America's Philosopher; William James Believed God Needs Our Actions

Article excerpt


The author of an acclaimed book on Ralph Waldo Emerson, Robert D. Richardson, now offers us an account of the life and works of one of Emerson's principal successors, William James (1842-1910). Along with Emerson, James is among our best known and most celebrated philosophers. He is also our most famous psychologist; still, he has often been misunderstood and underestimated.

As for many others of his generation, the publication of Darwin's "The Origin of Species" in 1859, when James was 17, was probably the key event in his intellectual life. In a letter from 1875, 15 years before the publication of his monumental, two-volume "Principles of Psychology," he wrote that "a real science of man . . . is being built up out of the theory of evolution."

Of course, at the time, there were many thinkers and artists appalled by Darwin's view of things, which according to Alfred Tennyson abandoned us to a savage nature, "red in tooth and claw." Unlike Tennyson, Matthew Arnold and others, James was invigorated by the message that we were intimately and continuously involved, along with other creatures, in a struggle for existence amid a world developed principally via endless "random fortuitous variation," as Mr. Richardson puts it.

Even before Darwin, Arnold wrote that "Man must begin, know this, where Nature ends; / Nature and man can never be fast friends." But James affirmed the new connections between man and nature that Darwin drew. He exulted in the Darwinian news that "we are tangent to the wider life of things."

He endorsed his friend Charles Sanders Peirce's idea, derived not only from Darwin but also, Peirce thought, from findings in physics and social science in the 1840s, that "chance was no enemy of science but its tool" and that "chance begets order."

James was religious, but Darwin led him to abandon the idea that God must be the "Moral and Intelligent Contriver of the World." He concluded that the traditional proofs of God's moral and metaphysical attributes "never have converted anyone who has found in the moral complexion of the world, as he experienced it, reasons for doubting that a good God can have framed it."

James' God resembles humans in having porous edges ("weak ego-boundaries") that leave one having to respond to and depend on the goings-on of others and other things. Hence, God needs our actions, and we may exult that He does.

James was also willing to give up on the equally ancient quest to mentally grasp the whole world, through and through and down to its very deepest depths. As Mr. Richardson says, James rejected the idea of "a fixed world built on a solid foundation." Rather, the world "was pure flux, having nothing stable, permanent or fixed in it."

Like any reasonably well-read person of his time, James learned from the post-Kantian romantics that knowing is constructive, not just a passive or photographic registry of things. As William Wordsworth put it, the known world is comprised of what our very human eyes and ears "half create" as well as "perceive."

In part inspired by Darwin, James added to this notion a belief in our agency as producers of tangible results in the world as well as within ourselves: "it is far too little recognized how entirely the intellect is built up of practical interests . . . Cognition is incomplete until discharged in action." From this belief comes Jamesean pragmatism, according to which the mind's proper function is not to mirror or correspond to anything outside itself, but rather to bring about desired changes in our lives.

This emphasis on the practical is but one instance of how James' thought, like that of Emerson before him, reflects instead of rebukes the assumptions of many of his (American) readers and listeners. Hence and again this is also true of Emerson we have been reluctant to give James his due, perhaps because, as American intellectuals afflicted with a collective inferiority complex, we have trouble admiring anyone who resembles ourselves. …