Introduction

One hundred years after William James’s death, the Houghton Library, drawing upon its vast archive of James material, looks back at transitional moments of his life: his vocational dilemmas, spiritual crises, professional paths, and brave philosophical sallies forward. In these transitions, we can see the “plural facts” of James’s experiences, his public and private battles, and elements of what he called the “mosaic philosophy” of radical empiricism, pragmatism, and pluralism.

William James was born in New York City in 1842, the first child of Henry and Mary James. He had four siblings: Henry, Jr. (b. 1843), who became an internationally-lauded writer; Garth Wilkinson (b. 1845); Robertson (b. 1846); and Alice (b. 1848), noted as a diarist. The James children had a peripatetic education in America and Europe, depending on their father’s quirky educational views, sometimes attending schools, sometimes tutored at home. The family lived for a time in Newport, Rhode Island and finally settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

When William James died in August 1910, he had attained international prominence as the founder of American psychology and as a philosopher. He could look back on a long and successful career as a Harvard professor. He was a husband and father. These roles were not inevitable. He might have been an artist, like his contemporaries John Singer Sargent and William Hunt. He might have practiced medicine; or followed in the footsteps of his teacher Jeffries Wyman and devoted himself to physiology; or joined the ranks of eminent nineteenth-century naturalists, such as Louis Agassiz. When he first took a teaching position at Harvard, he had no intention of making college teaching a career, and even when he started down that path, he might easily have ended up at Johns Hopkins, where he once coveted a position.

James’s life was punctuated by decisive moments when he might have taken one path or another; when, as he once told Alice Howe Gibbens during their protracted courtship, he had to decide on his vote for the kind of world he wanted to create for himself, and for the kind of man he wanted to be. Sometimes, those moments did feel like a battle – against his father, who opposed his interest in art; against his own self-image as a sickly man; against rationalism, determinism, monism; against elitism and war-mongering.

This exhibition reveals some of the intellectual tensions that gave rise to his most famous works: The Varieties of Religious Experience, Pragmatism, andA Pluralistic Universe. In his celebration of novelty, his warm tolerance of all manner of spiritual experience, his championing of multiple perspectives for apprehending reality, James stood apart from many of his contemporaries. He meant his ideas to offer a process of making sense of experience, of justifying decisions that take account of a thinker’s desires and needs, and of accounting for one’s own presence in the world.

An individual’s philosophy, James wrote, “is itself an intimate part of the universe, and may be a part momentous enough to give a different turn to what the other parts signify.” Now, in the 21st century, James’s works endure, still vital, sympathetic, brilliant, and passionate.

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