So far as I’m concerned, William James earned his philosopher’s stripes as a young man when he wrote his despondent little brother a cheering letter about seagulls at the Amazon and the power of positive thinking. WJ 2
In his own mind at the time, though, in the 1860s, he is still a lost soul looking for someplace to drop anchor. He can’t commit, to anything, and it’s beginning to corrode his confidence in a serious way.
James enrolls at Harvard in 1861, and soon finds himself studying with naturalist Louis Agassiz, a Creationist who “held up scientific recognition of evolution in America for decades.” (49) Another professorial influence, Jeffries Wyman, pronounces on the new Darwinian evolutionary perspective (Origin of Species has just been published a couple of years earlier) that “the evidence is not all in. We must suspend judgment until it is.” James is not a good suspender. Soon he declares Darwin’s and Wallace’s new theory of natural selection “obvious,” and unequivocally rejects social Darwinism as deeply anti-social.
But he does suspend his formal studies in January 1863. 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.” On his own he reads an essay by Buckle on John Stuart Mill, praising the author’s “noble enthusiasm for truth”; and he continues a life-long love of literature, for which he always makes time no matter how busy he is.
William’s view of evil takes definite form at this time. He disagrees with his father about the cause and nature, but not the reality, of evil. In the view of Henry Sr., creation was not a physical but a spiritual act… He denied the authority of natural law [and] “the final reality of the natural world’… His son thinks otherwise.
Late in 1863 he decides to enroll in Medical School, more from prudence (as a career fall-back) than any passion for the profession. So, when the opportunity arises to join Agassiz on a South American sea-voyage of discovery in 1865 he leaps at it, even though Agassiz’s avowed aim is to overturn Darwin’s theory.
He doesn’t much enjoy the expedition, or discover in it his vocation; but it does have its moments. Mrs. Agassiz records one of them later, in a letter. Do you remember the afternoon when you and I passed each other in our separate boats, as I floated out of the Igarape in to the sunset glow over the great river? You rowed by me and said is it real or a dream?
And of course, Brazil is where he encounters those wonderful gulls at the mouth of the Amazon. He would soon need them, or the symbolism of them, to rescue him from indecision-induced depression. Since he no longer wanted to become a field naturalist, his main motive for studying medicine was now gone… “Medicine is busted,” he told a friend. In the Spring of ’67, at age 25, he’s ready to ship out again– trying to outrun his growing despair. He’s not yet having a good dream.
NOTE TO INTRO STUDENTS: We’re taking a snow-day in my classes. We’ll have the Friday quiz on Monday (and 1030-H essays are due then). Go ahead and do Monday’s reading in Passion for Wisdom, to p. 36. And drive safely, if you have to get out. JPO
Tags: Richardson's James