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THE 'FOURTEEN DOORS' OUTWARD OFWILLIAMJAMES'S PHILOSOPHY GeraldE. Myers. William James: His Life and Thought. NewHaven: Yale University Press, 1986. 627 pp. Illus. EugeneFontinell. Se(!: God, and Immortality: A Jamesian Jm~'.\ttgation. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986.297 pp. WilhamJames. Essays in Psychical Research. Cambridge, Mass.:Harvard University Press. 684 pp. FrederickJ. Down Scott, ed. William James: Selected Unpublished Correspondence, 1885-19 /0. Columbus: OhioState University Press, 1986. 603 pp. George Catkin William James was once likened, by his sister Alice, to a house with fourteen doors, all opening outward. The expansive spirit and open nature of the man and his philosophy continue to interest and puzzle. On the one hand, William James wasa philosopher grappling with the perennial, and largely technical, problems of epistemoiogy and philosophical psychology. On the other hand, he was a cultural figure, for whom philosophy was simply a form of expression, a particular means of presenting his own "passionate vision." James occupied both worlds, the worlds of the professional and of the public philosopher, at the very historical moment when most academic philosophers were abandoning the public forum for thesecure and insulated confines of the ivy-walled university. The diversity of the volumes under consideration here is an indication of James's precarious balance within, and ultimate transcendence of, two worlds of discourse. Philosophical reputations, James would have been the first to admit, are often a function of the emotional appeal of the philosopher's ideas rather than a testament to the inherent qualities of the ideas themselves. Although James retreated from hisoft-expressed anti-intellectualism to admit that what separated a philosopher's ideas from those of a farmer was the nature of the logical disputation of the argument, he often fell victim to composing a philosophy that was essentially emotional rather than logically rigorous, evocative rather than complete. One might surmise from Myers' account that Charles Peirce, the failed academic and 224 George Catkin isolated contemporary of James, might be the philosopher par excellence of the American renaissance of philosophy, for his ideas now strike professional philosophers as the more challenging, weighty, and enduring. Certainly Peirce's reputation can only grow after the implicit, but fair-minded, drubbing that James the professional philosopher receives at the hands of Gerald Myers' impressive and recondite evaluation of his life and thought. James's magnum opus, around which Myers organizes his book, was The Principles of Psychology (1890). This work, the result of twelve difficult yearsof effort, was designed to serve as a textbook that would, as James announced inthe initial pages of the volume, adhere closely to "the point of view of natural science.'' But, as Myers demonstrates in telling and sustained fashion, the volume was marked by contradiction and uncertainty. For all of his positivist intentions, James was befuddled by a continuing Cartesian dualism, an inabilityto resolve the mind and body problem. Even though he sought to explain mental processes by their physiological constituents, he remained beholden to metaphysical explanations. Fifteen years after the publication of Principles, James finally renounced the subject-object distinction in the essay "Does Consciousnes~ Exist?'' ( 1904), and developed the complex of ideas that would become knownas "radical empiricism." But he remained throughout his psychological and philosophical career more a metaphysician than a natural scientist. The deep flaws and contradictions of the Principles would reappear throughout the corpus of James's mature philosophizing. Myers is an impressive and learned critic of familiar Jamesian concepts. They are placed under a philosophical microscope and analyzed for their logical consistency, internal cogency, philosophical depth, and present-day implications. On most counts, James falters when he does not fall flat on his face. Thus James's ideas on sensation and perception are found to be misleading and vulnerable to criticism, his will to beheve pragmatically inexact, his pragmatic doctrines marred by imprecision of language , his radical empiricism without any apparent ''effort to work out in technical detail the vague blueprint of pure experience'' (316), his escape from materialism to radical empiricism won only by a dangerous lapse into Berkeleyean idealism, and finally, his moral theory sullied by a sneaky utilitarianism and a "glaring vulnerability" in refusing to realize that the premise of his moral...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 223-230
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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