A Walk with William James, Part 1: Preamble and the Jamesian Situation

I've wanted to write about William James for many months now. As I read and think about James I'm always struck by the depth and power of his ideas. For example, one of the things I hope to do in this series is to point out how many of the leading ideas of the emerging church movement were very much anticipated by James. In many ways, I think the emergent conversation is simply an application of James' ideas to the modern Protestant context.

If at any point in this series you are curious about James or American pragmatism I'd recommend the following:

The best biography of James is the remarkable book William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism by Robert D. Richardson. Richardson's biography is also important for anyone interested in the intellectual history of the United States.

A more reflective, intellectual biography of James is A Stroll with William James by Jacques Barzun. (I've mirrored my series title off of Barzun's. Barzun is one of our leading American intellectuals and he wrote his book to, in his words, "record an intellectual debt to James.")

For the single best book on the history of American pragmatism via four mini-biographies of Charles Peirce, Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James (different link from one above), and John Dewy, see the Pulizer Prize winning book The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America by Louis Menand.

Menand has also produced a readings book of first-, second-, and third-generation pragmatists in Pragmatism: A Reader.

For a quick exposure to James, see this nice compilation of quotes hosted by Frank Parjares at Emory University.

My interest in James comes from many places.

First, and most obviously, James was the greatest American psychologist. His magnum opus, the The Principles of Psychology, is still influencing the field (we will dwell on his famous chapter on Habit in our first installment).

Second, as a psychology of religion researcher James wrote the seminal work in my field, the highly influential The Varieties of Religious Experience.

Third, as a psychologist my epistemological interests lean toward the pragmatic, the philosophical school of thought established by James. More specifically, pragmatism highlights how beliefs help people cope. Obviously, a psychologist is keenly interested in this question. Psychologists are less interested in Truth than about how people use ideas to negotiate the challenges of life, personally and collectively.

Finally, James was an odd duck from a religious perspective. James deeply wanted to believe in God, free will, and life after death. Yet he struggled mightily with his own skepticism about these very same ideas. For hard core atheists and scientists, James flirted too much with the religious. For the true believers, James' thoroughgoing skepticism and demand for evidences was off-putting.

Thus, if you are a regular reader of this blog, you can guess that I often find myself in a very Jamesian situation: Too religious for some, too skeptical for others. I think I have many readers just like this.

So, given that there is very little to comment on in this post, if you'd like to comment I'd like to know if any of you find yourself in the Jamesian situation: Too religious for the atheists you associate with, but too skeptical for the typical church-going crowd.

To conclude. In many ways, the spirit of James haunts this blog. And, like with Barzun, it's time to recognize an intellectual debt.

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8 thoughts on “A Walk with William James, Part 1: Preamble and the Jamesian Situation

  1. Looking forward to what you have to say. I've been casting about for something to read lately. Always thought I'd get around to reading Varieties some time but have never gotten a round tuit. Maybe now's the time.

  2. Dr. Beck,
    Hi, this is Peter and I am a PhD student in org behavior/ strategy at Washington University in St Louis. Have really enjoyed your blog as I stumbled on it the other day. I too find myself in the Jamesian situation as I often comment that (for friendships, and dating situations specifically) that I am too "religious" for the "secular" and too "secular" for the "religous" though I don't like either of those terms. For a while I felt as though there would be a point of tension release from this, but I don't know if that would be the best thing. I may have to realize that I am Jamesian at heart and perhaps any movement to either side of the pole does not do justice to my true thoughts.

    Looking forward to reading the rest of the post.


  3. I was just commenting on another friend's blog about why do I feel like I have to choose between labels, yet I feel pressured to make a choice. But what makes it hard to do is that if I choose something that belongs to one side of the issue doesn't mean that I adhere to everything else that is categorically allocated on that side. In fact I might think the opposite. I feel like if I choose than I will have to choose a lot of stuff I don't like (man, do I sound postmodern!)

  4. I would like to second the recommendation to read "Metaphysical Club." This was one of the most well researched and written books on the history of American philosophical thinking that I've come across...if such a book can be engrossing, Metaphysical club is (and I don't even get a kickback for recommending it).

  5. Steve,
    I hope you enjoy the Varieties. James' conception of the Sick Soul has greatly influenced me.

    Hi Peter,
    Welcome to the club!

    I agree. I listen to very little Christian music.

    I said on Matthew's blog today that more and more I'm coming to believe that doubt is a moral virtue. For example, the minute we pigeonhole ourselves some truth, outside the box I'm in, is lost; just as you suggest. I think there is something good in being an epistemic butterfly: Always flittering around, but never landing.

    I strongly second your thumbs up.

  6. Perhaps James got his original idea from Nietzsche's recommendation to seek to be a pious skeptic rather than a holy fool.
    I think he also would have agreed that being open-minded is a good thing, but not so open-minded that your brain falls out.
    Alcoholics Anonymous, whose principles are largely based in Jamesian thought, is in the same "situation"- too religious for the determined secularist, too easy going for the devout. And the fact that we refuse to take ourselves too seriously drives everybody nuts.

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