William James: His Life and Thought 
by Gerald Myers.
Yale, 628 pp., £30, October 1986, 0 300 03417 2
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Henry James Sr was a redoubtable patriarch who received a large inheritance from his father – an Irish immigrant who had made a fortune in upstate New York – and spent it on a life of leisure and religiosity. He shuttled back and forth to Europe on a kind of one-man cultural exchange which combined the grand tour with a Continental education for his children. During a period in England, he introduced them to the likes of Carlyle, Tennyson and John Stuart Mill. He expressed himself in a characteristically Jamesian way: ‘I will not attempt to state the year in which I was born, because it is not a fact embraced in my own knowledge, but content myself with saying instead, that the earliest event of my biographic consciousness is that of my having been carried out into the streets one night, in the arms of my negro nurse, to witness a grand illumination in honour of the treaty of peace then just signed with Great Britain.’ He said of Emerson that he was ‘like an unsexed woman’. The remark was intended as a compliment. His religious impulse expressed itself in the devising of his own version of Christianity, which incorporated more than a scruple of Swedenborgian vastation into his ancestral Presbyterianism. His wife, Mary, about whom less is known, seems to have been all that was expected of an American mother of the mid-19th century: a provider of piety and apple pie.

Of the five children, William and Henry inherited their father’s scruples and way with words. Unfortunately they each usurped the other’s vocation: the diffident intellectual became a novelist, the practical man of the world a philosopher. Henry, as Rebecca West observed, wrote fiction as though it were philosophy and William wrote philosophy as though it were fiction. Their sister, Alice, was an equally remarkable writer, but she was riven by psychosomatic disorders – another Jamesian characteristic – and by the typical frustrations that Victorian society thrust upon women. A touch of scandal was provided by the two younger sons, Garth Wilkinson (Wilky) and Robertson. Unlike their elder brothers, they had the honour of fighting for the North in the Civil War, and the dishonour of achieving nothing thereafter. William had already written them off as ‘destined for commerce’ when they were teenagers. Wilky’s business failed; Robertson had talent as a draughtsman, but became a drunk. The only James brother needed to complete this dramatic and paradigmatic family is Jesse (alas, no relation).

Gerald Myers, a philosopher at the City University of New York, recounts this family history in his study of the life and thought of William. His book contains 13 chapters on the thought and only one on the life, but it does throw new light on William as the eldest brother who allegedly messed everyone else up. The apparent rivalry between William and Henry has been skilfully portrayed by Leon Edel. After each encounter, they would go their separate ways complaining of headaches and other ills. For the psychoanalytically-inclined, their surface fraternity masks a deep ambivalence – some have said with homosexual overtones. Its climax is supposed to have come five years before William’s death with the notorious incident of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. William received news of his election to this newly-founded organisation during a visit from Henry, who had been elected already. William refused to join the Academy and also resigned from the parent body that had spawned it. In his letter declining the honour, he wrote that the Academy seemed to have no real purpose other than to allow certain individuals to distinguish themselves and to enable them to say to the world at large: ‘we are in and you are out.’ He was encouraged to give up this particular vanity, he went on to say, because his ‘younger and shallower and vainer brother’ was already a member. Critics are divided about the significance of the letter. Myers contends that it was not an attack on Henry, but rather a playful letter which William probably showed to his brother before sending it off. Despite the intellectual differences between them, there are many signs of mutual affection and of William’s concern for the ever impractical and helpless and vulnerable Henry. The only sensible verdict on the accusation of underlying animus is ‘not proven’.

Myers offers a similar defence of William in his relations with Alice. Many of her troubles, according to Jean Strouse, her biographer, were William’s fault. He is supposed to have dominated her, to have flirted with her, and to have contributed by his engagement and marriage to her mental breakdown. There is no doubt about his affection for her, and no doubt that he sometimes behaved insensitively and unsympathetically towards her. Like all the male Jameses, he considered women morally too superior to be educated. No one has accused him of deliberate malice, but perhaps his unthinking and self-centred behaviour did contribute to Alice’s neurosis. He seems to have behaved in much the same way towards his wife (another Alice), who fortunately had the strength of character to cope and indeed to allow him to lean on her in times of his own spiritual vastations.

That William’s problems might have had a psychological cause is an idea that does not seem to have disturbed the surface of his introspections. He was a member of the ‘pull yourself together’ school, and thought that his physical troubles – his aches, and twinges, and stabbing pains – had physical origins. Myers’s catalogue of his symptoms is impressive: depressions, bad temper, boredom, moodiness, fatigue, insomnia, backaches, headaches, eyestrain, troubled breathing, digestive upsets, angina. No wonder Alice wrote to Henry: ‘Was ever man born of woman harder to take care of than William!’

The letters between husband and wife – some fifteen hundred that were not destroyed – were to be locked up in a Harvard library until the year 2022. The restriction was recently removed, however, and Myers was given access to the correspondence. He reports that it provides a useful corrective to the view of William as a neurotic enigma who sought refuge from his problems in his writing. He was humorous, friendly and direct. When he made a new acquaintance, his first questions were ‘What is your age?’ and ‘How much do you earn?’ He worked hard as a professor at Harvard, and his students – with the exception of Theodore Roosevelt – thought well of him. He got on well with his colleagues too, apart from George Santayana, whose philosophy he dismissed as ‘the perfection of rottenness’ – a very Jamesian put down. He was far from being a recluse. Like his father, he travelled much in Europe, but unlike his father he left his family at home. (Hence the size of the marital correspondence.) As he acknowledged, life was more peaceful for his wife when he was away – a matter about which he felt some guilt. Unlike the more fastidious Henry, he was able to express his sensuality: there are some passionate love letters to his wife, and according to Myers, he appears to have wanted more sexual responsiveness from her.

Does William’s character matter? All biographers have a natural desire to set straight the portraits drawn by other hands. But Myers demonstrates convincingly that the personality was all of a piece with the thought. James treated psychology as he treated himself, seeing it as a combination of intellectual strivings and physical symptoms. In philosophy, he was after the big system and had no patience for detail, precision or technical nicety. And he had no time for exact disciplines such as formal logic. He did not, one might say, place consistency on a pedestal.

Most psychologists tend to rush from their armchairs into the laboratory; James pursued the opposite course. He founded the world’s first psychological laboratory in 1875, but soon abandoned it for introspection. His only notable experiments seem to have been a study of dizziness in deaf-mutes, and an investigation of the sort of half-conscious writing that occurs when the writer’s attention is devoted to something else. He discovered that such ‘automatic writing’ mainly consists of the repetition of banal or meaningless phrases. Some literary critics have suggested that his concept of the ‘stream of consciousness’ influenced the works of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, but his major literary legacy may have been an unwitting contribution to the prose style of Gertrude Stein.

James’s masterpiece, which took him 12 years to write, was the two-volume Principles of Psychology. Published in 1890, it is still worth reading and is perhaps read by more psychologists now than during the interregnum of Behaviourism from the 1920s to the mid-1950s. It is not, I think, the major thesis that it advanced which has enabled the book to last so well. James himself remarked that it offered not so much an overall system as a mass of rich detail on the phenomena of mental life. In essence, the book marries introspection to physiology. Its starting-point is the dualism of mind and body. James assumed that psychology is the science of the mind, and rejected materialism as an unwarranted impertinence: ‘the whole feeling of reality, the whole sting and excitement of our voluntary life, depends on our sense that in it things are really being decided from one moment to another, and that it is not the dull rattling off of a chain that was forged innumerable ages ago.’ The major crisis of his life seems to have been a spiritual vastation brought on in part by pessimism about the reality of free will. He recovered. And his first act of free will, he said, was to believe in free will.

Consciousness affects behaviour, but he held that its contents are indivisible: the ‘stream of consciousness’ has no parts and this distinguishes it from anything physical. The German polymath Hermann Helmholtz had argued that conscious experiences rest on a vast body of unconscious mental processes responsible for perception, memory and thought. James denied the existence of the Helmholtzian unconscious. Of the alleged distinction between conscious and unconscious mental states, he wrote: ‘It is the sovereign means for believing what one likes in psychology, and of turning what might become a science into a tumbling-ground for whimsies.’ The reason for this rejection appears to be the fact that when James introspected he was not aware of any ‘Kantian machine shop’ underlying his perceptions. Yet, as Myers points out, he is inconsistent on the point, and allows that habitual behaviour, such as writing, can be carried out unconsciously.

James’s way of dealing with obviously unconscious phenomena was to assert that there is a separate hidden personality which is actually conscious of them. A neurotic patient suffering from hysterical blindness is not conscious of seeing anything, yet often demonstrates an unconscious perceptual ability. In this case, according to James, the personality is split into two, and there is a hidden person who is consciously perceiving the world. This is a very strange idea. It implies that inside you there are many different conscious personalities. One of them, for example, is the ill-mannered individual who gets into action when you unconsciously pick your nose. These covert doppelgangers, however, are wholly unable to make themselves known either to you or to anyone else. The theory is a true tumbling-ground for whimsies.

James piles on a further inconsistency. You have many memories, but you can be conscious of only one or two at any moment. What is the status of those of which you are not currently aware: are they in the consciousnesses of other hidden personalities in your mind? No, says James, they are purely physiological changes that have occurred in your brain. What James evidently wants is a psychology with just two components: the contents of consciousness and the physiological process of the brain. Unconscious phenomena have therefore to be swept under the cognitive carpet: some can be said to be conscious but in the minds of other hidden personalities, others can be said to be nothing more than physiology. Inconsistencies aside, the resulting dualism is still unworkable, principally because it makes consciousness an entirely mysterious phenomenon that somehow dematerialises out of the workings of the brain.

James’s programme, as Myers correctly contends, is to eliminate as much as possible of the psychological theory that others had proposed as an intermediary between the world and the mind. Hence his assumption that introspection directly registers physiological events: an assumption which forms the foundation of his celebrated theory of the emotions. Common sense tells you that as a result of your perception of the world, you may feel a certain emotion, which may express itself in bodily changes, and in your demeanour and behaviour: you meet a bear, feel frightened and run away. But, says James, common sense is in error: it puts the order of events the wrong way round. What actually happens is that you feel afraid because you run away. If you refuse to express your emotion it will die; and James, like most members of the ‘pull yourself together’ school, took this principle to be axiomatic (pace Aristotle, Blake, Freud). Since a paralysed individual can in fact feel fear, the theory is patently false. James later modified it in such a way that the perception of a visceral response becomes the emotional experience. You feel fear, as an unacknowledged psychosomatic might well assert, because you feel your heart palpitating. But what occasions your visceral response if not your perception of the bear? James is almost back to common sense, and the only thing at issue is whether there is a direct link from perception to emotion or only an indirect link by way of bodily sensations. The Principles is the most thoroughgoing attempt in the English language to defend an introspective psychology. It takes for granted the existence of a physical world and of human minds, and the notion that human minds have thoughts and feelings, and are able to know the physical world. Of course, as James says, these data are discussable: but that discussion is called metaphysics. And it was to metaphysics, psychical research and religion that he devoted most of his life after the Principles.

James’s major philosophical contribution was Pragmatism, whose origin, Myers shows, is in the problems that James encountered in trying to analyse the concept of knowledge. He took the view that what mattered ultimately were the practical consequences – or ‘cash value’ – of a belief. ‘We cannot,’ he wrote, ‘reject any hypothesis if consequences useful to life flow from it.’ Anyone who has been innoculated against Pragmatism by reading Bertrand Russell’s account of it in History of Western Philosophy has severe difficulties in taking it seriously. Russell said that he had always found the hypothesis that Santa Claus exists to work very satisfactorily, and so according to Pragmatism, the proposition that Santa Claus exists is true. Although James revised the theory, and although Russell overlooks some of its virtues (see, for example, Graham Bird’s recent discussion in his study of William James),* it continued to be haunted by a subjective aura. From an analysis of how to make up your mind on a particular issue it developed into a vast philosophical system. It became, Myers says, a label for James’s collective convictions.

James had accepted dualism only as a provisional expedient in arguing for a science of mental life. In the same year that he announced Pragmatism, his struggles with dualism led him to assert that the brain does not produce consciousness but merely transmits it. Therefore, when body and brain die, consciousness may continue – and immortality is a plausible conjecture. He finally abandoned dualism altogether and formulated a philosophy in which there is only a world of ‘pure experience’: body and mind are merely different arrangements of pure experience.

Myers has written an admirable account of the development of the ideas in the Principles, of their subsequent fate, and of James’s growing interest and influence in philosophy. He also points out the numerous inconsistencies and implausibilities in the ideas. James argues, for example, that to remember an event is to remember experiencing it. But, as Myers writes:

We usually recall our experience of an event along with the recall of the event itself, but it is neither a sufficient nor a necessary condition for doing so. Exceptions are easy to imagine: if I am busy and hurried, I may suddenly remember that my wallet was left in the office without recalling actually leaving the wallet behind. We do not remember something that we did not experience [alas, I often do], but we need not remember that we experienced it in order to remember it. Thus, the ‘additional consciousness’ demanded by James’s definition of memory is unwarranted.

The example is typical of Myers’s attitude towards James. He plants a delicate kick on the posterior of the philosophy. He may be wearing carpet slippers but the kick is sufficiently well aimed to send the ideas flying.

The one weakness of Myers’s book is that it is not informed by recent developments in the philosophy of mind and cognitive science. One looks for references to work on the computational modelling of mental processes, and finds instead the views of the previous intellectual generation. What makes this especially regrettable is that the current science of the mind is addressing exactly those problems that James raised. Cognitive scientists are busy reinstalling the machinery of the Kantian workshop. They accept the reality of both mental and physiological phenomena, but embrace a new and more potent monism: the doctrine that brain and mind are bound together as computer and program.

When William James died his brother Henry wrote to a friend: ‘I sit heavily stricken and in darkness – for from far back in dimmest childhood he had been my ideal Elder Brother ... His extinction changes the face of life for me – besides the mere missing of his inexhaustible company and personality, originality, the whole unspeakably vivid and beautiful presence of him.’ That vividness is to be found in The Principles of Psychology.

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Vol. 9 No. 8 · 23 April 1987

SIR: P.N. Johnson-Laird, in his review of William James: His Life and Thought (LRB, 5 March), claims that the author, Gerald Myers, ‘throws new light on William as the eldest brother who allegedly messed everyone else up’, a supposed ‘neurotic enigma who sought refuge from his problems in his writing’, and whose fraternity with his younger brother Henry had ‘homosexual overtones’. These extravagances are attributed to ‘the psychoanalytically-inclined’. It is remarkable how the discussion of James’s life has centred on these unprofitable Freudian speculations, rather than on the extensively documented, historically sensitive and sympathetic narratives that have been based instead on Erik Erikson’s attention to the problems of vocation as a focus for conflict at the stage of identity-formation. His reflections on this stage of the lifecycle work even better for James than they do for Luther, for whom there is far less evidence. The result is to throw a psychologically sophisticated light on what Ralph Barton Perry understood in a common-sense way when he entitled one of the chapters of his great book, The Thought and Character of William James, ‘His Father’s Son’. The significant work in this Eriksonian vein on James has nothing to do with making him ‘a neurotic enigma’, but rather it seeks to understand his neurotic problems in relation to the complex entanglements he found himself in by reason of over-identification with a neurotic and implacable father, who profoundly influenced the son’s plight and the development of his philosophy. The purpose of such study – see, for example, Howard Feinstein’s Becoming William James and my own The Voracious Imagination – is to understand how James slowly worked his way out of the identity-confusion he suffered as a young man. Its service is to show (in Mr Johnson-Laird’s phrase) that ‘the personality was all of a piece with the thought.’ Whatever its merits as a philosophical critique of James, Meyers’s chapter on the life tends to obscure this Eriksonian scholarship by correcting unconvincing Freudian speculations about the James family.

Cushing Strout
Cornell University, Ithaca, NY

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