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Thursday, December 1, 1983

A Reviewers Notebook: A Stroll with William James

A Stroll with William James is a thoroughly misleading title for Jacques Barzun’s voluminous book about the psychologist and philosopher whom Whitehead called “that adorable genius” (Harper and Row, 344 pp., $19.95). The word “stroll” connotes something light and airy, but this study of the works and influence of the American thinker who picked the word “pragmatism” (from the Greek word “pragma,” meaning “the thing done”) to describe the test of truth is more like a safari, with beaters whacking the circumambient bush in eight or nine different directions to track down all manner of fascinating quarry.

The book begins simply, with a bit about the man. But Barzun doesn’t tarry very long with the bare facts about William James’s most cosmopolitan upbringing. As the son of Henry James Sr., the Swedenbor-gian philosopher, and brother to the younger Henry, the novelist who worshipped all things English, William grew up on a “transatlantic shuttle.” This “typically American philosopher,” as he is usually called, was learned in four languages. At one point he decided he wanted to be a second Delacroix, his favorite French painter. He drew and he drew as a child, and after perfecting his French in Geneva and picking up a reading knowledge of Italian he joined John La Farge as an art apprentice in William Morris Hunt’s studio in Newport, Rhode Island.

One year’s painting produced work that was far from amateurish, but once William was convinced that he was no genius in oils he switched to science at Harvard preparatory to medical school. There was a blessed interlude in his medical training when he hiked off to the Brazilian jungle to study the fauna of the Amazon with the naturalist Louis Agassiz. Barzun treats all this background in hop- skip-jump fashion, and is then on to a most intensive study of James’s pioneer work in psychology. Reading everything that follows is a dense but fascinating and rewarding experience. What Barzun has done is to provide us with a treatise on the origins of the modern mind, using James’s books as the guiding line to an understanding of every last current of thought that has taken us out of the Victorian world into the permissive present.

Pragmatic Pluralism

Barzun doesn’t admire many manifestations of the world that has been built on the shifting sands of pragmatic choice, but he blames our shortcomings—the collapse of our educational system, for example—on misguided disciples whose theories definitely do not stand up to any intelligent definition of what “works.” As a psychologist James had first called attention to the stream of consciousness. He had, in his work on “radical empiricism,” disposed of the “heart-and-mind dichotomy.” The ancient quarrel of the nominalists and the realists had no meaning for him; in his world both the chair and the idea of the chair were equally parts of nature. In religion he was personally inclined to a vague form of Deism, but he cherished both the right and the will to believe. Though he was no Freudian, he explored the subconscious mind, hoping for disclosures that would tell him more about religion, genius and psycho pathology. He was a pluralist for quite practical reasons in a world that had witnessed entirely too many atrocities stemming from monists who thought they had unique access to the truth.

Jamesian pluralism is well-adapted to democracy, which presupposes that no right balance can be struck between diversity and unifying authority by rule. As for pragmatism, he did not intend it as a philosophy in itself. He thought of “pragma” as providing an attitude that would test philosophies by their consequences. But consequences must have values to be useful to human beings, so we are led in a circle back to ideas of worth. What is immediately practical may have dangerous long-term consequences, and the “pragmatic” politician who confuses opportunism with statecraft is no real Jamesian.

The Educational Debacle

As an educator Barzun is particularly concerned with what has happened to our schools as a result of what he regards as a perversion of pragmatic or instrumentalist ideas. As a teacher James thought it was the pedagogue’s job to “make the pupil ashamed of being scared at fractions.” But the whole business of bringing “the soccer pedagogies” into the classroom took a stupid turn with the disciples of John Dewey. “Dewey’s effect on schooling,” says Barzun, “was to dethrone subject matter and replace it by techniques, the main one being aimed at teaching ‘problem- solving’ regardless of subject.” On the surface this may appear to be a Jamesian idea. But the “adaptation to ‘life’ is not to be engineered in the classroom . . . contrived situations fool only the teachers and undermine their authority by silly make-believe.”

Barzun doesn’t even blame John Dewey for our educational debacle. Dewey’s ideas, he says, “were exploited by ignorant and irresponsible people—veritable Smerdiakovs—and impressed upon children, parents, and teachers alike. Anything less ‘pragmatic’ than the ineffectiveness of public schooling would be hard to imagine.” The permissive, “relaxed,” “at- your-own-pace” needs of instruction have paradoxically resulted in a notably tense atmosphere. “James,” says Barzun, “had no reason to imagine that schools would turn into places where death by violence, the drug habit, rape, and teen-age pregnancy would count as educational problems.”

It is often said that William James was the “psychologist who wrote like a novelist,” whereas his brother Henry was the “novelist who wrote like a psychologist.” Whatever may be the truth of this cliche of criticism, it is certainly true that William James’s prose is utterly unlike that of the usual professional in any of the social sciences. Barzun remarks on James’s “sinewy, lucid, vernacular prose, full of its own varieties to match the varying subjects . . .” Many of James’s best effects have passed into the common speech. We all know of the distinction between “tough-minded” and “tender-minded” people, but how many would be aware that the phrases were first used by James?

“The moral equivalent of war,” a Jamesian elaboration, has been used by more than one politician, the most recent being Jimmy Carter, who trivialized it by applying it to lowering the thermostats in a time of oil shortage. James spoke of the stream of consciousness before novelists built literary careers out of it. It was Pierre Janet who coined the word subconscious, but it was James who provided the inspiration for it.

James loved concreteness. If our pedagogues had followed him stylistically, we would have been spared most of our “life adjustment” teachers college rot.

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.