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Mind Over Matter

GENUINE REALITY: A Life of William James. By Linda Simon . Harcourt Brace: 468 pp., $35

March 01, 1998|JAROSLAV PELIKAN | Jaroslav Pelikan edited "A World Treasury of Modern Religious Thought" (1990), which includes "The Will to Believe" by William James. He wrote the introductions to the Library of America edition of "The Varieties of Religious Experience" and to the sesquicentennial edition of Emerson's "Nature." He is Sterling professor emeritus at Yale

Every biographer must cope with the problem of which sources to use in telling a life story, and that problem is seriously compounded when the subject of the biography is a thinker or writer. If we knew more about Shakespeare's later years, would that help us to better understand "King Lear"? Conversely, is it legitimate to treat "King Lear" and the other plays as a database for the biography of the playwright?

That fundamental problem of literary biography--so carefully analyzed in a little book titled "Literary Biography" by Leon Edel, biographer and editor of Henry James--becomes in some respects even more complicated in the biography of an intellectual (which may or may not belong to the genre of intellectual biography). As historian of science Gerald Holton argues in his learned and delightful book "Einstein, History, and Other Passions," the relation of the life to the thought of a scientist or scholar is a subtle one, despite the efforts of various kinds of romanticism to reduce it to a simple correlation. Or, to stay with some of the thinkers whose systems I have studied most carefully, an intellectual historian can read hundreds of pages of St. Thomas Aquinas without finding out very much about his inner life, whereas the student of St. Augustine has to toggle back and forth constantly between his life and his works looking for explicit and implicit cross-references, as Peter Brown has done in his magisterial biography.

The life and works of certain 19th century philosophical thinkers demand that the biographer and historian be on the lookout for such cross-references. These thinkers deliberately eschewed the philosophical abstractions behind which so many of their predecessors and contemporaries had been able to conceal their real selves and instead emulated Augustine, for whom Augustine-as-person became a primary source of ideas to Augustine-as-thinker (or even sometimes the primary source). Prominent among these 19th century philosophers are Soren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche--and William James.

James was convinced that psychology was "the antechamber to metaphysics" and that philosophy "could not be separated from an individual's temperament." He carried out that conviction when, as Linda Simon writes in "Genuine Reality," "he incorporated his own autobiography in his books." "Principles of Psychology," the most celebrated of his works during his lifetime, was "grounded in autobiography [and] was illuminated by the experiences of a vivid and heroic personality, William James himself"; and his Gifford Lectures, "Varieties of Religious Experience," perhaps the one book of his that is read most often now and which "he called his 'very objective study,' " was in fact "intensely subjective," for in it "he mined his own life and experiences for anecdotes and conclusions."

Those qualities of his life, his thought and his literary output make James a prime candidate for the method of "toggling," which is what Simon seems to have had in mind with "Genuine Reality." Having previously edited "William James Remembered," a sprightly collection of memoirs by students, colleagues, relatives and friends (including Gertrude Stein, George Santayana and James Rowland Angell, later the president of Yale), she has worked through the published and unpublished sources with diligence and care, even investigating, though without reaching conclusive results, whether James ever checked himself into "the McLean Hospital, a mental asylum then located in Somerville, Massachusetts." There have been at least three previous attempts at a full-scale biography of James, all of them listed in her bibliography but not cited very often in her notes: one by his junior colleague in the philosophy department at Harvard, Ralph Barton Perry, "The Thought and Character of William James" (1935), which is also something of a personal memoir; another published in 1967 by Gay Wilson Allen, who went on to write a biography of Ralph Waldo Emerson; and the more recent work of Gerald Myers, "William James: His Life and Thought" (1986). In addition, my Yale colleague R.W.B. Lewis has written a fascinating tour de force of collective biography, "The Jameses: A Family Narrative" (1991).

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