William James

I’ve been studying the American philosopher William James (1842-1910) for some time now. I discovered him through the philosophy of Alan Watts (1915-1973), who helped guide the world during the Psychedelic Movement. [Watts decided to publish his cautionary The Joyous Cosmology on his clinical experiments with LSD-25 after Aldous Huxley had “let the cat out of the bag” by publishing his own tales in The Doors of Perception.]

Last month, I read James’ work Varieties of Religious Experience, a practical look at the phenomenon of religious belief and mysticism. It deepened my appreciation for pluralism and it strengthened my role as a religious philosopher. Then last night, I came across this article entitled “The Nitrous Oxide Philosopher” by Dmitri Tymoczko, which gave me some background into James’ life and the origin and evolution of his philosophy. I found some comfort in learning that he too faced a severe depression at the age of 28. The experience contributed to the formation of his philosophy and helped him find a way out of the depression. For James, it was an overwhelming belief in the lack of free will that grew from the determinism of his materialist contemporaries. At a crisis point, he came to see that he could “generate” free will (whether it truly exist or not) by believing he had free will: “My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.”

In shifting to modern-day research relating to James’ views, the article had this to say:

Some remarkable work by psychologists has recently illuminated James’s position. Lyn Abramson, of the University of Wisconsin, and Lauren Alloy, of Temple University, have uncovered a number of “cognitive illusions” to which normal, healthy people are subject. Emotional health, they suggest, involves mildly overoptimistic presumptions and a corresponding insensitivity to failure, which result in a propensity to make straightforwardly false judgments. Perversely, the clinically depressed are often free of these cognitive illusions–they are, to use the subtitle of one of Abramson and Alloy’s best-known papers, “Sadder But Wiser.” Likewise, Shelley Taylor, a social psychologist, has studied the use of illusions by victims of trauma and illness. She found that like James’s mountaineer, those who are unjustifiably optimistic tend to live better-adjusted and happier lives than people faced with similar situations who are thoroughly realistic about their prospects. [Emphasis mine.]

So in this article about James’ story, I have found some clues that point toward my own healing. I am perpetually the “Sadder But Wiser” soul, the mad philosopher, but this need not be so. I will learn that I can control this by my own thinking.

In fact, this insight reminds me of the chapter in James’ Varieties that appealed to me the most—the chapter on Christian Science mind-cures and the phenomenon of the “once-borns” . These are people that James describes as being in no need of repentance or redemption, for from birth they remain deeply “at peace with God”. This is in contrast to the “twice-borns” who require some experience of conversion to feel this same peace with God. Before reading Varieties, I had no idea that the first kind of person could even exist. I was thus attracted to this revolutionary idea.

For now, at least, I need to contemplate my new-found knowledge, absorb it, learn more, and finally put it to good use. Here goes everything!

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