March 20 by The Running Son
Impressions of William James:
First-hand accounts by 3 of his students
A STUDENT’S IMPRESSIONS OF JAMES IN THE LATE ’80’s
by Edmund B. Delabarre
It is hardly possible to say briefly anything newly significant about Professor James; but let me record some of the impressions he made on me while I was under his instruction, as I recall them now after the lapse of more than fifty years.
During the academic years 1888-90, I was a graduate student at Harvard, taking courses under James and Royce. According to Perry’s account of his Thought and Character, James was then in one of his periods of better health, feeling ‘uncommonly hearty,’ and writing of the year’s work that lay before him that “I expect to enjoy it hugely.” It was therefore a propitious time for study with him. He had nearly finished his Principles, and read many of its chapters to his class of graduate students during its sessions at his home. As young students, we were too inexperienced and had too little background to judge of his originality of thought, or of many others of his many-sided traits. But we were deeply impressed with his thorough mastery of his subject, his profound knowledge of all that had been written on all of its many phases, his judgment in arriving at such conclusions as were warranted by the evidence at hand. Yet he clearly realized that requisite evidence is rarely fully assembled and he was perfectly and admirably frank in admitting his many uncertainties and doubts. It was stimulating to realize his innate modesty and open-mindedness, and to feel that he was inciting us to think out his problems with him We appreciated fully his remarkable genius for felicitous, clear and picturesque expression; although occasionally this led to complete misunderstanding of his meaning,–as when he said, in expounding his famous theory of emotions, that “we are sorry because we cry, afraid because we run,” not the other way around. Evidently, we can be sorry without crying, afraid without running. The illustration was striking yet unfortunate, but it does not alter the fact that some bodily reaction precedes and is the sensory source of the emotion that we feel, which is the essence of his well justified theory.
No one could escape feeling the deep charm of James’ personality, his empathic interest in everyone about him, his constant friendliness. The times when we were invited individually to meals at his home were occasions of happy sociability and of the joyous give-and-take of congenial conversation.
During those years James conducted no formal laboratory class. He was essentially an experimentalist at heart, in the sense that he sought factual knowledge and aimed to base his beliefs upon observational experience, although in a vastly broader field than the confines of a laboratory. He had a personal disinclination for laboratory work, and was distrustful of “certain crudities of reasoning which are extremely common in men of the laboratory pure and simple.” Yet he felt strongly the importance and necessity of developing psychological knowledge by experimentation of the laboratory type as well as by accurate observation of wider personal experience. These are the reasons why, some two years later, he secured the appointment of Munsterberg to a chair of experimental psychology at Harvard. In spite of all this, he did not altogether neglect laboratory procedure himself. To me, at least, he assigned several tasks of research, such as dissection of sheep’s brains, some problems in vision, and a study of the effect of noise upon mental and bodily activities. At the end of my two years at Harvard, he recommended to me and some other graduate students that we go to Freiburg to continue our studies under Munsterberg, with whose published experimental investigations and announcement of a programme for further research he had been much impressed.
Of other current incidents I can mention but a few. It was at that time that Wiedersheim’s denial of the inheritance of acquired characters was first announced. As I recall it, his first impression of the new view was that, if commonly accepted, it would remove certain deterrents to immoral conduct, as when an inebriate parent need no longer fear that he may pass on a taint to his offspring. Browning’s ill-bred old-age outburst against critics of his wife led James to remark that he had utterly lost all respect for the poet that he had ever felt.
Certain criticisms of the atmosphere of Harvard were then current, and James, somewhat disturbed by them, induced me to form a committee of graduate students who had come from other colleges, to compare, by means of a questionnaire, conditions at Harvard with those at their other colleges, with the result that a pamphlet was published by the Committee, almost wholly favorable to ‘The Tone and Tendencies of Harvard University.’
James’ interest in psychical research was evident. The medium, Mrs. Piper, was then flourishing in Boston. I had one or two sittings with her, puzzling as to how she could possibly have been able to mention so many facts concerning my private life, but otherwise not remarkable except that she ventured some prophecies which never were fulfilled. James, I think, regarded her as honest and worthy of study, although he was never fully convinced that her performances, or those of any other person, gave complete assurance of the existence of genuinely supernormal powers.
Professor Royce, soon after James’ death, classed him, together with Jonathan Edwards and Ralph Waldo Emerson, as one of the three representative American Philosophers. These three men most typically had made novel and notable contributions to general philosophy, and each had uttered “philosophical ideas characteristic of some stage and aspect of the spiritual life of his people. ‘ The extraordinary number of fields in which James made such novel and notable contributions and his enduring potent influence in all of them, surely justify such an estimate of him as a philosopher and psychologist.
A STUDENT’S IMPRESSIONS OF JAMES IN THE MIDDLE ’90’s
by Edwin D. Starbuck
Three of the lures for my selection of Harvard University for graduate study were C. C. Everett, Dean of the Divinity School, who was lecturing on the Philosophy of Religion; William James, who wrote and lived a psychology surcharged with cultural and spiritual fineness; and Hugo Munsterberg, the highly trained experimental psychologist whom James had induced Harvard to steal from Freiburg. My work, I knew, was to be in the empirical, including the experimental, approach to the study of religion. I had collected bulletins and written letters all about the scholastic landscape to find the right place to camp for advanced study. What an array! The catalogue from P–University said, in effect, “this course is to show that the Christian Religion is and all other religions are not capable of psychological justification”!
On the occasion of the opening lecture period of the first semester, Professor James appeared, almost late, moved smoothly and unobtrusively up the middle aisle to the slightly elevated platform, placed a small bundle of books from his arm on the desk, paused, gave the class a split second of a friendly glance, lifted the index finger of his right hand above the forehead as if it were the symbol of a new idea and remarked, “Oh, excuse me, I forgot something.” A minute or two following the time signal he returned, seated himself serenely at his desk and began, not lecturing to us or at us, but discussing with us, some of the men and movements in psychology. He showed two or three significant recent books j we should help decide if we wished to use a text and, if so, which it should be.
His ‘lectures’ were always vitalizing. No studied rhetoric. Always happy turns of intriguing phrases, a glow of warmth and meaning. Never a moment wasted on shop-made humor. We were always thinking together.
One day he ventured a diagram on the blackboard to clear up some notions we had stumbled into about relations existing between ‘selfhood,’ ‘cognition,’ ‘feeling of value,’ ‘affectors’ and ‘effectors.’ There were circles or lines symbolizing each states and processes. In going back over it he got a little ensnared in the entanglements. He backed away, cocked his head to one side and remarked, “What the deuce have we got here anyhow!” With friendly smiles and a chuckle, the members of the group helped to disentangle the snarl and moved together for several strides along the psychological highway, having a good time at a bit of road building into the bargain. That sort of teaching’ mace us like the subject and love the instructor.
James’ friendly informality was rooted in his inherent tactfulness. Absorbing the social formalities and conventions into a congenial mental weather, he would, for instance, make an appointment with a student for a personal conference over some ‘problem’ at his house at, say, eleven or five o’clock, and make that device a way of inveigling him into participating in the gracious hospitality of a perfect home. He was the consummate artist at living.
James had an uncanny way of coming to know us individually. One day before class he whispered to me the inquiry whether I would mind stopping for a minute after the recitation. After the decks were cleared, he pulled from his inner pocket a questionnaire sheet that had come into his hands, printed closely front and back, asking with much incisiveness about religious upbringing, beliefs and attitudes, how the person got that way, the lines of growth from childhood to maturity, the what and when of periodicities, if any, and other items. “This sheet,” he said, “bears your signature. Did you perpetrate it?” “Guilty,” I confessed. “But this is New England,” he observed, “and people here will not reply to an inquisitional document of that sort.” “But they are already doing so,” I replied. “How do you capture or captivate them?” he persisted. “I wheedle them; I explain that this is the beginning of a new science in the world–the psychology of religion, and we must have the facts. Failing in this approach, my favorite technique, since I am a husky, is to throw the victim flat on the floor or lawn, sit on his chest and extort a solemn promise to confess everything.” James graciously responded with merriment to the cheap humor and remarked that he would like, if he might keep the document, to suggest a more effective way of obtaining the desired data.
Three or four days later we were approaching on opposite sides of the wide street near Sanders Theatre. I saluted. He waved. We met exactly on the street-car lines in the middle of the street. He pulled from his pocket that self-same questionnaire, subscribed with the legend: “This study is done with the approval of C. C. Everett, Dean of the School of Religion of Harvard University, Aiexander MacKenzie, Pastor of the First Congregational Church of Cambridge, Mass., and William James, Professor of Psychology, Harvard University.” I braced myself and stood the shock, while hunting vainly for fitting words of appreciation. ” But you mayn’t do that,” I protested; “this is freak stuff and you have a reputation to defend.” He waved the objection aside playfully. That was a chronic attitude of James toward every student.
This attempt to unearth the raw data of the inner life caused repercussions both favorably and vexatiously at home and abroad. Professor J. Estlin Carpenter of Oxford, amongst a few others, tried to render assistance by securing confessions in England. Professor Burton of Smith College sought to collect religious life histories from his students. One of them sent the document to her father who was a member of the faculty at Yale. He wrote, ” If my daughter is to be exposed to that kind of spiritual vivisection, I shall immediately take her from the College.” In fighting the way through the barrage of religious transcendentalisms and negativisms, it was James’ influence and continual thoughtfulness that helped most of all.
James was always more than fair-minded. A half dozen years after the inquisitional episodes hinted above he wrote me at Stanford University, where, as a member of the faculty under the tutelage of another omnivorous mind, I was carrying on in the study of religious experiences. He had been invited to give the Gifford Lectures at Edinburgh and was tempted to call the series, ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience.’ Had I any unused data from which he might draw? It was one of the most genuine pleasures of my life to be able to express to him a barrelful and two large cartons of raw data. He made use of many a skit and, contrary to specific instructions but true to his nature, he never failed to make acknowledgments.
James was faithful to significant fact in its minuteness as well as to widening Truth with its reach. He is a blind psychologist who is not something of a philosopher and a fatuous philosopher who is not infinitely circumspect about the concrete data of experience; it must never be forgotten that James set up the first psychological laboratory in America at Harvard, although in choosing between the specificities and the humanities of psychology he later abandoned it.
William James, a name of sacred memory to us all. James, humanly responsive and spiritually sensitive. The friend of perhaps every pupil who came under his tutelage. It is a sober and cherished privilege today to hold in tender recollection William James, in whose. presence the haughty were reduced to simplicity, the hungry were fed, and the eager and earnest enjoyed constantly deeper integrations and more alluring vistas.
ANOTHER STUDENT’S IMPRESSIONS OF JAMES
AT THE TURN OF THE CENTURY
by Roswell P. Angier
In these personal impressions of William James, I shall confine myself to my student days at Harvard–1893 to 1897 (undergraduate) and 1900 to 1903 (graduate, in psychology). They were the most vivid and enduring impressions.
As a sophomore, philosophically tabula rasa, I took the eye-opening introductory course–logic by Palmer, history o modern philosophy by Santayana, and psychology by James Compared with the others James made hard going of ordered lecturing. Certainly it could not have been said of him, as someone said of Royce, that lecturing was his natural form of breathing. “You have read today’s chapter,” he remarked from his favorite perch on a corner of the platform desk, holding up to the large class a copy of his Briefer course; “I wrote the book, and what I think is all there–but perhaps there is a question.” In such sparrings for openings some debatable issue, perhaps self-initiated, usually bobbed up He would then become animated and fluent, with risin assertiveness, and throw off with apparent unconcern th verbal picturesquenesses to which his writings have accus tomed us. These clarifying interludes were our joy, and James’ forte. Positive, even vehement in expression, he non the less impressed us as undogmatic and open-minded, as i l science and philosophy were a never-ending but serious game. “The best thing I can say for it,” he wrote in concluding his first exposition of his theory of the emotions, “is, that in writing it, I have almost persuaded myself [his italics] that it may be true.” We undergraduates had not read the sentence–but it would have clicked.
In the laboratory it was plain that James had neither flai nor patience for experimental work, and that he didn’t care who knew it; he was a flat failure at pretense. One day he was energetically soaping his hands over the hopper in the cluttered laboratory room while a woman graduate student was telling him that she did not know what to do next, suggesting that she might dissect a sheep’s brain. “Yes, yes,” James hastily agreed, as if also washing his hands of her and her problem, “that’s perhaps the best thing you could do.” But it is a grave mistake–one long persistent–to assume that James had small use, if not actual contempt, for experiment. After all, it was not a fortuitous circumstance that he set up perhaps the first going psychology laboratory in America, and pioneered in exploiting the findings of experimentalists (several hundred pages in the Principles). James’ biting gibes– ‘brass instrument psychology’ and ‘the elaboration of the obvious’–were aimed at contemporary experimentalists, not at experiment. “The man who throws out most new ideas and immediately seeks to subject them to experimental control,” he wrote, “is the most useful psychologist.” Helmholtz was one of his idols. What he missed in his experimenting contemporaries was the ideas.
It was when fighting for fair play to human and moral values as standards of truth that James became most vehemently eloquent, and impressed most deeply his student audiences. Neither the fine-spun logic of the absolutists nor science itself could be permitted to lord it over the cogent evidence of the ‘brute datum’ of experience. The relational ad infinitums of Bradley (appearance and Reality) James dubbed ‘sheer intellectual perversity,’ and ‘Bah! what silly quibbling’ he pencilled in the margin of his own copy of Royce’s The world and the individual. In science, if the law of the conservation of energy interfered with the concept of interactionism, “what’s the law of the conservation of energy among friends?”–he might have said. I particularly remember his impassioned battling, on experimental grounds, for the freedom of the will in an address on The Dilemma of Determinism, and another–most moving of all–on Is Life Worth Living, delivered on a hot June evening in tiny, crowded Holden Chapel. As James stood there in the cramped space, close in front of his audience, reading with a sort of tumultuous rush from his nervous manuscript, perspiration streaming from his forehead, one felt almost palpably the tense absorption of the student group as he bared his own fighting faith in life’s worthwhileness–closing, as his admonition to the fainthearted, with Henry IV’s greeting to the tardy Crillon, after a great victory: “Hang yourself, brave Crillon! We fought at Arques, and you were not there.”
Brilliant, high-strung, dynamic, vivacious, resilient, unexpected, unconventional, picturesque–these are some of the terms that at once recur in recalling James. Among many incidents, I remember his fetching embarrassment when baffled while figuring on the blackboard; his remark in the college Yard when congratulating me on securing my Ph.D.: “but, you’ve probably read what bosh I think it all is”; the startled turning of heads toward him in crowded Sanders Theatre as he conspicuously beat the audience to its applause of General Booth at the close of a moving address on the work of the Salvation Army among the poor; his fidgeting at a department symposium in Royce’s house, and his silent exit, in carpet slippers, when Munsterberg was in full teutonic swing; his entrance, with elaborate stealth, clad in brown Norfolk jacket, striped trousers, and silk hat, into Royce’s morning metaphysics class already under way, his attentive listening to Royce on The Absolute–and the departure of the two from the room. We left them on the steps of Sever Hall as we slowly trailed away, still arguing, as they so often did–James animated and Royce quiet, with his whimsical, tolerant smile.
(from Psychological Review, Volume 50 (1943), pp. 125-134)