Paying Attention to William James

On the letters and lessons of a luminary.

William James sitting with Mrs. Walden in Séance. MS Am 1092 (1185), Houghton Library, Harvard University [Public domain]

I have been thinking about attention a lot recently, and writing about it a little, too. Consequently, I have been expending some of my own on the life and work of William James (1842–1910), who focused uncommon insight on how attention shapes our sense of experience. “My experience is what I agree to attend to,” he emphasized in the first volume of his Principles of Psychology.

Only those items which I notice shape my mind — without selective interest, experience is an utter chaos. Interest alone gives accent and emphasis, light and shade, background and foreground — intelligible perspective, in a word. It varies in every creature, but without it the consciousness of every creature would be a gray chaotic indiscriminateness, impossible for us even to conceive.

From my perspective, no luminary in the museum of American genius shines with as much liveliness as James. The work of this doctor, philosopher, and psychologist — even in its exploration of profound themes, and despite the shadows of melancholy from which his brilliance clearly emerges — sparkles with a wit one can only describe as playful. Although never unserious, his writing is animated by a dynamism that seems somehow commensurate with life’s own uncontainable energy.

As a professor at Harvard, he must have been a marvelous teacher; that suspicion is confirmed by the testimony of two quite different students who came under his sway: the future sociologist and historian W. E. B. Du Bois, and the budding literary experimentalist Gertrude Stein. Du Bois called James “my friend and guide to clear thinking,” while Stein honored him as “my big influence when I was at college.” It will take only a few pages of his prose to convince any reader of James’s gift for inspiration, and the two books I discuss briefly here are the most inviting places to start.

A Correspondence Course in Wisdom

It’s hard to imagine a more uplifting bedside book than a volume of James’s letters. Whether encapsulating a truth experience has taught us but we’ve never before articulated — “Nothing so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task” — or skewering society’s received ideas on the point of his pen — “the moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS” — James offers insight and, quite often, trenchant advice about how to live without ever resorting to bromides.

His cast of correspondents is both familiar and illustrious, beginning with his brother Henry and his sister Alice and including Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Henry Adams, John Dewey, and George Santayana. James’s struggles with youthful irresolution and with bouts of disquiet and despair make his brilliance approachable, and lend an enduring power to his encouragements:

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.

As Elizabeth Hardwick characterized them, “James’s letters are felicitous, easy, genuine as talk.” He is a fine friend to be in conversation with, even across a hundred years and through words originally meant for others, because his prose is eloquent and expressive, his mind as surprising as it is wise. While his complete correspondence runs to a dozen volumes, Hardwick’s edition of Selected Letters is a superb distillation of it.

In the Stream of Consciousness

James brings the poise of a sage and the instincts of an experimental psychologist to The Varieties of Religious Experience, his intensely curious study of “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude.” Although it may seem odd that the thinker responsible for the clearest articulation of the principles of Pragmatism should so ambitiously and carefully address religious experience as well, the two themes are, in James’s practice, closely allied as attempts to find a workable grasp on the flux of life. No other philosophical thinker offers the reader such a palpable sense that his words on the page are grappling with the very tangles we must unravel to make the smallest meaning for ourselves: “The philosophy which is so important in each of us is not a technical matter; it is our more or less dumb sense of what life honestly and deeply means,” he writes in Pragmatism (1907). “It is only partly got from books; it is our individual way of just seeing and feeling the total push and pressure of the cosmos.”

How we bend and sway, straighten up and take strength from that push and pressure is the subject of the cogent and gripping Varieties, which collects the talks James delivered as the Gifford Lecturer in Natural Religion at the University of Edinburgh in 1900–1902. In characteristically Jamesian fashion, the book avoids theoretical constructs to enter the chambers of confusion — and sometimes consolation — in which we live. Discussion of theology, institutional dogma, and ecclesiasticism is eschewed to focus on the experiential consequences of the religious impulse, which James defines as “the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.” (“All our scientific and philosophic ideals are altars to unknown gods,” he had written some years before.)

Seeing this belief in an unseen order as a psychological need to make a music of meaning more resonant than the simple scales of rationalism, James explores the soul’s struggle to adapt to the “buzzing blooming confusion” of the universe it dwells in so uncertainly. He illuminates his pages with anecdotes, reflections on his wide literary, scientific, and religious reading, and a preternatural gift for indelible images. In his leisurely, learned, insightful ruminations on “the sick soul” and “the divided self,” on states of grace and states of despair, on conversion, saintliness, mysticism, and more, he furthers his lifelong exploration of the “stream of consciousness” — a phrase he coined — that is the medium of our existence. His acknowledgment of the reality of personal forces tempers the scientific perspective he brings to bear in a way that makes us listen harder to this incomparable educator, who knows so much, and nothing by rote.


Adapted from 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die by James Mustich. Copyright © 2018 by James Mustich. Published by Workman Publishing.