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William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism (2006)

by Robert D. Richardson

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320263,411 (4.32)11
Biographer Richardson has written a moving portrait of James--pivotal member of the Metaphysical Club and author of The Varieties of Religious Experience. The biography, ten years in the making, draws on unpublished letters, journals, and family records. Richardson paints extraordinary scenes from what James himself called the "buzzing blooming confusion" of his life, beginning with childhood, as he struggled to achieve amid the domestic chaos and intellectual brilliance of Father, brother Henry, and sister Alice. James was a beloved teacher who taught courage and risk-taking, and served as mentor to W.E.B. Du Bois, Gertrude Stein, and many other Harvard outsiders. Richardson also illuminates James's hugely influential works. One of the great figures in mysticism here brought richly to life, James is a man "whose leading ideas are still so fresh and challenging that they are not yet fully assimilated by the modern world they helped to bring about."--From publisher description.… (more)
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Whew.

Surprisingly, this title is out of print. I have Richardson's biographies of Emerson and Thoreau and would love to have this one on my actual shelf. But I had to get it on Kindle, and man reading it that way was a chore. I read and read for days and would be at "20%." I finally looked it up and the print book is around 650 pages.

There is a lot in here about James's life, much more than I needed. What I was really after was a better understanding of James's thinking. I gather that ideas like radical empiricism are as hard to express as they are to understand. After reading the book, I certainly don't. Same for pluralism. Between the 19th century language and the lame excuse that the concept is beyond words, I am not sure anyone else understands either. And reading into the quotes of James one can feel the cold breeze of a snow job.

But now I am making excuses. James is revered for a reason. To learn more about his thinking I am going back to James Sloan Allen's book, "William James on Habit, Will, Truth, and the Meaning of Life." Allen is tremendous at simplifying and interpreting the classics, and after wading through this ebook slog, I am ready for some Allen in print. I have read Allen's book before, but it bears another read and I am more ready. ( )
  Mark-Bailey | Oct 4, 2020 |
William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism

reviewed by William Proefriedt — July 14, 2010

Title: William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism
Author(s): Robert D. Richardson
Publisher: Mariner Books,
ISBN: 0618919899, Pages: 656, Year: 2007
Search for book at Amazon.com

One hundred years have passed since the death of America’s premier philosopher. William James has been lucky in his biographers, never more so than with Robert Richardson. Richardson is not so much lucky, as wise, wise in the subjects he has chosen. He’s written biographies of Thoreau, Emerson, and now James, men whose writings are infused with the drama of their own lives. Their work grew out of their lived experience, and as they lived their lives they took seriously the commitments made in their writings. Richardson set himself the task of spelling out the details of the intertwining of their lives and thought. In this book, he has captured nicely the dappled and sometime contradictory life that James led and the multiple interests and tensions expressed in his writings. James came at the world full tilt, and the energy spilled over into his written work. Richardson is fully up to the task of conveying the depth, complexity, and excitement of the life and work of William James.

In William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism, we learn of James’ unorthodox education, and its impact on his interests and modes of inquiry. We find out the details of the severe psychological distress James and so many members of his family experienced. We are provided with an understanding of the family’s connection to the intellectual elite of New England. We see James corresponding with and seeking out in person members of the European intellectual and scientific community. We learn of his complex relations with parents, siblings, children, colleagues, and friends. We are treated to a scene of his brother Henry reading the absent William’s letter at his father’s grave. The biography is rich in the detail of James’ life and thought.

Throughout the book, Richardson emphasizes the centrality of religious experience to James’ thought. He does not thereby shrink the importance of James’ contributions to psychology and philosophy and to other ways of inquiring into the ways we live our lives. Richardson points to James’ notion of faith as a willingness to act on a belief of which we are not certain; his effort to reconcile his scientific skepticism with our right to believe; and his openness to the reported mystical experiences of not only Luther and Theresa of Avila, but also of his friends and family. My own interest in educational policy and practice colors my reading of James. Differences in the perspective of his readers would not have troubled James; indeed, he celebrated looking at the world from different points of view as, in the long run, the best way to grasp its complexity and appreciate its value.

One of the themes traced by Richardson throughout this long book (even the best of biographers tell us a tad more than we wish to know about their subject) is James’ celebration of the individual. Richardson speaks of James’ openness and active sympathy toward unconventional characters, and unorthodox ideas. He embraced with various degrees of interest and skepticism Horace Fletcher, “the diet guru and Messiah of munching” (p. 160), Leonora Piper, a medium who over a period of years claimed to be in contact with various deceased members of James’ family, and a wide variety of reformers, faith healers, psychics, visionaries, and mystics. Richardson argues that this active sympathy of James for the points of view of others translated into a pervasive theme in his writings.

James extended this lived concern with the points-of-view of outsiders to a lament about the difficulty we have in understanding the gifts and value of others. Richardson quotes a letter he wrote to his friend, Pauline Goldmark, in which, in speaking of his essay, “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings, “ James exclaimed, “What most horrifies me in life is our brutal ignorance of one another” (p. 381). In another letter unearthed by Richardson, James asserts that his whole individualistic philosophy is based on this essay. The essay, included in James,’ Talks to Teachers relies heavily on a passage from R.L. Stevenson’s, “The Lantern Bearers.” Stevenson recalled a scene from his own childhood in which he and a group of other boys hid “bull’s eye lanterns” under their topcoats on a rainy night by the sea and exulted in the secret knowledge they shared that each carried this unseen lantern at his belt. To an outside observer who knew nothing of the lanterns, the scene would have no meaning. James uses this passage to warn his readers that when we relate to individuals with only our own concerns and pre-conceptions we are likely to miss the significance and possibilities of their lives. “Wherever a process of life communicates an eagerness to him who lives it, here the life becomes genuinely significant…Wherever it is found there is the zest, the tingle, the excitement of reality; and there is ‘importance’ in the only real and positive sense in which importance anywhere can be” (James, p. 152).

Were I able to suggest only one of James’ essays for reading by contemporary teachers, ”On a Certain Blindness…” would be my choice. James’ whole life and work offer a counter narrative to our current educational discourse from which acknowledgement of the importance of the variety and difference in capacity and interest celebrated by James seems absent. “Sympathetic always to the unconventional,” Richardson tells us, “James recommends patience with the kind of mind that does poorly on examinations. Such a mind ‘may in the long examination which life sets us, come out in the end in better shape than the glib and ready reproducer, its passion being deeper, its purposes more worthy, its combining power less commonplace, and its total mental output consequently more important’” (p. 343).



Another general theme with continuing relevance for teachers addressed by Richardson is James’ insight that consciousness is an active, selective function. Mind is in the game and not a mere looker-on. Our emotional interests are the great guides to selective attention. Richardson emphasizes that the key perception of James’ life and work was that we did not simply record stimuli passively but actively engaged with them. James’ exploration of the relation between human consciousness and the “objective world” was what made him a modernist. He understood the implications of his descriptive psychology of consciousness for teachers and drew them out at length in his Talks to Teachers. He emphasized the great task of the teacher to be identifying the interests of the child and connecting them to the wider world of human experience. The principle, he reminded, was easy to grasp; the actual task a difficult one. “…(S)uch psychology as this…” he said, with characteristic humility, ”can no more make a good teacher than a knowledge of the laws of perspective make a landscape painter of effective skill” (James, p. 82). For James the role of the learning theorist was not to offer recipes to teachers but to provide them with broad understandings of how minds worked. Teachers using their own local knowledge might then better carry on their difficult, daily teaching practice.

Much is to be learned by educators from James’ Talks to Teachers, and perhaps even more from overhearing him talking to other audiences. Like Socrates, the prototypical educator, James was concerned with how we, as individuals and a nation, should lead our lives. Richardson shows us how these ethical concerns played out in James’ life and work. In contemporary educational discourse and practice we school people short-circuit the broader Socratic question of how we should live our lives and instead are anxiously and almost entirely focused on the business of individual and national economic success. We argue that to achieve both these ends we need to prepare all students for college. Richardson cites James’ belief that college “affords no sure guarantee for anything but a more educated cleverness in the service of popular idols and vulgar ends” (p. 438). “If James’ life,” Richardson tells us, ”was cresting toward something that might be thought of as fulfillment, he was himself in active revolt against what he took to be the characteristically American form of it, that ‘exclusive worship of the bitch-Goddess success’” (pp. 482-3). If, at a meeting of Chief State School Officers James were overheard speaking such thoughts in conversation with Richardson’s other subjects, Emerson and Whitman, these icons of American culture would surely be dismissed as irrelevant oddballs. Who there would know they were all wearing the bull eye’s lanterns of American individualism at their belts? A recovery of the language of American individualism embedded in this vital tradition of Emerson, Whitman, and James would provide us with a saving alternative to the latest chatter of the reformers about an educated workforce, the information economy, and longitudinal data systems.

Reference

James, W. (1899, 1958). Talks to teachers on psychology and to students on some of life’s ideals. New York: W.W. Norton and Co.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 14, 2010
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16071, Date Accessed: 10/11/2011 3:19:50 PM

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About the Author
William Proefriedt
Queens College, CUNY
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WILLIAM PROEFRIEDT is Professor Emeritus at Queens College, CUNY. Currently a mentor in CUNY's Faculty Fellows Publication Program, he is the author of High Expectations: The Cultural Roots of Standards Reform in American Education. New York: Teachers College Press, 2008.


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Epigraph
If this life be not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a game of private theatricals from which one may withdraw at will. But it feels like a real fight--as if there were something really wild in the universe which we, with all our idealities and faithfulnesses, are needed to redeem.
--WILLIAM JAMES
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For ANNIE, who wrote,
"We have less time than we knew
and that time buoyant, and cloven,
lucent, missile, and wild."
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He had not been sleeping well in Palo Alto all semester -- he suffered from angina and had recently been much troubled by gout -- and so William James was lying awake in bed a few minutes after five in the morning on April 18 when the great earthquake of 1906 struck.
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Biographer Richardson has written a moving portrait of James--pivotal member of the Metaphysical Club and author of The Varieties of Religious Experience. The biography, ten years in the making, draws on unpublished letters, journals, and family records. Richardson paints extraordinary scenes from what James himself called the "buzzing blooming confusion" of his life, beginning with childhood, as he struggled to achieve amid the domestic chaos and intellectual brilliance of Father, brother Henry, and sister Alice. James was a beloved teacher who taught courage and risk-taking, and served as mentor to W.E.B. Du Bois, Gertrude Stein, and many other Harvard outsiders. Richardson also illuminates James's hugely influential works. One of the great figures in mysticism here brought richly to life, James is a man "whose leading ideas are still so fresh and challenging that they are not yet fully assimilated by the modern world they helped to bring about."--From publisher description.

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Intellectual biography of William James.
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