William James, “Psychology: A Briefer Course”, Part Two

This is a continuation of my previous post on James’ psychology textbook, which was a condensed version of The Principles of Psychology.  As we saw, James’ moves us from the biological foundations of the mind and the senses (mostly common to all of us) to our individualized conception of “the self.”  The second half of the book, collected in the Library of America’s volume of James’ early writings, covers specific ways that this “self” interacts with the world through conception of the external world, association, memory, imagination, space, time, emotion, reason, instinct and will.  I suspect the most interesting question in psychology for libertarians is to what degree is liberty of will possible.  This is a question currently being discussed by neuroscientists.  The familiarity of James’ musings on free will, comes from my relatively brief exposure to some of these current debates, which seem to suggest free will as we normally understand it is an illusion, even if not entirely morally irrelevant.  James presents some skepticism about free will, but more or less rejects its relevance, because of the crucial nature of action.  We have already seen that James presents action as the key to habit formation (or breaking).  It is here there there is hope for freedom.  “The world thus finds in the heroic man its worthy match and mate; and the effort which he is able to put forth to hold himself erect and keep his heart unshaken is the direct measure of his worth and function in the game of human life.  He can stand this Universe. . . . He forms a part of human destiny. . . . Thus not only our morality but our religion, so far as the latter is deliberate, depend on the effort which we can make.  “Will you or won’t you have it so?” is the most probing question we are ever asked; we are asked it every hour of the day, and about the largest as well as the smallest, the most theoretical as well as the most practical, things.  We answer by consents or non-consents and not by words.  What wonder that these dumb responses should seem our deepest organs of communication with the nature of things!  What wonder if the effort demanded by them be the measure of our worth as men!  What wonder if the amount which we accord of it were the one strictly underived and original contribution which we make to the world!.” (425–426)


As we go through the text with an eye to the question of action and will, we see the centrality of the material world, our interaction with it, and willingness to transform it to shape our will (and in doing so shaping our mental conception of the world).  Even pure reason (if even possible) is bound by this. “All consciousness is motor.  The reader will not have forgotten, in the jungle of purely inward processes and products through which the last chapters have born him, that the final result of them all must be some form of bodily activity.”  (347)  Even pure imagination is a product of experience and action.  A blind person cannot imagine color.  In the same way, we cannot imagine alternatives to the world we have without making them to some degree realized.  (The frustration of reading science fiction is that the authors rarely can envision economic, social, or political systems that do not have parallels to the world around us.)

So, yes, if we accept James’ position, we find that we are bound by the physicality of our experiences and physical construct.  Our capacity for imagination, free-will, and reason are inexorably bound.  This may frustrate those who seek liberty of thought and action.  Our solution is to act and through action, our will can be actualized.  In the process we may be surprised at what we create, do, think, or envision.


I was reading the chronology of James’ life.  Every volume of the Library of America has an author’s bio in the form of a chronology.  William and Henry had a brother named Robert (Bob).  William James seems to have spend a bit of time keeping track of Bob, occasionally trying to set him straight.  Once Bob was running a cotton plantation in Florida, later he took a job in Iowa as a railroad clerk.  He was an amateur painter, worked as a curator of a Milwaukee museum.  A few years later William has to drag Bob from his drunken stupor in Milwaukee, where he can dry him out in Boston.  A wanderer with a soft-spot for Milwaukee will always warm my heart.
It seems to me that Bob James is worthy of a biographer, or that at least the three brothers show up in a television comedy (My Three James?)


One response to “William James, “Psychology: A Briefer Course”, Part Two

  1. Pingback: Henry Adams, “Mont Saint Michel” | Neither Kings nor Americans

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