Going Nonviral

Scott McLemee reviews John Kaag's Sick Souls, Healthy Minds: How William James Can Save Your Life.

March 27, 2020

Circumstances have imposed themselves on the title of John Kaag’s Sick Souls, Healthy Minds: How William James Can Save Your Life (Princeton University Press) in ways the author could never have anticipated and surely doesn’t want. But it does seem like a moment for reader who haven’t read James to make his acquaintance. Habit is an important topic in his philosophy and psychology, which were not yet fully distinct disciplines when he set to work, and nothing makes the force of habit so palpable as having it disrupted, suddenly and sharply, for who knows how long.

Kaag’s familiarity with William James’s life and work appears close and long-running. A scholarly interest (the author is a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell) has meshed with his own life and work in specific and highly charged ways. But that is not nearly so idiosyncratic as it may sound. Encountering William James at the right moment feels like making a friend who knows what you need to hear for your own good and can deliver it without making you defensive. At least that has been my own experience of reading him over the years, and Sick Souls, Healthy Minds left me with a much better sense of how and why James can have that effect.

The prolonged struggle of William James to find a vocation and a place in the world while living on the verge of a total nervous collapse -- a struggle continuing until he was almost 30 years old, with occasional aftershocks -- is, by now, a story often told. Aspects of it appear between the lines of his classic Varieties of Religious Experience, though there are also plentiful accounts of the James dynasty for Kaag to draw on. He gives just enough detail to set the stage. This is prudent, because the family dynamics are quite a thicket.

The pater familias, Henry James Sr., inherited both the second-largest fortune in New York at the time and the Calvinist superego that had made its accumulation possible. Repeated agonizing experiences of his own unworthiness abated when he discovered the revelations of Emanuel Swedenborg, an 18th-century mystic who reported visiting heaven any number of times and learning that hell was more a state of mind than a cosmic location. Elaborating on this altogether more encouraging theology became Henry Sr.’s mission in life, along with raising four sons and a daughter in considerable comfort and on both sides of the Atlantic.

To the 21st-century eye, Henry Sr.’s religious agonies read very much like signs of clinical depression. That William inherited the susceptibility seems probable, and it would have been complicated by mixed messages from his father that we could sum up as “Live a rich life by autonomously determined values! But wait, don’t do it like that …” When the Civil War began, two of his slightly younger brothers enlisted in the Union Army, while William, who had been sickly as a child, stayed home. “To watch relatively helplessly as loved ones go off to war, to witness the fragile inevitabilities of human existence, to experience impotence and stifled ambition,” Kaag writes, “this was James’s first intimation that he, along with the rest of the universe, was not free but rather fated.”

If so, his rather desultory efforts at painting, studying chemistry and doing scientific fieldwork in Brazil might have been taken as proof that the universe had him marked out for failure. He was also part of the first generation to enter adult life with Darwin’s ideas established as a force in the world, and he found them both persuasive and profoundly disconcerting. If the human mind was one aspect of an organism that had been shaped by the same forces as lower forms of life, talk of “free will” was questionable at best.

In which case, why live? Might not suicide be preferable? I recall that one of Dostoyevsky’s characters argues, with eerily consistent logic, that death by one’s own hand is the true and absolute expression of free will. (It will undeniably end one’s doubts in the matter.) Kaag depicts young William James as headed down a similar path to abyss, with countless others behind him -- “sick souls,” in James’s phrase, driven by their own burdens and tortured deductions. Kaag himself makes clear that he, too, has considered the possibility of making a final escape from what David Foster Wallace called “my own skull-sized kingdom.”

James extricated himself and went on to write what was arguably the 19th century’s greatest treatise on psychology, one of the 20th century’s pivotal works in religious studies and books and essays that established pragmatism as a school of philosophy (not to be confused with the commonplace sense of pragmatism as expediency plus rationalization). Kaag seems particularly concerned with James’s psychology, or rather with the areas in his work where psychology and philosophy were in close proximity. This is somewhat out of step with the academic industry devoted to pragmatism that has been so productive over the past 40 years or so. But the aspects of James’s work that Sick Souls assembles and integrates are of value in their own right, in particular for newcomers.

It can be difficult to explain the mental breakthrough that got James out of his crisis without inadvertently trivializing it. He cut through the Gordian knot of determinism by realizing that, in Kaag’s words, “believing in free will may not logically be warranted, but it had a profound practical worth.” Believing in free will as a possibly true proposition meant very little without trying to confirm it in reality and then taking further actions based on what the effort revealed. James thereby managed to pull himself back from a plunge into suicidal melancholy and start making consequential decisions such as undertaking an academic career, creating a psychology laboratory at Harvard University and getting married. Kaag sums up the principle like so: “Will yourself to act in a certain manner, and your volition may alter, in positive ways, the state of affairs.”

Minus the biographical context and intellectual stakes, this comes awfully close to sounding like a bromide. Kaag acknowledges as much: he says he can hardly bear to read advice like “Be the change you want to see in the world” without retching. But apart from giving James a new lease on life, his pivot away from blind determinism created in him a sense that most people “live,” as he put it, “whether physically, intellectually, or morally, in a very restricted circle of their potential being.” Habits are tenacious and, much of the time, indistinguishable from ordinary life itself, and breaking them is seldom a matter of asserting free will. The stream of consciousness can get dammed up, the waters stagnant. (It was William James who coined the expression “stream of consciousness.”) And standing water grows foul.

Neither James nor Kaag is a self-help author in the usual sense; their work does not provide exercises to find the real you and begin to live more fully. But they do believe there are moments when something can break through and allow other possibilities to appear. The discovery of “an inner significance in what, until then, we had realized only in the dead external way, often comes over a person suddenly,” James told a lecture audience in the 1890s, “and when it does so, it makes an epoch in [that individual’s] history.” Conceivably such experiences may happen on a larger scale as well.

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Scott McLemee

Scott McLemee is the Intellectual Affairs columnist for Inside Higher Ed. In 2008, he began a three-year term on the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle. From 1995 until 2001, he was contributing editor for Lingua Franca. Between 2001 and 2005, he covered scholarship in the humanities as senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education. In 2005, he helped start the online news journal Inside Higher Ed, where he serves as Essayist at Large, writing a weekly column called Intellectual Affairs. His reviews, essays, and interviews have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Nation, Newsday, Bookforum, The Common Review, and numerous other publications. In 2004, he received the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. He has given papers or been an invited speaker at meetings of the American Political Science Association, the Cultural Studies Association, the Modern Language Association, and the Organization of American Historians.

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