Genuine Reality: A Life of William James by Linda Simon. Harcourt Brace, 466 pp., $35.00.
March 15, 1998        

After the philosopher David Hume died, his friend Adam Smith wrote: “Upon the whole, I have always considered him ... as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man as perhaps the nature of human frailty will admit.” After (and before) William James died, dozens of people said more or less the same thing about him. Even today James inspires affection among his readers to a rare degree. There have been greater philosophers than James, but most of them have been importantly wrong in one way or another. James was not. And although he was perhaps not superhumanly charming or heroically good, it’s hard to think of any among his fellow immortals as charming as James who were also as good, or any as good who were also as charming.

He had, it must be admitted, some unusual advantages. His grandfather, a self-made businessman, was one of the richest Americans of his generation. His father, a maverick theologian, philosopher, and social critic, was one of the most eccentric Americans of his generation. And William’s siblings were extraordinary: Henry, the novelist; Alice, the diarist; and Wilky, a Civil War hero. (Bob, the youngest, became an alcoholic and never amounted to much but at least wrote witty letters.) Henry James Senior kept the family tumbling around New York, New England, and Europe in an almost manic search for ideal schooling for the children, who nevertheless adored him, their mother, and one another. William’s remark later in life about his brother Henry -- “he is a native of the James family, and has no other country” -- was true of all the children. It was a pretty good place to come from.

William vacillated a great deal before choosing a career. He gave promise as a painter but was also strongly attracted to the biological sciences, psychology, and philosophy. Complicating the decision were his frequent, inexplicable depressions and his almost equally mysterious back pains and eye ailments. Somehow he managed to qualify for Harvard Medical School, graduating in 1869, but he never seriously considered practicing medicine. Instead he stayed on at Harvard to teach. Gradually his essays, lectures, and reviews brought him notice, and a prominent publisher commissioned him to write a textbook of the new science of psychology.

The writing dragged on for a decade, but when it finally appeared in 1890, The Principles of Psychology made an epoch. Ranging across what would now be called cognitive science, affective and behavioral psychology, and the philosophy of mind, not to mention occasional excursions into the paranormal, it was a kind of summa psychologica. It was also delightfully written, often sparkling and colorful, never less than graceful. The enormous popular and professional success of the Principles made James an international celebrity.

In the last two decades of his life, James concentrated on philosophy, elaborating what he variously called “pragmatism,” “pluralism,” and “radical empiricism.” The substance of this theory, like that of all other philosophical theories, has dwindled, but its spirit and method, along with James’s stylistic verve, continue to leaven the subject. A couple of famous formulations may convey the gist. The pragmatic method he defined as “the attitude of looking away from first things, principles, ‘categories,’ supposed necessities; and of looking toward last things, fruits, consequences, facts.” And elsewhere, more concretely: “If it can make no practical difference which of two statements be true, then they are really one statement in two verbal forms. If it can make no practical difference whether a given statement be true or false, then the statement has no real meaning.” This rule, James adds, will allow us to dispense with much “vain wrangling” -- a pretty good description, I would say (though James does not go quite so far), of the entire philosophical tradition.

James also had an abiding interest in religion and mysticism; and since turn-of-the-century America was hungry for moral instruction and spiritual uplift, he became the country’s most popular lecturer, virtually a second Emerson. (As it happens, Emerson, a friend of Henry James Senior, had blessed the infant William in his crib.) He co-founded the American Society for Psychical Research and spent a good deal of time investigating mediums. A more lasting fruit of his extra-philosophical interests was The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), one of the seminal books of the twentieth century.

Linda Simon’s new biography avoids several pitfalls common in the genre nowadays. It is not sprawling and pointlessly inclusive; it is not ideologically tendentious and anachronistic; it is not aggressively judgmental or psychoanalytically reductive. The writing is crisp and the pace is brisk. There’s not much new in it, as far as I can tell, but James is undoubtedly worth a biography every generation or two.

Every devotee of William James is bound to quibble here and there with any biographer’s judgments. I think Simon is too hard on Henry James Senior, whom she calls “domineering and irritable to the pitch of insanity” and blames for William’s early depressions. Certainly there were conflicts, and some degree of filial neurosis was inevitable. But all the children would have endorsed Bob’s recollection: “It was a beautiful and splendid childhood for any child to have had, and I remember it now as full of indulgence and light and color and hardly a craving unsatisfied.” Even William’s famous last letter to his dying father -- surely one of the most beautiful and tender letters ever written by a child to a parent -- Simon sees mainly as a declaration of emotional independence.

Simon also exaggerates William’s insensitivity to his sister Alice. She calls his letter responding to Alice’s announcement of her imminent death “decidedly cool,” but Alice did not think so, nor did Henry. On the other hand, Simon is very good on William’s marriage and his admirable wife (also named Alice).

In the end, despite her considerable research and expository proficiency, Simon does not really succeed in bringing William James to life on the page. It is possible to finish Genuine Reality without being utterly and permanently fascinated by James, which is something few people who met (or have read) him could avoid being. Even his extremely fastidious siblings never tired of him. After seeing him for the last time, sister Alice wrote in her diary: “All that there is to be said of him, of course, is that he is simply himself, a creature who speaks in another language as H[enry] says from the rest of mankind and who would lend life and charm to a treadmill.”