An embarrassment of riches, Robert D. Richardson's "William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism" is the despair of the literary critic. There's so much covered here that one cannot, in a brief review, do full justice to this definitive, magisterial work by a master biographer.
The author of "Myth and Literature in the American Renaissance" (1978), "Henry Thoreau: The Life of the Mind" (1986), and "Emerson: The Mind on Fire" (1995), Richardson spent ten years researching and writing "William James."
Drawing on a vast number of unpublished journals, letters, and family records, Richardson presents an impressive chronicle of the life and work of a seminal thinker who was a voracious reader, "half scientist and half artist," a lifelong seeker of truth), and, as Richardson puts it "[a man] who made major contributions in at least five fields--psychology, philosophy, religious studies, teaching, and literature."
William James (1842-1910) is best known for three works: "The Principles of Psychology" (1890), which the philosopher George Santayana consider his best effort; "The Varieties of Religious Experience" (1902), and "Pragmatism" (1907). His other works include "The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy" (1897), "A Pluralistic Universe" (1909), and, published posthumously, "Essays in Radical Empiricism" (1912).
In "Song of Myself," Walt Whitman, one of James's favorite poets, wrote: "Do I contradict myself? Very well, the I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes." James, like Whitman was "large"; he contained multitudes.
As a "radical empiricist," James was always eager to keep as many doors and windows open as possible. Indeed, writes Richardson, "the very definition of radical empiricism [is that] nothing that is experienced can be excluded from consideration."
Richardson points out that James's radical empiricism included three main ideas: (1) consciousness is a process and only a process; (2) what we call objects are really bundles of relations; and (3) all we have to work with, think about, or live with is what we somehow experience."
To many modern and postmodern readers, James's thought appears to be contradictory. Deeply convinced of the truth of Darwin's theory of evolution, he was also open to the possibility of psychic phenomena, mental telepathy, mind cure, and various manifestations of the religious mentality.
James reminds one of the Civil War soldier who, wearing a blue coat and gray trousers, was shot at by both sides. Richardson writes, "[James] is too religious for the unbelievers and not religious enough for the believers."
In commenting on James's "The Varieties of Religious Experience," Richardson writes: "The book was and is a standing affront to people committed to defending the particulars of their own religion as the best, if not the only, variety, but it cheered many, on the other hand, who had become disillusioned with institutional religion."
Although in general he preferred a "both/and" rather than an "either/or" approach to life, James identified himself with one side of what may be called the philosophical divide: he stood with Heraclitus, Aristotle, Spinoza, and Bergson and opposed Plato, Descartes, Kant, and Hegel. And, although Richardson does not say so, one is impressed by multiple similarities in the philosophy of James and Friedrich Nietzsche.
In other words, James rejected Plato's "Real World" of Ideal Forms, denied the Cartesian dualism of subject and object, disbelieved in Kant's rationalistic approach to metaphysics and ethics, and attacked Hegel's dialectical method and his optimistic belief in the progressive march of the Absolute in history and society.
Richardson points out that, whereas James is often thought of as a psychologist and philosopher (he certainly was), one must not forget the most important fact about him: "Science was central for James. All his formal education, his interest in the natural world, in Darwin, in chemistry, in comparative anatomy, and in physiology gave him a permanent connection to science that he never abandoned."
While it is true that James spent a lot of time and energy investigating psychic phenomena and religious claims, "James was always firm in insisting that he had not himself had mystical experiences; he was scrupulous to claim that he was just a seeker, never that he had found or seen the truth."
Woven into Richardson's account of James' intellectual life--James was an instructor in anatomy and physiology and later a professor of psychology and professor of philosophy at Harvard for 34 years (1873-1907)--is a wealth of information concerning James' parents, siblings, wife, and children; and the famous people whom James' knew and influenced.
In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche wrote, ""Gradually it has become clear to me what every great philosophy so far has been: namely, the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir." James (and Carl Jung) agreed with this assertion--that every philosophical (and psychology) theory is basically the personal confession of its author.
Reading Richardson's detailed account of James' family life and friends, his supporters and detractors, helps us better understand James' psychological and philosophical odyssey--his doubts and denials, beliefs and assertions.
One of my friends coined the word "spirmaturgy," meaning that the universe--composed of energy, matter, and spirit--is a living, evolving reality. I suspect William James would approve.