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A famously open mind

The education of the protean William James is the focus of a new biography

William James (right), with brother Henry, circa 1899 , was "alarmingly open to new experiences," writes Richardson. (Bettmann/Corbis)

William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism

By Robert D. Richardson
Houghton Mifflin, 622 pp., illustrated, $30

In a characteristically candid self-portrait, William James confessed that he raced around too much in a state of inner tension, preparing to engage and resist external stimuli: "left the present act inattentively done because I was pre-occupied with the next act, failed to listen etc. because I was too eager to speak, kept up when I ought to have kept down, been jerky, angular, rapid, precipitate, let my mind run ahead of my body etc. etc." Despite -- or because of -- this "buzzing blooming confusion," James, that "adorable genius," made dazzling contributions to psychology, philosophy, and the study of religion.

Since his death, in 1910, James has not been forgotten. Along with brother Henry and sister Alice, James has been hailed as a member of America's premier intellectual family. His great books -- "The Principles of Psychology," "Pragmatism," "The Will to Believe," and "Varieties of Religious Experience" -- continue to be read. For his contributions to the structure of philosophy, Alfred North Whitehead ranked him with Plato, Aristotle , and Leibni z. James remains a patron saint of anti-imperialism. Howard Feinstein, R. Laurence Moore, and Louis Menand have written brilliant books about James's decision to abandon art for a career in science, his interest in religion and parapsychology, and his membership in Cambridge's Metaphysical Club. But no full-length narrative biography of him has appeared in a generation.

In "William James," Robert Richardson, whose previous subjects were Thoreau and Emerson, seeks to understand James's "life through his work, not the other way around." Richardson presents no new interpretations of James's theories of pragmatism and pluralism. Nor does he attempt to critique them. But he has a knack for explaining complex ideas clearly and elegantly and for bringing to life a fascinating character. Various William Jameses, Richardson suggests, lived inside the man: As he willed himself into optimism, he was often sad, irritable, and depressed. But the "central" or "essential" James was an apostle of activity, spontaneity, doubt, chance, and chaos, "astonishingly, even alarmingly open to new experiences," including a headlong plunge into the maelstrom of American modernism.

In his personal as well as his professional life, Richardson points out, James was an irrepressible experimenter. He smoked opium , and recorded his responses to it in his diary. He climbed mountains, even after he was diagnosed with angina. He invited W.E.B. DuBois, a graduate student at Harvard, to his home, when few professors had social relations with African-Americans. And he was a "natural philanderer " who refused to conceal his crushes from his wife.

How did he get this way? Although neither he nor anyone else can penetrate the mysteries of temperament, Richardson stresses James's "uncanny ability to pick up redemptive ideas from his reading ." In 1870, when James's vocational plans were still unsettled, his first cousin, with whom he had fallen in love, died. James descended into a morbid depression. An essay on free will by Charles Renouvier, a French philosopher, he claimed, helped resolve the greatest crisis of his life: "My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will." James decided to cultivate moral freedom "by reading books favorable to it."

Stimulated perhaps by the legendary "Renouvier rescue," Richardson has combed through the books James read. While the ideas of others surely had an impact on him, tracing that impact is difficult. Thinkers great and small are often silent about their intellectual debts. And sometimes they use the work of others like a drunk uses a lamp post, for support and not illumination. Richardson adds little but length to "William James" when he provides page after page of book titles, telling us, for example, what James read in 1870 and 1871 .

In any event, whether by temperament, conviction, or force of will, James became a radical empiricist, content to regard even his "more assured conclusions concerning matters of fact as hypotheses liable to modification in the course of future experience." Richardson explains how this perspective informed his foundational work in psychology, philosophy, and religion. Without denying that physical forces acted on consciousness, James claimed that the mind can and does form, discard, and re-form habits. Defining consciousness as a stream, not a discrete set of ideas, he insisted that "cognition is incomplete until discharged in act ." James's pragmatism builds on these principles, hailing change, chance, uncertainty, and the idea of "maybe" as spurs to assimilate, test, and validate ideas in the "real" world by measuring "conduct consequent upon the fact." The "truth" of ideas, he suggested, changes as circumstances change. Among the first to study religious feelings (rather than theology or institutions), James saw that they worked, more effectively than reason, to help "sick souls" escape apprehension and alienation.

Risking ridicule, James was open as well to the possible existence of supernormal powers of cognition and immortality. A member of the American Society for Psychical Research, he emphasized that " if you wish to upset the law that all crows are black, you musn't seek to show that no crows are; it is enough if you prove one single crow to be white." Mrs. Leonora Piper, a medium from Boston, was his white crow. Richardson seems a bit embarrassed by James's alliance with the invisible world. James, he insists, unpersuasively, staked out a middle ground on spiritualism. He wanted to believe, Richardson concludes, but despite "his extravagant investment of time and energy in psychic research . . . when it came down to it, he simply couldn't cross the line. " Maybe. But then again, like it or not, wouldn't it have been in character for the apostle of "maybe" to keep the door open, just a crack?

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

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