned a wilderness into the promised land.

In William James the voice and the speech and the very turn of phrase are American. He spoke in a racy vernacular and with a force and directness with the realistic spirit of commerce and finance.

William James was born in New York City in 1842. His father was a Swedenborgian mystic, whose mysticism did no damage to his wit and humor; and the son was not lacking in any of the three. After some seasons in American private schools, William was sent with his brother Henry (one year his junior) to private schools in France. There they fell in with the work of Charcot and other psychopathologists, and took, both of them, a turn to psychology; one of them, to repeat an old phrase, proceeded to write fiction like psychology, while the other wrote psychology like fiction. Henry spent most of his life abroad, and finally became a British citizen. Through his more continuous contact with European culture he acquired a maturity of thought which his brother missed; but William, returning to live in America, felt the stimulation of a nation young in heart and rich in opportunity and hope, and caught so well the spirit of his age and place that he was lifted on the wings of the Zeitgeist to a lonely pinnacle of popularity such as no other American philosopher had ever known.

William James was raised in the mysticism of the Swedenborgian church, and later fell in with the work of Charcot and other psychopathologists. He felt the stimulation of a nation young in heart and rich in opportunity and hope, and caught the spirit of his age and place.

He took his M. D. at Harvard in 1870, and taught there from 1872 to his death in 1910, at first anatomy and physiology, and then psychology, and at last philosophy. His greatest achievement was almost his first—The Principles of Psychology (1890); a fascinating mixture of anatomy, philosophy and analysis; for in James psychology still drips from the foetal membranes of its mother, metaphysics. Yet the book remains the most instructive, and easily the most absorbing, summary of its subject; something of the subtlety which Henry put into his clauses helped William James to the keenest introspection which psychology had witnessed since the uncanny clarity of David Hume.

His greatest achievement was almost his first—The Principles of Psychology (1890); a fascinating mixture of anatomy, philosophy and analysis; for in James psychology still drips from the foetal membranes of its mother, metaphysics. 

This passion for illuminating analysis was bound to lead James from psychology to philosophy, and at last back to metaphysics itself; he argued (against his own positivist inclinations) that metaphysics is merely an effort to think things out clearly; and he defined philosophy, in his simple and pellucid manner, as “only thinking about things in the most comprehensive possible way.” So, after 1900, his publications were almost all in the field of philosophy. He began with The Will to Believe (1897); then, after a masterpiece of psychological interpretation—Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)—he passed on to his famous books on Pragmatism (1907); A Pluralistic Universe (1909), and The Meaning of Truth (1909). A year after his death came Some Problems of Philosophy (1911); and later, an important volume of Essays in Radical Empiricism (1912). We must begin our study with this last book, because it was in these essays that James formulated most clearly the bases of his philosophy. *

* The reader who has leisure for but one book of James’s should go directly to Pragmatism, which he will find a fountain of clarity as compared with most philosophy. If he has more time, he will derive abundant profit from the brilliant pages of the (unabbreviated) Psychology. Henry James has written two volumes of autobiography, in which there is much delightful gossip about William. Flournoy has a good volume of exposition, and Schinz’s Anti-Pragmatism is a vigorous criticism.

James argued that metaphysics is merely an effort to think things out clearly; and he defined philosophy as “only thinking about things in the most comprehensive possible way.” 

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