William James’s Love of Life in the Consciousness of Impotence

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

“The Empirical Self or Me,” “Its constituents . . .The material self . . . .The Social Self . . . .The Spiritual Self . . . .Difficulty of apprehending Thought as a purely spiritual activity . . . .Emotions of Self . . . .Rivalry and conflict of one’s different selves . . . .Their hierarchy . . .What Self we love in ‘Self-love’ . . . .The Pure Ego . . . .The verifiable ground of the sense of personal identity . . . .The passing Thought is the only Thinker which Psychology requires . . . .Theories of Self-consciousness: 1) The theory of Soul . . . .2) The Associationist theory . . . .3) The Transcendentalist theory . . . .The mutations of the Self . . . .Insane delusions . . . .Alternating selves . . . .Mediumships or possessions . . . .Summary . . . .10

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:

The most palpable selfishness of a man is his bodily selfishness; and his most palpable selfishness is the body to which that self relates. Now I say that he identifies himself with this body because he loves it; and that he does not love it because he finds it to be identified with himself. Reverting to Natural history psychology will help us to see the truth in this . . . .

When I am led by self-love to keep my seat whilst ladies stand, or to grab something first and cut out my neighbor, what I really love is the comfortable seat, is the thing for which I grab. I love them primarily, as the mother her babe, or a generous man his heroic deed . . . .

Its own body, then, first of all, its friends next, and finally, its spiritual dispositions MUST be the supremely interesting OBJECTS for each human mind . . . .

This sort of interest is really the meaning of the word ‘my.’ Whatever has it is eo ipso a part of me. My child, my friend dies, and where he goes I feel that part of myself now is and evermore shall be:12

“For this losing is true dying;
This is lordly man down lying;
This his slow but sure reclining.
Star by star his world resigning.”13

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?

He was offended by the vulgarity and scandal which frequently attended mediumistic and spiritist ‘manifestations.’ He was perfectly aware of the imposture that was commonly practiced and regarded the greater part of the alleged revelations as ‘rubbish’. And yet, in spite of it all, he ‘found himself believing’ that there was ‘something in it’ — a residuum of supernormal knowledge, a pattern of mentality not admitted by orthodox science.16

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:

Even from the point of view of our own ends we should probably make a botch of remodeling the universe. How much more then from the point of view of ends we cannot see. Wise men therefore regret as little as they can. But still some regrets are pretty obstinate and hard to stifle,—regrets for acts of wanton cruelty or treachery, for example, whether performed by others or by ourselves. Hardly can anyone remain entirely [italics in the original] optimistic after reading the confession of the murderer at Brockton the other day: how, to get rid of the wife whose continued existence bored him, he inveigled her into a desert spot, shot her four times, and then, as she lay on the ground and said to him, ‘you didn’t do it on purpose, did you dear,’ replied, ‘No. I didn’t do it on purpose,’ as he raised a rock and smashed her skull . . . .19

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:

On the basis of his investigation of in Varieties, James had concluded that religion at its best had been mankind’s most important function because it provided motives, methods, and emotions for strenuously enacting community in ways that overcame debilitating anxieties and offered acceptance to those who were other and different: People were better off, even now, believing that the best things were the more eternal things, even when they could not verify that belief. But James had also concluded that the varieties of religious experience tended to confirm that the best things are the more eternal things by demonstrating the experience of divinity.

James’s efforts in Varieties exemplified what he called “the marriage function” of new truth in Pragmatism. His psychological theory of identity-transformation “preserved the older stock” of religious truths “with a minimum of modification, stretching them just enough to make them admit the novelty, but conceiving that in ways as familiar as the case makes possible” (Prag, 35). James’s theory of “the wider self” maintained the dualism manifested by traditional, common, or crass supernaturalism, but widened the natural world in order to do it. His theory of religious experience transformed the ontological distinction between natural and supernatural into a functional one, one accountable in terms of distinct behaviors. His crucial conclusion in Varieties was that the upshot of traditional supernaturalism —the chance of salvation—was both vindicated and made more intelligible by his analysis of religious experience.

James’s account of religious experience in the language of subliminal behavior led him to believe that he had helped heal the historical breach that had left a gap between science and religion. As he put it in his theological lectures in 1902, his theory gave dignity and backbone to reports of religious experience, rehabilitating the ‘individual’ as the locus both of religious problems and solutions, and left room for general science by opening up avenues of understanding and explanation of religious phenomena.

His work in Varieties left James satisfied that present information supported the notion that salvation was a grounded possibility because there were actually superhuman forces promoting human welfare: In point of fact, James concluded, “the conscious person is continuous with a wider self through which saving experiences come” (VRE, 515). This opinion was not true for James because it was convenient, because it brought him satisfaction, or because he wanted to believe it. It was true for him because events accountable within the limits of current theory made it so.20

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:

James wanted to diagnose “the blindness with which we all are afflicted in regard to the feelings of creatures and people different from ourselves.” Many opinions about aliens suffered from stupidity and injustice because of this blindness; even so, the blindness was normal. Because humans are practical beings, James argued, “each is bound to feel intensely the importance of his own duties and the significance of the situations that call these forth. But this feeling is in each of us a vital secret, for sympathy with which we vainly look to others. The others are too much absorbed in their own vital secrets to take an interest in ours.” So long as a person stuck to his own personal “responsibilities,” his ability to feel what aliens felt was undercut. In such cases, James suggested, “the subject judged knows a part of the world of reality which the judging subject fails to see, knows more, while the spectator knows less; and whenever there is a conflict of opinion and difference of vision, we are bound to feel that the truer side is the side that feels the more, and not the side that feels the less” (TT, 229,230, 231).

If the world of practical relations in which people lived made them prone to blindness from the “more,” however, there was a sort of “irresponsibility” that could open their eyes to the inner life of others sufficiently to catch sight of “the impersonal world of worths as such.” If “the clamor of our own practical interests” made people blind and dead to “all other things,” then it was necessary to “become worthless as a practical being” in order to be receptive. This was the task of philosophy in liberal education. It was also the message of Robert Louis Stevenson and Richard Jeffries and Whitman. James said that “only your mystic, your dreamer, or your insolent tramp or loafer, can afford so sympathetic an occupation” (TT, 247). But these prophets and seers could constantly remind the rest that the “more” was there, sacred and acceptable as such.

Whenever one achieved this “high vision of an inner significance,” James said, “the whole scheme of our customary values gets confounded, then our self is riven and its narrow interests fly to pieces, then a new centre and a new perspective must be found.” This claim prefigured one of the major themes in James’s Gifford Lectures: the “more” constantly knocked persons off balance, once they noticed it. It displaced an old self-centeredness with a simple, but not simplistic, openness to humanity in its great and never-ending variety, an openness that “absolutely forbids us to be forward in pronouncing on the meaninglessness of forms of existence other than our own; and it commands us to tolerate, respect, and indulge those whom we see harmlessly interested and happy in their own ways, however unintelligible these may be to us. Hands off: neither the whole of truth nor the whole of good is revealed to any single observer, although each observer gains a partial superiority of insight from the particular position in which he stands.”23

Within this context, James told the following yarn:

Some years ago, while journeying in the mountains of North Carolina, I passed by a large number of ‘coves’, as they call them there, or heads of small valleys between the hills, which had been newly cleared and planted. The impression on my mind had been one of unmitigated squalor. The settler had in ever case cut down the more manageable trees, and left their charred stumps standing. The larger trees he had girdled and killed, in order that their foliage should not cast a shade. He had then built a log cabin, plastering its chinks with clay and had set up a tall zig-zag fence around the scene of his havoc, to keep the pigs and cattle out. Finally, he had irregularly planted the intervals between the stumps and the trees with Indian corn, which grew up among the chips; and there he dwelt with his wife and babes—an ax, a gun, a few utensils, and some pigs and chickens feeding in the woods, being the sum total of his possessions.

The forest had been destroyed; and what had ‘improved’ it out of existence was hideous, a sort of ulcer, without a single element of artificial grace to make up for the loss of Nature’s beauty. Ugly, indeed, seemed the life of the squatter, scudding, as the sailor’s say, under bare poles, beginning again, away back where our ancestors started first, and by hardly a single item the better off for all the achievements of the intervening generations.

Talk about going back to nature! I said to myself, oppressed by the dreariness as I drove by. Talk of a country life for one’s old age and for one’s children! Never thus, with nothing but the bare ground and one’s bare hands to fight the battle! Never without the best spoils of culture woven in! The beauties and commodities gained by the centuries are sacred. They are our heritage and birthright. No modern person ought to be willing to live a day in such a state of rudimentariness and denudation.

Then I said to the mountaineer who was driving me, “What sort of people are they who have to make these new clearings?” “All of us,” he replied. “Why we ain’t happy here unless we are getting one of those coves under cultivation.” I instantly felt that I had been losing the whole inward significance of the situation. Because to me the clearings spoke but nought of denudation. I thought that to those whose sturdy arms and obedient axes had made them they could tell no other story. But when they looked on the hideous stumps, what they thought of was personal victory. The chips, the girdled trees, and the vile split rails spoke of honest sweat, persistent toil, and final reward. The cabin was a warrant of safety for self and wife and babes. In short, the clearing, which to me was a mere ugly picture on the retina, was to them a symbol redolent with moral memories and sang a very paean of duty, struggle, and success. I had been as blind to the peculiar ideality of their condition as they certainly would also have been to the ideality of mine, had they had a peep at my strange indoor academic ways of life in Cambridge.24

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:

there could not be a more entertaining treat than a dinner at the James house. They were full of stories . . .and discussed questions of morals or taste or literature with a vociferous vigor so great as sometimes to. . . leave their seats and gesticulate on the floor. I remember, in some of these heated discussions, it was not unusual for the sons to invoke humorous curses on their parent, one of which was, that ‘his mashed potatoes might always have lumps in them’!27

Perry gave his characterization of James’s love for friends by noting

The curious quality of James’s friendships, as of his human relations generally, was not a temperamental accident, but sprang from that truth which was his life. He believed mankind was one and divine, and that the weakness of mortals constituted a phase in their moral progress. Though he might see the individual’s weakness with a discerning eye and describe it with telling epithets, he also saw beyond it to the mankind which he loved. All of his quarrels were family quarrels. Hence he could combine reprobation with indulgence—with jolly and warm affection, and even with respect. Such was his magnanimity that he could reconcile passionate loyalty to his ideas with a most delicate avoidance of pressing them either intrusively or despotically on others. He had uncompromising convictions and an unusual power both of advocacy and of denunciation, but so strong was his humanity that nothing aroused real hostility in him—except inhumanity . . . .28

Perry also said this of James’s vivacious family life:

His sister Alice once said of him that “he seemed to be born afresh every morning.” “He came down from his bedroom dancing to greet me,” said his father . . .He was an overflowing and inexhaustible fountain . . .not a channeled stream . . . .That which was so striking about James was not his capacity for work, though this was responsible, but his capacity for play. Whatever he did, he did with good measure, and with no nice calculation of its utility. It was this more than any trait that gave the impression of genius. There was a fecundity, a prodigality, an upward rush from hidden depths, that suggested a prime source rather than an artifact or instrument.29

When it came to James’s affection for Royce, Perry quoted this letter from James:

Nauheim, Sept. 26, 1900

Beloved Royce, —

Great was my . . . pleasure in receiving your long and delightful letter last night . . . . I need not say, my dear old boy, how touched I am at your expressions of affection, or how it pleases me that you have missed me. I too miss you profoundly. I do not find in the hotel waiters, chambermaids, and bath-attendants with whom my lot is chiefly cast, that unique mixture of erudition, originality, profundity and vastness, and human wit and leisureliness, by accustoming to me to which during all these years you have spoilt me for inferior kinds of intercourse. You are still the center of my gaze, the pole of my mental magnet. When I write, ’tis with the design exclusively of overthrowing your system, and ruining your peace. I lead a parasitic life upon you, for my highest flight of ideality is to become your conqueror, and go down into history as such, you and I rolled in one another’s arms and silent (or rather loquacious still) in one last death-grapple of an embrace. How then, O my dear Royce, can I forget you, or be contented out of your close neighborhood? Different as our minds are, yours has nourished mine, as no other social influence ever has, and in converse with you I have always felt that my life was lived importantly. Our minds, too, are not different in the Object which they envisage. It is the whole paradoxical physico-moral-spiritual Fatness, of which most people single out some skinny fragment, which we both cover with our eye. We “aim at him generally”—and most others don’t. I don’t believe that we shall dwell apart forever, though our formulas may . . . . Love to you all,


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

. . .went one evening into a dressing room in the twilight to procure some article that was there; when suddenly there fell upon me without any warning, just as if it came out of the darkness, a horrible fear of my own existence. Simultaneously there arose in my mind the image of an epileptic patient whom I had seen in the asylum, a black-haired youth with greenish skin, entirely idiotic, who used to sit all day on one of the benches, or rather shelves against the wall, with his knees drawn up against his chin, and the coarse gray undershirt, which was his only garment drawn over them, inclosing his entire figure . . .This image and my fear entered into a species of combination with each other. That shape am I , I felt potentially. Nothing that I possess can defend me against that fate, if the hour for it should strike for me as it struck for him . . .After this the universe was changed for me altogether. I awoke morning after morning with a horrible dread at the pit of my stomach, and with a sense of the insecurity of life that I never new before, and that I have never felt since. It was like a revelation; and although the immediate feelings passed away, the experience has made me sympathetic with the morbid feelings of others ever since.33

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:

He would often be concerned over bodily health; but he had conquered the spiritual paralysis rendering him unable to hope and believe, think and act, feel and will. He aimed his career toward psychology and philosophy, studies he called liberal because they cultivated ‘the habit of always seeing an alternative’, of not taking the usual for granted, of making conventionalities fluid again, of imagining foreign states of mind . . . . 42

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:

. . .conceive yourself, if possible, suddenly stripped of all the emotion with which your world now inspires you, and try to imagine it as it exists, purely by itself, without your favorable or unfavorable, hopeful or apprehensive comment. It will be almost impossible for you to realize such a condition of negativity and deadness. No one portion of the universe would then have importance beyond another; and the whole collection of its things and series of its events would be without significance, character, expression, or perspective. Whatever of value, interest, or meaning our respective worlds may appear endued with are thus pure gifts of the spectator’s mind. The passion of love is the most familiar and extreme example of this fact. If it comes, it comes; if it does not come, no process of reason can force it . . . .So with fear, with indignation, jealousy, ambition, worship. If they are there, life changes. And whether they shall be there or not depends always on the non-logical, often on organic conditions. And as the exciting interest which these passions put into the world are our gift to the world, just so are the passions gifts,–gifts to us, from sources sometimes low and sometimes high; but almost always non-logical and beyond our control. 45

Was belief in God a help? Read Clebsch again:

The gift, having a religious bearing, that shook James’s own acedia and enabled him to change his life by a act of will, was not love but panic fear. Believing in some reality—any reality that elicited action, even the negative reality of simply resisting evil without good brought that reality into James’s experienced life and cured his pathological condition. The fundamental belief was belief in the spirit’s ability to believe.46

(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:

James rejected the canard that every object of a man’s deep loyalty became his God. A God must also be other than ourselves, the profoundest power in the universe (and therefore capable of commanding loyalty), and He also must be like us enough to be in commerce and communion with us (therefore capable of commanding loyalty). He must a power not ourselves . . .which not only makes for righteousness, but means it , and recognizes us.47

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:

Not in maxims, not in Anschauugen, but in accumulated acts of thought lies salvation. Passer outré. Hitherto when I have felt like taking a free initiative, like daring to act originally, without carefully waiting for contemplation of the external world to determine all for me, suicide seemed the most manly form to put my daring into; now, I will go a step further with my will, not only act with it, but believe as well, believe in my individual reality and creative power.49

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 [29] 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

God’s love, we are now taught, is no more than a mere yearning of the sad human heart to find a living expression . . .while the hope of immortality, by the same rule, is the vain effort of that faculty of nature which looks ‘before and after’ to construct a future which may smooth its imagination, but which is baseless and fruitless as its wildest dream.60

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:

Better, [sic] put, he took a science and philosophy and turned them to the service of the human questions raised by a readership caught in the grip of the cultural collapse: how to get out of the spellbinding morbid mindedness caused by the recognition that to be an American was not to be particularly well founded; how to regain a sense of purpose and vitality and identity when these had all been drained of their myth; how to restore control and individuality in an incorporating, deterministic age.

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

The moralist must hold his breath and keep his muscles tense; and so long as this athletic attitude is possible, all goes well—morality suffices. But the athletic attitude tends ever to break down, and it does break down even in the most stalwart when the organism begins to decay, or when morbid fears invade the mind. To suggest personal will and effort to one all sicklied o’er with the sense of irremediable impotence is to suggest the most impossible of things. What he craves is to be consoled in his very powerfulness, to feel that the spirit of the universe recognizes and secures him, all decaying and failing as he is. Well, we are all such helpless failures in the last resort. The sanest and best of us are of one clay with lunatics and prison inmates, and death finally runs the robustest of us down. And whenever we feel this, such a sense of the vanity and provisionality of our voluntary career comes over us that all our morality appears but as a plaster hiding a sore it could never cure, and all our well-doing as but the hollowest substitute for that well-being that our lives ought to be grounded in, but, alas! are not.

“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:

Once, in stating his credo—willingness to live and let live—William James wrote: “no outward changes of condition in life can keep the nightingale of its eternal meaning from singing in all sorts of different men’s hearts.” That bird sang sweetly and easily in James’s age that closed with World War I. And perhaps in no other man did it sing more keenly or with such discerning notes. 85

    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 are now openly engaged in crushing out the sacredest thing in this great human world—the attempt of a people long enslaved to attain to the possession of itself . . . .We are destroying down to the root every germ of a healthy national life in these unfortunate people, and we are surely destroying for one generation at least their faith in God and man . . . .

We are cold-bloodedly, wantonly and abominably destroying the soul of a people who never did us an atom of harm in their lives . . . .

[L]et every American who still wishes his country to possess its ancient soul—soul a thousand times more dear than ever, now that it seems in danger of perdition—do what little he can in the way of open speech and writing.87

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.

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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.”

9PPI, 9.

10PPI, 10.

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.

28 Ibid.

29 TCI, 686.

30 TCWJ, 165.

31 TCI, 703.

32 VRE

33 William A. Clebsch, American Religious Thought (University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1973): 139-140. Hereafter cited as ART.

34 TCII, 324.

35 Ibid.

36TCII, 203 on ‘healthy-mindedness’

37 ART

38 ART, 138.

39 ART, 145.

40 Ibid.

41 Ibid.

42 Ibid.

43 ART, 145.

44 Ibid.

45 ART, 147.

46 Ibid.

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.

71 Ibid.

72 Ibid.

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.

76 Ibid.

77 Gale, 3.

78 Gale,15.

79 Gale, 17-18.

80 Gale, 8.

81 Gale, 10.

82 H.S. Thayer, Meaning and Action, 133.

83 Ibid.

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.

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