In his 1895 meditation on the question “Is Life Worth Living?” William James concluded that human life is either a “real fight in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success” or it is a trivial game from which “one may withdraw at will.” As evidence for the first possibility, he observed that “it feels like a real fight—as if there were something really wild in the universe which we . . . are needed to redeem.” The very first task, then, is “to redeem our own hearts” by overcoming both our fears and our lack of conviction.
This sort of martial perspective was a persistent feature of James’ writing, most clearly visible in his 1910 essay on “The Moral Equivalent of War,” but present even in his major works on The Principles of Psychology and The Varieties of Religious Experience. James never fought in the great Civil War that traumatized both the nation and his family. (His two younger brothers saw considerable action, and one of them, Garth Wilkinson “Wilky” James, was seriously wounded in combat.) Yet in the aftermath of that conflict, he became preoccupied with the idea of war. Moreover, at this time James was also engaged in a fierce battle with his own psychological demons, suffering from a deep depression and even contemplating suicide (the “withdrawal from the game” to which he later alluded). The turning point in this conflict came in 1870 with his realization that the key to life’s meaning consisted in the vigorous exercise of human freedom, of volition.
It was an exercise that had to be consistently repeated, he claimed, since every victory is temporary and no achievement of meaning is permanently secure. It was in this fashion that James, perhaps the most famous and distinctively American of American philosophers, gradually came to conceive of life itself as a “real fight,” with real threats and risks, an ongoing test of each person’s courage and strength of will.
Richard M. Gale’s superb The Divided Self of William James focuses the reader’s attention on this interior battleground, portraying various philosophical arguments and perspectives as deeply rooted in and shaped by James’ psychological conflicts. His primary conflict, as Gale sees it, was between his “Promethean” and his “mystical” selves. The former self was most perfectly embodied in James’ pragmatism, his vision of a world colored by human interests, distinctively shaped by human choices and conduct. James’ mystical perspective was most clearly articulated in his later writings; they describe reality as a continuum of consciousness (his “panpsychism”) and reveal his longing to achieve intimacy with other selves, as well as union with a higher Self. Nevertheless, the tense struggle between his Promethean and his mystical impulses was life–long, with the latter discernible throughout his career and perhaps representing a condition he inherited from his father (Henry James, Sr., who was himself a religious philosopher and a Swedenborgian mystic of sorts).
James’ internal struggle, as Gale documents it, was complex and multifaceted. In the realm of metaphysics, the Promethean is inclined to create and inhabit multiple worlds, with each world linked to a particular set of defining interests and purposes. The mystic, on the other hand, is an absolutist, whose claims are intended to be about the world as it really is, about the ultimate nature of things. Ethically speaking, the Promethean is vigorously active, a heroic self, whose actions result as much in the creation as in the discovery of meaning. (James’ martial images are best adapted for the purpose of describing this Promethean type.) By contrast, the mystical personality tends to passivity, abandoning itself to a higher power or powers, secure in the conviction that, ultimately, things must go well for the universe.
There is a good deal to admire in Gale’s account. And yet, curiously, some of the book’s most admirable features also turn out to be somewhat problematic. Take, for example, the vigor and philosophic sophistication with which the book is argued. Gale’s treatment of James’ famous essay on “The Will to Believe” is particularly noteworthy in this regard. In this work, James had argued that we are justified in believing some propositions, even on insufficient evidence, if the option to believe that proposition is live (believable for us), of momentous significance, and unavoidable or forced. (Like Pascal, James was convinced that the option to believe in the existence of God satisfies these conditions for most persons.) Gale takes great pains to show that, in addition to the three conditions explicitly identified by James, another six additional conditions for believing anything on insufficient evidence can be articulated. His treatment of James’ argument is ingenious, and ingenuity is most certainly a philosophical trait to be admired. And this chapter is by no means atypical. Throughout the book, creative interpretations of Jamesian perspectives abound, which is all the more impressive because much of this philosophical territory is very well–trodden.
What, then, is the problem with such erudition and thoroughness? To begin with, these qualities make the book unduly demanding on the reader. No mere introduction to James’ thought, this study presupposes both considerable philosophical training and a comfortable familiarity with James’ writings on the part of its audience. Though not in themselves problematic, these features of the book are in some tension with the author’s ambition to “appeal to a wider audience than just professional, academic philosophers,” much as James himself had consistently succeeded in doing.
Gale’s highly sophisticated style of argumentation has a further implication. Simply put, Gale’s approach is that of the contemporary analytical philosopher, an approach quite at odds with the manner in which James sought to advance his case. In Gale’s hands, James’ artful ruminations are transformed into terse analytical propositions linked together in the form of deductive arguments. This leads him to hold James to standards of consistency and literalness that are misleading at best and deeply distorting at worst.
Scholars will certainly quibble about other elements in Gale’s narrative. For instance, while his insight into James’ tendency to adapt his remarks to please his audience is useful, he overstates the case. In my view, Gale also underestimates the influence of Charles Peirce, Josiah Royce, Immanuel Kant, and the tradition of German Idealism on James’ thought. However, the book succeeds despite these shortcomings. Above all, it should be perceived and valued as a lively set of philosophical reflections for which the encounter with James’ thought and writings serves as the primary occasion and stimulus.
In particular, Gale should be applauded for his focus on James’ views on attention. This is not only an aspect of James’ thought that often fails to receive the consideration that it deserves, but it is also one that is quite well–suited to persons living in the twenty–first century. Ours is, after all, a “high information” age in which, even more so than for James and his contemporaries, the decision about how we will direct our attention represents an enormous challenge. As James clearly recognized, this is nothing less than a religiously significant challenge, a battle for our spiritual lives. With great nuance and subtlety, he described the importance of living deliberately, of not allowing oneself to be swept along by events and circumstances, but of living each moment of life in freedom.
James’ claim that we ought to embrace our free potential did not involve the assertion that we always have unlimited control over our environment and circumstances. But we do have some control over ourselves and what James called our “consents and non–consents.” Thus whether or not I become ill with the flu is not something that I can perfectly control (even with a flu shot); but I can consent or refuse to consent to the flu once I become ill. That is, I can choose the manner in which I will attend to the fact of my illness and the effort that I will invest in attending.
Spiritual writers in a great variety of religious traditions have understood human freedom in this way, and James surveyed some of their perspectives in The Varieties of Religious Experience. On such a view, it becomes possible to consider the submission or consent to the will of God as an act of perfect freedom, even if one has no control over what God wills or the effects of God’s willing. This position mediates the theoretical opposition between the active, Promethean self and the passive, mystical self that Gale sketches. As Gale himself admits toward the end of the book, “the aporia due to the clash between the active and passive selves has been made to appear more formidable than it really is.”
James is generally thought of as a great “philosopher of religious experience,” and Gale characterizes him early on as an “experience junkie.” Yet here at the end of the book Gale acknowledges that, for James, the value of any experience consists in its “having a beneficial upshot in the workaday world of the moral agent,” what James referred to as “fruits for life.” Religious practices, any practices, tend to be embraced and pursued for the quality of experience that they are supposed to provide. That is, we often do things because of the way that they make us feel. But James was more concerned about how certain feelings and experiences would move us to act, shape our conduct, and inspire our efforts. It seems that there is an important lesson here, too, for the twenty–first century, filled as it is with individuals far more accurately described as “experience junkies” than William James.
Michael L. Raposa is Professor of Religious Studies at Lehigh University and the author of Peirce’s Philosophy of Religion and Boredom and the Religious Imagination.