b. New York, 1842; d. Chocorua, New Hampshire, 1910
Mary James complained of her eldest son William that "the trouble with him is that he must express every fluctuation of feeling, and especially every unfavorable symptom, without reference to the effect upon those about him." If this seems an overly somatic introduction to the great philosopher and psychologist William James, it is also appropriate: A life that culminated in a reconsideration of spirituality and consciousness in relation to physiology and neuroscience was also a life spent in perpetual diagnosis of backache, eyestrain, and nervous disorders. But unlike his younger siblings Garth Wilkinson ("Wilky"), Robertson ("Bob"), and Alice, whose physical and psychological ailments prevented them from achieving success and fulfillment, William's psychological distress and physical suffering seemed to spur him on through each stage of his development as a highly original thinker and one of the great multidisciplinary minds in turn-of-the-century America.
Science and Art Contend
Born in New York City in 1842 and named for his prosperous paternal grandfather, William was the first-born child of Mary and Henry James Sr. A favorite of his father's from his youth, William grew up in a household sustained by inherited wealth and unorthodox spiritual ideas. He was encouraged to pursue both his scientific and artistic talents through the course of a highly discontinuous education. During eight years in New York, he attended more than 10 schools; added to this were the several schools he attended in Europe on the family's frequent continental sojourns. Henry Sr., whose primary vocation was spiritual philosophy, had very definite ideas about art and artists and science as well: Art at its best was a spontaneous expression of the divine spirit working in man; but those who practiced art for the sake of livelihood would find their spontaneous expressions redirected to meet the demands of the market and of public taste. Science, on the other hand, was equally an aspect of divine expression, but its practitioners stood a better chance of staying true to inspiration while serving society's demands. Given this viewpoint it was natural that the father would encourage the son toward scientific study rather than artistic pursuits. But William's own drive to be an artist prevailed at first, and he convinced his father to take the family back to Newport, Rhode Island, where he could study under the painter William Morris Hunt. William's drawings, which still exist, show a significant talent for portraiture, but in 1861, he abruptly left off his artistic training to enroll at Harvard.
William's entry into Harvard coincided with the outbreak of the Civil War. He began with little idea of the course of study he ultimately wished to pursue. An inability to commit to a particular field of study would characterize William throughout his life. When he was older and established, such variation was recognized as a sign of his expansive genius; but as a young man, such variation was considered aimlessness. He would become the classic late-bloomer.
Like his father, William was forced to confront serious psychological difficulties early in his adult life. Unlike his father, he was forced to weather such crises more than once. For him the problems of physiology, psychology, and philosophy were not professional domains of detached speculation but concrete issues of life and death. No one who reads his account of "the sick soul" in The Varieties of Religious Experience is likely to doubt that he knew such dark nights of the soul personally.
His father had resolved his own great crisis in the context of religion -- adopting a highly personal, nonconformist spirituality. William would ground his salvation in the methodology of science and formal logic, seeking first to comprehend his own difficult experience in physiological terms, then to master its difficulties via the disciplines psychology and ultimately philosophy. In the course of his own journey of discovery, he would lay down sound foundations for the modern science of psychology and establish it as a significantly American discipline. When Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung made their pioneering journey to America in 1909, the one man they most wanted to meet was William James.
At Harvard, William began as a student of chemistry, but after a year switched his studies to comparative anatomy. In 1865 he signed up to study tropical life forms in the Brazilian Amazon with the Swiss-born naturalist and famed professor Louis Agassiz. Agassiz, at that time the preeminent scientific personality in America, was, nevertheless, an avowed creationist who staunchly opposed the recently published theories of Charles Darwin. It was a debate William was certainly aware of as he began his own investigations.
Although William contracted an infection similar to smallpox during the expedition, he endured the entire voyage, ultimately considering his stamina in the face of traveling horrors a mark of manliness (this was perhaps a necessary victory for him, as he had often lamented his lack of military service during the war, in contrast to his brothers Wilky and Bob). In later life William James would frequently advocate the strenuous life as a means to contend with both physical and psychological disabilities. Upon his return from Brazil, William worked as an intern at Massachusetts General Hospital.
In 1867, he traveled to Germany for an extended stay, to study the German language and to seek treatment for his chronic and worsening backaches. It was in Germany, where mental processes were beginning to be studied from a physiological perspective, that he began to think seriously about psychology as an experimental science, and where he had his great revelation that it was in this field that he could make a significant contribution.
A Maverick Career
He returned to Harvard and was appointed a lecturer in physiology in 1872. In 1877, at age 36, he married Alice Gibbons Howe. In deciding to do so, he seems to have crossed some important internal threshold as well. As his marriage strengthened and his family grew, his professional stature and self-confidence increased, and he was able to focus his energies on his true interests. Many of his psychosomatic symptoms disappeared. Commissioned in 1880 to write a textbook on the rapidly evolving science of psychology, he labored at the task for 10 years while he continued his research. As a writer, he was the opposite of his brother Henry, striving always, as one critic puts it, for "conversational lucidity rather than associational allusiveness." The two-volume Principles of Psychology he finally published in 1890 effectively redefined the field and established his international reputation as a contributor at the highest level.
By then, in his own mind, he had already begun to move on. Having established the first psychological demonstration laboratory in the United States, he later termed it "a nasty little subject" and abandoned the narrow discipline of laboratory experimentation for the broader realms of free observation, reflection, and speculation which philosophy allowed.
There were other, personal motivations for his shift in focus as well. The death of their six-month-old son in 1885 had led both William and Alice to investigate spiritualism and the supernatural, an exploration which William had already embarked on to some degree when he founded the American branch of the Society for Psychical Research earlier that year. Survival after death remained unproven, he concluded, but room for many things in heaven and earth was allowed in his philosophy. By the later 1880s, he had begun teaching religion and ethics, treading professionally, at last, on the terrain that had been his father's native ground.
Confronting the Ultimate Questions
It would require another crisis, however, to bring this exploration of the spiritual realm to its fullest expression. In 1899, while at his summer retreat in the Adirondacks, he became lost and disoriented while trekking in the forest. The experience triggered a mental and physical breakdown which lasted for more than a year and delayed the presentation of a series of lectures he had been invited to give at the University of Edinburgh on the subject of "natural religion."
When he was finally well enough to deliver the talks, the material he presented constituted a fresh and unprejudiced approach to the psychology of religion. Published in 1902 as The Varieties of Religious Experience, it centered on the commonalities in personal experience across many creeds and many centuries, setting aside the comparison of institutions and dogma as secondary. Cognizant that the traditional theologies of his day were crumbling under the assault of scientific materialism, he recognized that the search for meaning would necessarily and stubbornly persist. Both scientific and humanistic in his methodology, he avoided reductionism. It was the mystery of the thing that interested William James, the long documentary record, and he chose to treat his subject with ultimate respect as well as honest eyes, aware of both its lunatic shadows and its luminous core. Assuming the stance of neither believer nor skeptic, he chose simply to bear honest witness to the patterns he saw.
It was classic William James, imbued with a sense of the relativism of all knowledge, a respect for and curiosity about alternative perspectives, an instinct to analyze clearly and thoroughly but to develop a synthesis wherever possible, and a conviction that the truth of any idea or thing is best understood by observing its action in the world.
From religion he moved on towards pure philosophy, but retained a pragmatic emphasis. His was a perspective that suited his age. With the publication of Pragmatism in 1907, shortly after his retirement as a professor at Harvard, he became among the most eminent of American philosophers, identified not only with the establishment of a new and important experimental science but with a school of philosophical thought entirely his own.
William James died of heart disease at his family's summer home in New Hampshire in 1910, having spent the last of his failing energies to help his brother Henry struggle free of his own darkest night of the soul.