Understanding Forwards

Michael Wood

  • William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism by Robert Richardson
    Mariner, 622 pp, £15.00, September 2007, ISBN 978 0 618 43325 4

‘He was always around the corner and out of sight,’ Henry James wrote of his older brother William as a child. ‘He was clear out before I got well in.’ The philosopher C.S. Peirce said something similar about the grown man. ‘He so concrete, so living, I a mere table of contents.’ Josiah Royce, a life-long friend and Harvard colleague of William James, with whom he agreed philosophically scarcely ever, offered a fine parody of the pragmatism so closely associated with his companion’s name. The pragmatist takes the witness stand and says: ‘I promise to tell whatever is expedient and nothing but what is expedient, so help me future experience.’ No swearing, no truth, and a firm bet on what hasn’t happened yet. Many of the virtues as well as the limitations of James’s philosophical practice are caught in this swift picture.

I take these quotations from Robert Richardson’s William James, the most recent in a long run of biographies. Its predecessors were by Ralph Barton Perry (1935), Gay Wilson Allen (1967) and Linda Simon (1998). There are also fine portraits in Jean Strouse’s biography of Alice James (1980) and in Louis Menand’s Metaphysical Club (2001). No lack of attention, then, but Richardson’s book is very welcome, in part because of his refusal to stop worrying about his subject, and his ability finally to let his enthusiasm overcome his worry.

Richardson’s tone slips at times. If James was the emotional philanderer Richardson insists on portraying, and a man always keen to tell his wife how much he liked other women, it doesn’t seem quite enough, indeed it seems positively old-boyish, to say: ‘William James must have been quite a handful.’ And it may be that James’s justification of vivisection on the grounds that ‘a heroic dog’ would gladly make the sacrifice if he understood the excellence of the cause does a little more than make ‘a modern reader . . . uncomfortable’. To me it seems grotesquely hypocritical, devoted to self-delusion. And for Richardson to start the next paragraph with ‘James was, in fact, enormously fond of dogs’ almost comically compounds the problem. Richardson’s gestures towards a wider history are brisk and potted, and also often verge on surrealist comedy. ‘Life kept throwing him challenges large and small,’ Richardson writes of James in 1897-98. ‘There was a new puppy; should they keep it or give it away? Zola’s “J’accuse” roused the consciences of intellectuals everywhere.’

But Richardson’s patience and his unwillingness to be rattled by the trouble he runs into pay off handsomely. James earns Richardson’s devotion – something I suspect Richardson’s earlier subjects, Thoreau and Emerson, didn’t have to work quite so hard at – and we come close to James, precisely because Richardson gives our doubts a chance, gets us wondering how great the great man is. James’s health was always shaky, for example (bad eyes, bad back, poor digestion, insomnia), but he kept climbing mountains and was, Richardson nicely says, ‘an accomplished complainer’. He made the most of things in both senses: went on about them and turned them into insight and success. Richardson can rise to real eloquence, asserting that James ‘had a strange and ultimately unfathomable ability to bring bits and pieces of order and achievement – trophies dripping from the deep – out of disorder and chaos’. And there are appealing moments when he simply gives in to James’s charm and energy. Two months before his death James was firmly refuting the elegant gloom of his friend Henry Adams; and Richardson, after quoting a long, fine passage, says: ‘What can one say about the philosophical bravado, the cosmic effrontery, the sheer panache of this ailing philosopher with one foot in the grave talking down the second law of thermodynamics? . . . The matchless incandescent spirit of the man!’

Walter Benjamin thought a philosophy that couldn’t account for fortune-telling by means of coffee grounds couldn’t be a real philosophy. Many have thought just the reverse, of course. One mention of coffee grounds and the like, and we are no longer talking about philosophy. But then these are just the people Benjamin was out to provoke, and William James works in much the same vein. The suggestion is not that any old thing is philosophy; only that we shouldn’t be too dogmatic about what it’s not. James says psychical research is ‘a field in which the sources of deception are extremely numerous’. No one will argue with that, but then he adds, bravely: ‘But I believe there is no source of deception in the investigation of nature which can compare with a fixed belief that certain kinds of phenomenon are impossible.’ It seems altogether likely that plenty of sources of deception, in many areas, are more powerful and more disastrous than the denial of possibility, but these are just the odds James wants to bet against. ‘No fact in human nature,’ he says, ‘is more characteristic than its willingness to live on a chance.’ Certainly nothing was more characteristic of him.

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