Term Paper: William James Was a Prominent

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[. . .] Besides being able to be classified as an "eminent" psychologist, can James also be classified as a figure that fits the Zeitgeist, or the spirit of the times? One can try to classify James in this way simply by comparing James' work to that of other prominent authors and philosophers of his time.

James lived in the Modernist era. During this era, authors, artists and philosophers were all struggling to disprove the notions of Romanticism and Classicism. This is made evident by the sarcastic way in which T.E. Hulme, a prominent Modernist author, describes Romanticism. "You might say if you wished that the whole of the romantic attitude seems to crystallize in verse round metaphors of flight...[one] is always flying, flying over abysses, flying up into the eternal gases. The world infinite in every other line" (1997, p.400).

Modernists thus were trying to get away from the far-fetched ideas of Romantics and were trying to base their theories on reality. In James' The Meaning of Truth, James does exactly this when he claims that, "The common consent of mankind has agreed that some feelings are cognitive and some are simple facts having a subjective, or what one might almost call a physical existence, but no such self-transcendent function as would be implied in their being pieces of knowledge" (1975, p. 14). With this statement, James maligns the idea that there is an "ultimate" truth to be discovered. He doesn't agree with the common Romantic theory that one's ultimate goal is to transcend reality in order to gain a definitive grasp on life.

Besides trying to disprove the ideas of Romanticism, Modernists were also experimenting in the avant-garde. Prominent Modernist writer Gertrude Stein demonstrates with her book Three Lives. According to the introduction in the 1990 edition of this book, "The Influence of Cezanne, Matisse, and Picasso in the formation of Gertrude Stein's prose style is a key to understanding her radically new approach to writing in Three Lives" (p. x). The introduction also claims that "Stein's break with the conventions of storytelling was more sweeping than Joyce's rebellion against his predecessors" (p. xv). According to this introduction, it is easy to deduce that Stein was intrinsically involved with experimentation and radical innovations. This thus leads to the conclusion that Modernists, or the individuals of both James' and Stein's era, were also primarily involved with innovation and new modes of thought. Stein was, after all, merely transplanting the resourceful methods of Cubism, represented in the paintings of Cezanne, Matisse, and Picasso, into the genre of literature.

The modern era was thus an era of change. Prominent modernist W.E.B. Du Bois perhaps represents this best. Du Bois was a black man, who, according to the preface of his book The Souls of Black Folk, wanted to "make a name [for himself] in literature and thus to raise [his] race" (1999, p. xxi). He was thus a man who was primarily concerned with the change associated with the black race. He wanted to make things better for the African-American. He even went so far as to challenge the theories of Booker T. Washington, who, before Du Bois, was the prominent black theorist of his time. Du Bois claims that:

Mr. Washington's cult has gained unquestioning followers, his work has wonderfully prospered, his friends are legion, and his enemies are confounded. To-day he stands as the one recognized spokesman of his ten million fellows, and one of the most notable figures in a nation of seventy millions. One hesitates, therefore, to criticise a life which, beginning with so little, has done so much. And yet the time is come when one may speak in all sincerity and utter courtesy of the mistakes and shortcomings of Mr. Washington's career. 1999, pp. 35-36

Thus, Du Bois turns his nose up at contemporary thought and questions authority. He thus epitomizes the Modern era - an era which questions much and takes something as fact only after it has been thoroughly investigated.

The question, then, is whether or not James epitomizes the Modern era. Does he have the sarcasm and the contempt for Romantic thought that Hulme holds? Does he have the innovative spirit of Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne and Stein? Does he question authority in the unabashed manner that Du Bois does? In essence, does his work contain the spirit of Modernism?

Perhaps there are several ways that one can answer these questions. One way to answer them is to look at the immediate influences that James had on his contemporaries. According to Alan Filreis, an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Gertrude Stein was actually a follower and student of William James while she studied at Harvard. James thus obviously had a great impact on the life and work of Gertrude Stein. This idea can be furthered if one looks more closely at the way that Stein wrote her stories. Put simply, Stein tried to transplant the style of Cubism in painting to literature. According to Filreis, "In her own work, she attempted to parallel the theories of Cubism, specifically in her concentration on the illumination of the present moment and her use of slightly varied repetitions and extreme simplification and fragmentation" (2002, p.1). In other words, Stein tried to represent moments with her innovative literary work. In James' The Meaning of Truth, James claims that In the whole field of symbolic thought we are universally held both to intend, to speak of, and to reach conclusions about -- to know, in short - particular realities, without having in our subjective consciousness any mind-stuff that resembles them even in a remote degree. We are instructed about them by language which awakens no consciousness beyond its sound; and we know which realities they are by the faintest and most fragmentary glimpse of some remote context they may have and by no direct imagination of themselves. (1975, p.31)

James, therefore, speaks of fragmentary glimpses, or, if one puts it in the language of Stein, moments that humans hold onto in their minds and that are representative of certain objects. Taking James' statement into account, it is obvious that Stein used his theories of pragmatism, along with Picasso's theories of cubism, in her innovative literary works.

Besides influencing and subscribing to the same theories as Stein, James also besmirched Romanticism in the same way that Hulme did. Although this is not blatantly obvious in his philosophical works, one can find evidence of this in the many letters of James that he wrote to several people throughout his life. In a letter that James wrote to Thomas W. Ward in 1868, James responds to Ward's complaints about an experience with love and a love interest. James writes, "If you have any doubt as to the absolute integrity of your feelings, or see any macula whatever in the young female, my advice (grounded on a long and deep experience in such matters!!) is to drop the concern entirely" (1960, pp. 50-51). James gives advice that reeks of practicality and experience. James in no way speaks of a "higher truth" that would almost definitely be spoken of by a Romantic philosopher, or a philosopher that is of the pre-modern era. James does go on to write, "[I] would refer you [Ward] to the last lines of a poem by R.W. Emerson: 'Give all to love." Damn it, Tom, a little fleck hardly visible to the naked eye at first in the being of a girl we are attracted to, ends by growing, when we are bound to her in any way, bigger than the whole world, so that it mixes with everything and nauseates it for our enjoyment" (1960, 51). To the uneducated reader, it would seem that James is actually crediting the theory of Romanticism as valid. However, if one reads "in between the lines," one should recognize that James is giving Ward the advice of "giving all to love" in a sarcastic manner. He ends his advice with the tell-all statement that love is actually, in all honesty, nauseating. In other words, James doesn't tell Ward to accept his love for his woman as a sort of "higher truth" and form of transcendence. James actually claims that Ward needs to be practical with his feelings. He needs to accept that love, at times, can seem bigger than the world. However, at other times, it can be quite troublesome and repulsive.

As well as attempting to tarnish the antiquated idea of Romanticism like Hulme did, James also, like Du Bois, was a leader of new thought. He questioned the authorities of his time and this lead him to become one of the greatest modernist thinkers of his era. According to an introduction in The Letters of William James by his son, Henry James, Charles W. Eliot, head of the chemical laboratory in Harvard that James studied at as a young student, claimed that "James was a… [END OF PREVIEW]

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