I first read William James’s famous Gifford Lectures, The Varieties of Religious Experience, in the summer of 1978 when I was on a Churchill Fellowship in Germany studying how business English was taught to see if I could learn anything useful relating to my own teaching of foreign languages. I sat in a park in Marburg soaking up the beautifully written text with its formative insights into the nature of spirituality and mystical experience. Since that time, James has been a constant influence in my life and I drew on a number of his ideas in writing my first book Survival in the summer of 1982 – more on this below. This new volume of essays covers principally his writings on moral psychology and philosophy in relation to some of his key ideas expressed both in texts and more popular lectures. The treatment is relatively technical, but accessible to those readers with a special interest in William James.

My shelf of James’s books includes his volume of Talks to Teachers on Psychology and to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals dating from 1899 and which went through six printings in this first two years. Then there is Papers on Philosophy, inherited from one of my mentors, Norman Cockburn, who bought the book in September 1929. I mention these in this context since the intent of James’s popular talks is always practical, and he even refers to weeding out some of the analytical technicality in his write-ups since he knows from experience that people appreciate concrete practical application. Since the philosophers in this volume are specialists in analytical technicality, one occasionally has the impression that they miss this practical angle, which is perhaps one of the reasons why James was never a fully systematic thinker and changed his orientation as he matured.

James’s practical bent is reflected in his preoccupation with character, habits, virtues and will, while also emphasising the primacy of emotion, even in relation to reasoning – one of his talks, discussed in this volume is The Sentiment of Rationality. He would have appreciated the term emotional intelligence and started his considerations from real sentient beings rather than philosophical positions, always linking thinking and feeling while taking account of temperament, for instance the difference between easy-going and what was then called strenuous, typified by Theodore Roosevelt who even wrote an essay on the topic. The editor writes about James’s ideal and sentimental virtues, citing in the first category tolerance, love towards others, courage, humility, patience, reverence and good humour; and in the second, sympathy, insight and goodwill – insight is important when it comes to our natural and conditioned blind spots and inability to enter into the lives of others in a fully empathetic fashion. For James, the moral life requires the activation of moral energies that should be directed towards the improvement of society – characterised here as his philosophy of meliorism [in one of my other books there is an excellent essay entitled The Energies of Men dealing more broadly with the powers that we often fail to use]. Moral energy is an energy of the will, an important category in James’s overall approach and somewhat underemphasised in our own time. A famous essay is entitled to The Will to Believe and is discussed in this volume is a moral philosophy characterised by empowered individualism (choice and will), and with interesting historical parallels with Stoic ethics and the approach of Marcus Aurelius.

Moving to a different theme, two essays are devoted to the moral implications of James’s Lectures on Human Immortality. These short lectures delivered at Harvard in 1898 had an enormous influence on my thinking when I was writing my first book, and are readily accessible on the Internet. As noted in my review of Mind Beyond Brain, his filter or transmission theory of the relationship between brain and mind has been taken forward by faculty at the Division of Perceptual Studies in the University of Virginia. A shortcoming of both these essays is that they make no reference whatsoever to research on survival, concentrating instead on philosophical and ethical implications. Ermine Algaier raises the interesting point of the mainstream view – in this case of brain and consciousness –  being regarded as objective and certain, resulting in ‘arbitrary and oppressive epistemic, social, and moral restraints on the epistemological minorities’, in this case people open to the possibility of an afterlife, regarded as irrational by the mainstream, a dogmatic pronouncement which James questioned with his approach of radical empiricism. This is still broadly true today, and the author also remarks on the process ‘whereby metaphysical speculation dogmatically transforms itself into authoritative knowledge.’ (p. 212)

It is interesting to learn of James’s criticism of American foreign policy, for instance of the US invasion of the Philippines. He identifies US exceptionalism in supposing that it is a better nation morally than the rest and without the old savage ambitions; however, ‘Human Nature is everywhere the same; and at the least temptation all the old military passions rise, and sweep everything before them.’ (p. 223) This is still true today, as analysed in the work of David Ray Griffin on the topic. James writes that US humanitarian posturing is nothing more than a cloak for their actual intentions: ‘we are here for your own good; therefore unconditionally surrender to our tender mercies, or we’ll blow you to into kingdom come.’ (p. 225) Having said this, James took heroism seriously along with the human need for ‘strength and strenuousness, intensity and danger’ (from his essay What Makes Like Significant). His seminal contribution is an essay on the moral equivalent of war, where he writes of the need to discover in the social realm ‘something heroic that will speak to men as universally as war does, and yet will be as compatible with their spiritual selves as war has proved itself to be incompatible.’ (p. 233) This need for courage and a strenuous life – the martial virtues –  is perennially with us, and is partly fulfilled in sporting contests between countries, but it also requires an individual outlet.

The final part of the book returns to the education of moral character, with a comparison between James and Aristotle’s virtue ethics and practical wisdom. Pamela Crosby discusses the value of a critical sense, of mobilising ideals for the improvement of society, of active virtues and habits, and of character education, which has recently made a comeback around the world as people realise its value in terms of personal development, integrity, resilience and leadership. This brings us full circle to James’s preoccupations with character, will, habit and virtue mentioned at the beginning. It is embodiment and practice that realises the ideal, relating moral thinking to moral action in the world. On this basis, I would strongly encourage users to acquaint themselves with James’s essays, after which the analytical treatment in this volume will be all the more interesting.

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