top of page

Can William James Save Your Life? Maybe...

Artwork Can William James Save Your Life? Maybe

Luca Upper

Many philosophers are sceptical of “philosophy as self-help” type books, possibly because they resent having to stand between the “self-help” and “spirituality” bookcases when browsing new philosophy titles in Waterstones. But the momentum behind this reinvention of the philosopher as self-help guru is building, with a recent feature on the BBC’s website called “Why

philosophers could be the ones to transform your 2020” showcasing the emerging role of Socrates, the Stoics, Nietzsche, and Sartre in guiding us through a world in extreme flux. Unsurprisingly the philosophy of William James was not included in the article, as the father of American pragmatism is not the first name that springs to mind in times of struggle, confusion or crisis. Few would turn to, say, James’ two-volume Principles of Psychology to seek guidance in life, let alone to save it. But, as John Kaag elucidates in Sick Souls, Healthy Minds, we have seriously underestimated the depth of what James’ philosophy can offer us.

The boldness of Kaag’s subtitle, How William James Can Save Your Life, certainly sets the bar high, as well as raising the suspicion that reading James may do no such thing. But Kaag’s answer to the question of whether William James can save your life is a humble “maybe”. As he puts it in the introduction: I think William James’s philosophy saved my life. Or, more accurately, it encouraged me not to be afraid of life. This is not to say it will work for everyone. Hell, it’s not even to say that it will work for me tomorrow. Or that it works all the time. But it did happen, at least once, and that is enough to make me eternally grateful and more than a little hopeful about the prospects of this book. Sick Souls, Healthy Minds, as is now standard Kaag style, is a mixture of autobiography and biography – as much a reflection on the life and work of William James as on his own experiences. We find something similar in his previous book Hiking with Nietzsche in which he intermingles an account of recreating his youthful trip to follow Nietzsche’s footsteps in the Swiss Alps with a history of his experiences of depression. But this weaving of the personal and the impersonal, theory alongside lived experience, always avoids self-indulgence, and in fact is what sets his books apart from many similar titles. The travails of Kaag’s “sick soul” run in parallel to those of his philosophical hero, and in so doing frame James’ philosophy and clarify for us the contemporary importance of his thought. It was certainly a relief not to be wading through an impersonally written chronology of an old dead philosopher! That said, Kaag does not skimp on the salient biographical details of this most fascinating thinker and his equally fascinating family. The reader will find herself extremely well-informed about William James the person (not just the thinker), his childhood, his family life, and the madness that grew out of it. James was brought up to believe in radical freedom. His father, Henry James Sr., came from old money and doted on his children. In this family, William was encouraged do whatever he liked – to explore, to read, to play music, and to travel. However, in James’s adulthood, this ethos of radical freedom came into tension with the scientific shift towards determinism. After the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859, James was forced to grapple with his views on freedom in the face of this stunning new doctrine that humans were simply another kind of animal. As Kaag puts is, James “had to figure out how human freedom could coincide with the findings of evolutionary theory, which seemed largely indisputable.” As the question of free will is absolutely central to Kaag’s narrative, we will focus most of our discussion in this review on it. Whether or not we have free will could be dealt with through a relaxed chat down the pub, with nothing more riding on its resolution than the satisfaction of an abstract metaphysical itch. It is far from clear that the free will debate could ever be a matter of life and death. For William James, however, philosophy “was never a detached intellectual exercise or a matter of word play.” As Kaag puts it, James’ “entire philosophy, from beginning to end, was geared to save a life, his life.” So, when we turn to the question of free will, this is not merely a question of causes and conditions, of materialism, of synapses firing, and so on, as it is often presented in contemporary debates. Rather, for James, it was about destiny, fate, despair, and a life lived “at the mercy of forces beyond our control.” Kaag sees the roots of James’ fervour for freedom in his father’s radical rejection of the Calvinism that stipulated absolute surrender of the will to God. As James Sr. wrote, the end result of this was that “my will...actually collapsed.” Freedom, then, as Kaag writes, “was the enduring touchstone that guided family life [in the James household].” With the road to hell being paved with the very best of intentions, however, Kaag insightfully notes that the result of this near-obsession with freedom in the James family was that “William was almost certainly destined to eventually find himself thoroughly stuck.” What James would eventually come to see as the mere “dilemma of determinism” in his mature years was, for a significant period of his youth, a life-threatening crisis, resulting in his contemplating suicide.

In the face of emerging factors such as illness, anxiety, and loneliness, what James in fact sought was control in response to his feelings of paralysis and what can only be described as Sartrean “nausea” avant la lettre. As Kaag notes, these feelings were only exacerbated by their standing “in such marked contrast to the oblivious optimism that James confronted in his Cambridge [Massachusetts] surroundings.” No doubt many contemporary Harvard-based “sick souls” will experience something similar as they feel the world collapsing around them only to be told by healthy-minded folk like Stephen Pinker that we have never had it so good. To the sick soul, as James notes, such “healthy-mindedness pure and simple seems unspeakably blind and shallow.” One of Kaag’s personal insights mirrors James’ diagnosis for the modern age:

Let’s stick to the facts: reality is shot through with despair. Just look around. If one looks carefully, suffering is not the exception but the rule. And the sick-souled tend to look very carefully. They realize what some of the more healthy-minded among us would like to overlook, namely that life, human and otherwise, really does seem to be fated, and not in some Panglossian best-of-all-possible-worlds sort of way.

To return to James’ battle with determinism, he managed to resolve it in a most sensible way: by deciding that free will was real. He attributed this conversion to reading a book by a little-known French thinker called Charles Renouvier, of which he wrote that “I...see no reason why his definition of free will...need be the definition of an illusion.” For James, this was a conversion from the realm of the sick soul to that of the healthy mind. The details of Renouvier’s account need not concern us in this review, so we will focus instead on some understandable reactions to James’ life-saving conversion. One may be that it is simply a case of wishful thinking or self-deception or “playing fast and loose with belief” (Kaag’s words), and no doubt these are plausible interpretations of James’ conversion. However, as Kaag explains in responding to such a reaction, “believing in free will might not logically be warranted, but it had a profound practical worth, and this worth was not separable from the truth-value of the proposition that he came to hold dear: ‘I am free.’”

Kaag’s explanation is rooted in one of the central insights of James’ psychologically astute account of the architecture of belief, namely that, as he famously puts it, “Pretend what we may, the whole man within us is at work when we form our philosophical opinions. Intellect, will, taste, and passion cooperate just as they do in practical affairs,” an idea that was recently repackaged in an influential paper by John Cottingham on “humane philosophy” in which he critiques the fact that philosophy “has become increasingly attracted to a narrow scientistic model of truth and knowledge, and many of its most prominent current practitioners are less and less inclined to be open to more ‘humane’ modes of discourse – literary, poetic, aesthetic, religious – and are increasingly disposed to reduce the entire philosophical enterprise to a set of technical, quasi-scientific specialisms.” For James, if belief were a pint of beer the epistemic element would be the froth on the top.

Picture William James 1903

Beyond merely defending free will, James would use similar arguments regarding the philosophical temperament to justify belief in God (“in the metaphysical and religious sphere, articulate reasons are cogent for us only when our inarticulate feelings of reality have already been impressed in favour of the same conclusion”), and would ultimately use them to lay the foundations for the hugely

influential school of thought which finally reached fruition with the 1907 publication of Pragmatism. In the epilogue to his Psychology: The Briefer Course, James writes: “Let psychology frankly admit that for her scientific purposes determinism can be claimed, and no one can find fault.” However, he then goes on to write that “ethics makes a counter-claim; and the present writer, for one, has no hesitation in regarding her claims as the stronger, and in assuming that our wills are ‘free.’” For James, “the deterministic assumption of psychology is merely provisional and methodological.”

The tension that James picks up on between the deterministic scientific picture of the human, and the dominant view in ethical discourses of humans as agents is, unsurprisingly, an ongoing one, with David Rose recently siding with James’ pragmatic leanings when he writes that “if we are to talk about domains of human action and influences, then the concept of free will is just more appropriate than the concept of causality.” Similarly, Roger Scruton endorsed what he calls a “cognitive dualism” according to which the same world can be understood in two ways: 1) the way of science, and 2) the way of interpersonal understanding. Insofar as the scientific picture cannot accommodate such concepts as agency, accountability, and those other interpersonal terms that mould concepts like personhood and provide the social glue within which our interactions are negotiated, Scruton suggests that the two worlds are, to use a term made famous by Thomas Kuhn, incommensurable. James would surely agree with the spirit of Scruton’s taxonomy, but perhaps question his limiting of the model to two ways of understanding the world. Why not a cognitive pluralism within which the individual’s often highly idiosyncratic techniques for meaning formation or sanity preservation remain largely incompatible with the normative injunctions that grease the wheels sustaining our social lives? Kaag emphasises the underlying principle of James’ post-conversion thought – that you can control your future and change your life for the better. But is this actually the case? For some people, this just is not possible as their lives are made so difficult by economic and social structures that exist beyond their control. Perhaps James’ philosophy of freedom works only for those who genuinely can push against the forces that make them feel that life is not worth living. For someone like the critical psychologist David Smail, James’ vision of human freedom is an example of what he terms “magical voluntarism” to capture what he sees as the unrealistic but pervasive belief that “you can change the world you are in the last analysis responsible for, so that it no longer causes you distress.” For Smail, by contrast, differing forms of power, from the proximal (e.g. work, family, and social relations), to the distal (e.g. economics, politics, and culture) are “immeasurably more important in understanding human conduct than are the components of personal ‘psychology.’” It is interesting to see that James’ wife Alice Howe Gibbens held a totally different conception of freedom. Whereas James understood freedom to be radical individual and rooted in “the possibility of absolute beginnings”, Gibbens’ concern, as noted by Kaag, was “predominantly focused on the chances for freedom in American society, one that was still premised on the subjugation and neglect of workers, racial minorities, women, and children.” One imagines that for these subjugated populations, James’ idea of freedom as “absolute beginnings” would seem as hopelessly “blind and shallow” as those healthy-minded philosophies had seemed to the youthful James.

In defence of James, however, the truth-value of his belief in free will was warranted by the fact that it changed his life; he would be the first to acknowledge that if a belief doesn’t work for you, then drop it and find one that does.” Looking more broadly at the contemporary legacy of Jamesian pragmatism, Kaag notes that: “Pragmatism is about life and its amelioration. That’s it. And that is enough. What could matter more than this? Other than this? James was interested in ‘the truth’ only to the extent that the modest certainties that we live by might lead to the improvement of our not-so-easy-to-endure condition.” The term “amelioration” brings to mind Sally Haslanger and her “ameliorative metaphysics.” James, in fact, considered free will to be “a MELIORISTIC doctrine” insofar as it “holds up improvement as at least possible.” Whether or not Haslanger developed her framework via a reading of James is uncertain but the parallels are certainly compelling.

Picture Sally Haslanger

Haslanger considers three ways to answer philosophical questions of the form, “What is X?”: 1) conceptual, 2) descriptive, and 3) ameliorative. The conceptual approach broadly tracks rationalist methods that tend to answer a question by appealing to a priori methods and introspection. To take our favoured case of free will as an example, a conceptual approach will tend to start with a fairly commonsensical understanding of what “we” mean by free will, and then reason for or against it – from the armchair. For example: I can sit here and raise my hand at will, therefore free will must exist. By contrast, the descriptive approach wishes to track the concept using more empirical methods, for example by exploring the links between ideas about free will and the latest findings in the cognitive sciences. With the ameliorative approach, however, something very different happens. Rather than looking for the most appropriate method to investigate the question of free will, an ameliorative approach requires us to stand back and ask, “What is the point of free will? And what cognitive or practical tasks should our conception of it enable us to accomplish? Is our conception of free will effective? And if not, how can we make it more effective?” While the first two approaches engage in the conventional philosophical work of trying to describe what something is, the ameliorative approach is engaged in the more prescriptive task of asking how something should be. As Amia Srinivasan puts it, “what is new in Haslanger’s approach is...her insistence that ethical and political ends are just as legitimate metrics of conceptual aptness as the end of ‘cutting nature at its joints.’” We can see that there is in fact nothing especially new in Haslanger’s ameliorative approach, but rather that it a welcome reminder of something that had become obscured in the midst of an emerging vision of philosophy during the 20th century as “a detached intellectual exercise or a matter of word-play.”

Much more could be said about Kaag’s book, each chapter of which is teeming with rich philosophical pickings. His account of James’ views on perception and consciousness is especially compelling, with James laying the foundations for the kind of analysis Iris Murdoch would offer in her 1970 book The Sovereignty of Good. Like James who wrote that “compared to what we ought to be, we are only half awake,” Murdoch understands us to be largely mechanical in our conduct, driven by what she (in)famously refers to as the “fat relentless ego” to distort reality such that “consciousness is not normally a transparent glass through which it views the world, but a cloud of more or less fantastic reverie designed to protect the psyche from pain.” For Murdoch, the disciplining and transformation of the ego emerges as one of the central tasks for philosophers to face, as our knowledge of the world cannot be neatly separated from how we see the world. As Stephen Mulhall puts it, the transformation Murdoch proposes involves “attending to particulars” and “genuinely attuning one’s consciousness to its objects,” such that “if one fails to achieve this, then those objects will rather be attuned to one’s consciousness, to its fantasies and distortions… In this sense, every subject has the object she deserves.” Similarly, in a discussion of Walt Whitman, James refers to “the indisputable fact that this world never did anywhere or at any time contain more of essential divinity, or of eternal meaning, than is embodied in the fields of vision over which [the ordinary citizen’s] eyes so carelessly pass.” To renew the senses in this way is certainly no easy task, but could perhaps be added to the reader’s coronavirus lockdown schedule in between feverish consumption of the news and intermittent self-healing binges. In short: Can William James save your life? Maybe. Should you read this book? Definitely. Rebecca Buxton is a DPhil Candidate in the Oxford Department of International Development. Her research focuses on the intersection of political theory, displacement, and climate change. She is co-editor (with Lisa Whiting) of The Philosopher Queens, a collection of essays looking at the impact women have had on the history of philosophy. It will be published in June by Unbound. Anthony Morgan is based in Newcastle upon Tyne where he edits The Philosopher.


From The Philosopher, vol. 108, no. 2 ('Questioning Power').


bottom of page