I am very fond of William James, and I’m often surprised to find that that fondness is not widely shared among philosophers. Psychologists generally know about James’s theories—he has a central role in the history of psychology. But philosophy students can easily go through a university curriculum in philosophy without ever encountering James—or if they encounter him, it’s only in a discussion about the ethics of belief or free will, generally in an introductory philosophy class.
A little bit of autobiography is relevant here: I first read James’s Varieties of Religious Experience in a course on American religion at Colgate University in upstate New York in the mid-1980s. Another religious studies class on psychology and religion included readings from James, as did a philosophy of religion seminar, but I never encountered him outside the context of religious studies classes. When I went to graduate school in philosophy at Syracuse University, I read James as part of an independent study I undertook on pragmatism, but otherwise he was absent from anything but the courses in philosophy of religion.
The city of Syracuse’s history is tied up with William James’s grandfather, who came to this swampy upstate New York village in the early nineteenth century and used the salt deposits there to help build a fortune; it is said that he once held mortgages on most of the properties in the city. One of the nicest streets in Syracuse is James Street, which runs parallel to the former Erie Canal, which was championed by William James Sr. There is a town near Syracuse’s salt deposits named “Jamesville” which some speculate was named for the family, too.
And yet, at Syracuse University in the late 1980s through the mid-1990s, William James wasn’t on the philosophical radar screen. I only learned about the connections between the James family and Syracuse when I stumbled upon a used book about the James family while I was digging through a pile of books in a used bookstore. Of course, philosophy is not known as a discipline that is impressed by or interested in places of birth or family locations. But still, you’d think there would have been some attention paid to him, just as Scottish universities claim their native sons Hume and Reid. Perhaps Union College, down the road in Schenectady, with which William Sr. and Henry Sr. had close ties, was more interested in William the younger’s philosophical legacy, but Syracuse University was decidedly not.
Admittedly, William James is a bit of an oddball, even against the background of the pre-professional milieu of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century philosophy in the United States. He was deeply involved in the search for scientific evidence of clairvoyance and life after death; he took seriously not only standard religious experiences, but also more marginal experiences, like mystical experiences. He sometimes says things that make him sound like a classic positivist, but it is difficult to take seriously any proposal that he was engaged in the same kind of projects that Carnap, Schlick, and other positivists were interested in.
If Sarin Marchetti is right, one reason that James might be so easily ignored by philosophers who aren’t already interested in philosophical psychology, religious experience, or pragmatism is that he enters the philosophical conversation from an odd angle, since part of what James is doing is challenging the very idea of what it is to do philosophy. Putting agency at the center of metaphilosophy—rather than focusing on agency as a philosophical problem itself—makes moral philosophy, epistemology, and philosophical examination look different than it does for the tradition that goes back to Kant, Descartes, and Russell.
Chris Voparil, in his response, asks Marchetti to say more about the concept of normativity that he thinks we can find in James, and suggests that Marchetti’s reading of James shows the affinities between James and Richard Rorty—a connection with which Rorty would surely have been happy.
Russell Pryba sees the same connection, noting that Marchetti has called to our attention the anti-theoretical and therapeutic conception of philosophical inquiry that we should appreciate in James, and suggests that this might be a key to understanding, not just normativity and the moral life, but also pragmatism itself. But Pryba wonders if the gap between moral theory and the moral life really is as large as this reading implies. Pryba thinks that we can read James as a particularist, for whom moral norms (and the concept of the normative more generally) arise from particular situations. Moral theory might be seen as giving us some “rules of thumb” tied to the ideals that are part of the genuinely moral life.
Loren Goldman thinks that Marchetti’s reading of James shows us the way that we might reflect on “the task of living in situ” offering us ways to “negotiate the various and often competing demands of our inherited ethical framework.” Goldman, however, wonders whether we should, in fact, see this Jamesian approach as exemplary for us, given James’s rather ambivalent views of democracy and the common person.
Alexis Dianda’s discussion of Marchetti’s book and of the William James it presents us with raises a number of issues, one of which, as with Goldman, focuses on the question of the relationship between the political and the ethical. To sharpen up this criticism, I might put her point this way: James seems to be significantly committed to a form of individualism that makes it difficult to see how much, or to what extent, he can speak to those of us who are concerned not just about the state of our own individual moral lives, but also about our large-scale political. The politics that seem to issue from James’s individualism does not seem to provide a way to think of the individual as political, and of moral life as involving political obligations. Dianda is more skeptical than Marchetti that the hortatory ethics which Marchetti finds in James, is “in and of itself political.”
What Marchetti is offering us, I think, is a way to read James appreciatively. Maybe that is insufficiently critical, but it seems to me that we too often think of ourselves in philosophy as disputing about theses, or offering arguments, or, as Rorty says, as “all purpose lawyers.” And yet, all the commenters raise important issues—issues that touch on what we think philosophical critique should be.
What Marchetti is offering us with his book about James is a way of looking and seeing, a way of appreciating James’s work, which I think is a valuable service for all of us who would like to read James’s works more carefully and attentively. Yes, this assumes that he has something worthwhile to offer us, and yes, it assumes that he is worth our time.