William James was a philosopher of the nineteenth century whose thought overlaps with the twentieth century. He was true to his origins, and his philosophy refleets nineteenth century themes and interests. But it would be a mistake to suppose that his philosophy is merely the explicit formulation of nineteenth century implications. The great man, as James himself pointed out, is more than a product of his environment, for the environment itself is constituted in large part by individual initiative.1 James’s philosophy, therefore, contains novelty, and in addition to novelty, it displays a remarkable relevance to the present philosophical situation. Today in the United States nearly all of his major works are in print; most of them are available in inexpensive paperbound editions, on sale at neighborhood drug-stores.
James’s life as disclosed in his letters and reflected in his published works lacks the emotional placidity of a Descartes, a Locke, a Kant, or a Hegel. It is a quite uncommon life for a British or American professor of philosophy. In his youth, and again several times and for long periods during his maturity, James was overwhelmed by doubt and anxiety, so much so that on occasion he could scarcely perform his professional duties. The indecision concerning a career, the ordeals undergone for twelve years in the composition of The Principles of Psychology, the illness attending the preparation of The Varieties of Religious Experience, the restless searches for health, culminating in 1910 in his final defeat and death at his summer home in Chocorua after having travelled over Europe for several months in quest of a cure, reveal a man wracked by mental anguish and physical pain. Yet through resolutions and reaffirmations of will the man overcame such obstacles, at least until death claimed him, and created an impressive and influential philosophical work. Haunted by an incredulity which threatened to undo him, James exercised the will to believe in himself, and bolstered by self-belief, he had the courage to be—a great man, a great philosopher. It is no wonder that today James is admired as an existentialist—as even the American Kierkegaard.
Pragmatism is the most widely known side of James’s philosophy, and pragmatic attitudes toward knowledge and value pervade American civilization, permeating the social sciences and affecting the making of social policies. No longer does pragmatism attract large numbers of American philosophers as it did a generation ago, and when one is drawn to pragmatism, he is usually more susceptible to the scientific methodology of Charles Peirce or the experimental logic of John Dewey than to James’s formulas. While James’s pragmatism has dwin-dled in the estimation of the professional philosophers, his radical empiricism, though less widely known, has gained in appreciation. For in the Essays in Radical Empiricism James planted many seminal ideas which have grown into the rich harvest of realism, naturalism, and logical empiricism. But aside from all the specialisms which James’s radical empiricism has nurtured, its essential message is still paramount in contemporary philosophy—the appeal to concrete experience as the method for the clarification and resolution of meta-physical questions.
James’s pluralism contains a moral theory and a cosmology which completely demolished the grip of monistic idealism on American thought. In addition to this negative function, pluralism is today in its social and philosophical forms the most universal trait of American civilization. In moral and social theory, pluralism is tantamount to democracy; it defines values in terms of demand or interest, conceives moral value as the demand for an organization of demands or interests which guarantees maximal satisfactions, and projects an ideal social order in which each man’s demands are consulted and in which a consensus is attained through cooperation and compromise. In cosmology, James’s pluralism was more suggestive than finished. In the main it was derivative from Renouvier, Bergson, and Peirce. But the concepts James chose to emphasize—creative becoming, freedom, indeterminacy, and objective chance, continuity, evolutionary love, God as finite and struggling—have proved to be central to the philosophical cosmologies, such as A. N. Whitehead’s, which entice contemporary students.
The part of James’s thought most relevant to the contemporary situation is his psychology. His contributions to the psychology of religion circumscribed a new field for scientific investigations, and it pointed the way to future explorations by means of phenomenological and psychoanalytic methods. But greater than James’s psychology of religion is his psychology proper. No book on psychology in the English language, perhaps in any language, equals The Principles of Psychology. This work, as we have noted, contains, besides an immeasurable wealth of scientific detail and philosophical suggestiveness, two main strands—the physiological, behavioral strand and the introspective, phenomenological strand. The former is ascendent in the United States, the latter in Europe. It is doubtful that a philosophy of mind or of man can neglect either strand, and James, above all, brought the two together.
James, who was fortunate enough to belong in his life and in his thought to an Atlantic community not yet shattered by the world wars, presented in his philosophy, in particular in his psychology, a wholeness of vision and a tolerance of approach. A return to James’s thought today may serve to bridge the gulf which, in the affairs of the intellect, at present divides Europe from America, correcting in Europe the excesses of existentialism and in America the excesses of scientism.