Although my response to William James uses my intellect, I don’t know if I can state the gist of it intellectually. Somehow, I seem to hear him speak very directly. His writing isn’t just words: there’s a voice. For example, Randall Albright had quoted him recently on the James Family List Serve as saying:
The commonest vice of the human mind is its disposition to see everything as yes or no, as black or white, its incapacity for discrimination of intermediate shades. So the critics agree to some hard and fast impossible definition of socialism, and extract absurdities from it as a conjurer get rabbits from a hat.
— William James,
from the “Monistic Idealism” chapter,
A Pluralistic Universe (New York:
Longmans, Green, and Co., 1909), 78.
It’s uncanny. It’s as if I were looking at an old daguerreotype and suddenly the image on the flat, cold, glassy picture in my hand started to move and speak. The word “frisson” is overused now, but that’s what William often makes me feel: a shiver of delight. It must be that I am particularly susceptible to him; more, he seems to have been alive and aware as few others have ever been.
He needs and wants to see things as they are. He refuses to settle. It makes no difference whether he agrees with others or not. If he does, it makes no difference whether he thought it first or not. He is totally absorbed in encountering the thing or person and in the meaning for people.
I think of what he looks like in photographs: penetrating, quick, nervous, quirky. I would have been satisfied with a life as his Dr. Watson.
Note: This post is slightly revised from a little appreciation that originally appeared in the William James Society‘s inaugural issue of Streams of William James — Spring, 1999; Vol 1, No. 1.