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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 453

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This is the grave of William James.

Born in 1842 in New York to one of the nation’s most prominent intellectual families, William, as well as his brother Henry, grew up both in the U.S. and Europe. Despite bad health his entire life–including depression, hearing problems, stomach issues, skin problems, and probably mental illness–James studied with many of the leading lights of the day, but had trouble finishing anything. He even was on a trip up the Amazon with Louis Agassiz, but bailed after eight months due to more illness. It wasn’t until the early 1870s that he began to get his life together, convalescing in Germany and beginning to publish papers.

Of course, once James began publishing, he became one of the most important intellectuals in American history. He was appointed as a professor of physiology at Harvard in 1873 and remained there the rest of his life. He was a founder of the modern field of psychology, publishing the monumental The Principles of Psychology in 1890 and then a more accessible version of that book in 1892. The Will to Believe in 1897 received a ton of attention as well and then there was The Varieties of Religious Experience in 1902, one of the most famous books of intellectual writing ever written by an American. His core belief was moral pragmatism. In a doctrine that has long disturbed many, James wrote, “Truths emerge from facts, but they dip forward into facts again and add to them; which facts again create or reveal new truth (the word is indifferent) and so on indefinitely. The ‘facts’ themselves meanwhile are not true. They simply are. Truth is the function of the beliefs that start and terminate among them.”

I will be the first to admit that I’m not much of a classic intellectual and I find arguments about abstract ideas pretty boring and tend to lose attention quickly, so I have little to say about James or his ideas. This is also why my own books tend to have little discussion of philosophical or historiographical debates or attention paid to Marxist discussions over the years. To me, most of this is a distraction from what everyday people need in their lives. I only state this because I am not really going to go into more detail on James’ philosophical world, which I have no doubt many commenters can debate on their own without me butchering it.

I will however say that I strongly approve of James claiming he only ever understood Hegel while under the influence of nitrous oxide. James always was interested in drug experimentation, including peyote. And I appreciate him questioning and rejecting the idea of absolute truths, always a force for reaction in the world, including with Marxists. His own personal experimentation with religions and various forms of spirituality do not particularly interest me, but on the other hand, I very much like the principle of drawing from whatever traditions work for you and can make sense as truth in your head to create your own worldview. Since we in the end all pretty much do this anyway, admitting it and moving on is useful.

Through his long tenure at Harvard, James mentored or taught a generation of American intellectuals, including W.E.B. DuBois, George Santayana, G. Stanley Hall, Gertrude Stein, Theodore Roosevelt, Walter Lippmann, and Alain Locke.

James died in 1910 in Tamworth, New Hampshire, at the age of 68.

William James is buried in Cambridge Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts. If you would like this series to visit some of James’ students, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. G. Stanley Hall is buried in Ashfield, Massachusetts and Alain Locke is in Washington, D.C. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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