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A Guide to William James

kkazan's picture

William James had a very specific way of writing that often seems as though he is saying nothing, or at least nothing of importance for us as modern day college students. So here, I have attempted to take, what I feel, some of the most suggestive quotes from our readings and turn them into reasonable, relevant suggestions for how to live our lives today. That is to say, I am going to try to deconstruct William James’ writings for the modern college woman and show his relevance in our lives. First I will give a quote directly from our readings, and then I will try to explain its relevance to our lives in the 21st century. The “take home” is the reduction of the quotation in what I think is the easiest way to deliver it.


From “Habit”


That is, be systematically ascetic or heroic in little unnecessary points, do every day or two something for no other reason than that you would rather not do it, so that when the hour of dire need draws nigh, it may find you not unnerved and untrained to stand the test. Pg. 20

To many, this may seem an order or a demand that James is giving us, but to better understand it, I think it is helpful to take it as a suggestion. What James if essentially saying is “do something you don’t want to do every day.” This is his suggestion so that we do not find ourselves unable to do something important just because we do not feel like it. I think for many of us, we can accomplish this task by simply doing our schoolwork. We may not have any desire to complete our readings or what we may think ‘a silly assignment,’ but we must do them. Not only because they are assigned to us, but because we may find ourselves, some day out in the real world, needing to complete a project for someone that we do not want to do, but we must.

Take Home: We must practice doing the undesirable to train ourselves for when we must do the undesirable.




We are spinning our own fates, good or evil, and never to be undone. Pg. 20



While this quote is much simpler than the previous, it is equally evasive. The main question that comes to my mind is: how? The how does not matter though, what matters is that we take control of our own lives. Even though James uses the word “fate,” he is essentially disagreeing with the idea of fate. We cannot blame something else for the way our lives turn out, for we are the ones living it and making the decisions that create the course for it. We cannot allow others to create our lives for us.

Take Home: We create our own lives.



From “The Stream of Thought”


The universal conscious fact is not ‘feelings and thoughts exist,’ but ‘I think’ and ‘I feel.’” Pg. 23


This may not seem to be a suggestion for living our lives, but I think it can be turned into one. James seems to be saying that we should live our lives in the active state of mind, the passive state. This is of course a very familiar direction to anyone who has ever accidently written in the passive voice in an essay. Your professor probably commented to write in the active voice, not passive. James is essentially saying the same thing about living our lives as our professors are saying about writing papers: active is better. We need to be active participants in our lives, not just passive viewers. We are, we feel, we think…these things are not to us, but by us.

Take Home: Be an active participant in your life.



From “What Pragmatism Means”


Whenever a dispute is serious, we ought to be able to show some practical difference that must follow from one side or the other’s being right. Pg. 377


Here is the fundamental basis for Pragmatism: the result must be practical. Something cannot be correct if it is not practical. If it be the case that the outcome is not practical, the argument it still too much in the abstract. James does not want us to spend our lives in the abstract world, theorizing about things that mean nothing in our daily lives. If our concluded truth is not practical, it is not correct. The truth of a matter should not be difficult or absolute; it must conform to fit our lives to be the truth for us. Decisions should be clearly decided based not on connivance or belief, but on practical outcomes. If it is not practical, then it is not the truth in that given situation. Truth is not an absolute, but the most practical option. Something that leads to nothing cannot be true. There is no absolute truth, only a practical outcome that comes from ‘the truth’.

Take Home: Do not search for the truth, but for a practical solution.



From “The Types of Philosophic Thinking”


Individuality outruns all classifications, yet we insist on classifying every one we meet under some general head. Pg. 483



Here James is acknowledging something most people try to pretend they don’t do: making judgments about a person. We try to believe we all see the individual, but we make judgments about people and then stick them together in groups based on our judgments. James is not saying this is wrong, in fact he is saying everyone does it. What is telling us though, is that the classification is not important; the classification is not the person. Individuality can be found in everyone, and that is what makes the person who they are. Classification can help us, but we cannot know a person through their classification. We must know the person through their individuality to understand who they are. Even though we know this, we will continue to classify those we meet, so we must know, and be aware of what we are doing to be able to go beyond the classification.

Take Home: Classification is not the person. Look further into his or her individuality to find whom someone is.


What was reason given to men for, said some eighteenth century writer, except to enable them to find reasons for what they want to think and do? Pg. 485


As humans, we call ourselves reasonable creatures. We even go as far as to say that we are the only animal with reason. But reason does not change how who we are, or we live it only gives us a method to explain our actions and our feelings. We do not feel the way we do because we have reason; we have reason to understand why we feel the way feel. We manipulate reason to work for our own benefit saying that our actions are reasonable when really, reason had nothing to do with our performing the action itself.

Take Home: Reason allows us to understand our animalistic actions and give them reason.



From “The Will to Believe”


Our belief in truth itself, for instance, that there is a truth, and that our minds and it are made for each other, - what is it but a passionate affirmation of desire, in which our social system backs us up? Pg. 722


This may be the simplest of the quotes to understand. It does not need much explanation or reasoning. It simply says there is no truth. Truth is an idea that we, as a society, created and believe in, but it does not exist on its own. Without society, there is no need for truth, thus there is no truth.

Take Home: Truth only exists because we want to believe it does.



…by the practical faith that we must go on experiencing and thinking over our experience, for only thus can our opinions grow more true; but to hold any one of then – I absolutely do not care which – as if it never could be reinterpretable or corrigible, I believe to be a tremendously mistaken attitude… Pg. 725


This build on the last quote which states there is no truth. If there is no truth, then no opinion can be correct. We gain nothing by digging our heels into the ground insisting that we believe is the one and only true belief. We must be accepting that there are other points of view just as valid as our own. Our opinions may be the practical inference from the events in our lives, but we must not think that because they hold ‘true’ in our lives that they are universally true. All opinions are equally valuable.

Take Home: Our opinions cannot turn to truths, so we must value the merit in others’ opinions.


…the freedom to believe can only cover living options which the intellect of the individual cannot by itself resolve; and living options never seem absurdities to him who has them. Pg. 734



Our opinions never seem absurd to ourselves for they are based on our own beliefs and what we think are truths. Knowing that our opinions are never the truth, and knowing that there is certain truth in the opinions of others’, we cannot expect another to find their opinion as absurd as we may find it. It is based on their inner truth and logic, and is thus true for them…even as absurd as it may be to us.

Take Home: Beliefs of others may seem completely absurd to us, but we must remember that they do not seem absurd for those who believe them. 



Anne Dalke's picture

"Don't write in the passive voice!"

thanks so much for trying, here, to turn the complicated, abstract, and often-hard-to-follow-and/or-swallow psychological-pragmatic philosophy of William James into relevant suggestions for how we might live our lives today. Don't miss jrlewis's "reduction" of William James's ideas into a
"recipe for life," which is intriguingly both like-and-different from your own....

I think perhaps you were not in class on
the day Paul Grobstein visited, and gave us some "translations" of the common words James used in uncommon ways? See especially his clarification of the term "true," as "the current best available story for current purposes." What happens if we apply that translation to some of your explications, such as "truth only exists because we want to believe it does," or "All opinions are equally valuable"? I think it might well take us beyond the space of "absurdity" in which you end your series of explanations. I would actually say that, rather than landing us in the absurd position, the philosophy of William James explicitly avoids it, by quite pragmatically offering us a way to manage an absurd (nonsensical, random, unpredictable) universe, to achieve some sense of equilibrium in the "pit of insecurity" that underlies us/it all.

Such a frame might also help you move more effectively (for example) from James's claim that "We are spinning our own fates, good or evil, and never to be undone" and your translation, "We create our own lives"--in order to explicate more clearly just what the role of fate is in James's philosophy, and--given the unpredictableness of the world--wherein lies our agency.

When you say (for another example) that "classification is not important," I want to send you back to James for a sense of its inevitability (as well as its inevitable limits and revisability); see what follows the quote you excerpted from The Pluralistic Universe"Individuality outruns all classification, yet we insist on classifying every one we meet under some general head...the life of philosophy largely consists of resentments at the classing, and complaints of being misunderstood.”

And for "reason had nothing to do with our performing the action itself," I'd have you look @ the work of Jonathan Haidt (whom we discussed in class during our conversation about "Habit"): The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail" offers a great explication of our incessant ex-post-facto rationalizing....

I also myself wanting to change up a little some of your "take-homes"; here (for example) is my idiosyncratic take on your indiosyncratic take on William James's idiosyncratic pieces of advice. I'd turn your instruction--"We must practice doing the undesirable to train ourselves for when we must do the undesirable"--into "Every day, practice doing something different, in order to train ourselves to do things differently."

However, my favorite (no surprise; I'm an English teacher, so I wouldn't alter this @ all, since it works wonderfully on both the grammatical and the metaphysical level!), is your "don't write in the passive voice"!