- William James in the Maelstrom of American Modernism
Philosophers often hold with bland confidence an idea about the history of philosophy that appeals to historians about as well as the idea of intelligent design appeals to biologists. The philosophers’ idea is that what they do is respond to each other’s arguments and that, therefore, searching accounts of social context (such as the learned world expects in the study of a novelist or a sociologist or, indeed, a historian) are irrelevant to the history of philosophy. To be sure, some social historians of ideas err by presenting their histories as one-way streets, down which influences flow from society to mind. Robert Richardson’s life of William James gets the balance right, helping to make this book the most complete and convincing account of James’s life ever written. As Richardson puts it: “It is not so much that the life influences the work, as that, in James’s case, anyway, the work is always influencing the life.”
Richardson shows that James’s personal interactions with just about everyone, nonphilosophers (including the succession of intellectually inclined young women with whom he flirted) as well as philosophers, were heavily conditioned by his anxieties about his next public lecture or book. James processed his social experience philosophically. Social experience took on much of its meaning for him through categories heavily derived from his philosophical concerns. This philosophically processed social quotidian in turn conditioned the philosophy that he did. Since he was socially omnivorous, the philosophy he wrote has an omnivorous quality. The arguments of philosophers often soak up the moisture of social life like a sponge, but the result may be no less philosophical on that account. [End Page 491]
The soundness of Richardson’s approach to James is illustrated by a letter (not quoted by Richardson, surprisingly) that James wrote to his colleague Josiah Royce in 1900, while James was traveling in Europe. The letter gets across James’s eager acceptance of intimate social interaction as part of his philosophical activity:
I lead a parasitic life upon you, for my highest flight of ambitious ideality is to become your conqueror, and go down into history as such, you and I rolled into one another’s arms and silent (or rather loquacious still) in one last death-grapple of an embrace. How then, O my dear Royce, can I forget you, or be contented out of your close neighborhood? Different as our minds are, yours has nourished mine, as no other social influence ever has, and in converse with you I have always felt that my life was being lived importantly.
There is jocular hyperbole in this communication between old friends, but also deep truth. It is perhaps James’s most gushingly expressed statement of the importance of his personal interaction with other philosophically engaged minds, whether professionally trained like Royce, or, like most of James’s social contacts, amateurs whose random quests were grist for James’s philosophic mill.
David A. Hollinger, Preston Hotchkis Professor of American History at the University of California, Berkeley, and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, is the author of Cosmopolitanism and Solidarity; Science, Jews, and Secular Culture; Postethnic America; and In the American Province: Studies in the History and Historiography of Ideas. He held the Harmsworth Professorship of American History at Oxford University in 2001–2.