William James’s Love of Life in the Consciousness of Impotence
Henry Samuel Levinson
| George Santayana characterized religion as “the love of life in the consciousness of impotence.”1 But he might as well have been characterizing the life of his one-time mentor and sometime colleague, William James. For James, indeed, had led such a life marked by incidents of various kinds of powerlessness, including the ones made famous by Clifford Geertz, but actually conceived by Max Weber.2 In other words, James had both personally contended with, and written about, physical impotency or suffering, mental impotency or absurdity, and moral impotency or evil.3 All this made James a quintessentially religious thinker, one whose love of life demanded allaying these predicaments.
| James had expressed this love of life in the consciousness of impotence in his narrative Principles of Psychology4; in The Will to Believe and Other Essays5; in his religious study, The Varieties of Religious of Experience6; and in his piece of culture criticism, “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings.”7
| But, neither with James’s ‘love of life’ nor with his ‘consciousness of impotence,’ should we get too restrictive. To the contrary, we should appreciate the capaciousness of these notions. Regarding James’s love, sometimes we’ll focus on the raucous fun he had with his family as well as the vivacity he displayed with them and others; other times, we will be concerned with the intimacy he enjoyed with colleagues both at home and abroad. In both his early works and in The Varieties, we’ll find him aiming, as was his Darwinian d’ruthers, for “the survival of the humanly fittest.”8 Survival per se hardly involved love; neither did survival of the fittest; but survival of the humanly fittest was something else again, for it actually aimed at all that was loving, lovable, and lovely in human life, and it did so full in the face of suffering, absurdity, and evil.
| Let’s begin with James’s psychology. The Principles of Psychology, the first text of its kind, was famous for its novelistic form. Indeed, its “Contents”9 reads in part like an autobiography: Having gathered together the elements of an emotional intellectual life, and the methods and snares of his art, James turned to “THE STREAM OF THOUGHT” (which would come to epitomize modern literature and the writing of PP itself). Following these processes, he turned next to “THE CONSCIOUSNESS OF SELF” which gave a tour of James himself, as he traveled, seriatim, to
|We might as well have been peering into James’s diary! The inventory of James’s ups and downs and ins and outs showed how he thought things along and, then, through; identified his diverse, changing, and oft-times conflicting ‘selves’; searched for ways to ground his sense of personal identity; invented the stream of consciousness as processing the only ‘Thinker’ he was; developed his combative theories of self-consciousness; descended into madness; sought relief from mediums; and, then, summed it all up! The loves James ranged over, by the way, included not only his selves, but “ALL THE THINGS which have power to produce in a stream of thought excitement of a particular sort.”11||5|
| He went on, then, to assert the following:
So much for ‘me’ ‘mine,’ and The Principles of Psychology.
| Following publication of the Psychology, James wrote his Lectures on “Exceptional Mental States,”14 which Eugene Taylor did so much to see published. There, he presented his lectures on “Dreams and Hypnotism,” “Hysteria,” “Automatisms” “Multiple personality,” “Demoniacal Possession,” “Witchcraft,” “Degeneration,” and “Genius.”15 What did James make of it all?
| In all of this, both in the Principles and in the ‘Lectures,’ James found more than a little suffering, absurdity, and evil.17 But he had also shown that “[h]is freedom from prejudice, against theories or sects of dubious repute, was converted into something more positive by his chivalry. He not only tolerated, but preferred, the despised and rejected—in movements as well as in men.”18 He was ready to embrace virtually any and every person of marked economic, social and cultural difference from himself in his efforts to make mutual understanding matter and commonplace.
| Regarding earlier essays, collected later in The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy and other places (e.g., Talks to Teachers on Psychology and to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals), the same intent informed his works: To enrich our understanding of his love of life in the consciousness of impotence, let’s read an essay taken from The Will to Believe. In “The Dilemma of Determinism,” James presented a scene that was so dastardly that it involved suffering, absurdity and evil all together. Read this:
Grim. Suffering, absurdity, and evil brought to new heights!
|We have already surveyed James’s concern for the love of life in the consciousness of impotence in his Psychology and in one of his earlier essays collected in The Will to Believe and Other Essays.||10|
| Now let’s turn to The Varieties of Religious Experience. In my own study of that book, I had summed up, in part, the significance of it this way:
|Towards the end of the “Conclusions” in Varieties, W. James endorsed James Leuba’s assertion that “[n]ot God but life, more life, a larger, richer, more satisfying life, is, in the last analysis, the end of religion. The love of life, at any and every level of development, is the religious impulse.”21 So ‘the love of life’ blared out to James’s readers. But anyone who had read, or now is reading, James’s account of his own anhedonia knows better: The catatonia portrayed there is simply too gruesome to evade.22||12|
| And as for James’s “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” read what I had to say in The Religious Investigations of William James:
| Within this context, James told the following yarn:
|James gave this yarn, and developed his ‘Certain Blindness’ doctrine, in a particular historical context. The United States was engaging in its first imperialist campaign, remembered awkwardly and deceptively, as the Spanish-American War, charging into Spanish colonies including Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, provoked by ‘yellow journalism’ in this country. James was dumfounded and angry enough to preside over the Anti-imperialist League. He was unable or unwilling to accept the fact that his country was perpetrating hyped-up military engagements; and in this context, he began writing what came to be known as “the Philippine Tangle” to the Boston Evening Transcript.||15|
|When it comes to memoirs, Ralph Barton Perry’s The Thought and Character of William James 25 is still both unique and superlative. Perry showed that James’s “love of life” 26 included his friends, his teaching, his family, and his relationship with Josiah Royce.||16|
| As to James’s love of family, as well as the raucous and humorous goings-on in his house, listen to E. L. Godkin, editor of the Nation, writing in Perry’s pages:
| Perry gave his characterization of James’s love for friends by noting
| Perry also said this of James’s vivacious family life:
| When it came to James’s affection for Royce, Perry quoted this letter from James:
| When it came to James’s morbid side, it is astonishing how honest Perry was for a disciple bent on characterizing, perhaps caricaturing, his master as a “moralist”31 without any genuine sense of grace. Of James’s catatonic breakdown—the devastating disease anonymously characterized in The Varieties of Religious Experience, A Study in Human Nature 32— he ‘outed’ the anonymous figure in Varieties who
|To be sure, Perry dropped James’s references to scripture, excluding such passages as “the Eternal God is my refuge,” “I am the resurrection and the life,” “Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy-laden,” as well as James’s surmise that had he “not clung [to such texts] “I think I should have grown really insane.”34||22|
|But then Perry went on to sum up James “sense of black despair and morbid fear” and told us that the experience made James ‘sympathetic with the morbid feelings of others’; and that both James’s melancholy and his emergence from it had ‘a religious bearing.”35 All of this was fairly striking stuff for the man who eventually characterized James as both “healthy-minded” and a “moralist.” 36||23|
|Now let’s turn to another of the earlier (though nearly forty years past Perry) interpreters of James’s work, William Clebsch37:||24|
| After dealing with James’s bouts of acedia38 and Grubelsucht,39 Clebsch noted James’s imperative that “I must get well now or give up,”40 and then baldly stated: “He got well . . . .”41 Indeed. Then he interpreted James this way:
| This was a man eager for life’s adventures, its risks and pleasures, its demands and satisfactions. But, again, his flip side exhibited Grubelsuchte or “querulousness of Mind”43 or the “questioning mania”44 which stopped him fast in his tracks. Read this:
| Was belief in God a help? Read Clebsch again:
|(It is important to note Clebsch’s justified claim here: James, in fact, did recover from his psychosis by way of fear, not from a love for life and not by believing in God. But once James did recover his breathtaking personal, family, social, and professional life took off in ways fully expressive of such a love.)||28|
| But then, later:
|Or again, Clebsch said of James that God and man must differ enough for each to “hear the other’s call, yet resemble one another so far that each cares for purposes the other could share.”48||30|
|In sum, according to Clebsch, WJ affirmed a love for life he hoped other powers in the universe could and would maintain and sustain. But that he did so was all too motivated by that horrid disease which had stripped him of human quality, indeed, any quality.||31|
| When it comes to interpreters in my generation (including my teachers), here are a few examples who wrote significant interpretations of James’s affirmations and incapacities: Bruce Kuklick quoted WJ’s famous notebook entry of 30 April, 1870, first noted by Perry:
|This certainly pointed to both James’s consciousness of impotence and his love of life. Kuklick also noted James’s famous diary entry pointing to James’s love of life, particularly his realization that “There belongs to mind, from its birth upward, a spontaneity, a vote. It is in the game, and not a mere on-looker . . . .”50 This entry helped to characterize James’s readiness to make a difference; in particular, to engage his eventual profession with zest and playfulness. Simultaneously, James displayed a breathtaking capacity to lecture for publication, traveling through New England, down to Providence, and eventually, across the country to Stanford in Palo Alto.||33|
|But, as for Kuklick, that’s about it. There’s little more, if anything, on James’s consciousness of impotence.||34|
|Ben Ramsey’s Submitting to Freedom: The Religious Vision of William James51 provided us with a fabulous and furious attack on any and every effort to romanticize James. The book focused primarily on ” . . .the contingency of the human person.”52 It presented a case for both a self, and a sort of religious life that could be lived, “without foundations”53 And in the doing, Ramsey characterized James’s times as saddled with an “historical romance of the self . . .a call to frenzied action” that “amounted to little more than a means of forgetfulness and escape.”54 As to James himself, he found a figure “who saw through this illusion” and “took a major step . . .away from notions of a strong, assertive, romanticized self toward an essentially converted self who lived religiously—that is, with a sense of responsibility to rather than control over the free play of forces by which it was bound.”55||35|
|Within the context of this account of an anti-romantic James, Ramsey provided his readers with a singular portrait of him; one that paints him as utterly loveless. Indeed, the term ‘love’ or its cognates —apart from its appearance in the title of a book—occurred five times in his text, one that is one hundred forty-four pages long, all in quotations from other authors.56 In any case, Ramsey chose to omit any reference to Leuba’s definition of religion as “the love of life,”57 in the Varieties of Religious Experience, or to James’s agreement with it.||36|
|All the while, Submitting to Freedom was chock full of references to impotence. Regarding theological or religious studies, Ramsey wrote that “Theological definitions of the self were even blamed for the general melancholia of the era. As John Girdner wrote in an article titled ‘Theology and Insanity”: “[A] careful study of the history of mental diseases amply proves that . . . the theologies of man have caused so many minds to give way and settles delusions and hallucinations of a so-called religious type.”58 ||37|
| Submitting to Freedom went on to show how “[p]ersonal and communal religiosity . . .also disintegrated . . . .What appeared to be left was a religious heart without imagination, patterns of piety without convincing expression or authority.”59 In this regard, J.Baldwin Brown wrote that
|Ramsey’s understanding of James’s comprehension of impotence, however, didn’t stop there. First, he recognized that James’s “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings” taught that people were unable to understand others who were ‘different,’ or alien. (Though, in that piece, James had prepared a remedy for that blindness, as well.)61||39|
| Second, Ramsey dealt with a variety of cultural collapses:
|When James offered a cure for these problems, which was the purpose of the text,62 he did so without skirting them. That was why, for example, he tried to build a psychology without a soul, because the notion of such a thing had been seen through. And that was why he offered what he called only a theatre of possibilities, because he took seriously the recognition that all human action might be no more than theatrics. . . .63||41|
|And then, again, Ramsey presented James’s dismissal of erkenntnisstheorie, or the emerging discipline in philosophy known as epistemology. James blocked “the quest for certainty” that Dewey would make famous64 right out of its starting gate. This or that belief, James claimed, was a plan of action. We people were impotent when it came to realizing the Cartesian dream of attaining certainty in its game of ‘justifying true beliefs.’ Hence, James’s falliblism and his corrigiblism.65||42|
|How about Paul Conkin’s William James:Public Philosopher? As to the slummy side, he immediately pointed out “James wrestling matches with the inner demons of his life history (depression, illness, doubt)| . . . .” 66 He went on to show how “James’s problems —inability to decide upon a vocation, difficulties with decision-making, metaphysical uncertainty, and nagging physical ailments—were common to many young men of James’s social, intellectual, and economic class.” 67 And even more important, he placed James’s consciousness of impotence in the context of the Civil War, the conflagration that saw more loss of life than all of our other wars combined. For James stood idly by while two of his brothers fought and shed blood, both going on to suffer devastating lives. That made James one of those figures who was “judged not to have lived”68 : Conklin said that “[t]he stigmata of James’s depressive years—the divided self, intense and numbing doubt, philosophical and physical problems—anticipated attitudes that would come to dominate the form and content of certain segments of late-nineteenth-century America.” 69 He went on to canvass the ways James’s sense of impotence and morbid-mindedness permeated his private, public, and academic lives.||43|
|On the sunny side, Conklin described James variously as “exuberant but tentative;”70 and “strenuous;”71 he also noted “the warm light of his personality.” 72 But that’s as far as he went.||44|
| And in my own 2000-01 William James Lecture on Religious Experience, I cited James’s judgment that
|“Not a pretty picture.” 73 But, still, it was one sufficiently horrid to motivate sufferers to create or originate whatever they could to make their lives and surrounds better than they were.||46|
|Richard Gale has structured The Divided Self of William James74 as an investigation of “The Promethean Self,” bent on power; and an “Anti-Promethean Mystic” yearning for divine help when he (James) could not help himself. He signaled James’s sense of impotence by suggesting that “the best way to characterize James’s philosophy is that it is rooted in the blues.”75 But then he qualified this judgment when he claimed that “His is not a nihilistic V.D. blues, but rather of the ‘I can get well and have my fun’ sort.”76||47|
|And then Gale banked on James’s love of life even more. He asserted that James’s life was lived “with maximal richness and variety . . . .the ultimate hipster, a veritable experience junkie.” 77 He claimed that “[t]he thesis of this book is that James’s underlying quest was to find a philosophy that would enable us, as the beer commercials enjoin, to have it all, to grab for all the gusto we can.” Then he said succinctly that James had a “wild passion for everything life had to offer.”78 And then Gale ended up his portrait of James by quoting the latter, urging us to live “a life not correlated with death, a health not liable to illness, a kind of good that will not perish, a Good in fact that lies beyond the goods of nature.”79||48|
|Along the way, Gale quoted Kallen to the effect that James “gave an expression of what was noblest in the life and labor of the pioneer generation that in the nineteenth century brought into growth the arts and sciences of industrial revolution.”80 and called “the central tenet of James’s beloved religion of meliorism: the conditionalized prediction that that if we collectively exert our best moral effort, good will win out over evil in the long run.”81||49|
| H. S. Thayer commented that James, “in a moment of personal crisis,” characterized humankind “as a mechanism doomed from the start to action in a mechanically closed universe. From the idea, like the universe itself, there seemed no escape. The prospects of suicide and madness apparently hung equally in balance for James. “82 Thayer followed this with quotes from VRE and WJ’s diary that revealed his sense of beleaguered finitude. But he was just as quick to underscore James’s sense of beauty. Among other things Thayer claimed that James, as a painter, was “an articulate observer of color and shape.”83 Later, Thayer noted that James “made colorful and crisp use of the ordinary language of the man on the street.”84 And finally, Thayer gave note to James’s appreciation for the beauty of humankind, when he quoted James’s credo, and concluded his chapter on him, this way:
| Let’s return, at this point, to James’s “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings”. Recall that James had written that piece in the context of the American invasion of the Philippines. Indeed, among other things, James called our invasion of Manila “[a] national infamy” in the Boston Evening Transcript. He castigated President McKinley and his administration for having “swept us into . . .an adventure that in sober seriousness and definite English speech must be described as literally piratical . . . .Our President’s bouffe-proclamation was the only thing vouch-safed: ‘We are here for your own good; therefore unconditionally surrender to our tender mercies, or we’ll blow you into kingdom come.'”86 James went on, literally in tears, to write that
|We can see how ‘the Philippine Tangle’ paved the way to James’s ‘Certain Blindness Doctrine.’ We can see the parallels between his care for the Carolina settlers on the one hand and his care for Filipino Islanders on the other. The fact is that James was capacious enough not just to love his own life, or life more generally; he was magnanimous enough to love entire nations of people initially unfamiliar to him, even when—especially when—they fractured his old self and made it “fly to pieces.” 88 And I myself can do little more than imitate James’s new found openness and insight when it comes to comprehending his own love of life in the consciousness of impotence.||52|
|Department of Religious Studies
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro
1George Santayana, Winds of Doctrine (Charles Scribners: New York, 1913), 43.
2 Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion (Beacon Press: Boston, 1963).
3 Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures, “Religion as a Cultural System” (Basic Books: New York, 1973), 100.
4 William James, The Principles of Psychology in Three Volumes (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, 1981). Hereafter cited as PPI, PPII, PPIII.
5 William James, The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Psychology (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, 1979). Hereafter cited as WTB.
6 William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, 1985). Hereafter cited as VRE.
7 William James, “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” Talks to Teachers on Psychology: and to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals (Longmans. Green, and Co.:39 Paternoster Row, London, 1907). Hereafter cited as TT.
8H. S. Levinson, Science, Metaphysics, and the Chance of Salvation (Scholars Press: Missoula, MT, 1976) in the section, “The Chance of Salvation.”
11 PPI, 304.
12 PPI, 308.
13 Emerson, Essays and Poems (First Library of America College Edition [Penguin Books USA Inc.]: New York, 1983), 1171.
14 Eugene Taylor, William James on Exceptional Mental States: The 1896 Lowell Lectures reconstructed by Eugene Taylor (Scribners: New York, 1984).
15 Ibid., iv.
16Ralph Barton Perry, The Thought and Character of William James (Vanderbilt University Press: Nashville, 1996):206. Hereafter cited TCWJ.
17 cf. also Henry Samuel Levinson, The Religious Investigations of William James (University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, 1981): 59-60. Hereafter cited as Levinson.RI .
18 TCWJ, 204.
19 WTB, “The Dilemma of Determinism,”125.
20 Levinson.RI, 219-220.
21 VRE, 551.
22 VRE (1960), 150-151.
23 Levinson:RI , 62-63.
24 “On in Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” in William James, Talks to Teachers on Psychology and to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals (Longmans, Green, and Company: 39 Paternoster Row, London, 1907): 231-234. Hereafter cited TT.
25 The Thought and Character of William James (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, 1935). Page citations noted this way: [TCI or TCII
26 TCII, 703.
27 TCII, 121.
29 TCI, 686.
30 TCWJ, 165.
31 TCI, 703.
33 William A. Clebsch, American Religious Thought (University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1973): 139-140. Hereafter cited as ART.
34 TCII, 324.
36TCII, 203 on ‘healthy-mindedness’
38 ART, 138.
39 ART, 145.
43 ART, 145.
45 ART, 147.
47 ART, 158-9.
48 ART, 159.
49 Bruce Kuklick, The Rise of American Philosophy. (Yale University Press: 1977):165. Hereafter cited as Kuklick.
50 Kuklick, 171.
51 Bennett Ramsey, Submitting to Freedom: The Religious Vision of William James (Oxford University Press: New York, 1993) Hereafter cited as Ramsey.
52 Ramsey, 6.
53 Ramsey, 7.
54 Ramsey, 7.
55 Ramsey, 7.
56Ramsey: 25, 28 , 31, 67, 110. “Lover” appears in the title of a text on 61.
57 See VRE, 399.
58 Ramsey, 29.
59 Ramsey, 30.
60 J. Baldwin Brown, “The Roots of the Present Unbelief, Christian Union 24 (1881):268 in Ramsey: 31
61 Cf. Ramsey, 35.
62 Ramsey: 36. The ‘text’ refers to PP.
63 Ramsey, 36.
64 John Dewey, The Quest for Certainty (Capricorn Books Edition 1960, G.P. Putnam’s Sons: New York).
65 Cf. Ramsey, 51.
66 Paul Conkin, William James, Public Philosopher(University of Illinois Press: Campaign Urbana, 1994). Hereafter cited as Conkin.
67 Conkin, 6.
68 Conkin, 19-39.
69 Conkin 7.
70 Conkin, 1.
73 Henry. S. Levinson, Festive Naturalism and “the Legends of the Jews,’ The William James Lecture for 2000-01, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, volume 30, Number 2, Summer/Fall 2001.
74 Richard Gale, The Divided Self of William James (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK: 1999),. Hereafter cited as Gale.
75 Gale, 1.
77 Gale, 3.
79 Gale, 17-18.
80 Gale, 8.
81 Gale, 10.
82 H.S. Thayer, Meaning and Action, 133.
84 Thayer, 144.
85 Thayer, 164.
86 A William James Reader, edited by Gay Wilson Allen (Houghton Mifflin Company: Boston, 1971): 223. Hereafter cited as WJR.
87 WJR, 224, 225, 226.
88 TT, 241.