Writings 1902-1910

By William James

William James (1842-1910), the acknowledged “father of psychology”, was a Medical Doctor who became a Harvard and Cambridge professor of anatomy and physiology and was also America’s most respected philosopher of his generation (preceding John Dewey and Bertrand Russell) and, to this day, he is among the most quoted of all Americans. “Writings” is a 1,500-page compilation of his works from his most prolific period. James’ brother, Henry James, was a famous fiction writer (Daisy Miller, Portrait of a Lady, among 20 novels and countless short stories and essays), and his sister, Alice, had many short stories published.

James often shared his views by quoting others. Kant and Emerson, James notes, believed in goodness more than in religion; so did Plato and Spencer. Walt Whitman was incapable of feeling evil, the purest of all men; he spoke ill of no one and refused to argue. Whitman “restored eternal natural religion” (a naturalist, humanist or pantheist), and, therefore, is called “pagan” by some, but he is favorably compared to Christ by others. James admiringly quotes another, “Religion means nothing…it teaches reliance on supernatural power rather than on self…I tee-totally disbelieve in God. The God-idea was begotten in fear and in a general lack of knowledge of Nature…Most religious people are lacking in uprightness and morality…” Spinoza says, “Evil is a disease…The best repentance [for mankind’s evil] is to up and act for righteousness…” Spinoza categorically condemns repentance. James refers to this as “healthy mindedness”. From a pantheistic view, evil (like everything else) must have its foundation in God. “Healthy souls need to be born only once to be happy; sick souls need to be twice-born,” James concludes, “Here is the real core of the religious problem: Help! Help!” Skepticism cannot be ruled out…” (Mysticism) “Religious experience…engenders myths, superstitions, dogma, creeds and metaphysical theologies.” (Philosophy) Then, like John 4:8, James sometimes refers to God as “Love” or “Law”. He rejects Christianity’s concept of creation as puerile, notes that it drives Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, etc. away. Conversely, “What distinguishes philosophic truth is that it is reasoned…Common men inherit their beliefs they know not how…Philosophers must…have reasoned license for them.” (A Pluralistic Universe) “Is the existence of so many disparate religions regrettable?” James answers “No, emphatically.” Men need religion, but, “If we are healthy-minded we need less of it.” Yet, he sees conversion as “a crisis of puberty and adolescence.” (Lecture on Religion & Neurology) James says, “Conversion is in its essence a normal adolescent phenomenon, incidental to the passage from a child’s small universe to the wider, intellectual and spiritual life of maturity.” He notes that hypnotism and religion use similar techniques to overcome the urge to sin. He still concedes, “The true is what works…Men…need fellowship in worship.”

James’ agnosticism is subtly revealed, “The God, if there is one…whether atoms or God be the cause [of life]…” (Emphasis supplied.) He develops Darwin’s views at length, noting that Darwin felt that if the world was designed, it was by “an evil rather than a good designer…A God who can relish such practical jokes is too monstrous…”; the world is too chaotic; only a diabolical designer would create it. “The real question is ‘What is this world going to be? What is life eventually going to make of itself?’” He accepts “the last state of the evolutionary universe” as one where “the sun will be dimmed and the earth tideless and inert” and our race extinguished, leaving “no echo” of our prior presence or even “an influence on whatever follows”. (This view is startlingly close to that articulated by leading scientists nearly 100 years after he wrote it.) Regardless, mankind’s “need for an eternal moral order is one of the deepest needs in our breasts.”

He notes that St. Paul, an epileptic, had his visions, gift of tongues (small as was the importance that St. Paul attached to the latter). All religious leaders claim, or are credited with, “automatisms”. We need to remember that prophecy is a profession, and it is clearly easy to counterfeit prophecy. As to visions, speaking in tongues, etc., James subtly debunks them with such casual terms as “hallucinations…a psychopathic level of sudden perceptions…hysterical subjects”, etc. His view of salvation concurred with Emerson, who, in his most famous lecture as given in 1838 at Dartmouth’s Divinity College, said “If a man is at his heart just, then…the immortality and majesty of God do enter that man…If you love and serve men, you cannot by any hiding or stratagem escape the remuneration.” Goodness, then, rather than slavish adherence to man-made rituals, is the proper goal of mankind.

James was also haunted by a deeply religious family and upbringing. (His father was a renowned minister.) In the end, James may be best known for his comment, “Christians and non-Christians alike accuse me of summoning people to say, ‘God exists, even when he doesn’t exist, because…to say so feels good.’” In sum, James supports a belief in God, because it makes most people “feel good”. Not surprisingly, he is guilty of endless circumlocution, which masks the pantheism that underpins his, and most philosophers’ beliefs.

After struggling though 1500 pages devoted more to metaphysics than anything else, I realized that I had been navigating around a perfect sphere; that is, I began at point “A” went all the way to “Z” and found myself right back where I started. Socratic, like most philosophers, the last sentence that he wrote was “There is no conclusion. There is no advice to be given. Farewell.” His Writings belie that self-effacing confusion, but sheer size of this book will challenge the tenacity of most, but it is worth the struggle if for no other reason than to be able to know that you exposed yourself to this giant of his times.