Alfred North Whitehead said, “In western literature there are four great thinkers, whose services to civilized thought rest largely on their achievements in philosophical assemblage; though each of them made important contributions to the structure of philosophic system. These men are Plato, Aristotle, Leibniz, and William James.”
“I wish you would as you promise set down as clearly as you can on paper,” he wrote, “what your idea of the Nature of Art is.” Henry James Sr. was the author of a long procession of unwanted and unread books, published at his own expense. In this context, William’s saying “as clearly as you can” seems almost taunting. The family style was brash, teasing, and reckless, but there was real trouble here.
James in his early years frequently goes back to the Stoic line, to Epictetus and even more frequently to Marcus Aurelius. James saw Stoicism as a way to freedom. In this he differed sharply from his brother Henry, who dismissed Stoicism in an early review as a philosophy fit only for slaves, since it taught men to embrace the given.
He said, with premature confidence, “I am convinced now, for good, that I am cut out for a speculative rather than an active life.” He felt, as he often had and often would, overwhelmed. “The grit and energy of some men are called forth by the resistance of the world,” he wrote his father. “But as for myself I seem to have no spirit whatever of that kind, no pride which makes me ashamed to say ‘I can’t do that.’”
Beard understood neurasthenia to be a “large family of functional nervous disorders that are increasingly frequent among the indoor classes of civilized countries, and that are especially frequent in the northern and eastern parts of the U.S.” Beard thought neurasthenia to be most prevalent in “brain-working households,” he thought it was transmittable, and he considered it to be an essentially American disease.
[Charles Saunders Peirce] could make direct, winning appeals. “Let us not pretend,” he once said, “to doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts.”
Writing about James in 1911, Peirce said, “I really lack the self-command to repress my reflections when I have once set down his name. Who could be of a nature so different from his as I?” While Peirce was one of the world’s great logicians, James was a man for whom logic was “an inconvenience.” “He so concrete, so living,” Peirce went on, “I a mere table of contents, so abstract, a very snarl of twine. Yet in all my life I found scarce any soul that seemed to comprehend, naturally, (not) my concepts, but the mainspring of my life better than he did.”
In 1868 Harvard was still a small, backward country college. It had a library of 168,000 volumes and an endowment of just over two million dollars. Tuition was one hundred dollars a year. There were five resident graduate students.
Beneath William James’s flirtatious and animated exterior was a completely different person, and one he loathed. He said once that he felt “chained to a dead man.”
He was nervous, mercurial, taut, and edgy; his indecisiveness drove friends and relations to distraction. He decided at a meeting one morning in Paris that Alice should hop over from Cambridge for three weeks. He sent a telegram at two P.M. to say so. At five P.M. he discovered the telegram hadn’t been sent because he owed the telegraph company another twelve and a half francs, whereupon he dropped the whole idea. He changed the name of his youngest child when the child was three. One friend, James Ward, got a blank postcard from him one day; James had addressed it but forgot to turn it over and write a message. He loved gadgets. In the 1870s he tried copying ink, which allowed the writer to make a copy by pressing a blank sheet of paper over the written sheet with a small press. He took up typewriting enthusiastically before there was a machine with lowercase letters.
One of James’s long-standing experimental interests was determining the function of the semicircular canals of the inner ear. He had already published a study citing results from hundreds of experiments he—with Bob sometimes as helper—had performed on deaf-mutes (plus two hundred Harvard students and instructors as controls), placing each subject in a swing, twisting it up, then letting it spin and checking to see if the subject could walk straight afterward.
In any case, The Literary Remains of Henry James sank with scarcely a ripple. A dismissive notice appeared in, of all places, Godkin’s Nation; a few friends wrote brief, labored acknowledgments. The publisher sold five copies in six months.
Hard as it was for James to write in the first place, he also did a good deal of rewriting. “If there is aught of good in the style of it,” he wrote Sarah Whitman, a Boston artist, hostess, and good friend, “it is the result of ceaseless toil in rewriting. Everything comes out wrong with me at first; but when once objectified in a crude shape, I can torture and poke and scrape and pat at it till it offends me no more.”
He coined words and gave new life to old ones. He was the first to use “hegelism,” “time-line,” and “pluralism.” He had a gift for phrases that stick in the mind: “the bitch-goddess success,” “stream of consciousness,” “one great blooming, buzzing confusion,” “the moral equivalent of war,” “healthy-minded,” and “live option.”
The calm life, the minutely controlled vector of ambition, the life devoted to one end only that we associate with his brother Henry, was never a possibility for William. At fifty he was still essentially at the mercy of any well-aimed claim upon him.
“To wrestle with a bad feeling only pins our attention on it, and keeps it still fastened in the mind; whereas if we act as if from some better feeling, the old bad feeling soon folds its tent like an Arab and silently steals away.”
The conclusion was inescapable: James’s heart was seriously damaged. The treatment prescribed for James was complete rest for six to eight weeks. He was to make no rapid movements, he was not to get excited about anything. Certainly he was not to “ascend anything.” He hated the regimen, calling it a “vile, inert, cowardly, professional-invalid life.”
James’s own mind was never better than when his brain was giving him trouble and when he was under pressure from all sides. He had a strange and ultimately unfathomable ability to bring bits and pieces of order and achievement—trophies dripping from the deep—out of disorder and chaos, perhaps, in part, because he expected to.
He loved being at Putnam Camp, and despite catching a ferocious cold, he reveled in a vacation in which he could get his back “against a tree, or against mother-earth, and spend the entire day in the open air, with a good book as my companion.”
One problem with writing as clearly as James does is that people may understand you and decide they really don’t approve of what you are up to.
George Santayana, first a student of James, then a colleague and rival, and finally a eulogist, said James "kept his mind and heart wide open to all that might seem, to polite minds, odd, personal, or visionary in religion and philosophy. He gave a sincerely respectful hearing to sentimentalists, mystics, spiritualists, wizards, cranks, quacks, and imposters . . . He thought, with his usual modesty, that any of these might have something to teach him . . . Thus," Santayana concluded, "William James became the friend and helper of those groping, nervous, half-educated, spiritually disinherited, passionately hungry individuals of which America is full."
Alice saved the following passage from James’s letter of February 24: “To me such decisions” — probably about whether to marry and have children — “seem acts by which we are voting what sort of a universe this shall intimately be, and by our vote creating or helping to create ‘behind the veil’ the order we desire.” This is a modern, democratic version of Pascal’s wager. Since there is no certain way to prove or disprove the existence of God, it makes sense to put one’s money on the existence of God and behave accordingly. James drops the principle and the language of gambling in favor of the idea of voting. The decisions we make about how to live are not bets but ballots for a particular kind of world.
James’s hostility to what he saw as the increasingly mandarin atmosphere in American colleges is a little ironic in that he had recently been chairman of a Harvard committee on academic robes. The committee report recommended such a complicated and subtly graded variety of insignia, such fastidious attention to sumptuary detail, that it was quietly ignored by the university.