Is William James a “philosopher for the new century” two centuries in a row?

That’s the question the Saybrook Forum asked psychology faculty member Eugene Taylor, an internationally renowned scholar on the life and work of William James, after the question was raised by the The New Humanist magazine.  His response is below. 

William James: Still One Hundred and Fifty Years Ahead of His Time

In a thoughtful article recently published in The New Humanist [125:4, July/August 2010],  Jonathan Raée extols the attributes of his favorite philosopher-psychologist, William James. He was the only enduring figure, according to Raée, who did not get bogged down in details , and did not take a megalomaniacal stance toward his own ideas. We should resurrect his memory and seek to emulate the now forgotten direction he was always pointing us towards—world peace through a strengthening of our own inward character.

I should say that Mr. Raée as a writer is himself on the right track. Briefly, we may review here only a few of James’s prescient insights into our uniquely American and humanistically oriented legacy, and at the same time we might widen even more for the reader the scope of James’s thinking about our future.

James was, first and foremost, a living example of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s call for the American Scholar.  The American Intellectual Historian, Perry Miller once declared that New England transcendentalism was the first uniquely American literary aesthetic independent of European roots. Such was Ralph Waldo Emerson’s call embodied in his Phi Beta Kappa address of 1837.  Emerson, who was later to become William James’s God-Father, called for a new generation of American scholars whose originality was unique to the American experience and unparalled to anything yet produced from Europe.  James was an inheritor of the Swedenborgian and Transcendentalists’ intuitive psychology of spiritual self-realization, albeit in the form of a literary psychology. However, James had to adapt this legacy to the more scientifically grounded dictates of the age in which his own thought developed. In addition to the scientific study of a spectrum of states of consciousness, a psychology of individual differences, and the transforming effect of mystical awakening, possibly the most important result, among so many other accomplishments, was, along with its co-founder Charles S. Peirce, Pragmatism. Effectively, it was the Transcendentalists’ offspring, and the first uniquely American philosophy to have international consequences. Pragmatism argued for understanding the relation between inward and outward experience, not the supremacy of outward experience alone, as modern science has decreed, so it became a bridge between science and religion.  It encouraged the unique preservation of the various origins of each person’s beliefs, values, and ideals, while calling for an ecumenical spirit of tolerance toward differing world views, as long as they led to a consensually validated way of living harmoniously together.   As well, James’s pragmatism aspired to achieve world peace though the actualization of non-violent moral equivalents to war.

Secondly, regarding his futurist orientation, James was unencumbered by the barriers of race, class, and gender one hundred years ago. Eschewing any reference to social movements in general, he preferred to do his work at the level of individuals. He studied the psychology of the blind and the deaf, and maintained a friendly relationship till the end of his life in 1910 with such figures as Helen Keller, whom he met when she was 13. They travelled in similar social circles; Keller aspired to write like William James, and both were Swedenborgians. James was also a sponsor of Gertrude Stein, who nearly failed French prose and poetry but got A’s in the sciences. She developed her own techniques of automatic writing in the Harvard Psychological laboratory, and he helped her get into Johns Hopkins Medical School. James was a mentor to other Jewish students at Harvard as well, such as Boris Sidis, Horace Kallen, and Walter Lippmann.  Also, W.E.B. DuBois, later co-founder of the NAACP, was known to have said that during his years at Harvard, his two best friends were his Mother and William James.

Third, James was the first to promulgate a futuristically oriented psychology as a person-centered science. He was the first to apply the principles of natural selection to the study of consciousness in humans; he fought off the Social Darwinists who said that the individual meant nothing in the process of evolution; and in his Principles of Psychology(1890), he maintained a focus on the person immersed in the ever flowing stream of consciousness, announcing that every thought in the center of the field was also touched by the emotions, though they remained beyond the periphery of the rational waking state.  He turned to a dynamic psychology of subconscious states ranging from the psychopathic to the transcendent in his 1896 Lowell Lectures on Exceptional Mental States, and to the primacy of mystical states of consciousness in his Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). Having surveyed the entire spectrum of human experience, he then stepped back and asked “Is a science of consciousness possible?” His answer was radical empiricism—pure experience before the differentiation of subject and object, or what Carl Rogers called in the 1960s and neurophenomenologists today call intersubjectivity, as the effective starting point.  James envisioned radical empiricism as a new foundation for the way experimental psychology should be conducted, which would open psychology as a science up to the study of subconscious states, psychic phenomena, and the transcendent experience. But he died before his metaphysics beyond pragmatism could be more clearly articulated.

So we have here in this briefest sketch a look at James’s wider legacy.  Almost wiped out because of Two World Wars and a Depression, we have a uniquely American philosophical legacy that needs to be reclaimed if we are to continue making a leading contribution to world thought. We have an attitude toward the worth of all human beings in preserving their uniqueness, again, a contemporary theme. Finally, we have a blueprint for a psychology of the future, already being fostered by a few investigators as defining the humanistic implications of the neuroscience revolution. Thus, we may say that insofar as James’s ideas have new found relevance today, even though an entire century has passed, in my opinion, he remains still fifty years ahead of us in our own time.

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