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Reviewed by:
  • William James, L'attitude empiriste (William James, The Empiricist Stance)
  • Mathias Girel
Stéphane Madelrieux. William James, L'attitude empiriste (William James, The Empiricist Stance). Paris: Puf, 2008.

The release of Stéphane Madelrieux's William James, L'attitude empiriste (William James, The Empiricist Stance) is excellent news indeed for French James studies: it is the first comprehensive study of James's works in French. It will certainly prove to be a reference for James studies and empiricist studies in general.

James was introduced quite early in France, and although there are a number of translations at hand,1 as well as two books by David Lapoujade,2 a comprehensive monograph was still lacking. Madelrieux's book is, from this standpoint, a remarkable achievement. Massive problems, such as the relationship between James's philosophy and his psychology, between his naturalist approach to action and his empiricism, between pragmatism and radical empiricism, are faced. The book covers overlooked parts of the corpus, in this country at least, such as James's psychology3 and his works on abnormal psychology. The book will thus prove very precious to students in the process of discovering James, as a "companion" throughout their reading; it casts light on nearly all of James's texts and gives resources against major misunderstandings. It will also be valuable to more advanced readers, whether they are familiar with a part only of James's works, or whether they are interested in telling what precise brand of empiricism one is to find in James's work.

The book, which is drawn from the doctoral thesis of the author, focuses on James's empiricism. The claim is that, if there is a "thread" which "runs through all James's thought, it is that of empiricism, from which he claims to be both a follower and a reformer."4 The book assesses the status of empiricism in James's work, on the one hand, and James's position in the empiricist lineage, on the other hand. In this latter picture, James would represent "psychological empiricism," the link between Locke's "classical empiricism" and the Vienna Circle's "logical empiricism." As an attitude—since the book deals with the "empiricist [End Page 503] attitude"—this particular brand of empiricism would have a critical side, which is pragmatism, and a constructive side, which is radical empiricism and involves the capacity of empiricist philosophy to "turn philosophical problems into questions of fact."5

Such a feat—writing a book of reasonable length on such a huge corpus—involves some trade-offs. The emphasis is laid upon James's works, taken for themselves, in the framework of what some might call an "internal" reading of the texts, and, as a result, controversies, the historical context of James's arguments, and perhaps with them their polemical dimension, are less developed, even if they are broached as "contexts of formation." Moreover, few elements are provided to assess the approach in relation to current Jamesian scholarship. For example, one will not find mention of David Lamberth's William James and the Metaphysics of Experience or, more striking still, in view of the author's interests, of Wesley Cooper's The Unity of William James's Thought, which undertook to cast light upon this unity by articulating James's radical empiricism and psychology.

These points being noted, Madelrieux undertakes to provide a systematic account of James. Saying that he is forcing the author of the "blooming, buzzing confusion" and of the Pluralistic Universe into the straightjacket of a system would be a misunderstanding of his purpose, since, as Madelrieux suggests: "James had no objection to systematical thinking, but only to a systematical mindset (esprit de système), because a systematical mindset comes prior to, while system can only come after experience, to redistribute its elements, distinguish them and unify them, to cast them after the most expedient order for our future encounters."6 It is in perfect conformity with this agenda that the book ends with a one-page table, recapitulating the different points of the book and of James's empiricism7.

To enforce this argument, the book falls into three parts, which reflect as many standpoints...


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pp. 503-508
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