The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.XVII. Later Philosophy
§ 26. Pluralism
James’s interest in philosophy was fundamentally restricted to the psychological aspect of things. He therefore never elaborated any systematic theory of morals, politics, or social organization. His temperamental preference for the novel, the unique, and the colourful re-enforced his traditional American liberalism and made him an extreme individualist. He attached scant value to the organized or fixed channels through which the fitful tides of ordinary human emotion find permanent expression. This shows itself best in his Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). He is interested only in the extreme variations of religious experiences, in the geniuses or aristocrats of the religious life. The religious experience of the great mass, or even of intellectual men like Chief Justice Marshall, who go to church without troubling much about matters of belief, seems to James “second-hand” and does not solicit his attention. Neither does the whole question of ritual or ceremony. He is interested in the beliefs of extraordinary and picturesque individuals. Hence his book on religion tells us almost nothing to explain the spread and the vitality of the great historic religions, Buddhism, Confucianism, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. This extreme individualism, however, is connected with an extraordinary democratic openness and readiness to admit that it is only the blindness in human nature that prevents us from seeing the uniqueness of every individual. Unlike any other philosopher, William James was entirely devoid of the pride of the intellect. He was as willing as Jesus of Nazareth to associate with the intellectual publicans and sinners and learn from the denizens of the intellectual underworld.
James’s position in the history of metaphysics is still a matter of debate, but as a seer or prophet he may fitly be put beside Emerson. Like Emerson, he preached and nobly exemplified faith in one’s intuition and the duty of keeping one’s oracular soul open. Inspite of a note of obscurantism in his attitude to logic and “over beliefs,” there is no doubt that the main effect of his work was to raise the American standard of intellectual honesty and courage: Let us stop this miserable pretence of having at last logically proved the comforting certainties of our inherited religion. Let us admit that we have no absolute assurance of the complete success of our ideals. But the fight is on. We can all take our part. Shame on the one who sulks and stays out.