The Thought and Character of William James

How much do I want to read more? 7/10

That is a very long and detailed biography of W. James through the various letters between he and his family and friends.
It was worth it just for reading this letter where he's questioning his own future and reflecting on what he should do of his life as an adult. He was then 17, in Boulogne (France).


In his letter to Grace Norton he laments that the world is full of so much incurable unhappiness and fears that this is possibly its most characteristic manifestation.
In Pragmatism he asks plaintively: "Doesn't the fact of 'no' stand at the very core of life?"

James's pragmatic thesis was that consciousness did not evolve so that it could reflexively think about its own thinking but, rather, as a means to transform simple reactive impulses to stimuli into purposeful transformations of the conditions of life.

Having a peculiar genius for friendship, James entered into relations of intimacy with a large circle of contemporaries, not only with men of his own age but with his juniors and seniors.
He was gifted in the art of self- expression, and had at the same time a power to elicit self-expression from others.

1 - The Elder Henry James

The father, Henry James the elder, had no recognized profession that harnessed him to its routine or summoned him to an office.

"Say I'm a philosopher, say I'm a seeker for truth, say I'm a lover of my kind, say I'm an author of books if you like; or, best of all, just say I'm a Student."

man is estranged from God. Religion begins with despair. This is not an accident, but a necessary condition: there can be no upward path that does not start from the depths.
for James men fall individually, and are saved collectively!

social solidarity, "the unity or personality of the great race itself." The only important sense in which "good" men differ from "bad" is in their relation to ''that great unitary life of God in our nature, which we call society, fraternity, fellowship, equality,"

Boyhood at Home and Abroad

"I desire my child to become an upright man, a man in whom goodness shall be induced not by mercenary motives as brute goodness is induced, but by love for it or a sympathetic delight in it. And inasmuch as I know that this character or disposition cannot be forcibly imposed upon him, but must be freely assumed, I surround him as far as possible with an atmosphere of freedom."

"The choice of a profession torments everyone who begins life, but there is really no reason why it should; that is, there is no reason why it should if society was decently ordered. Everyone, I think, should do in society what he would do if left to himself, and I think I can prove it to you conclusively."
"In the first place, what ought to be everyone's object in life? To be as much use as possible. Open a biographical dictionary. Every name it contains has exercised some influence on humanity, good or evil, and 99 names out of 100 are good,that is, useful. But what is use? Analyse any useful invention, or the life of any useful man, and you will see that its or his use consists in some pleasure, mental or bodily, conferred upon humanity.
Suppose that food and clothing and shelter were assured to everyone. What men would then be held in honour?
every man would follow out his own tastes, and excel as much as possible in the particular line for which he was created.
It is then the duty of everyone to do as much good as possible.
For my part, I have the greatest faith in the innate good of mankind. I love every human being and every living and inanimate thing.
And when I come home along the port thronged [with] the dear old dirty fisher[men], I feel as [if] I could hug them all.
There is no such thing as a bad heart. I know that you and everyone else must feel in the same way.
Which of us would wish to go through life without leaving a trace behind to mark his passage. Who would prefer to live unknown to all but his immediate friends and to be forgotten by all thirty years after his death.
For what was life given us? Suppose we do nothing and die; we have swindled society. Nature, in giving us birth, had saddled us with a debt which we must pay off some time or other.
I saw today at school a sentence of Rousseau which I agree with perfectly. "What are 10, 20, 30 years for an immortal being? Pleasure and pain both pass like shadows. Life is gone in an instant. In itself it is nothing. Its value depends upon the use to which you put it. The good which you have done is lasting and that alone,and life is valuable only by that good!"
A common laborer who digs a canal is of use certainly. But of what kind of use? A machine could be invented to supply his place, and the canal would go on just as well as if he, the man with all his mind and soul were at work on it. True use, or good, does not then consist in mere brute force. For what was our mind given us if not that we should employ it? We should, then, each in his own particular way find out something new, something which without us could not be. . . .
I think now you will agree with me that everyone has his own particular use, and that he would be a traitor were he to abandon it for something else for which he had little taste. Thank God! man shall not live by bread alone. I want to be a man and to do some good, no matter what…

Shall He Become a Painter?

It had been hoped that through travel he might forget art's fatal attractionsand thus avoid a mésalliance.

Art was, he felt, frivolous, irresponsible, narrow, vain, and parasitic, as compared with either the glory of religion or the seriousness of science.

The vocational experiment was a complete success in the sense that it was altogether decisive. William learned by living with art that he could live without it. That he had talent and interest is unquestionable; but he found the interest to be less compelling than he had thought, and he judged the talent to be less distinguished than his standards required. Having once rejected painting, he rarely looked back, and never with profound regrets.

Scientific Studies in Harvard

"I feel very much the importance of making soon a final choice of my business in life. I stand now at the place where the road forks. One branch leads to material comfort, the flesh-pots, but it seems a kind of selling of one's soul. The other to mental dignity and independence; combined, however, with physical penury.
On one side is science; upon the other business, with medicine, which partakes of the advantages of both, between them, but which has drawbacks of its own.
I fear there might be some anguish in looking back from the pinnacle of prosperity over the life you might have led in the pure pursuit of truth.
It seems as if one could not afford to give that up for any bribe, however great.

Medical Studies and Philosophical Beginnings