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Book Review : Exploring the Philosophy, Morality of William James

December 11, 1986|BRUCE KUKLICK | Kuklick, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, is editing the Library of America edition of the works of William James. and

William James: His Life and Thought by Gerald E. Myers (Yale University: $35)

William James ranks with Ralph Waldo Emerson as one of the two thinkers who have come to be associated with enduring qualities of the American spirit. Reflective Americans continue to read James with profit; his open-minded temperament, optimistic concern for the practical, and vigorous religious faith can be counted on to strike congenial chords in successive generations of readers.

Gerald Meyers, a professor of philosophy at the City University of New York, has written a hefty and exhaustive tome on James. The book is a significant one, although I believe that it has serious flaws.

Meyers' opening chapter on James the person is a tour de force . In this introduction, the author vividly and lucidly sets forth the details of James' life, career and achievements. He surveys the large number of works on James and his family--notably, on his brother Henry, the famous novelist--without losing his audience in the wasteland of professorial dispute. Perhaps most impressive is the outline of the psychoanalytic interpretation of the James family that has become the focus of many other books. Meyers is able to use the insights of this debate without being swept away by Freudian ardor.

No Concessions Made

The rest of "William James" is a systematic attempt to recover James' intentions as a thinker. Meyers here makes no concessions to the non-professional reader. His 140 pages of footnotes deal minutely with controversial issues in the academic literature on James. In the text itself, Meyers assumes that his audience is familiar with the technical doctrines of 18th- and 19th-Century philosophy, as well as with the intricate ideas of recent thinkers like Ludwig Wittgenstein and Gilbert Ryle.

Although the scholarship makes for heavy going, the weakness of this important book is not that it is designed to be read mainly by philosophers. I believe its flaw is that James is pushed too far in the direction of Meyers' own concerns.

James' great two-volume "Principles of Psychology" appeared in 1890, and Meyers' own interest is in contemporary philosophical psychology and the philosophy of mind. Meyers writes as if this "philosophy of psychology" were the chief interest of James himself. Meyers' book is organized topically with chapters such as "Sensation and Perception," "Space," "Time" and "Memory." Although Meyers is often careful to show the historical development of James' ideas in each of these categories, the overwhelming impression is that James is an exceedingly systematic thinker, working out one coherent set of concepts. And Meyers sees everything that James did outside of the "Principles" as leading up to this book or as flowing logically from it.

Turns to Morality

Meyers waits till his next-to-last chapter to take up James' views on morality. This chapter is a stunning achievement--clear, comprehensive and stylishly written. But it also fits oddly with the 400 pages that have preceded it because its concerns are chronologically early: James was troubled by the moral dilemmas of free will and determinism from the time he was a young man. Yet Meyers discusses these dilemmas as if they occurred to James later in time than his ruminations on the technical matters of the "philosophy of psychology"; and Meyers suggests that morality was secondary to James.

The last chapter on religion also reveals an imbalance. Meyers notes that religion was most important to James and that his most popular book was his "Varieties of Religious Experience" (1902). Meyers takes 15 pages to examine this classic, a treatment that compares with the approximately 300 pages spent on the "Principles."

The James who emerges from this interpretation is difficult to recognize. He was not an architectonic thinker but a lively essayist; overall consistency he found inessential. James was passionately involved in justifying personal commitment, and the problems of the "philosophy of psychology" were not fundamental for him.

"William James" will be must reading for scholars studying James or philosophical psychology. But for the rest of us, it's still better to read James himself--certainly the "Principles," but also more accessible writings like "The Will to Believe," "Varieties of Religious Experience" and "Pragmatism."

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