William James by Robert D. Richardson: Summary & Notes

Front cover of William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism by Robert D. Richardson.

In short

William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism is a great biography of one of the fathers of modern psychology. It focuses mostly on the development of his thoughts, ideas, and work, and less on the other aspects of his life. It’s also long (>600 pages), very detailed, and thoroughly researched and clearly shows the impact James had not just on psychology, but also on philosophy and the study of religion.

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Book Summary & Notes

All text between quotation marks is taken directly from the book.

“For William James, too, the world as a whole is random, and each person makes a pattern, a different pattern, by a power and a focus of his own. There is no single overarching or connecting pattern, hidden or revealed. “We carve out order,” James wrote, “by leaving the disorderly parts out; and the world is conceived thus after the analogy of a forest or a block of marble from which parks or statues may be produced by eliminating irrelevant trees or chips of stone.”

Why should we remember William James? Richardson argues there are three main reasons:

  • First, he was a major contributor to the development of the concept of consciousness. James believed that mental states are linked to bodily states and that this could be proven.
  • Second, as a philosopher – he was one of the leading figures in the movement of pragmatism.
  • Third, as the author of The Varieties of Religious Experience, which founded the modern study of religion. His main argument was that religion is not based in books or buildings, but in the experiences of individuals.

Early life & studies

“He made regular entries in a notebook in a neat hand for two whole weeks. He constructed chronologies, working from pre-Socratic times and thinkers to the French Revolution. Apart from his study of science at the Lawrence School and his work earlier at the academy in Geneva, William James was largely self-educated. The German literary historian Georg Gervinus once said of Goethe (in a book James read about this time) that “his home education prevented his ever thoroughly appreciating history.” Gervinus means this as a limitation, yet it can also be a liberation. What James did not get from his spotty formal schooling he was obliged to get for himself. John Dewey would later remark that James’s lack of formal education was one of his greatest assets, “since it protected his mind against academic deadening.”

“James in his early years frequently goes back to the Stoic line, to Epictetus and even more frequently to Marcus Aurelius. James saw Stoicism as a way to freedom. In this he differed sharply from his brother Henry, who dismissed Stoicism in an early review as a philosophy fit only for slaves, since it taught men to embrace the given.”

“Much of your uneasiness comes from… your regarding each oscillation as something final,” James told Ward. “I think we ought to be independent of our moods, look upon them as external for they come to us unbidden, and feel if possible neither elated or depressed, but keep our eyes upon our work, and if we have done the best we could in that given condition, be satisfied.”

“Marcus Aurelius “certainly had an invincible soul,” he went on, “and it seems to me that any man who can, like him, grasp the love of a ‘life according to nature’ ie a life in which your individual will becomes so harmonized to nature’s will as cheerfully to acquiesce in whatever she assigns to you, knowing that you serve some purpose in her vast machinery which will never be revealed to you, any man who can do this will, I say, be a pleasing spectacle, no matter what his lot in life.”

Turn towards psychology

“Starting in November, then, James’s focus was increasingly on the field of psychology, which was just being reborn as a hard science, grounded firmly in physiology. “It seems to me, ” he wrote Ward, “that perhaps the time has come for Psychology to begin to be a science — some measurements have already been made in the region lying between the physical changes in the nerves and the appearance of consciousness — (in the shape of sense perceptions) and more may come of it.”

“I have grown into the belief,” he wrote Holmes, “that friendship (including the highest half of that which between the two sexes is united under the single name of love) is about the highest joy of earth and that a man’s rank in the general scale is well indicated by his capacity for it.”

“In attempting to reroute his energies from speculation to action, James already understood the power and importance of habit, as both inertia and momentum. “Recollect,” the new Willy sternly warns the old Willy, “that only when habits of order are formed can we advance to really interesting fields of action — and consequently accumulate grain on grain of wilful choice like a very miser — never forgetting how one link dropped undoes an indefinite number. ”

“Hitherto,” he writes, “when I have felt like taking a free initiative, like daring to act originally, without carefully waiting for contemplation of the external world to determine all for me, suicide seemed the most manly form to put my daring into.” In a flash, like a person impulsively jumping a brook, James is on the other side. “Now I will go a step further with my will, not only act with it, but believe as well; believe in my individual reality and creative power.” Not only must he act, he must believe in his actions. And in order to believe, he must reformulate the question for himself. Resiliency, the ability, even when down — especially when down — to regroup and move forward, is the central fact of the inner life of William James. “My belief to be sure can’t be optimistic,” he concludes, “but I will posit it, life (the real, the good) in the self-governing resistance of the ego to the world. Life shall be built [on] doing and creating and suffering.”

“In place of an idea of evil, James put instead the idea of limits or abridgment of gratification. He identified two human tendencies, the centrifugal, or “expansive embracing tendency,” and the centripetal, inward-moving or “defensive.” He noted that these tendencies represented two different modes of self-assertion, the expansive representing the sympathetic mode, the centripetal the self-sufficing mode, and he wondered, inconclusively, if the two together might add up to self-respect.”

“These three fields, which now seem so disparate (perhaps because they belong to different divisions in modern universities), were then more closely associated, and at a certain level of generalization, one sees why. Physiology concerns itself with the physical processes of the body. Psychology, as it was newly being shaped, was concerned with interactions between mind and body, while philosophy, having left behind such subdivisions as natural philosophy (i.e., science), was more and more concerned simply with mind.”


“William James was appointed instructor in physiology in the college on August 3, 1872. It was a great opportunity. James’s acceptance of this appointment put him, in one small, seemingly irrelevant step, at the forefront of the all-important emerging field of physiology just when physiology and medicine (and even Harvard) were poised for the sudden jump to modernity.”

“It was probably at least partly his own condition he had in mind when he told Bob, “When the mind is morbid only the gloomy images have any vividness. We may try to realize the reverse of the picture, but it won’t bite, and even concentrated reflection will fail often to give it substantiality for us. Then the only thing is to have faith and wait, and resolve whatever happens to be faithful ‘in the outward act’ (as a philosopher says) that is do as if the good were the law of being, even if one can’t for the moment really believe it. The belief will come in its time.”

Decisions as voting

“To me such decisions” — probably about whether to marry and have children — “seem acts by which we are voting what sort of a universe this shall intimately be, and by our vote creating or helping to create ‘behind the veil’ the order we desire.”

“The decisions we make about how to live are not bets but ballots for a particular kind of world.”

In choosing, in acting, in “voting” to marry Alice, to have children, to stick it out in Cambridge, to address the wider audience and the professional one, indeed to get out of bed in the morning and go to work, James was acting on faith, risking his happiness, taking his chances, rather than waiting and planning for certainty. But then, as he said, “all that the human heart wants is its chance.”

Efforts and will

“James’s search for the precise mechanism of volition leads him through many pages of physiological experiments to suggest, finally, that we are able to take an action only when the reasons for not taking it disappear. The more we struggle and debate, the more we reconsider and delay, the less likely we are to act. Don’t wait until you feel better to go the gym; go to the gym and you will feel better. The physiology lab provided fresh, detailed scientific backing for what Goethe’s Faust had found earlier. To begin anything, it is not word or thought or power that matters; it is the act that matters.”

“Life consists of a series of interruptions.” – William James

“His mind, said Chapman, “was never quite in focus, and there was always something left over after each discharge of the battery.” But what he may have lacked in steady focus he made up for in portable intensity and pandemic enthusiasm. Here is Chapman again: “He seemed to me to have too high an opinion of everything. The last book he had read was always a ‘great book’; the last person he had talked with, a wonderful being.”

“If art is an image of the world seen through a temperament,” says George Simmel, “then philosophy may be called a temperament seen through its image of the world.”

“This is a first formulation of what William would later say were the two fundamental teachings of all religions: first, that something is wrong, and second, that it can be set right.”

“Most of what we call will is really just consent, James says. In this case, the contrasting, inhibiting, blocking impulses simply disappear for a moment and bingo, we have acted on the original impulse to get up because suddenly nothing impeded that impulse.”

“We measure ourselves by many standards,” he writes toward the end of the ninety-five-page chapter on will. “Our strength and our intelligence, our wealth and even our good luck, are things which warm our heart and make us feel ourselves a match for life. But deeper than all such things, and able to suffice unto itself without them, is the sense of the amount of effort which we can put forth… He who can make none is but a shadow; he who can make much is a hero.”

“James’s chance for a receptive hearing was no doubt cooked by his first two sentences: “There is no such thing possible as an ethical philosophy dogmatically made up in advance… There can be no final truth in ethics any more than in physics, until the last man has had his experience and said his say.”


“Hard as it was for James to write in the first place, he also did a good deal of rewriting. “If there is aught of good in the style of it,” he wrote Sarah Whitman, a Boston artist, hostess, and good friend, “it is the result of ceaseless toil in rewriting. Everything comes out wrong with me at first; but when once objectified in a crude shape, I can torture and poke and scrape and pat at it till it offends me no more.”

“No one could be more disgusted than I at the sight of the book. No subject is worth being treated of in 1000 pages! Had I ten years more, I could rewrite it in 500, but as it stands it is this or nothing”

“When the book was published, James was still not done with the subject, and he wrote in his copy by hand at the head of chapter 10, “Habit,” “Sow an action, and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and reap a destiny.”

“James was himself a remarkable teacher who changed lives. His lectures were engaging and unconventional, and his courses at Harvard routinely drew hundreds of students. He talked from carefully prepared notes, not from a written-out text. He sometimes lost his train of thought and asked a student what he had just said.”

“He entered the room, saw that James was busy writing, and started to withdraw. But James turned toward Hapgood and asked him to sit down, explaining, in Hapgood’s oddly stiff transcription, “I never allow myself to be too busy to make room for any demand upon me. If I did not accept all challenges, it would mean that the reservoirs of my nature, which are unplumbed and unfathomable, would tend to dry up. We are all of us capable of far more than we think and if we keep our minds and hearts open to every new appeal and influence we grow constantly in power and consciousness. At any moment you or another sophomore might contribute something of great importance to me.”

Impressions – Act as if

“James argues that human beings are, most simply, organisms “for reacting on impressions. What is true at the physiological level has major implications for the teaching process. “No reception without reaction, no impression without correlative expression.” We cannot be said truly to receive something unless we actively react to it; we do not really have a solid impression of anything until we express it. Everything begins with our basic or native reactions.”

“The great thing in all education,” James insists, “is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy.”

“Spinoza long ago wrote in his Ethics that anything that a man can avoid under the notion that it is bad he may also avoid under the notion that something else is good. He who habitually acts sub specie mali, under the negative notion, the notion of the bad, is called a slave by Spinoza” (for example, “I have to go to school today”). “To him who acts habitually under the notion of good he gives the name of freeman” (“I get to go to school today”).”

“The talk was not just vague uplift or well-intentioned generalities. It was a careful application of the James-Lange theory of emotion, recommending that the individual “pay primary attention to what we do and express, and not to care too much for what we feel.” “To wrestle with a bad feeling only pins our attention on it, and keeps it still fastened in the mind; whereas if we act as if from some better feeling, the old bad feeling soon folds its tent like an Arab and silently steals away.” “Act as if”; this is the essence of James’s advice.”


“Pragmatism is the philosophical notion, which quickly spread from its academic birthplace to the wider American culture, that the meaning of anything is to be found in its fruits, not its roots. It is results, not origins, that matter.”

“The bigger the unit you deal with, the hollower, the more brutal, the more mendacious is the life displayed. So I am against all big organizations as such, national ones first and foremost, and in favor of the eternal forces of truth which always work in the individual and immediately unsuccessful way, underdogs always, till history comes after they are long dead, and puts them on the top.” – William James

“Through all this, the core of James’s temperament stayed the same in one vital respect: he had a permanent and insatiable craving for change. “Change, ”he told Pauline Goldmark, “is… perhaps the most imperative of human needs.” A complex changeableness marks every aspect of his life and work.”

“I firmly disbelieve, myself, that our human experience is the highest form of experience extant in the universe. I believe rather that we stand in much the same relation to the whole of the universe as our canine and feline pets do to the whole of human life. They inhabit our drawing-rooms and libraries. They take part in scenes of whose significance they have no inkling. They are merely tangent to curves of history the beginnings and ends and forms of which pass wholly beyond their ken. So,” he ends grandly, “we are tangents to the wider life of things.”

Radical Empiricism

“As Russell would later summarize it, James held that “there are ‘thoughts’ which perform the function of ‘knowing,’ but these thoughts are not made of any different ‘stuff’ from that of which material objects are made.” James’s own conclusion is that “‘consciousness’ is fictitious while thoughts in the concrete are fully real. But thoughts in the concrete are made of the same stuff as things are.”

“What is required, James argues, is an approach he calls radical empiricism. Empiricism, he insists, is the opposite of rationalism. Rationalism tends to emphasize universals and to make wholes prior to parts. “Empiricism on the contrary lays the explanatory stress upon the part, the element, the individual, and treats the whole as a collection, and the universal as an abstraction. To be radical, an empiricism must neither admit into its constructions any element that is not directly experienced nor exclude from them any element that is directly experienced.”

“The conclusion has overtones of both Emerson and Bergson. “Life,” says James, “is in the transitions as much as in the terms connected; often indeed it seems to be there more emphatically, as if our spurts and sallies forward were the real firing-line of the battle, were like the thin line of flame advancing across the dry autumnal field.”


“If James’s life was cresting toward something that might be thought of as fulfillment, he was himself in active revolt against what he took to be the characteristically American form of it, that “exclusive worship of the bitch-Goddess SUCCESS.” That worship, together “with the squalid cash interpretation put on the word success — is our national disease,” James said.”

The Energies of Men

“The existence of reservoirs of energy that habitually are not tapped is most familiar to us in the phenomenon of ‘second wind.’” It can be mental as well as physical.”

“What exactly enables us to reach this reservoir? James identifies three kinds of things: excitements, efforts, and ideas.” Excitement includes things like love and anger, efforts are heroic responses to situations, and ideas contains things like the fatherland, freedom, or truth.


“For this aspect of his later thinking, James has been called anti-intellectual. A better description of his real position would be anti-abstraction; best would be to recognize it as the culmination of a lifelong protest on behalf of experience. This is not a new position for James, of course. It is the same clear opposition to Plato, who denigrates perceptual knowledge as mere sense impressions, and contrasts them with ideas, which are true and eternal. James’s life work had been to reverse this polarity, to answer Plato.”

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