William James was born in New York City in 1842, the oldest son of Henry James, a literary and religious writer of independent means. The elder James reigned over an exuberant family life but was also eccentric and overbearing. William became one of America's most famous philosophers, and his younger brother Henry James, Jr., one of the country's most famous novelists. But three other children had difficult and unhappy lives, and William himself, unable to please his father, went through a long period of aimless insecurity. As a teenager, he studied painting. Later he attended classes in science at Harvard and received a medical degree from there in 1869, but he was unable to establish himself. Part of the cause of what today might be diagnosed as clinical depression was his intellectual puzzlement over evolution. Cogitating over the atheistic interpretation of Darwin, James feared that evolution might rule out any spiritual interpretation of human life and reduce people to organisms determined by forces beyond their control. The popular philosophic answer of absolute idealism did not attract him, since for James it too entailed determinism and precluded genuine freedom. If either speculative system were true, work in the world was useless.
In the late 1860s and early 1870s James lived as a semi-invalid, and indeed for the rest of his life, commentators have argued, he was subject to recurring periods of depression. But in 1872 he was appointed instructor in anatomy and physiology at Harvard, and over the next ten years moved from teaching the biological sciences, to psychology, to philosophy. Getting a job may not have cured James, but with a secure profession, he began to write regularly. By the 1880s his gifted observations about our conscious intellectual and emotional life, which he studied as a psychologist, had made him a thinker of note.
Charles William Eliot, who had been named president of Harvard in 1869 and who would become the most able academic administrator in the United States, had hired James. When Eliot retired forty years later in 1909, he had turned Harvard into an internationally famous institution, easily the most influential in America. Eliot's appointments in philosophy—of