NEARLY FORTY years ago, when one of my college professors was asked which philosopher he found most interesting, his answer was Baruch Spinoza. I've never forgotten that odd moment, in part because I've wondered how I might have answered. At the time, I think I would have said Bertrand Russell (whose books I'd been reading since high school), but now I suspect I would probably say William James.
Who was William James? One answer is that he was an American philosopher and psychologist who lived from 1842 to 1910. He was also a New England blue blood. Rich and well-connected, he found it rewarding to travel and live in Europe. Having been intellectually groomed at Harvard University as both an undergraduate and graduate, he became a philosophy professor and taught for 32 years on that same campus.
He was of course the brother of Henry James, the celebrated novelist, while Alice James, their invalid sister, is known for the letters and journals she wrote. In a sense, like his brother and sister, William James was first and foremost a writer, an extraordinary non-fiction writer, although he is mostly remembered today as the chief proponent of Pragmatism.
The single, most important event that made James a household name was the publication in 1890 of his two-volume textbook, titled Principles of Psychology. No other textbook then or since is as literate, as quotable, as finely and fluently written. It is at once authoritative and conversational, a magnificent 1400-page essay that took him twelve long years to write. Among teachers and students, it was simply known as “James.” Two years later, when he produced an abbreviated version in one volume, titled Psychology: The Briefer Course, it was given the nickname of “Jimmy.”
In the mid-1890s, he contributed to the development of Gertrude Stein, the gifted (if still controversial) American expatriate writer. It was James who coined the phrase "stream of consciousness" (or “stream of thought”), while Stein is more infamous than famous for her annoyingly repetitive "word portraits," in which she adjusts, returns, adjusts again, yet never exactly retraces her steps, like a dog in pursuit of a promising scent.
Reading her often bewildering prose, one is reminded not only of James’ stream of consciousness, but also of the notion that (with apologies to Heraclitus) one cannot step twice into the same stream of consciousness. As an undergraduate, when she was James’ student at Radcliffe College (Harvard's annex for women back then), she engaged in laboratory experiments in "automatic writing," the practice of writing so rapidly that the mind can no longer keep pace with the pen. Small wonder that her famous word portraits sound like automatic writing.
There is a memorable story about Stein and James in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (written by Stein, pretending to be speaking as her lifelong companion): “It was a very lovely spring day [writes Stein], Gertrude Stein had been going to the opera every night and going also to the opera in the afternoon and had been otherwise engrossed and it was the period of the final examinations, and there was the examination in William James’ course. She sat down with the examination paper before her and she just could not. Dear Professor James, she wrote at the top of her paper. I am so sorry but really I do not feel a bit like an examination paper in philosophy today, and left.” The next day, Stein continues, a card from James arrived that read, “Dear Miss Stein, I understand perfectly how you feel I often feel like that myself.” Whereupon, he gave her the highest grade in the course.

In his own time, James’ teaching methods were atypical at least, maybe radical. Even today, to give the highest grade to a student who walks out of the final exam is likely to meet with suspicion. Imagine the questions that James would be asked now by his university colleagues, administrators and (god forbid!) his tenure committee: Shouldn’t he have based his grades on a set of objective criteria that could be applied evenhandedly to all his students? What will happen if, next semester, his entire class should refuse to take the final exam? By treating one student with such leniency, is he not contributing to “grade inflation”?
Anticipating such questions, somewhere he admonished new teachers to be “patient and sympathetic with the type of mind that cuts a poor figure in examinations. It may, in the long examination which life sets us, come out in the end in better shape than the glib and ready reproducer, its passions being deeper, its purposes more worthy, its combining power less commonplace, and its total mental output consequently more important.”
James Putnam, a friend and Harvard colleague, offered a thought that may also shed light on James’ leniency toward Stein: James, said Putnam, realized “that the fire of genius is distributed widely among men, as radium is found in minute quantities among baser minerals, and his generous instinct and intellectual zeal prompted him to seek its traces out.”
James was often photographed. Among my favorites is a pair of snapshots taken by his daughter Margaret at his farm at Chocorua, in upstate New Hampshire. On a sunlit morning in September 1903, we see him talking to his friend and Harvard colleague, Josiah Royce. He is dressed in the outfit he typically wore to his classroom, including a colorful tie, a brown tweed suit, and what may be his riding boots, a style that so greatly contrasted with the drab formality of other teachers that one classroom visitor said that he looked “more like a sportsman than a professor.” In the first photograph, he and Royce are serious, while in the second (only moments later), James now is laughing and clowning around, saying “Royce, you’re being photographed! Look out! I say Damn the Absolute!”
It is evident in portraits of him that he had the most wonderful wrinkles around the outside edges of his eyes (called “crow’s-feet”), as occur on the faces of people who laugh. James laughed very easily in the company of others, some thought too easily. He was once compared to a “nervous thoroughbred,” and his students are said to have pleaded with him “to be serious for a moment.” He had “lively blue eyes” and, “even in old age, seemed spirited and vigorous.” Putnam remembered that he was “always full of playfulness and fun. His laughter was never boisterous, but no one could be quicker than he to see the chance for merriment, let the joke be with him or against him.”
It may be that some of his laughter was used to mitigate his anxiety. Throughout his life, he was repeatedly overwhelmed by depression and self-doubt. He described himself as a “sick soul” after he had a momentous attack of anxiety when he was 28 years old. As a result of that nightmarish breakdown, James said later, “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 insecurity of life that I never knew before…” Try as he might, he could not rid himself of dread, which he described in a letter as his “besetting sin.” Given the slightest reason for anxiety, he continued, “the whole ‘clanging rookery’ of hell comes darkening the air, and settling down in my devoted bosom as if it were their undisputed nest.” Even on the brink of retirement, as he walked toward his classroom for one of the last times, he said to a friend he bumped into, “I have lectured so and so many years and yet here am I in trepidation on the way to my class.”
In those photographs of James with Royce, he is seated on a short stone wall, typical of New England, like the one that Robert Frost describes in “The Mending Wall.” It’s a perfectly suitable setting for him, because he was always a sort-crosser, a person who straddles the boundaries between intellectual territories. Both a philosopher and a psychologist, he was a scientific scholar whose writings are also exemplary from the standpoint of literature. He was not a church-goer, and yet he was genuinely interested in what he called “the varieties of religious experience.” He was curious about chemical stimulants, extra-sensory perception, and spiritualism. “Keep your mind open,” he advised his students, remembered Stein, “and when some one objected, but Professor James, this that I say, is true. Yes, said James, it is abjectly true.”
As a young man, he briefly entertained the hope that he might someday become an artist. He loved to draw, and at age eighteen he moved to Newport, Rhode Island, where he studied in the studio of the painter William Morris Hunt, along with another artist and Arts and Crafts designer named John La Farge, with whom he remained good friends. All but one of his paintings no longer exist, but a number of sketches and drawings remain, including a piercing self-portrait from 1866. Hunt admired his artistic capacity, but warned that society rarely responds to the needs of an artist. Soon after, for whatever reasons (self-doubt, poor health, his father’s disapproval), James abandoned art and decided to go into science instead.
Many years later, two of his sons, William (called Billy) and Alexander (Aleck), took up the career that their father had dropped. Both became reasonably good painters, but not without confronting first their own father’s skepticism. They became pupils of Abbott H. Thayer, a New Hampshire painter known as the “father of camouflage,” who was himself a sort-crosser, having made major discoveries as both an artist and a naturalist.
James had urged Aleck (who was nineteen) to apply to Harvard as a freshman, but the latter’s academic record was lackluster, and he wanted to learn from an artist instead. In the fall of 1909, Thayer sent William James a letter, pleading that Aleck be given some time to test his artistic potential. “To me,” Thayer wrote to James, “you are doing to Aleck the same thing as if one were to lash the magnetic needle, nail or cement it, fast in an approved northerly direction! For better or for worse his needle does not consent to settle north till it has done its swinging.”
James died less than a year later on August 26, 1910. The last photographs of him were taken on his deathbed, soon after his breathing had come to an end. They were made by his artist son Billy, who also made a plaster cast of his face (called a “death mask”). Thayer came up for the funeral, and, having the same physical build as the deceased philosopher, was given a bundle of clothing that James would no longer need. Among those inherited articles was a wonderful brown Norfolk jacket that James had often worn when he lectured to his students.
His friend John J. Chapman said that James, at heart, always “wanted to be a poet and an artist, and that there lay in him, beneath the ocean of metaphysics, a Lost Atlantis of fine arts…”
And his colleague George Santayana observed that “Philosophy to him was rather like a maze in which he happened to find himself wandering, and what he was looking for was a way out.”
Let us hope that his passing provided him that.
William James:
Looking for a Way Out

by Roy R. Behrens

This essay was published initially in Ballast Quarterly Review Vol 18 No 3 (Spring 2003). Copyright © by Roy R. Behrens.
Digital collage portrait of William James © by Roy R. Behrens 2002. This artwork was initially produced as a cover illustration for the William James Society’s journal Streams of William James. In the interim unfortunately, it has been passed around the internet, often without attribution. ballast reviews
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Anon [from a
private diary, 1899]:
Mr. James, I mean Mr. William James, the humorist who writes on Psychology, not his brother, the psychologist who writes novels. H.G. Wells:
I once saw [Henry] James quarreling with his brother William James, the psychologist. He had lost his calm; he was terribly unnerved, He appealed to me, to me of all people, to adjudicate on what was and what was not permissible behavior in England…I had come to Rye with a car to fetch William James and his daughter to my home at Sandgate. William had none of Henry’s passionate regard for the polish upon the surfaces of life and he was immensely excited by the fact that in the little Rye inn, which had its garden just over the high brick wall of the garden of Lamb House [Henry’s residence], G.K. Chesterton was staying. William James had corresponded with our vast contemporary and he sorely wanted to see him. So with a scandalous directness he had put the gardener’s ladder against that ripe red wall and clambered up and peeped over! Henry had caught him at it. [As quoted by Simon Nowell-Smith, compiler, The Legend of the Master (London, Constable, 1947), p. 149.] William James
[The Principles of Psychology]:
Consciousness, then, does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. Such words as "chain" or "train" do not describe it fitly as it presents itself in the first instance. It is nothing jointed; it flows. A "river" or a "stream" are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described. COOK BOOK: Gertrude Stein, William Cook and Le Corbusier (2005) FALSE COLORS: Art, Design and Modern Camouflage (2002) CAMOUPEDIA: A Compendium of Research on Art, Architecture and Camouflage (2009) shipping
now Eugene Taylor, William James on Consciousness Beyond the Margin. Princeton University Press, 1996. One of a pair of photographs by Margaret James of her father and his Harvard colleague Josiah Royce (right) conversing on a stone fence at the James farm at Chococura, New Hampshire (1903). Gerald E. Meyers, William James: His Life and Thought. Yale University Press, 2001. Robert D. Richardson, William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism. Mariner 2007. Alice Boughton [American photographer, describing a session in 1907 in which William James posed for a portrait by her]: 
He stayed perhaps two hours, at times talking delightfully, and giving me the impression of having any amount of leisure to listen. He had the gift of seeming to be interested in another’s point of view, whether you were the photographer or the scrub woman. Kindly and genial…putting one at ease without one’s being conscious that this was so. As he was leaving I asked him whether he would allow his picture to be published, and whether to let his friends have them. He said, “Yes certainly, if anyone cares to have them.” I had said goodbye and he had gone when a few moments later he knocked at the door, this time to say, “You won’t let the yellow press have it, will you?” [from Boughton’s Photographing the Famous, as quoted in F.O. Matthiessen, The James Family. New York: Knopf 1947). Jacques Barzan
[A Stroll with William James]:
[In 1890, as William James is walking across Harvard Yard with two of his students, they suddenly see a] large, imposing figure coming toward them. His long white beard blowing, cane swinging, he seems in a world of his own, talking to himself, or else to some invisible listener. He will mow them down if they do not get off the narrow sidewalk. “Whoever he is,” says the girl [student], sure of his not overhearing, “he’s the epitome of the absentminded professor.” “What you really mean,” says James, “is that he is present-minded somewhere else.” William James
[Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (1907)]:
I firmly disbelieve, myself, that our human experience is the highest form of experience extant in the universe. I believe rather that we stand in much the same relation to the whole of the universe as our canine and feline pets do to the whole of human life. They inhabit our drawing rooms and libraries. They take part in scenes of whose significance they have no inkling. They are merely tangent to curves of history the beginnings and ends and forms of which pass wholly beyound their ken. So we are tangent to the wider life of things.
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for a guide to our websites Roy R. Behrens, Portrait of William James. Ink, colored pencil, collage (1981). Copyright © by Roy R. Behrens.