William James’s Hard-Won Development Between Childhood and Fame

How do we come of age? The Pew Research Center reports a steady increase over the last five decades in the number of young adults, aged 25 to 35, living with their parents. The percentage of young people “nesting” at home has almost doubled since 1964, up to 15 percent of this age group in 2016. Economic factors have encouraged these living arrangements, including the difficulties of breaking into the labor market, the high cost of independent living in many areas, and soaring debt obligations.

Or is this trend yet another example of millennial slackers? Before judging these young adults so harshly, consider the positives. These modern material trends have been encouraging an old cultural style of households with multiple generations. The effect for the younger generation has not only been a postponement of “adulting,” but also a chance to prepare better for its challenges. That’s just what William James (1842-1910) did in the 1860s and 1870s.

The Prolonged Take Off of William James

The William James before William James the future philosopher and psychologist provides a compelling example of the benefits of not rushing into adult responsibilities, but (spoiler alert!) his path was not easy. It was during his time of prolonged youthful marination that he established the orientation of his life work. James lived mostly at home until he was 36, and although he suffered some bad times, they turned out to be his most inspiring of teachers. He was confused by clashing interpretations of science and religion and other profound intellectual choices about the validity of empiricism and idealism, and of objective versus subjective truths.

What’s more, James’s personal problems reinforced his intellectual confusions. He was beset by back pains, eye troubles, and bouts of depression; he grew excited about the prospect of meeting a “not impossible she,” but vowed at age 27 “never to marry” because he did not want to risk bringing children into the world burdened with inheritance of his physical and mental health troubles.

As a result of postponing quick decisions on particular directions, he discovered that his problems brought an opportunity to understand the depths of each contrasting commitment. James’s time at home enabled him to make use of his intellectual and personal troubles by constructing his core commitment to mediation of the very tensions that bothered him. The sculpture of his later thinking, with synthesis of different ideas, was still in the stone of his muddled youth, and time at home gave him time to sculpt.

Postponement Means More Time to Hear Out Different Views

In addition, the story of James’s path toward maturity and humane sympathies offers not only hope for millennials with long take-offs on their careers, but also lessons in empathy for our fractured times. James provides pointers about how to mediate contrasting views, and even how to learn from people we disagree with.

The celebrated founder of American psychology and pragmatic philosophy did not soar to achievement despite his early troubles, but because of them. The resulting story has lessons for how any of us develop toward maturity, with all the choices and confusions that clutter our way. And young James’s development provides lessons for dealing with the cultural fallout that results when different people develop in different ways — and you know we will.

In 1870, when James was sliding into his deepest discouragement, he discovered “resources within” emerging precisely from his “abridgement & deprivation,” as he himself put it. The major resource young James developed was a decisive ambivalence that would form the basis for his commitment to mediating contrasts in his far-flung work. In the magisterial words of contemporary philosopher Charles Taylor, James would become “our great philosopher of the cusp.”

Slow Down — to Notice Body and Mind, Mingled

One of James’s first mediations came from tracing the relations of intellectual inquiries with the body and our emotions. Their interaction produce sentiments in our rationalities, and that elegant oxymoron would become the basis for one of his first essays, “The Sentiment of Rationality” (1879), on his path toward producing The Principles of Psychology (1890).

James did not just talk the talk of mind-body interaction; he maintained a keen awareness of the body’s role during our intellectual life. He provided psychological anticipation of the methods of the social history of ideas, about the tangible processes within intellectual production. Even the greatest of ideas emerge from a person with a body slogging through personal, social, and social contexts, which might not be friendly to the idea. James even introduced one heady philosophical presentation with the disarming recognition that if he would earn applause at the end, it would stem at least in part from “joy . . . when it is all over,” with embodied listeners tiring from sitting, and now “at last free [from]… the lecturer’s voice,” free to carry its intellectual sparks back to the fires of their own experiences.

Learning philosophy, along with all our other thoughts, happens inside bodies with potential for excitement but also with the kind of fatigue James recognized during his own discourse — and with potential for lots of other bodily and emotional responses to the ideas. Following his ideas as he navigated his own often-challenging experiences points to stories and theories suggesting ways to mediate the tensions within us and among different cultural groups. James does not offer solutions to our problems any more than he ever solved his own — in fact, he proposed that such wholesale solutions are part of the problem. Instead, he offered paths to improvement, what he called “meliorism.”

Paying Attention to Human Differences

James wrote philosophy in tune with experience, as a way to steer through its challenges. Yet he did not settle his tensions by choosing sides. He learned to look at the world without blinking, without the frequent impulse to let chosen conceptions, as privileged by habit or authority, shape experience; once chosen, these thoughts often lead to neglect of other ways of looking at the world. Instead, he paid attention to experience in all its wild diversity.

James had the potentials and shortcomings of many young people. The self he became emerged from daily decisions he made through his twenties and thirties. There were many future Jameses that he did not become — each a “murdered … self” along the way, as he said with unblinking bluntness about the consequences of each choice. The James we know, that scholars pore over for his profound contributions to philosophy, psychology, religious studies, scientific method, social thought, and rhetoric, has roots in his youthful experiences and troubled choices before all those elaborated branches. Those youthful roots show the connections among his varied achievements.

Follow the authority of science or of religion? James pursued a naturalistic approach to the human mind not despite his interests in “varieties of religious experience” but because of them. After all, those inquiries into spiritual depths called for “a study in human nature.” Consider rational inquiry or unorthodox thought? He did not abandon his technical assessment of the phenomenology of “pure experience” when pursuing his curiosity about exceptional mental states, but observed the interaction of objective and subjective experiences throughout. He is the philosopher of “Yes and…” For each creative human insight, he asked with recognition of enduring mysteries, what else still lurks in the “trackless forest of human experience”?

Keep Your Convictions, While Listening to the Convictions of Others

James’s youthful indecision grew into synthetic thinking. He turned the uncertainties surrounding contrasts from burdens into assets. The elusiveness of final answers became empowering as a basis for humble guidance about what can be understood through the wonders of human consciousness, and as platforms for bold actions about what those minds are capable of when putting their heads together.

The luxuriant creativity of each human mind lets people feel “at home” with a perplexing variety of perspectives that then seem truly bizarre to other minds operating with different sentiments of rationality. Fighting against them or urging abandonment of their mental domiciles does not stop those divergent thoughts. But we can visit those perspectives, learn how they are constructed, and listen across the divisions. Convictions can and should stand firm. James himself did not flinch in his blistering critiques of African American lynching and U.S. colonization of the Philippines, and he maintained firm support for medical pluralism and a plural range of unorthodox friends. However, his strong convictions also did not stop him from urging awareness of neighboring convictions — and of potential blind spots in his own views.

Mystery Runs Deeper Than Convictions and Skepticism

Thinking about vexing problems and tensions under the star of James can shed light on how to deal with them. The mysteries surrounding all efforts — even within proud claims of final certainties — are not problems but prods toward more striving. “Ever not quite,” as he liked to say about any final answer, even while the human path continues, with each of us “a syllable in human nature’s total message.” All the mysteries and all our efforts are suited to both our spiritual and scientific inquiries.

Millennials remaining in their family homestead will not all become philosophers, but some old-fashioned time at home can actually help their careers and lives in general. As the experience of young James shows, these can be times to strengthen preparation and set direction. When NASA scientists were shooting the moon in the 1960s, they had to aim very carefully. So also with the tricky task of aiming for life goals. And taking time to choose carefully can pay dividends when interacting with all those other people who make different choices.

Paul J. Croce is Professor of History and Director of American Studies at Stetson University and a former president of the William James Society. His most recent book is Young William James Thinking.