Philosopher James, A Creative Eccentric
BOSTON — GENUINE REALITY: A LIFE OF WILLIAM JAMES
By Linda Simon
Harcourt Brace & Co
467 pp., $35
'Unlike many other nineteenth-century intellectuals, buttoned into their stiff white collars, calcified into our collective memory, James strides easily, inquisitively, into our own time, urging us to notice him," writes Linda Simon in "Genuine Reality: A Life of William James,"
Simon has opted for a chronological account of the extended family life of the renowned Harvard philosopher. Before taking on the full biography, Simon edited another James volume, "William James Remembered." What emerges in this latest book is a fiercely individualistic man who survived, and eventually thrived, within a rich - but murky - brew of powerful, inescapable familial relationships and influences, strivings and setbacks.
James floundered, directionless, until in his 30s, unable to break away fully from the opinions and values of his dominating but self-doubting father. The eldest of five problem-ridden children, he fought recurring depression and nervousness all his life. (For inveterate Jamesians, of course, he is known also in relation to his even more famous novelist brother, Henry.)
William's unusual intelligence, expressivity, theatricality, and need for public attention gradually prevailed. As he self-taught his way to prominence in the evolving fields of philosophy and psychology, he succeeded brilliantly. He was an intensely creative, eccentric, eclectic American original.
James, who earned a medical degree but never a Ph.D., gained at Harvard a reputation as a caring, inspiring teacher. More important to him, one gathers, was his contribution to philosophy and psychology. Here, James's enduring legacy is less certain. The best source to draw conclusions on this is James's own surprisingly engaging and comprehensible writings (see especially "The Principles of Psychology" and "The Varieties of Religious Experience").
The most notable shortcoming in Simon's book is its failure to give lay readers a coherent, unified reduction - if such is possible - of James's core ideas.
Simon is effective, though, in conveying his 20-year infatuation with the paranormal and investigations into the work of local psychics. On the other hand, Simon says, James was "staunchly and noisily opposed to the efforts of some Boston physicians to license health practitioners, however unconventional their credentials or their treatment." James was a contemporary of Mary Baker Eddy, the Founder of this newspaper. Observing the rising popular interest in her spiritual healing method and church organization, he defended Christian Science, stating in "The Varieties of Religious Experience," "in certain environments... prayers may contribute to recovery."
In the realm of spirituality and religion, he hoped, but never really committed himself to any belief - beyond expressing a preference for pluralism over monism, pragmatism over intellectualism, experience over abstractions. He was always vitally concerned, however, with the moral implications of belief and its results in experience.
William James's story, with its melancholy aspects, won't be everyone's cup of tea. But Simon has distilled, a complex subject into one accessible, informative, and intriguing volume, drawn in poignantly human dimensions.
* Linda Laird Giedl is a freelance writer in Boston.