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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XVII. Later Philosophy

§ 24. His Vividness and Humanity

It is instructive to note at the outset the judgment of orthodox philosophers, boldly expressed by Howison:

  • Emerson and James were both great men of letters, great writers, yes, great thinkers, if you will, but they do not belong in the strict list of philosophers. Mastery in logic is the cardinal test of the true philosopher, and neither Emerson nor James possessed it. Both, on the contrary, did their best to discredit it.
  • As a criticism this is hardly fair. James certainly elaborated definite doctrines as to the nature of mind, truth, and reality. In his Radical Empiricism and in The Meaning of Truth he even showed considerable dialectic skill. Moreover, it may well be maintained that he did not seek to discredit logic in general, but only the logic of “vicious intellectualism.” Nevertheless, Howison’s opinion is significant in calling attention to the distinction between philosophy as technique and philosophy as vision. From the professional point of view it is not sufficient that a man should believe in free will, absolute chance, or the survival of consciousness beyond death. To be worthy of being called a philosopher, one must have a logically reasoned basis for his belief. James was aware of the importance of technique, and was, in fact, extraordinarily well informed as to the substance and main tendencies of all the diverse technical schools. But he was wholly interested in philosophy as a religious vision of life, and he had the cultivated gentleman’s aversion for pedantry. His thoughts ran in vivid pictures, and he could not trust logical demonstration as much as his intuitive suggestions. Hence his philosophic writings are extremely rich in the variety of concrete factual insight, but not in effective answers to the searching criticisms of men like Royce, Russell, and Bradley. James was aware of this and asked that his philosophy be judged generously in its large outlines; the elaboration of details might well be left to the future.

    “The originality of William James,” says one of his European admirers, “does not appear so much in his cardinal beliefs, which he took from the general current of Christian thought, as in the novel and audacious method by which he defended them against the learned philosophies of his day.” This, also, is not true without qualification. James took almost nothing from current Christian philosophy. Nor do any of the great historic Christian doctrines of sin and atonement or salvation find any echo in his thought. Orthodox Christianity would condemn James as a confessed pantheist who denied the omnipotence of God. But though James is far from Christian theology, he gives vivid utterance to the ordinary popular Christianity which believes, not in a God who expresses himself in universal laws, but in a God to whom we can pray for help against our enemies, whom we can please and even help by our faith in Him. This is due to James’s deep sympathy with common experience rather than with the problems of the reflective-minded. But the modern sophisticated intellect is certainly tickled by the sight of a most learned savant espousing the cause of popular as opposed to learned theology, and by the open confession of belief in piecemeal supernaturalism on the basis of spiritistic phenomena. James’s antipathy to the Hegelian and Roycean attempts to prove the existence of the Absolute certainly plays a more prominent part in his writings than does his antipathy to popular unbelief. But the method of the absolutist he rejected, not only because of its insufferable pretension to finality of proof, but mainly because it is in the way of one who prefers an anthropomorphic universe that is tingling with life through and through and is constantly meeting with new adventures.

    The union of religious mysticism with biologic and psychologic empiricism is characteristic of James’s work from the very beginning. He grew up in a household characterized by liberal culture and mystic Swedenborgian piety. The teacher who made the greatest impression upon him, Louis Agassiz, was a pious opponent of Darwin but a rare master in the art of observing significant details. More than one American naturalist caught the fire of his enthusiasm for fact. The companionship of Chauncey Wright and the writings of Renouvier weaned James from his father’s religio-philosophical monism. The empirical way of thought of Hume and Mill proved most congenial to one who was par excellence a naturalist and delighted in the observation of significant detail.