Science and Religion in the Era of William James

By Paul Jerome Croce | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3
Groping toward Science

William, charged with learning--I thought of him inveterately from our younger time as charged with learning.

HENRY JAMES, JR., 1913

William James was a dutiful son. When his father encouraged him to avoid specialization and postpone any decisions about his career choice, he readily obliged by experimenting with a host of vocational possibilities. His own temperament reinforced his tendency to follow the outlook and assumptions of the elder Henry James. With an active and exuberant but undirected mind, William pursued interests in a wide variety of areas before he was even nineteen years old. He briefly considered business, he felt a strong urge toward medicine and engineering, he had always enjoyed drawing and spent his nineteenth year studying painting, and throughout his early years he was attracted to the work of scientific research. Except for the time studying art, which he took up with definite but briefly held zeal, all of his vocational indecision must surely have pleased his father. After all, his eldest son approached adulthood avoiding specialization by developing a range of interests; in addition, without direct pressure, William was gravitating toward work in science. While the elder James wanted to take up his spiritual interests in scientific investigation vicariously through his son, his educational philosophy dictated that William grasp this interest of his own free will. In addition, of course, the eager father was always ready to encourage his scientific tastes. William James groped toward science by sorting through his own interests in the field, his attractions to art, and his father's eccentric but fervent desires. 1

As a child William James exhibited a desire for exact and certain knowledge of the things around him, a trait that often annoyed those around him. During the family's stay in Parts in 1856-57, according to his brother Henry's

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