Genuine Reality: A Life of William James by Linda Simon

Harcourt Brace 1998 467 pp. 35.00

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


Born into wealth and privilege, celebrated in his lifetime as America's greatest philosopher, William James seemed to have lived a charmed life. However, as Linda Simon's new biography reveals, James was beset by familial tragedy and ongoing bouts with sanity-challenging depression.

William James' grandfather, William, was so wealthy that, "rumor had it, only John Jacob Astor exceeded his fortune." William's father, Henry, oppressed by opulence, rejected mercenary pursuits in favor of writing, traveling, and currying favor with some of America's most revered writers. Born in 1842, the first of five children (including the writer Henry James), little William grew up hearing the sounds of Emerson and Thoreau's conversations in the sitting room.

William's father's peripatetic habits and personal dissatisfaction bordered on the deranged. "Children, [Henry] believed, should be raised in protracted innocence, shielded from the materialism and vulgarity of society. His sons would grow up to believe in the innate goodness of their own impulses." Practically, however, the children were whisked from tutor to school, from Geneva to London, from Maine to New York, with an arbitrariness that matched father Henry's moods.

William, a talented artist, studied with William M. Hunt. But, in a pattern he was to repeat throughout his life, he abandoned painting for the Lawrence Scientific School of Harvard. Entering Harvard medical school in 1864 at the age of twenty-two, the following year he shipped out with the naturalist Louis Agassiz on the Thayer expedition to Brazil. Aghast as the hardships and unable to attract the native women, James gradually came to enjoy the trip. Returning, he completed his medical degree at Harvard.

Like Freud, who began his studies in physiology, James' career plans "centered on the possibility of studying physiology with the intention of applying his discoveries, however insignificant he thought they would be, to the new science of psychology." However, his "mobile temperament" kept him from working steadily. "Following a series of panic attacks and bouts of depression," he was rescued from mental instability through reading Renouvier, an influential French philosopher who championed free will. Following the reading of Renouvier, he decided that "My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will."

In 1872, at age thirty, James was offered his first job, teaching a course on anatomy at Harvard, where he was to remain for the rest of his professional life. At Harvard, he discovered his true vocation, as a teacher and popularizer of academic subjects. Described as "a scientist with the disposition of a philosopher and a philosopher with the perspective of an artist," James' charming public persona and inspirational speaking style made him wildly popular not only in the classroom, but on the international lecture circuit, where he frequently made more from speaking than he did from his Harvard salary.

In his scholarly work, James was "located on the new intellectual bridge between metaphysics and experimental psychology." Although he claimed to be an experimenter, he avoided the laboratory. "He wanted to explore varieties of knowing, thinking, and feeling; to suggest hidden, unexamined depths of personality to create a philosophy of 'mental science.'"

Like many of his day, James was fascinated by psychic phenomena, and was the most respected American leader of the movement supporting the existence of communication from beyond the grave, focusing principally on the psychic Leonora Piper.

Married to twenty-nine-year-old Alice Howe Gibbens in 1878, the thirty-six-year-old James set about to produce a brood of his own, which ultimately numbered five-none of whom followed him into the academic life. Alice served as his "amanuensis and respondent," enduring his mercurial moods, his frequent absences owing to his lecturing, and remaining loyal throughout.

James was forty-eight before he published a book, the monumental The Principles of Psychology.

Described personally as "brilliant, high-strung, dynamic, vivacious, resilient, unexpected, unconventional, picturesque," James' thought was nevertheless controversial. Although given credit for being "a visionary-of literary modernism, quantum physics, and cubism," his various philosophical formulations-pragmatism, pluralism, radical empiricism-struck critics then as now as prey to relativism and internal contradiction.

"It was his glory that he popularised philosophy," Chesterton said of James, "It was his destruction that he popularised his own philosophy."

Simon's book is by no means an "intellectual" biography. Eschewing focus on his ideas, Simon brings to life the temperamental, charismatic dynamism of his personality. While one student reported that "the whole philosophy to me …is one of common sense with the emphasis on the word common," James succeeded in bringing a concern for the life of the mind to auditoria from San Francisco to Edinburgh.

Little room is spared for discussion of his relation with his brother, Henry, who was genuinely engaged by William's writing. "Not for the first time, Henry confessed his affinity for his brother's philosophical writings, but William, no doubt, was continually surprised that his philosophy inspired prose that he once described as 'interminable elaboration of suggestive reference.'"

Genuine Reality brings a balanced look to the private life of William James, seeing him in the context of a family of female supporters without whom he would have doubtless lost his mental equilibrium. While some readers may not be engaged by the emotional turmoil of the independently wealthy, James' life illuminates an interesting intellectual and economic stratum at the turn of the century.