- Sick Souls, Healthy Minds: How William James Can Save Your Life by John Kaag
Sick Souls, Healthy Minds: How William James Can Save Your Life
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020, 210 pp., incl. index
It says something about the topic of John Kaag’s book that the subtitle “How William James Can Save Your Life” seems so easy to swallow. It’s hard to imagine a similar subtitle for Peirce or Dewey, or most any contemporary philosopher, and I wouldn’t hold my breath for “How C.S. Peirce Can Mend Your Finances” or “How John Dewey Can Improve Your Writing.” But for James the subtitle works. Maybe it’s because, for James, the connection between philosophy and life seems especially strong and obvious. More than Peirce or Dewey, James is a character in his own writings, making it clear that philosophy matters in both very personal and very profound ways. James seems to have thought that philosophy saved his own life, so it’s not implausible to put him on that very short list of philosophers who might “save your life,” too.
The problem, of course, is saying exactly how James can save your life. Kaag gives a wide-ranging account of the practical and potentially “life-saving” aspects of James’ philosophy and psychology. James, we are reminded, suffered from debilitating depression and career-indecision. In his late twenties, around 1870, he seems to have bootstrapped himself out of this condition, at least temporarily, by resolving that “my first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.” Kaag claims that James’ “entire philosophy, from beginning to end, was geared to save a life, his life” (4), by offering a philosophical account of how human beings can find meaning in a world that, at times, seems hostile or indifferent to our existence. Kaag makes his case by highlighting the existential implications of James’ best known positions. For example, because the problem of free will caused James acute distress, he ultimately defended a “fake it till you make it” (64) attitude grounded in his understanding of human psychology and human consciousness. We exercise free will not by acting randomly but by cultivating healthy habits—by doing the things that, we hope, will make us into the persons we wish to be. But there is more to a meaningful and successful life than these willful acts of self-creation. In addition, Kaag claims, James argued for the importance of a certain openness to “existence in general” (118) and a receptivity to “transcendent experiences” that are both humbling and empowering. These experiences show the limits of free will while also suggesting that, because human consciousness resists scientific understanding, humans are part of something greater and more [End Page 110] than the mere sum of our parts. Such openness, Kaag concludes, is “for James no less important than the free will that we exercise in the pursuit of a meaningful life” (118).
There’s still the nagging worry that what we find meaningful may not be really meaningful: that our attempts at willful self-creation, and the lessons we draw from being open to new and unexpected experiences, may prove self-deluded or deceptive. Here Kaag turns to James’ pragmatism. His recommendation, I think, is to put such neurotic thoughts aside and instead focus on what works, as James would put it, “in the long run and on the whole.” The existential lesson of pragmatism, Kaag argues, is that there is seldom one true answer to the question of how to live. Instead, there are multiple good answers to this question, and the genius of James’ pragmatism is to recognize that what is good “in the long run and on the whole” is ultimately indistinguishable from what is true.
So can this combination of James’ greatest hits—the will to believe, the stream of consciousness, and the pragmatic theory of truth and meaning—really save your life? Kaag’s answer is a principled, “maybe”: “pragmatism might save your life, but never once and for all” (170). Life is unpredictable and open-ended. By embracing contingency, James’ philosophy creates an opportunity for hope and...