The Greatest Philosophy on Earth: William James’s Lowell Lectures and the Idiom of Showmanship

The Greatest Philosophy on Earth: William James’s Lowell Lectures and the Idiom of Showmanship

Kristin Boudreau

Abstract. William James’s 1907 Lowell Lectures on Pragmatism borrow from the idiom of P.T. Barnum, the self-proclaimed “Greatest Showman on Earth.” In James’s use of Barnum’s middlebrow form of address, we see a philosopher who not only ardently wished to change public opinion, but one who looked to populist forms of entertainment and instruction for models of how best to do so. Although the shadow of Barnum in these lectures clearly indicates the commodification of philosophy for this man who hoped to make money from his lectures, it also suggests some of the more oppositional cultural functions contained in his lectures —lectures that resembled the tangled, muddy street that James persisted in seeing as the real world.
    In late 1906 and early 1907, William James delivered a series of lectures to the Lowell Institute, a Boston organization devoted to the promotion of learning to the Boston populace. His lectures on pragmatism, which would later be published as a book, marked James’s second appearance at the Lowell Institute; in 1896 he had delivered eight lectures on what he called “Exceptional Mental Phenomena.” In that earlier series, he invited his audience to consider sleep and dreams, hypnotism, the subconscious self, witchcraft, trances, multiple personality, hysteria, demoniacal possession, degeneration, mediumship, and genius. Nine hundred Bostonians crowded into Huntington Hall, hoping for titillating stories of these “morbid” topics but finding the lectures “decidedly anti-morbid in their tone.”1 The lectures were a great success. Not only did James retain his audience of 900 until the end of the series, but he was well compensated for his efforts. As he wrote to his brother Henry, the series required “very little work” and netted him $1000.2
    Although James sometimes complained privately about being forced to sell his ideas in such a popular venue, confessing to his brother that “lectures have such an awful side (when not academic) that I myself have forsworn them —it is a sort of prostitution of one’s person,”3 he clearly felt ambivalent about the opportunity to reach out from the stale atmosphere of the university and bring his message to the masses. He certainly enjoyed the approval of his audiences, both in 1896 and again in 1906 when he received a “thunderous ovation” at the close of his series on pragmatism.4 “The lectures,” he wrote his brother, “hav[e] come to a prosperous end last night, and me called before the curtain!”5 James was acutely aware of alternative possibilities. Eleven years earlier he had waited anxiously in Cambridge for news of his brother Henry’s own great experiment before a live audience. The production of Guy Domville at London’s St. James Theatre was to be the final test of the novelist’s five-year attempt to establish himself as a successful dramatic writer. When it ended disastrously, with the perhaps malicious theatre manager taking the nervous and unsuspecting author by the hand and onto the stage, Henry James found himself helpless before a jeering audience. To be sure, many in the house appreciated the play. But their polite response was overwhelmed by the disgruntled and scornful noises from the play’s less restrained critics. As James himself would recall the episode to his brother William,

There followed an abominable_of an hour during wh. all the forces of civilization in the house waged a battle of the most gallant, prolonged & sustained applause with the hoots & jeers & catcalls of the roughs, whose roars (like those of a cage of beasts at some infernal “Zoo”) were only exacerbated (as it were!) by the conflict. It was a char[m]ing scene, as you may imagine, for a nervous, sensitive, exhausted author to face_and you must spare my going over again the horrid hour, or those of disappointment & depression that have followed it.6

For Henry James, the experience of standing thunderstruck before a jeering audience−one of the actors years later reported that James seemed “green with dismay”7− was so traumatic that he begged his brother not to “ask for more details.”8 Though he kept a few letters from well-wishers that he forwarded to William, he instructed William to burn them after reading them and added, “Please don’t send me anything out of the newspapers.”9 Eleven years later the specter of the pale and shocked Henry standing before a hissing audience must have remained with William, whose very different experience at the Lowell Institute may have prompted him to describe his audience’s reaction −not only the thunderous ovation but also the odd curtain call− in terms more appropriate to a theatrical production than to a lyceum lecture, particularly in a setting with such an august history as the Lowell Institute.10 If William James sometimes dismissed the uneducated audiences of these popular lectures as “good, but depressing” in their “mediocrity,”11 neither could he contain his delight at having pleased them.
    It is hard to understand the audience appeal of James’s lectures on pragmatism as anything but the result of a deliberate effort to lure in an audience that extended beyond the usual genteel and educated readers of philosophy. James’s brother later suggested that he find a title that would attract the widest possible audience for his book and make it pay. “Invent a vulgar (comparatively) & mercenary name” for the collection, Henry advised.12 The advice was in keeping with William’s lectures, filled as they are with economic tropes and injunctions to make our efforts pay. Henry’s suggestion is the kind of strategy one would recommend to an entrepreneur, and indeed we might consider the influence on Pragmatism of one of the great American entrepreneurs of William James’s youth, the showman, circus promoter and advertiser extraordinaire, Phineas Taylor Barnum. In 1875 Barnum had joined James Redpath’s Lyceum Bureau, becoming a client of the man who was also promoting Mark Twain, Wendell Phillips, Julia Ward Howe, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Harriet Beecher Stowe −joining, in short, some of the most popular, respected and highest-paid lecturers in the country.13 But it was as the owner and promoter of the “Greatest Show on Earth” that Barnum was primarily known. 4
    William James would no doubt be dismayed by the comparison. His few known references to P. T. Barnum suggest that the adult James regarded Barnum’s name as shorthand for quackery, boastfulness and a lack of substance, the worst of Gilded Age excess. James describes the English royalty, for instance, as “trashy, all fluff and plush, and gilt plaster, like one of Barnum’s circus cars, with no real style or force.”14 Likewise, the Republican platform of 1884, he complained, is a “Barnum advertisement.”15 5
    On the other hand, in spite of this apparent disdain for the great showman’s crassness, William James did not regard vulgarity itself as entirely damning. If we consider his account of the differences between rationalist and empiricist thought, we will see that he had much more contempt for the refinement of rationalism than for the commonness of empiricism. Whereas empiricism, “the world of concrete personal experiences to which the street belongs[,] is multitudinous beyond imagination, tangled, muddy, painful and perplexed,” he wrote, the world of rationalism is artificially pure.16 A “kind of marble temple shining on a hill,” this world offers not an “explanation of our concrete universe, [but] another thing altogether, a substitute for it, a remedy, a way of escape.” While “refinement has its place in things,” James argues, “a philosophy that breathes out nothing but refinement will never satisfy the empiricist temper of mind. It will seem rather a monument of artificiality” (14). Though he doesn’t overtly choose the common over the refined, James’s rhetoric seems to betray a clear preference for the common, as he summons a beloved American archetype to describe the flight from rationalism. “Men of science,” he notes, prefer “to turn their backs on metaphysics as on something altogether cloistered and spectral, and practical men shak[e] philosophy’s dust off their feet and [follow] the call of the wild” (14). Appealing to that familiar free-spirited figure of American self-reliance, Huck Finn lighting out for the territory, James aligns the common with the free, the natural, the curious, the open-minded and the wild —the best, that is, of this comparatively new republic— while he nearly dismisses refinement as artificial, haughty and irrelevant to ordinary folk.17
    As if to emphasize his identification with these democratic masses, James often illustrates his ideas with examples drawn from common life, and he occasionally begs his audience to permit him a “vulgar” expression (98). He may have been deliberately emulating Barnum in this regard, for Barnum eschewed the serious tone of his fellow lecturers on the Redpath circuit and instead tended toward the amusing, entertaining, and informal. Barnum’s talks, note his biographers, were

peppered throughout with original Barnumisms. He liked honest, down-to-earth English. Instead of “inexpensive” he said “dog-cheap”; a giant woman was “a whopper”; reconciling himself to a failure, he said, “[S]ome pork will boil that way.” He spoke in ways that made people smile −”I am happy as a clam in high water,” he would say, or, “My brain is so full of all sorts of things it is milk and water.” Whether it was for his “Art of Money Getting” lecture, or “Science of Humbugs,” or “Success in Life,” or “The World and How to Live in It,” crowds everywhere roared at Barnum’s racy anecdotes, chuckled away at his unique brand of wisdom, and applauded him heartily, often calling it, later, the “lecture event” of the year.18

Barnum’s lowbrow language was not only the mark of his upbringing but also part of a deliberate cultural program that governed his enterprises. As Christopher Irmscher points out, “the story of Barnum’s museum is a story of boundary crossings: boundaries between people small and large, rich and poor, black and white.” The effort was both lucrative and novel.19 As we might expect of a philosopher equally determined to make his professional enterprises pay, William James also searched for an idiom that would appeal to the masses. Though his listeners know him as a Harvard professor —and his polite requests remind them that he doesn’t customarily use the vernacular in his lectures—James appears on many occasions to identify himself with the hoi polloi, even if from a slight distance: his talk of “gumption,” fakery, and “milk in the cocoanut” (79, 112, 98) marks him as a man of the people. Intent on presenting himself as a person who shares an amateur’s interest in diverse topics and none of the professional philosopher’s disdain for these “seriously inquiring amateur[s]” (18), James notes that these amateur philosophers represent the “typically perfect mind” (18).
    The amateur mind, James implies, is uncluttered by professional loyalties, disciplinary blindnesses, allegiance to the noble principles of one’s vocation. (As James declares, “when a view of things is ‘noble,’ that ought to count as a presumption against its truth,” 35). Driven by curiosity, the amateur is more likely to meet phenomena with an open mind, a mind as open as James’s own must have been when he first visited P.T. Barnum’s American Museum in the 1850s. Situated on Broadway near the James family’s Washington Square residence, Barnum’s museum featured a dazzling array of live acts —jugglers, serpent charmers, moving mechanical figures, ventriloquists, Indian chiefs, phrenologists, trained chickens— a constantly changing spectacle. There were relics as well: a plaster cast of a cannibal, an intricate model of Paris, tableaux of historical scenes. The greatest draw was Barnum’s collection of human oddities: an albino lady, Tom Thumb, an endless series of fat children, a bearded lady, a giant couple, an armless man —in short, an evolving collection of natural freaks. 9
    We know little of what the young William James thought of these displays, only that he and his brother were frequent visitors in the 1850s.20 But we might be able to speculate in a roundabout way on the impact it had on James’s later thought, by considering a similar episode in the life of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the philosopher and neighbor of James’s youth whom the younger philosopher so admired. The account of Emerson’s visit to the Jardin des Plantes in Paris is well known. There, overwhelmed by the exhibits —the orderly arrangement of a staggering variety of species— he first began to ruminate not only on nature’s rich abundance, but also on the connections between these many varieties, suggesting as they did hidden natural laws. He considered, too, the question of design —the design of the natural world, its ordered complexity, and the insights of an individual mind learning to discern law and design within this variety. He began to suspect a correspondence between the human mind and the natural world, the presence of invisible laws ordering the spirit as they order the material universe. As he would later declare in Nature, natural facts are signs of spiritual facts. 10
    Apart from his frequent returns to the museum during his childhood years in New York, we don’t know precisely how the young William James responded to P.T. Barnum’s American Museum, since unlike Emerson he did not keep a journal at the time. In later years, as we have seen, he would use Barnum’s name to signify puffery and inauthenticity. But perhaps he learned something else there as well. Overwhelmed, like Emerson, by the variety of natural specimens (both authentic and forged), he could have been struck as Emerson was by the collection’s uniformity. His adult writings indicate, however, that if the exhibit made a lasting impression on him, it would have impressed him with its diversity and chaos rather than its rational arrangement. If his brother Henry was moved, as Posnock argues, by the “heterogeneous, miscellaneous”21 qualities of the world, we know that William was similarly moved, and he would have seen these qualities as a young boy at Barnum’s museum. The showman’s collection of natural history, devoted to the surprising rather than the orderly, emphasized the sensational and the bizarre. His museum guidebook, writes Irmscher, “is not characterized by a slowly emerging sense of a divinely ordered nature, but is instead punctuated by sudden, jarring transitions.” Barnum’s museum was governed by the principle of “the profusion of sights, not the achievement of insight into a predetermined order of things” (Irmscher 115). For the kind of visitor drawn to Barnum’s American Museum, wonder could be found more readily in freaks of nature than in pattern and reliability. A small boy marveling at its collection may well have been struck by the inexplicable, the unpredictable, the role of chance in producing such a wild array of “Miscellaneous Specimens,” an array, as Barnum put it, that included “all that is monstrous, scaly, strange and queer.”22 Whereas Emerson’s visit to the Paris Museum of Natural History had made him veer toward unity, James’s encounter with these bizarre natural phenomena had no such effect on him. Though I do not wish to claim that the future pragmatist was formed in the exhibit halls of Barnum’s museum, it would not be too much to suggest that the adult James —a pluralist, a man frequently overcome with a sense of wonder at a world that defied full explanation— was exactly the sort of customer P.T. Barnum had in mind. The world James encountered in Barnum’s museum could accurately be described with the very words James would later use to describe the world of personal experience, a place “multitudinous beyond imagination, tangled, muddy, painful and perplexed,” (Pragmatism 14). To read that book of lectures, we can only imagine that William James had been struck by the wonder of multiplicity as a boy, and that as he matured intellectually, he continued to appreciate the frequently random nature of the world around him. If we take him at his word in Pragmatism, he believed strongly that ordinary people are not excluded from philosophy and that they will likely incline toward the open-ended, nondogmatic view of pragmatism. This might explain why the adult William James, for all his suspicion of Barnum’s commercial puffery, still regarded the showman as an important cultural influence who might have something to offer intelligent people. Urging his wife to make the trip from Chocorua, New Hampshire to Cambridge to visit him in 1890, he promised that he would take her to one of Barnum’s theatrical productions if she could find a way to come to Boston.23 Barnum’s productions reflected the same world that James endorsed in Pragmatism, a world “multitudinous beyond imagination.” Of course, more highbrow cultural sources also shaped his vision. The publication in 1859 of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species likely helped him to see that even apparent order does not necessarily argue a design or a designer; human evolution, he learned, was the result of a vast and tangled series of accidents. Darwin’s work “has once for all displaced design from the minds of the ‘scientific,'” James noted (35). But like Barnum himself, whose guidebook “shrewdly adopts the perspective of the uninformed, ‘normal’ visitor,”24 James was cheerfully suspicious of institutional authority, accepting ideas because of their usefulness rather than because of the status of their sources. 11
    The sense of perplexity that James picked up in his miscellaneous readings persists in the lectures on pragmatism, which are marked by a comparative modesty, an unwillingness to stake too large a claim for any one particular truth. Though James confesses “to a certain tremor at the audacity” of his enterprise (7), his proposition is a simple one: that the truest of conclusions is merely that which “proves the most satisfactory” (113). He is willing to grant that today’s truth may be tomorrow’s wife’s tale, that one person’s explanation may fail to satisfy another. Though his tone is relaxed and reassuring, his pragmatic method perhaps owes its repose to that early experience of perplexity, the sense of how much we do not and cannot know. Whereas Emerson’s attempt to delineate a theory that would “explain all phenomena,” caused him intense anxiety over the shape of Nature,25 James is content to help his audience find their daily truths, vulnerable and impermanent as he knows all truths to be. “Meanwhile,” as he remarks in Pragmatism, “we have to live to-day by what truth we can get to-day, and be ready to-morrow to call it falsehood” (100).26 12
   Like Barnum with his museum specimens, James poses his lectures on pragmatism as a genuine attempt to identify and satisfy the desires of his audience. Pragmatism, he assures us, is primarily a means of helping ordinary people navigate their way through the mysteries of human existence in a sometimes maddening, often painful world. In his lectures, the Harvard philosopher is careful to remind his readers that philosophy should, above all, help people live their lives, and he demonstrates that he understands the concerns of ordinary people. Philosophy is not just for professors but for landladies, who must scrutinize the philosophy of a potential boarder as intently as they investigate his bank account (7). James introduces his second lecture, on the meaning of pragmatism, with an anecdote concerning a metaphysical dispute among the members of a camping party. “In the unlimited leisure of the wilderness,” he explains, “discussion [about the meaning of “going round”] had been worn threadbare” (25). Though he does not say so, this context (unlimited leisure) implies its opposite, the more typical situation of most people: limited leisure, limited time. The threadbare debates of unlimited leisure suggest the unreal world of academia, but most of us have neither world enough nor time for such leisurely deliberation. Even James himself betrays a sense of urgency as he winds up his first lecture, noting that, as he is drawing “near the end of my hour, I will not introduce pragmatism bodily now. I will begin with it on the stroke of the clock next time” (18). As he notes in passing in a later lecture, “economy of time” is a pressing factor in how we interpret the world. “The usual business of life,” he reminds us, neither requires nor allows us to verify all of our beliefs (95). Thus we need a philosophy that will help us settle metaphysical disputes in an efficient way. “All dispute,” he argues, “is idle” unless it have some practical consequence (26), and the quicker one can arrive at this consequence, the better. Since ordinary people have practical business to conduct, they need a philosophy that is economical, not frivolous. 13
    William James was a Harvard professor, but he was also a family man who worried constantly about finding enough time and money to support his family and perform his several careers. In 1906 when he first delivered these lectures, his four surviving children were between the ages of 16 and 27, and what he had written his brother several years earlier remained as true as ever: “I have finance very much on the brain.”27 In 1898 he had been finding the price of his children’s education “extravagant,” and he worried about losing his ability to earn as he grew older. “Every writer must look to the day when he gets démodé and make provision for a shrinkage of income after sixty from his current work,” he wrote in 1898, his fifty-sixth year. “I am looking towards a gradual withdrawing from teaching within the next ten years.” While he worried that his household expenses were dangerously approaching what he was able to earn, he was also anxious about the time it took to teach and to write the lectures that provided his income. He was forced to give up his adjunct teaching at Radcliffe College, which he enjoyed, because “it overworks me, and the Gifford preparation [his lectures later published as The Varieties of Religious Experience] will be arduous.”28 If The Varieties of Religious Experience made him a wealthy man when it was published in 1902, the years prior to that unexpected windfall were sometimes difficult.29 When in Pragmatism James draws on a business idiom to describe the pragmatic method, then, he is not merely groping for a vernacular that his audience will understand; he is speaking in the currency of the anxieties that pressed him most uncomfortably in his earlier years. “[M]eaning, other than practical, there is for us none,” he tells his audience, and we sense his own impatience with the interminable disputes of rationalists (27). What is the “cash-value” of an idea, a word, a choice? “An idea is ‘true,'” he proposes, “so long as to believe it is profitable to our lives” (36). If new ideas are allowed to threaten our old ideas, they must be especially useful, since “the individual has a stock of old opinions already,” and “he saves as much [of this old stock] as he can” (31). Practical people are just as frugal with ideas as with other commodities; our truths, for instance, we store “away. . . in our memories, and with the overflow we fill our books of reference. Whenever such an extra truth becomes practically relevant to one of our emergencies, it passes from cold-storage to do work in the world and our belief in it grows active” (93). Or again: “Truth lives . . . on a credit system. Our thoughts and beliefs ‘pass,’ so long as nothing challenges them, just as bank-notes pass so long as nobody refuses them. But all this points to direct face-to-face verifications somewhere, without which the fabric of truth collapses like a financial system with no cash-basis whatever. You accept my verification of one thing, I yours of another. We trade on each other’s truth. But beliefs verified concretely by somebody are the posts of the whole superstructure” (95). 14
    Though commodities (the truths lodged temporarily in cold-storage) ordinarily differ from currency —they are, after all, the “real thing” whose value the currency merely represents— James uses cash and commodity alike as values put to work in a market economy. “All human thinking,” he maintains, “gets discursified; we exchange ideas; we lend and borrow verifications, get them from one another by means of social intercourse” (97). Here James means simply that ideas, like currency and like language, are not themselves the thing sought but are merely the means to achieve them, the agreed-upon symbols for something else. He draws his metaphors from the world of commerce as evidence for his claim that all meaning is determined by context: just as a dollar’s “value” is conventional, not inherent, so too is the value of all truths. 15
    We should note something else about his metaphors as well. They are deliberately vulgar. If James were casting about for any metaphor describing conventional meaning, the trope of language would be just as useful to him. A word, like a coin, is valuable —and its meaning limited— only insofar as the community of users agrees upon that meaning. Why does James choose a metaphor drawn from the world of economics, so laden with the burden of vulgarity, the anxiety of getting a living and keeping within one’s means, the sometimes bullying imperative of making others pay for one’s living? Though the marketplace may represent enterprise and energy, it also represents what Henry James called “the base uses of commerce.”30 For the Jameses’ generation as for our own, the marketplace suggested something distasteful, as if mercenary motives are blameworthy. While William James felt queasy about lecturing for easy money,31 he meanwhile encouraged his audience to pay attention to the process of profit, accepting as true the most profitable ideas and refusing to hide behind a more refined idiom. His theory is nothing if not overtly mercenary, or cast in mercenary metaphors. “The payments true ideas bring are the sole why of our duty to follow them,” he announces (103). 16
    Is his introductory lecture tongue-in-cheek, intent as it is on selling his idea? It reads like the most garish of advertisements, even like a carnival barker’s promises. Greeting his listeners in the conventional address reserved for low-brow entertainments (“ladies and gentlemen”) as he introduces his “bold” “enterprise” (7), Professor James suggests that his topic is a sensational one, eliciting “a curious fascination,” a “problematic thrill,” an “agreeabl[e]” “tickle” (8). Volunteering that his lecture series may be a considerable “risk” (8), James presents himself as a magician of sorts, a showman, a breathtaking performer. Perhaps he learned this approach, too, from Barnum, who promoted his museum by installing traveling advertising carts throughout New York City, publishing newspaper ads announcing his “breathtaking splendors” and “wilderness of realities,” and projecting nighttime moving images on the walls of his museum. We see a bit of the showman in James’s first series of lectures for the Lowell Institute, where he considered various mental states, among them a number of freakish conditions that would have drawn a curious crowd. 17
    Although the topic of pragmatism is decidedly less sensational than those earlier lectures, James promotes his product energetically, seeking to identify and fill a market need. “We philosophers,” he suggests, “have to reckon” with the feelings of the public (20). Without a market for philosophy, without giving satisfaction, the philosopher cannot convince his public of the relevance of his method. This opening lecture is permeated with the pragmatist’s sense that value is not inherent but conferred by context, and that in this case, the context —the vital context of approval or disapproval— will be established by James’s audience. What does the “philosophic amateur” want, asks James, “what does he find his situation to be. . . ? He wants facts; he wants science; but he also wants a religion” (11). “Now what kinds of philosophy do you find actually offered to meet your need?” he inquires (12). The implied answer, of course, is that until the arrival of pragmatism, there had been no philosophy able to meet the high (and yet reasonable) expectations of the amateur philosopher. “What you want is a philosophy that will not only exercise your powers of intellectual abstraction, but that will make some positive connexion with this actual world of finite human lives. You want a system that will combine both things, the scientific loyalty to facts and willingness to take account of them, the spirit of adaptation and accommodation, in short, but also the old confidence in human values and the resultant spontaneity” (13). Until pragmatism, James suggests, we philosophical consumers have been offered but a poor choice. Like any bold new product, James’s pragmatism appears just in time to “satisfy both kinds of demand” (18). James is immodest about appealing to market demands, about inventing a desire in order to satisfy it. He concludes this first lecture with the hope that he “may lead to you find [pragmatism] just the mediating way of thinking that you require” (21). The “thunderous ovation” that greeted the end of his last lecture fell on closing words that returned attention to these market needs emphasized in the first lecture. “Between the two extremes” of religious disposition he had been outlining, James told his audience, “you may find that what I take the liberty of calling the pragmatistic or melioristic type of theism is exactly what you require” (134). 18
    For James, philosophy belonged in the street as well as the lecture hall. He would not have been troubled by P.T. Barnum’s characterization of the local barber shop as “Philosopher’s Hall” because of the informal gatherings held there —assemblies that Barnum called “a literary nucleus unequalled in intelligence.”32 Likewise, a lecture hall should be filled in part with landladies, barbers and other amateur philosophers. To signal his appreciation for the modes of entertainment and instruction valued by such people, James fills out his lectures with astonishing moves, what his brother Henry called “intellectual larking.”33 Watch, for instance, as he attempts to dismantle the rationalist’s assertion that reality is a complete state of affairs, which true ideas copy:

I have honestly tried to stretch my own imagination and to read the best possible meaning into the rationalist conception, but I have to confess that it still completely baffles me. The notion of a reality calling on us to “agree” with it, and that for no reasons, but simply because its claim is “unconditional” or “transcendent,” is one that I can make neither head nor tail of. I try to imagine myself as the sole reality in the world, and then to imagine what more I would “claim” if I were allowed to. If you suggest the possibility of my claiming that a mind should come into being from out of the void inane and stand and copy me, I can indeed imagine what the copying might mean, but I can conjure up no motive. What good it would do me to be copied, or what good it would do that mind to copy me, if further consequences are expressly and in principle ruled out as motives for the claim (as they are by our rationalist authorities) I can not fathom. When the Irishman’s admirers ran him along to the place of banquet in a sedan chair with no bottom, he said, “Faith, if it wasn’t for the honor of the thing, I might as well have come on foot.” So here: but for the honor of the thing, I might as well have remained uncopied. (104-5)

Posing not as a hostile antagonist to rationalism but rather as a humble enquirer earnestly trying to see its logic, James invites us to view rationalism from a patently absurd vantage point. While the imagination may indeed help us to consider the points of view of other sentient beings, it is illogical, even downright silly, to impute a motive or any other human disposition to an abstraction. James of course knows better. He knows that a creature does not need a motive to be born with a deformity. The deformity may be useful for the creature’s survival or reproduction, in which case it may be passed on to another generation, may be selected by a population, and may eventually become part of that population’s evolutionary development. But to say that the development “works” —or, as a pragmatist might put it, that it “pays”— one need not insist on an original motive. A proposition may be true without our finding a motive for its being true. By animating and humanizing an abstraction, James caricatures it, asking his audience to see it as a preposterous notion. For a finale, and to seal his success with his audience, he rounds off his performance with a joke —”Faith, if it wasn’t for the honor of the thing, I might as well have . . . remained uncopied.” 20
    James’s professional critics may well have missed the joke. In 1891, Alice James recorded a conversation she and Henry had had about the reviews of their brother William’s Principles of Psychology. The critics, Alice reported, “reprobate his mental pirhouettes and squirm at his daring to go lightly amid the solemnities.” Henry explained their opposition as the inability to take a joke: “They can’t understand intellectual larking.”34 But the enthusiastic ovation that William James received at the conclusion of his lectures on pragmatism suggests that the economically and intellectually mixed crowd he so eagerly courted appreciated his antics and delighted in his exposure of humbugs.35 21
    James sought to assure his audience that his philosophy would suit them perfectly, that pragmatism was an agreeable intellectual companion. “[W]illing to take anything, to follow either logic or the senses and to count the humblest and most personal experiences,” pragmatism “has in fact no prejudices whatever, no obstructive dogmas, no rigid canons of what shall count as proof. She is completely genial” (38). As the temperament most hospitable to the pragmatist, pluralism was likewise easygoing: while “absolute unity brooks no degrees,” he noted, pluralism “is amply satisfied” provided “you grant . . . some real novelty or chance, however minute” (73). James’s sales pitch seems to come from a man with genuine regard for ordinary people, their limitations and their requirements. In distinguishing himself from rationalists and from dogmatic empiricists, James worked to win over his audience, to please them. It might be tempting to dismiss William James as an elitist who drew on the idioms of popular culture in order to make easy money from his unsuspecting audiences. And indeed his brother’s wounded complaints about his own unappreciative audience in the wake of the Guy Domville fiasco might indicate that the novelist expected his philosopher-brother to share his hostility and contempt for the masses.36 But in this one hundredth anniversary of the publication of Pragmatism, we should take William James seriously and consider fully the complexity of that tangled, muddy street that he persisted in seeing as the real world. John Fiske reminds us that while popular culture is made up of “resources” that “carry the interests of the economically and ideologically dominant,” these same resources also “carry contradictory lines of force that are taken up and activated differently by people situated differently within the social system.”37 The “cultural function” of commodities −commodities that of course make profit for those who produce and distribute them− nevertheless is “not adequately explained by their economic function, however dependent it may be on it” (4). What this means for our reading of William James is that, when we remove him from the marble temple that he so emphatically rejected, returning him instead to the street that gave him both anxiety and pleasure, we should not only take note of the other figures sharing that public space with him, but we should consider their influence on his thought. 22
    Amy Kittelstrom has recently called on scholars of James to consider the wide amateur audiences James reached in his lectures and in their later publication as pamphlets. While “James was unquestionably an elite,” she notes, the “social contexts” of his thought −the people who were affected by it and the populist social work they undertook by means of it− are also worthy of our attention.38 The original historical meaning of James’s lectures was “typically conflicted and plural,”39 and Kittelstrom is right to refuse to choose between James’s affiliation with elitists and his identification with underdogs. Whatever James’s class identity, we should recognize in his lectures both the profit-making motive and the more oppositional energies contained in them. Reading James in the context of the showman whom he both admired and disdained, the entertainer who, Irmscher contends, successfully blended “the seemingly opposed identities of the cynical showman and the devoted museum curator,”40 we see a philosopher who not only ardently wished to change public opinion −and who, as Robert Dawidoff illustrates, embraced this responsibility in ways that his brother Henry did not41− but who also looked to populist forms of entertainment and instruction for models of how best to do so. That James earnestly hoped his lectures would sell −that, in fact, his appeals to his audience drew on the moneymaking strategies of P.T. Barnum, the “wily storekeeper” who built his own museum from the remnants of less successful collections42− does not undermine the oppositional forces in these lectures. 23
Department of English
University of Georgia


1 William James to George Holmes Howison, 5 April 1897, in Ignas K. Skrupskelis, Elizabeth M. Berkeley, and John J. McDermott, eds., The Correspondence of William James 12 vols. (Charlottesville and London: The University of Virginia Press, 1992-2004). Vol. 8, 256. All further references will be to CWJ.

2 William James to Henry James, 17 May 1896, in CWJ vol. 2, 398.

3 William James to Henry James, 3 May 1903, in CWJ vol. 3, 233.

4 Linda Simon, Genuine Reality: A Life of William James (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1998), 351.

5 William James to Henry James, 9 December 1906, in CWJ vol. 3, 330.

6 Henry James to William James, 9 January 1895, in CWJ vol. 2, 337.

7 Reported to Leon Edel and quoted in The Complete Plays of Henry James, ed. Leon Edel (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 477.

8 Henry James to William James, 9 January 1895, in CWJ vol. 2, 338.

9 Ibid, 346.

10 In the months before his death, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes averred that “No nobler or more helpful institution exists in America than Boston’s Lowell Institute.” Quoted in Harriette Knight Smith, The History of the Lowell Institute (Boston: Lamson, Wolffe, and Co., 1898), x.

11 William James to Henry James, 15 August 1896, in CWJ vol. 2, 406.

12 Henry James to William James, 17 November 1906, in CWJ vol. 3, 328.

13 Philip B. Kunhardt, Jr., Philip B. Kunhardt III, and Peter W. Kunhardt, P.T. Barnum: America’s Greatest Showman (NY: Knopf, 1995), 247.

14 William James to Alice James, 14 June 1891, in CWJ vol. 7, 170.

15 William James to Frederick George Bromberg, 30 June 1894, in CWJ vol. 5, 505.

16 William James, Pragmatism. 1907 (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1981), 14.

17 Ross Posnock charts the different reactions of William and Henry James to modernity, claiming that the novelist was much more open-minded and “animated by restless curiosity” (21) than his brother the philosopher. We can see in William James’s lecture the same desire to attain the theatrical, anti-hierarchical, and restless disposition that, for Posnock, Henry James embodied in the works he was writing during the years adjacent to the publication of Pragmatism. The Trial of Curiosity: Henry James, William James, and the Challenge of Modernity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).

18 Kunhardt, 247.

19 Christopher Irmscher, The Poetics of Natural History from John Bartram to William James (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1999), 107.

20 Henry James reminisces about their childhood visits to Barnum’s museum in Notes of a Son and Brother.

21 Posnock, 142.

22 Kunhardt, 39.

23 In a 30 July 1890 letter to Alice, William promises to take her to see The Fall of Babylon, identified by editors of CWJ as the “magnificent spectacle” (theater playbill) produced by Barnum and Bailey for the Oakland Garden. CWJ vol. 7, 76-77.

24 Irmscher, 116.

25 Barbara Packer still has the best account of the difficult composition history of Nature; she wonders whether “the hope we are offered” at the end of Nature represents “the Jerusalem in which we will someday live, or the Promised Land we will never be permitted to enter.” Barbara L. Packer, Emerson’s Fall: A New Interpretation of the Major Essays (New York: Continuum, 1982), 84.

26 In this conviction, too, James resembled Barnum, whose many autobiographies took the same provisional view of truth that James would later promote. As Irmscher notes, “Because Barnum’s autobiography was so relentlessly cast as a work-in-progress whose temporary manifestations in print just failed to tell it all, every one of its versions became obsolete the minute it appeared” (120).

27 To Henry James, 10 April 1998. In CWJ, vol. 3, 24.

28 Ibid., 24-5.

29 Robert D. Richardson details the economic results of Varieties in William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 421.

30 Washington Square. 1881 (London: Penguin Books, 1986), 39.

31 The year after he finished delivering his lectures on pragmatism, James was again preparing a series of lectures, this time the Hibbert Lectures to be delivered in Oxford, and complaining that the assignment forced him “to relapse into the ‘popular lecture’ form just as I thought I had done with it forever.” Letter to Théodore Flourney, 3 January 1908. In CWJ vol. 11, 502.

32 Kunhardt, 35.

33 Alice James, Diary of Alice James. 15 July 1891, 217.

34 Ibid.

35 Once again Barnum may have been a source for the tone if not the effect of some of James’s intellectual stunts: the showman’s 1865 book, The Humbugs of the World: An Account of Humbugs, Delusions, Impositions, Quackeries, Deceits, and Deceivers Generally, In All Ages might almost have supplied an advertisement for the philosopher’s lectures on pragmatism.

36 The novelist concluded that “the regular ‘theatrical public’ of London, . . . of all the vulgar publics London contains, is the most brutishly & densely vulgar. . . . The stupid public is the big public, & the perceptive one the small.” 2 February 1895 letter to William James. In CWJ vol. 2, 344.

37 John Fiske, Reading the Popular (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989), 2.

38 Amy Kittelstrom, “Against Elitism: Studying William James in the Academic Age of the Underdog.” William James Studies 1 (2006), paragraph 35.

39 The phrase is Cary Nelson’s, drawn from his study of leftist modernist poetry. See Revolutionary Memory: Recovering the Poetry of the American Left (New York: Routledge, 2001), 1.

40 Irmscher, 113.

41 Robert Dawidoff, “Introduction” to CWJ vol. 3, xxiv.

42 Irmscher, 103.

Leave a Reply