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William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism [Hardcover]

Robert D Richardson
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 622 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin (1 Nov 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0618433252
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618433254
  • Product Dimensions: 23.2 x 16.3 x 4.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,528,774 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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3.0 out of 5 stars Too much information 23 Jan 2014
By William Cohen VINE VOICE
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I'm fascinated by William James, but by his religious insights, not so much his career as an academic and philosopher. I got through the 500 pages, but I found myself skipping quite a bit. We get a very detailed account of his life, but the author doesn't manage to make it compelling enough. I enjoyed reading about his psychic experiments, his relationship with his brother, Henry, and how he came to write Varieties of Religious Experience. It was the family stuff and the Harvard politics that became boring.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fast and as described 25 Feb 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Extraordinary man, complex and inspiring, a hero for any age. The book does justice as far as a book can.
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Amazon.com: 4.8 out of 5 stars  24 reviews
100 of 103 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Masterpiece 9 Nov 2006
By David H. Peterzell PhD PhD - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
"When a thing is new, people say: 'It is not true'.
Later, when its truth becomes obvious, they say: 'It's not important.'
Finally, when its importance cannot be denied, they say 'Anyway, it's not new.'"
William James

Well, I admit to being completely fascinated with great early experimental psychologists like William James and Gustav Fechner. While modern psychology honors these thinkers, they usually neglect to look deeply into their great experimental and non-experimental ideas.

I hope that this remarkable and important book gets the attention it deserves, and I hope that my generation will discover the brilliance of William James. Richardson has brought James, his world, and his genius to life, along with the fascinating origins of modern psychological and metaphysical thought. Today, psychological science, philosophy, and the science of consciousness have come full circle, so James is as relevant today as 100 years ago.

In the preface of "William James; In the Maelstrom of American Modernism," Robert D. Richardson states that "This is an intellectual biography of William James. That is to say, it seeks to understand his life through his work, not the other way around. It is primarily narrative, aiming more to present his life than to analyze or explain it." With this humble thesis statement, Richardson understates one of the crowning achievements of his book. The book succeeds in portraying James' multifaceted, vibrant, and strong personality, thus explaining the great and passionate ideas that emanated from this source.

Toward the end of the book (p. 473; California Dreaming), Richardson discusses James' 4-part personality, referring to Barton Perry's (1935) analysis of James. "In some intricate way, James appears to have been, at bottom, both healthy-minded and a sick soul, both tender and tough-minded. Ralph Barton Perry, James' student and biographer, closes his splendid account by identifying four William Jameses. There was first of all `the neurasthenic James.' Then there was `the radiant James, vivid, gay, loving, compassionate, and sensitive.' To this Perry adds a third James, for whom he has no easy label but who might be considered as the conditional James or the ever-not-quite James, whose important qualities of live are `active tension, uncertainty, predictability, extemporized adaptation, risk, change, anarchy, unpretentiousness, and naturalness." The fourth James, Perry says, was "the James of experience and discipline ... the man of the world.' Cosmopolitan James, perhaps." I was struck by the fact that, while Perry's important work discussed the personalities, it was Richardson who has presented these personalities with a vividness that implies a deep analysis and understanding of James' psyche. "...The fundamental condition of his life was, now [at sixty] and always, torn-to-pieces-hood. But the pieces were never just thrown to the winds. They remained loosely if oddly clumped together, never completely unified, but all on the same shelf. Perhaps Leo Stein, brother of Gertrude, said it best: `The world which [William James] perceived was a multitudinous one. He never lost the sense of the thing, and yet never lost himself in it. So he became the richest interpreter of that of which he was so rich a part." Richardson's deep analysis of James emerges throughout the book.

Richardson's empathy with James - his ability see and think as James once did - is a second crowning achievement of this book. Like many biographers, Richardson has read what James wrote and said, including letters and other correspondences. But Richardson has made a point to read what James read, to fully understand the ideas that captured James' imagination. Furthermore, he has written biographies of Emerson and Thoreau, two great authors who influenced James significantly.

Perhaps a third, and related, crowning achievement of this book is its ability to put James' ideas in historical context; to link the ideas to themes that pervaded the 19th and 20th centuries. For instance, "He took as his starting point the feeling with which everyone is familiar: `Most of us feel as if we lived habitually with a sort of cloud weighing on us, below our highest notch of clearness in discernment, sureness in reasoning, or firmness in deciding. Compared to what we ought to be, we are only half awake. Our fires are damped, our drafts are checked,' Whatever this subject should be called in clinical psychology - James called it dynamogenics - it is the long-standing American interest in awakening to new life and new power, the great theme of Thoreau and Emerson and whitman, the great theme too of Jonathan Edwards, now carried to the new American century by William James." (p. 489)

I had hoped to read about James' interactions with some of his great students (e.g., Thorndike, who conducted his famous puzzle-box experiments in James' house). But I found much of what I hoped for. I was especially interested in reading about James' interpretations of Gustav Fechner's work. Although James seems to have dismissed Fechner's psychophysical laws as "too mechanical" (along with laws of thermodynamics, among other things), his fascination with Fechner's ideas is explained toward the end of the book.

There are some other recent sources on James that are worth noting. To be sure, James' deceptively stern visage can be found in modern books on the history of psychology, and these books often include a brief summary of James' work and ideas. Gerald Myers (1986) offers "William James: His life and thought" is another relatively recent "must read." Take a look at Emory University's online resources featuring James. You'll find plenty of materials, including quite a few interesting articles and pictures (e.g., Albert Bandura on James's stay at Stanford). Ken Wilber (of Integral Psychology fame) and B. Alan Wallace (Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies; Mind and Life Institute) have written and spoken extensively in recent years about James' metaphysical ideas. Wallace has just published a book entitled "Contemplative Science" which features James prominently.

So... I highly recommend this intellectual biography of William James. I loved this book!
53 of 54 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful 22 Nov 2006
By meadowreader - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This is a wonderfully written biography of a giant in American intellectual history, a book (and a life) that really can't be adequately summarized in a short review. Richardson has a comprehensive view of the historical era in which William James emerged, having previously published biographies of Emerson and Thoreau. The book is filled with interesting historical tidbits, such as the fact that Harvard had no separate Psychology Department until 1934, and a sketch of the miserable state of medical education in the late 19th Century, when not even a high school diploma was required. We see the brilliant Charles Peirce unable to make a living, and finally rescued by James and other of his friends from near starvation. Richardson frequently gives us the current value of dollar amounts from the earlier time, which adds valuable perspective. It is worth knowing that James's $5,000 Harvard salary, an amount that sounds puny, was the equivalent of $100,000 today.

William James was a famously late bloomer, but during that casting-about time he was hardly idle. He read very widely, was a talented artist, traveled constantly (including up the Amazon with Agassiz), became fluent in French and German, and got an MD degree among much else. His interest and training in physiology made him sensitive to the continuities between animals and human beings, and receptive to Darwin's evolutionary theory. But he also put great emphasis on the discontinuities; the example of a dog listening to a symphony was a favorite analogy to suggest the limits of our possible human understanding of the universe.

When William James died from heart failure in his late 60s, it was said that he had literally worn himself out. Santayana described James's personal vitality as "similar to nobody else." European travel, hiking and mountain climbing, experimenting with mysticism and psychoactive drugs, forming crushes on young women (to his wife's dismay), taking full teaching loads and large classes at Harvard, churning out articles and books, giving lectures to enthusiastic public audiences -- just reading about this man's doings is enough to make any normal person feel like a slacker of the worst kind. James lived in the world as an intensely active, curious, fully engaged participant; he somehow even managed to be in Palo Alto when the San Francisco earthquake hit. His intermittant bouts of ill health make it all that much more remarkable.

James was a psychologist, philosopher, and humanist. His psychology was inclusive, expansive, open-ended, and rejecting of all orthodoxies or closures of subject matter or method. For James, psychology included every possibility of human action and consciousness. The luminaries of the time that he knew, corresponded with, or met is far too long to reproduce. But it was an eclectic group, from Mach to Bergson, Jung to Russell, Chesterton to Leonora Piper, the famous medium. The writer Henry James was, of course, his younger brother.

If there was one overriding concern in James's intellectual history, it was his fascination with religion and the possibility of realms of human experience that are not captured by logic and empirical observation, experiences that come as feelings and hints, but which seem impossible to nail down scientifically. In relation to the universe, we are, he thought, perhaps like that dog who hears the symphony but who lacks the aesthetic sensibility to fathom its meaning. Although he said he could not speak from his own experience (it's unclear whether he ever had any first-hand religious experience), James focused on religion as personal experience, not as a social institution or body of dogma. He was intensely interested in the phenomenon of religious conversion, by which an individual's life was suddenly altered as through a kind of re-birth. The approach developed by Alcoholics Anonymous was inspired by James's descriptions of the life-changing effects of religious conversion. (James was always interested in practical applications; for example, his series of lectures for teachers was highly influential in his day.)

James is most identified today with Pragmatism, a doctrine he set out in the last decade of his life. Among philosophers, truth is usually seen as a matter of justification that flows from first principles of some kind. For James, all such accounts of truth smack of an argument from design, a vast over-emphasis on the importance of origins. James's Pragmatism, in contrast, is Darwinian: truth will show itself as it is tested in practice, and where it came from is a matter of indifference. If the dog won't hunt, who cares about its pedigree? That view was later common among philosophers of science, including Popper and, in its most extreme form, Feyerabend.

Pragmatism can be seen as one front in James's long fight against the neo-Hegelian idealists, like Royce and Bradley, with their posited Absolute, a war of liberation against the "imperial absolutists" and their rationalistic systems. And James did not exempt religion from the pragmatic test, arguing that people want both science and religion, and they want both for the desirable results they provide in their everyday lives. Thus James argued for the utility of the pragmatic approach itself, and for that reason he dedicated his book on the subject to the great Utilitarian, John Stuart Mill.

An exemplary life, recounted in an exemplary biography. Highest recommendation.
20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Exceptional Biography of William James 9 Jan 2007
By Ronald H. Clark - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
William James (1842-1910) made major contributions in the areas of philosophy, psychology, and the study of religion--yet we don't hear too much about him these days. Of course, the discussion of his more famous brother, Henry James, the novelist, is on-going. This book (along with Linda Simon's earlier "Genuine Reality: A Life of WJ") should do much to reintroduce this astoundingly talented figure to the current generation.
The author previously produced probably the definitive studies of Emerson and Thoreau. He spent a decade on this volume, and its shows. His approach is to understand James' "life through his work, not the other way around." What this means is that the book continually manifests a dual focus: WJ's life and WJ's intellectual pursuits and writings. The analysis is extremely detailed and comprehensive, the research phenomenal--and given the nearly 600 pages of text and notes, Richardson obviously was in no hurry to tell WJ's story.

However, a prospective reader should be warned that James dealt with and developed a number of complex and challenging ideas and areas. And Richardson is just as determined to analyze these topics as he is to do justice to WJ's life. Or, put differently, unless the reader is well versed in this subject matter, it can be difficult going at times. However, given the author's clarity of exposition, I found it easy to skim through these difficult passages and concentrate on the areas more familiar to me, and still reap the full benefits of Richardson's insights. So this fine book is there to provide as much detail and depth as to WJ's professional interests and writings as the reader is desirous of probing. In short, it is all there in this one book, for those who really want to get into WJ (including his interest in spiritualism). I found it helpful to keep handy the outstanding two volume Library of America collection of WJ's writings. A truly monumental contribution by Richardson and absolute "must reading" for anyone seriously interested in William James.
25 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Masterful Biography ... Truly an Embarrassment of Riches 24 Dec 2006
By Roy E. Perry - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
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.
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Wonderful Book About A Man Who Lived in The Stream 23 Jan 2007
By Thomas Haizlip - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This is simply the best book about the begining of American psychology. It tells about how James moved psychology from a "nasty little science" into a respectable profession aimed at practical use and clinical utility for any who could benefit from it. This book shows how James merged his empirical sciences with his deep love of philosophy to help give rise to the modern American thought of putting knowledge to use. James would say that worrying if the color blue is the same experience for all observers was a waste of time, thought, and energy. He rejected the European study of introspection and desired to use the scientific method to study everything, but yet realized that science may only end up being a small slice of what is really governing the universe. His views on free will are fascinating. He at some level, believes there is no free will, yet insists that we should all live as if there were - even if we know it's mere illusion - it's an illusion worth investing ourselves into. The famous quote that one should "..act as if they have faith and then faith will be given to them." is an inspiring message that has helped so many endure and believe in the "will" to change one's self by changing our thoughts. He comments that the greatest discovery of his generation was that a man could change himself by changing his attitudes and beliefs and in-turn those new beliefs begin to possess us and we become what we "will" ourselves to become.

Do not be put off by the length of this book. It's a very easy read and is arranged so that you can shift from place to place and not lose anything by bouncing around. James' idea of the "Stream of Consciousness" is so well a part of our culture it's hard to believe we once thought otherwise. I am a psychologist and would recommend this book to anyone who wants to see how the Mental Health movement began with James and his demanding that science must benefit if it is to be worthy of our investigation. His radical empiricism is the basis for so much of what we take as "proof" of facts. Yet he warns not to fall in love with the scientific method, lest we miss a rare non-repeating miracle. He was, indeed, the very embodiment of that thought - a rare man whose gave us such wonderful tools and thoughts that he still speaks to us almost 100 years after his death - I call that miraculous. I hope you enjoy this book and I recommend it without reservation.
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