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The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 17.1 (2003) 53-67

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William James, Positive Psychology, and Healthy-Mindedness

James O. Pawelski
Vanderbilt University

In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James offers a psychological analysis of the religious experiences of leading figures in traditional world religions. James diagnoses the leading figures of Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism as "morbid-minded." He describes them in this way because of their beliefs that evil is an essential component of the world and that the only way we can live a truly joyful and meaningful life is by maximizing our awareness of this evil.

James contrasts the views of these morbid-minded persons with individuals he calls "healthy-minded." Healthy-minded individuals believe evil is not an essential component of the world. For healthy-minded individuals, the way to a joyful and meaningful life lies through minimizing our awareness of evil. By ignoring or reinterpreting our experiences of it, they hold, we transform evil into good.

James argues that the differences between morbid-minded and healthy-minded views of life are functions of an underlying difference of temperament and that persons of different temperament need different types of religion. If the traditional world religions appeal to the morbid-minded temperament, James holds, the newer "mind-cure" is one example of a religion that appeals to the healthy-minded temperament.

James devotes two of the twenty lectures of Varieties to an explicit analysis of the healthy-minded temperament and to a discussion of the beliefs, practices, and successes of the nineteenth century mind-cure movement. While James was impressed with the practical successes of mind-cure, he also believed that its healthy-minded views and practices could be applied beyond the context of healthy-minded religion. In "The [End Page 53] Energies of Men," the presidential address he delivered to the American Philosophical Association in 1906, James calls for the founding of a new field of psychology that would study scientifically and apply more broadly the psychological principles underlying the success of mind-cure.

It has been nearly a century since James made this call for a new psychology. During that time, it has simply been ignored by most philosophers and psychologists. 1 In the last few years, however, more and more psychologists have begun studying healthy-minded themes. Many of them, in fact, consider themselves part of an evolving new field of "positive psychology." 2 A more careful examination both of the nature of James's call and of the aims and methods of positive psychology will help us see to what extent this new field may constitute an answer to James's call. Such an examination will also yield insights about the potential value of positive psychology and about the types of questions it will have to address in its continued development.

1. Healthy-Minded Religion

James defines healthy-mindedness as "the tendency which looks on all things and sees that they are good" (1982, 87). 3 For James, there are several forms in which this tendency is to be found. In its simple and most natural form, it occurs involuntarily. Involuntary healthy-mindedness is a way of "feeling happy about things immediately" (1982, 88). Persons of this sort seem to have "started in life with a bottle or two of champagne inscribed to their credit" (1982, 135). They seem simply incapable of seeing the evil in the world. But James also identifies a more voluntary or systematic healthy-mindedness. In this form, healthy-mindedness appears as "an abstract way of conceiving things as good" (1982, 88). Abstract conception, for James, is a way of identifying one part of a thing as its essence and ignoring the rest of it. Voluntary healthy-mindedness deliberately chooses the good to be the essence of existence and systematically ignores everything that does not accord with this essence.

On the face of it, James admits, this may seem difficult for an honest person to carry off. It sounds like deliberate self-deception. But he offers two reasons, one psychological and one moral, for not dismissing this...