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I have learned a great deal from studying the "Golden Age of American Philosophy" at the beginning of the 20th Century, including, particularly, the work of William James (1842 -- 1910). A psychologist and a philosopher, James is widely regarded as the founder of American pragmatism. Jacques Barzun (1907 -- 2012) was born in France but spent most of his life in the United States. Barzun was a prolific author and a recipient of both the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the French Legion of Honor. He was a cultural historian, noted for his erudition and his love for his adopted country, including its popular culture.
Barzun's book, "A Stroll With William James" (1982) is an outstanding and sympathetic study of the earlier American philosopher which also tells the reader a good deal about Barzun himself. In his Preface Barzun describes himself as a "polytheist" in his reading, meaning that he is receptive to learning from many people with widely diverging points of view. Still, Barzun found a different attraction in reading James than in reading any other writer. Barzun says:
"I find him visibly and testably right-- right in intuition, range of considerations, sequence of reasons, and fully rounded power of expression. He is for me the most inclusive mind I can listen to, the most concrete and the least hampered by trifles. He is moreover entirely candid and full of gaiety, lovable through his words as he was in life to his friends. As if this were not enough, he helps me to understand what his contemporaries and mine were and are doing. I stroll with him again and again because he knows better than anyone else the material and spiritual country I am traveling through."
Barzun finds in James "an antidote to the opium of modern ideologies, a tonic in the resistance to the sludge of 'modern communications', popular and advanced." In the body of the book, Barzun explains why he loves to "stroll" with James and who reading James can serve as an antidote to some of the shibboleths Barzun found in the late 20th century. Barzun's study is inspiring, provocative, and bracing.
The book is more detailed and dense than the term "stroll" might suggest. But it is manages to be both accessible and entertaining as Barzun describes how James' character and thought have influenced him.
The book comes closest to biography in its opening chapter which describes James' upbringing and his depression and suicidal thoughts in his mid 20s. Barzun considers how James was able to right himself and make good on the sense of purposelessness he felt as a young man.
The book describes many of James' writings and attempts in its course to organize them into a coherent whole. There are many asides and digressions in the book in which Barzun brings his interpretation of James to bear on historical or contemporary issues. The book also includes a chapter bring William's work together with that of his brother, the novelist Henry James together with the work of many other figures from the late 19th century whose work in addressing still lively issues may not be fully appreciated after two World Wars.
Broadly, Barzun sees James as a nonreductive naturalist whose work is based on the fullness of human experience but does not reduce human experience to scientific knowledge or to materialism. James was always preoccupied with religious questions although he was far from traditional in his outlook. Barzun also sees James as a pluralist of a special kind in which there are many separate realities in the way individuals see the world and many truths. As Barzun rightly stresses, James emphasizes the importance of feeling in human endeavor and how feeling is always a part of thinking. James is thus a pluralist and a "radical empiricist" in that he endeavors to rely on all human experience rather than, say, sense data or science, as well as, a pragmatist, a word which is difficult and ambiguous.
Barzun begins with a detailed chapter on James "masterpiece" the "Principles of Psychology" of 1890 which founded the modern study of psychology and became the basis of James' further work. Indeed, Barzun wants to show how much of James thinking is a development of the "Principles". Barzun compares the book to "Moby-Dick" in "being the narrative of a search". He finds, "in James, the object of the pursuit is as elusive, as intimate, as momentous for Everyman as anything symbolized by the white whale: it is the human mind: or how, from multiple sensation, -- the 'one great blooming, buzzing confusion, of the infant's encounter with the world-- comes such an extraordinary entity as the warm particular self each of us knows, with its perceptions, will, judgment, habits, emotions, preference; and its undetermined powers; its capacity to abstract and remember; to suffer and utter in myriad languages, to create art and philosophize, to invent systems of writing and of algebra; and with the aid of puny limbs and muscles to bore through mountains, bridge abysses, and reach the moon." The "Principles" lays the groundwork for James pluralism, radical empiricism and pragmatism developed in subsequent work.
Barzun considers at greater or lesser length many other works of James in developing James' views on the philosophical question of the nature of truth (where Barzun gives James more credit than he usually receives), the nature of pragmatism, and pluralism and ethics. Barzun develops and defends a form of relativism based upon the tie between feeling and thought in each person and the need to understand reality from the point of view of each individual. Barzun points out, as I know too well from my own case, how" the false separation of feeling from thought [is] a cause of the distrust people feel for one another's realities". (Barzun, p. 25)
Only late in the book does Barzun turn to James' "second masterpiece" the "Varieties of Religious Experience", a book I have learned from over the years. In this book together with the short, controversial essay "The Will to Believe", James explored the importance of different forms of religious consciousness. The book suggests how religious experience, but not particular creeds, is as fundamental to human feeling and thought as any other forms, including science and common sense. Most of the book consists of descriptions and analyses of various religious temperaments, with James venturing to express his own ideas only in the work's concluding pages. Why undertake the religious search at all? Barzun, explaining James, states: "Because the religious emotion goes with the feeling that we can act with some power in the universe to support and enhance the worthier and seemlier, we can transcend animal existence and oppose its evils. .... For James the possibility existed that 'we may be in the universe as dogs and cats are in our libraries, seeing the books and hearing the conversation, but having no inking of the meaning of it all. The outlines of the superhuman consciousness thus made probable must remain, however, very vague, and the number of functionally distinct 'selves' it comports and carries has to be left entirely problematic.'"
Barzun's book shows eloquently how much may be learned from William James. As with other of America's great thinkers, James is probably more revered than read. I enjoyed this leisurely stroll with both William James and Jacques Barzun. They are both excellent companions.
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