Who’s your favorite philosopher?

That’s the Philosophy Bites question we take up today in CoPhi. If you think it puts Descartes before the horse you can revisit What is Philosophy? first, as we did last year. (That was the first bad phil-pun I heard, first day of Grad School. Not the last. Blame it on Cogan.)

We don’t all agree on what philosophy is. Not even we “Americanists,” amongst ourselves. But we try to disagree agreeably. A little post-HAP 101 exchange between a pair of students last Fall threatened for a moment to become disagreeable (unlike the class itself, which was thrilling in its impassioned civility). Almost made ’em watch the Argument Clinic. “An argument isn’t just the automatic gainsaying of any statement the other person makes,” etc. etc.  But I don’t want to argue about that.


I don’t have a “favourite”… but my favorite (as I’ve already told my classes, on Day #1) is of

course William James.

Philosophy, beginning in wonder, as Plato and Aristotle said, is able to fancy everything different from what itis. It sees the familiar as if it were strange, and the strange as if it werefamiliar. It can take things up and lay them down again. Its mind is full of air that plays round every subject. It rouses us from our native dogmatic slumber and breaks up our caked prejudices. SPP

It’s no surprise that David Hume outpolls everyone on the podcast, given its Anglo-centric tilt, or that Mill and Locke pick up several votes. They’re all on my short list too, as is Bertrand Russell. (I notice that my Vandy friend Talisse is one of the handful of Americans here, and he, like Martha Nussbaum, picks Mill. Sandel picks Hegel.) Other big votegetters: Aristotle, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein.


No surprise either that James, Dewey, Peirce, Santayana, Rawls, and other prominent Yanks don’t win wide favor across the pond.

I did hear a British philosopher praising James once, on the BBC’s excellent “In Our Time.” But generally they prefer William’s “younger, shallower, vainer” brother Henry, who lived most of his adult life in Sussex.

The British roots of American thought do run deep, and the branches of reciprocal influence spread wide. Stay tuned for info on our Study Aboard course, as it moves from drawing board to future reality.

Why do I find WJ so compelling? Hard to put my finger on a single reason, there are so many. I was first drawn to him through his marvelous personal letters. Then, his essays (“On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life,” “What Makes a Life Significant”) and lectures-cum-books (Varieties of Religious Experience, Pragmatism, A Pluralistic Universe). His warm, charming, playful, disarming, sympathetic personality shone through all. He was so great at tossing off wit, profundity, and practical wisdom with seeming effortlessness and concision. A born tweeter. But his health, physical and emotional, was a lifelong challenge. He expended vast effort to become William James.

The thing James said that’s stuck with me longest and made the most lasting impression, I think, is the little piece of youthful advice he once wrote to a despondent friend. I’m not quite sure why, but it lifts my mood every time I think of it:

Remember when old December’s darkness is everywhere about you, that the world is really in every minutest point as full of life as in the most joyous morning you ever lived through; that the sun is whanging down, and the waves dancing, and the gulls skimming down at the mouth of the Amazon, for instance, as freshly as in the first morning of creation; and the hour is just as fit as any hour that ever was for a new gospel of cheer to be preached. I am sure that one can, by merely thinking of these matters of fact, limit the power of one’s evil moods over one’s way of looking at the cosmos.

Is this true? Maybe. Is it useful? Definitely.

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