William James (1842–1910) is arguably one of the most brilliant and fecund minds this nation has ever produced. James and his friend Charles Sanders Peirce were the progenitors of the only distinctly American philosophical movement, pragmatism. The Principles of Psychology, published in 1890, marked James as the first prominent American psychologist. His The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) established him as a pioneer in the study of comparative religion. Americans have long looked to Europe for intellectual beacons, but James deserves our attention.
John Kaag’s short, luminously written Sick Souls, Healthy Minds serves as both a biography and an introduction to James’s thought, but, most significantly and in the spirit of James himself, it delivers healing wisdom for those James described as “sick souls.”
James’s own bouts with depression were long and parlous. In his mid-thirties, while seeking a cure in Europe for his stupefying funk, he wrote to his father that “the thoughts of the pistol, the dagger and the bowl” have begun to “usurp an unduly large part of my depression.” Kaag avoids over-intellectualizing the causes of James’s acedia. Nevertheless, he argues that James felt paralyzed by the strong arguments for determinism—i.e., the view that every event, including every human action, is caused by, and explicable in terms of, a preceding event, and that free will is therefore a chimera. Ironically, determinism is the philosophical equivalent of the Calvinist belief in pre-determination that James’s loving father grappled with and ultimately rejected.
In 1870, at one of his many low points, James perused the work of the minor French author and recluse Charles Renouvier. In his Essais, Renouvier argues that individual free will “could break the logical continuity of a mechanical series and be the initial cause of another series of phenomena.” Renouvier emphasizes that a person cannot get past the problem of determinism merely by means of abstract argument: “To truly grasp the lesson [that free will exists] an action or undertaking was required.” According to Kaag, this short tract provided James with his road-to-Damascus moment. Feeling as though he had been born again, James resolved: “My first act of free will...shall be to believe in free will.”
Both as an empirical psychologist and as a philosopher, James made a careful study of the nature and significance of habits. He came to the conclusions that habit “is the enormous fly-wheel of society, its most conservative agent.” Most of us are in thrall to robot-like patterns of behavior. We are risk-averse and devoid of the boldness James’s hero, Goethe, described as possessing “genius, power and magic.” Acknowledging the power of habit, Kaag chuckles at his own need to toss back a cold beer at the end of every workday. I know whereof Kaag speaks. Passing the pub as I drive home, I will sometimes bark at myself “Not today!”—and then mechanically pull into the bar for happy hour. Belief in free will requires, at a minimum, that we be able to exorcise habits. With that end in mind, James suggests, “Everybody should do at least two things each day that he hates to do, just for practice.”