William James: Not a Simple Temperament


In his masterful biography, William James in the Maelstrom of American Modernism, Robert D. Richardson writes that William James was not a simple temperament. Allow me to quote Richardson at length:

“James’s temperament was ruled neither by sturdy cause and effect nor by the familiar old matter versus spiritual. Empirical by choice, artistic by inclination, believing that experience always trumps theory, James was characterized by what Emerson calls, in his essay on experience, the ‘lords of life,’ namely, ‘Illusion,Temperament, Succession, Surface, Surprise, Reality, Subjectivity.’

“James temperament shines through all his works and days. It is not a simple temperament — nothing so manageable as mere optimism, nothing so steady as to count for even a closeted determinism, but always there, like the fifth string on the banjo. James’s temperament is a nuancing one, always fine-tuning, always shifting, often elusive. And in that always present temperament is the general note of sadness, sometimes a ‘minor key of sadness’ such as Charles Eliot Norton found in the Rubaiyat, sometimes the ‘epic wind of sadness’ James himself found in the poetry of his friend Nathaniel Shaler.

“James’s astonishing openness to experience in all its shifting, momentary, inconstant shadings meant openness to trouble, both his own and other people’s–and also, we must keep in mind, openness to healing and recoveries of all kinds. Aldous Huxley, who knew D.H. Lawrence well, said Lawrence’s ‘great responsiveness to the world came from the circumstance that his existence was one long convalescence, it was as though he were newly reborn from a mortal illness every day of his life.’ James was like Lawrence in that regard, and he was like Coleridge, in that he could take ‘failure itself as his most liberating and radical subject.’

“Spending his life caught inside this gorgeous, always shifting labyrinth of ever-flowing perceptions, ever-shifting mental states, and ever-fluid temperament, James seized on habit formation as the thread to guide him…. Having only the habit of having no habits, his life was a ‘buzzing, blooming confusion’ that was never really under control.”

What are we to make of this remarkable man who had not a simple temperament, this man of always shifting, ever-flowing, ever-fluid temperament? It has been said that William James, the psychologist,  wrote like a novelist while his brother, Henry James, the novelist, wrote like a psychologist. William James intellectual and cultural interests were varied and diverse. It become evident in reading Richardson’s biography that James was deeply absorbed and passionate engaged in the domains of psychology, philosophy, religion, spirituality, nature, science, medicine, the Greek and Roman classics, literature and the arts. His ever-flowing and ever-fluid mind “transgressed” the boundaries between these domains freely. James was an “outsider” to such territorial ways of thinking. He was an “organic intellectual” in the independent spirit of Emerson, “a man of many turns” and who went his own way.

In his book, “The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Geneology of Pragmatism,” Cornel West tells us that Emerson was an organic intellectual whose dominant themes of individualism, idealism, voluntarism, optimism, amelioration, and experimentation prefigure those of American Pragmatism. The Emersonian spirit is one of provocation. At the center of his project is activity, flux, movement, energy. The Emersonian self is protean, mobile, performative. It is anti-hierarchical, egalitarian, and democratic in its relations. One begins to see how it is possible to draw a line as Cornel West has done between Emerson the proto-pragmatist and William James, the American Pragmatist come of age. There were also differences between Emerson and James, and Robertson acknowledges these differences as well in his biography. The point is that William James in his restless and provocative spirit, in his openness to experience, in his contemplation of the possible, reflects something essential about the American character.

It is perhaps assumed today that successful specialists in various professional and technical fields will be persons of homogeneous and uncomplicated temperament. By contrast has had probably always been true that general polymaths, whether they happen to earn their livings as psychologists like William James or as novelists like Henry James, have always been persons of heterodox and complexly nuanced temperament. William James was himself fascinated by the notion of different casts of mind. He wrote in The Varieties of Religious Experience of the difference between the temperament of the Healthy-Minded and the temperament of the Soul-Sick, the Once Born and the Twice Born. He also wrote of the difference between the temperament of the Rationalist and the Empiricist, the one who begins with rational theories and the one who begins with sensory observations. One wishes that he had also turned his attention to write about the homogeneous temperament and the heterodox temperament, or in more current parlance, the Hedgehog who his One Big Idea and the Fox who has Many Small Ideas. In a way William James did explore this idea in his lecture and book entitled “A Pluralistic Universe.” George Simmel writes, “If art is an image of the world seen through the temperament, then philosophy may be called a temperament seen through the image of the world.” Indeed! James’s image of the world is one of infinite variety and possibility, ultimately ineffable and incomprehensible to our finite minds. He compares our comprehension of reality to that of our dogs and cats in our libraries. They have no idea what those books are about. His heterodox and polymorphic temperament is a response to that pluralistic vision. James’ characteristic open-ended response to the fundamental questions of life and our place in the cosmos, and to various worldview perspectives that may strike us as contradictory or paradoxical is, “Perhaps this too, in ways that are yet opaque to our small understanding, may yet be so, or just so.”


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