He Questioned the Meaning of Life. William James Answered.
SICK SOULS, HEALTHY MINDS
How William James Can Save Your Life
By John Kaag
“Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy,” Camus wrote in 1942. “All the rest — whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or 12 categories — comes afterwards.”
This fundamental question was one of many addressed by the 19th-century philosopher and psychologist William James, oldest brother of the novelist Henry. James wondered about life’s worthiness, in part, and as many do, because he suffered from anxiety and depression.
The writer and philosophy professor John Kaag, whose new book is “Sick Souls, Healthy Minds,” himself wrestled with these questions when he was 30. His marriage was ending; he had just watched his estranged father die. He was already studying James’s work, but his circumstances allowed him — or forced him — to see that work through a different lens.
James stared down “the prospect of persistent existential disillusionment,” though the warm tone of his work belies this description, and often framed experience in a Buddhist-like perspective: “If one looks carefully,” as Kaag puts it, “suffering is not the exception but the rule.” Can we actively reduce this suffering? James thought so, or that at least it would truly benefit us to act as if we could. “My first act of free will,” he wrote, “shall be to believe in free will.”
Perhaps the reason James remains beloved by so many readers more than a century after his death is that his pragmatism often shaded into self-help. He believed in the power of positive thinking, in bucking up; he counseled action, and not just philosophizing, in the face of uncertainty; he may have even, from time to time, turned his frown upside down. But he expressed all of his (and our) struggles and their potential solutions in the smartest possible ways, and never pretended that a revised mood was a settled state of affairs. He knew that living is a continual process, and that perhaps the best we can hope for is just enough therapy to make it to the next crisis.
“Philosophically speaking, James attempted something very hard, maybe impossible, at least for one person,” Kaag writes, in one of his characteristically elegant explanations. “He wanted to craft a philosophy that was absolutely honest to the twisted, often contradictory, facts of life, but also to the desire that many of us have to transcend them. In his words, he wanted to provide a way of thinking between the ‘tough-minded’ scientist and the ‘tender-minded’ idealist, preserving what is valuable about both sides.”
James conducted this project with a quality that Kaag calls “epistemic humility,” a concept that readers steeped in the rhetoric of 2020 might need defined. It means that you don’t know it all. And that whatever you do know might be more provisional than you think.
One of Kaag’s previous books, “American Philosophy,” was a charming, brainy and equally personal account of time he spent reveling in a philosopher’s remarkable and nearly abandoned private library in New England. The first part of that book spent considerable time on James, and a small number of its sentences reappear verbatim here. But if Kaag has borrowed some of his own planks, “Sick Souls, Healthy Minds” is a new house, a more modest and specific structure than his earlier works.
“I think William James’s philosophy saved my life,” Kaag writes. “Or, more accurately, it encouraged me not to be afraid of life.” I’m another reader who has felt at least temporarily saved and encouraged by James, so of course I’d advise you to read Kaag’s primer. There are, in fact, entire shelves of books about James and his fascinating family worth reading. But if you haven’t read James himself, do that first. It’s wonderful that he inspires intermediaries to bring his thought to modern-day readers, but his cogent and humane work doesn’t strictly need intermediaries. He remains ready to help you directly.
The article was originally published by Newyorktimes