Some Words from William James

While visiting Boston a few years ago I approached the bronze memorial to Robert Gould Shaw, the American Civil War hero who died with his 54th Massachusetts regiment of African American soliders in an assault on Fort Wagner, near Charleston, South Carolina.

I stood at the head of line of a high school debate team at a national competition at Harvard. We were taking a half-day break to get a glimpse of Boston and had wandered without quite knowing where we were going to the Common, Boston’s vast, landscaped public park.

The Shaw memorial stands on the edge of Boston Common in front of the State House. I tried to tell the kids the importance of what we saw, but the best I could do was ask them to see the movie Glory, which commemorates the valor of Shaw and his men. Though the film was made before the kids were born, some were impressed when I told them Denzel Washington won his first Academy Award for his performance in the film. Most wanted to move on.

What I did not know at the time was that, way back in 1897 when the memorial was unveiled, William James, whose name is on one of the Harvard buildings these kids passed during the competition, gave the dedicatory speech. A professor of pyschology and philosophy, James was Harvard’s, and possibly the entire city’s, most popular teacher. His classes typically overflowed with students, and when he went on the road to lecture, his talks filled every auditorium, regardless of the topic or the audience it attracted.

The previous century may have been the high water mark of the lecture as an art form. For James, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, it was a lucrative mix of popular entertainment (Twain and Wild were famously funny) and uplifiting information.

For the dedication of the monument, James had been selected over Harvard’s president, Charles Eliot. Some at the school were miffed because, unlike most of the school’s professors, James had no doctorate (though he acquired several honorary degrees from universities throughout the world). A generalist who came late to academia, having studied art, botany and physiology before finding his calling behind podium, James often criticized how institutions of higher learning insisted on degrees as qualifications. What was more important, he argued, was an openess to new ideas, an eagerness to measure those ideas with personal experience, an admission that no single point of view could be correct, and a commitment to education that helped students (as well as the academy’s greater community) understand themselves and live better lives. He believed (without reading Immanuel Kant) that rationality had its limits–that some things could happen by courageously willing them into existence.

He also defended religious belief. He dignified the importance of individual religious experiences, even if they could be explained as something other than miraculous. Instead of mocking faith as a kind of superstition, James asked, in effect, if so many people want to believe in a God that listens to prayers and has created a universe that makes moral sense, what positive value does this have for individuals and the society in which they live?

And how can anyone be so sure that a supernatural realm does NOT exist? Science and rationality cannot confirm it.

William was the brother of novelist Henry James, whose writings I came to love in college. Henry, whose novels became several costume drama films toward the end of the last century, is an acquired taste. His prose is ornate, verbose, densely complicated. As a storyteller, he was obsessed with gossip and the collision between European aristocracy and America’s merely wealthy. He also wrote one of the best known literary ghost stories, The Turn of the Screw, in which the ghosts are ambiguous but, like the shade of Hamlet’s father, had an important effect on the living.

Both brothers shared a fascination with what was offically known as “psychic research.” Spiritualism, ghosts and other phenomena we now associate with Halloween and horror films was, for a while, considered an area for legitimate scientific inquiry.

As a scientist, James was taken in by a Boston medium when in mourning for his son Herman, who only lived two years. When in her trance, Lenora Piper told him things that he decided she could not possibly know. James never considered that the servants in his household knew the servants in Piper’s. He so wanted to believe in spiritualism that, even when he and his colleagues unmasked frauds, he insisted that more should be learned about it. When one of his closest friends died, he waited patiently for a word from beyond the grave.

None came.

When reading Linda Simon’s Genuine Reality: A Life of William James, I couldn’t help but feel that, unlike so many other philosophers, whose arduously derived truths and positions have faded from contemporary discussion, James still had something to say about what it is to be an American and come to terms with living in what is still a “new” world. His uniquely American philosophy (pluralism, pragmatism and radical empiricism) requires some explanation, but his attitude about embracing our differences, mutual self respect, the value of experience over specialized knowledge, and how contradictory beliefs and creeds may complicate, but ultimately strengthen our own.

When he dedicated the Shaw monument in 1897, he warned that

“The deadliest enemies of nations are not their foreign foes: they always dwell within their borders. And from these internal enemies civilization is always in need of being saved. The nation blest above all nations is she whom the civic genius of the people does the saving day by day, by acts without external picturesqueness; by speaking, writing, voting reasonably; by smiting corruption swiftly; by good temper between parties; by the people knowing true men when they see them, and preferring them as leaders to rabid partisans or empty quacks.

In order for our country to survive the wounds of the Civil War (which persist to this day), James said we must show “trained and disciplined good temper towards the opposite party when it fairly wins its innings” and “fierce and merciless resentment towards every man or set of men who break the public peace.”

We can go places with these thoughts. We can argue that the American Revolution of 1776 broke the public peace. We can assert that, in terms of total American lives lost on American soil, the worst event in our history was caused by foriegn foes who used our commercial aircraft against us on September 11, 2001. The total loss was a few hundred lives higher than the attack on Pearl Harbor–another act of foriegn foes who, in a fashion James would find consistent with his idea of truth as a process rather than an definitive end, are now our allies.

We can also say that despite regular and highly publicized efforts to smite corruption, it has yet to leave our society or our government.

But I see those acts of civic genius “without external picturesqueness” every day. I witness the acts of many who behave reasonably. And I definitely prefer good temper between parties–political and otherwise, as well as leaders who are not rabid partisans or empty quacks.

I wish I had known more about James and his speech when I stood in front of the Shaw memorial with my debating kids. At the very least, it would have been a teachable moment. At best, it may have inspired others to see the movie, or, perhaps, find out a little bit more about James and Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose names adorn Harvard halls.

Now I hear James’ words, not calling to me from beyond the grave, but stating proudly from the pages of history, that, as much as our daily news reports suggest the end of the world is near, we can “will” a better future into existence.

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