William James and the Culture of Uncertainty
Philosophies of uncertainty cannot be acceptable; the general mind will fail to come to rest in their presence, and will seek for solutions of a more reassuring kind.
WILLIAM JAMES, 1880
Objective evidence and certitude are doubtless very fine ideals to play with, but where on this moonlit and dream-visited planet are they to be found? . . . We must go on experiencing and thinking over our experience, for only thus can our opinions grow more true.
WILLIAM JAMES, 1895
What place can uncertainty have in a cultural and intellectual study of mid-nineteenth-centuryAmerica? Well-educated, middle-class descendants of Europeans were the ones with social power; uncertainty seems irrelevant to their condition. In particular, William James's early years spanned an era of Jacksonian go-ahead spirit, westward expansion, Civil War ferocity, and Gilded Age aggressiveness. By most accounts, the United States was full of certainty, even reckless confidence. Even the controversies of the time were debated and fought between advocates and adversaries harboring wholesale confidence in the truth of their positions. Scratch at the surface of a Northern reformer for abolition or women's rights, a Southern supporter of the peculiar institution, an evangelical minister, a writer or reader of popular novels, a