Happy Birthday, William James

Today marks what would've been the one-hundred-and-seventieth birthday of one of the most well-regarded and enigmatic figures in American science: William James. (And, while he's a central figure in my work, my admiration doesn't even approach that of one of my colleagues: William James Dromgold Bouk turns two this March.)

James is a towering figure in American intellectual history – and he's gotten lots of attention in the ensuing century as a result. Lately, it's been picking up. The last few years marked a series of centenaries, including those of some of his best-known works: most significantly, The Varieties of Religious Experience in 1902 and Pragmatism in 1907.

But it's more than anniversaries that have raised James's profile. From Louis Menand's Metaphysical Club (which won the Pulitzer in 2002) to Robert Richardson's Bancroft-winning biography (2006) to the privileged place given him by Jim Kloppenberg in Reading Obama, James is on bookshelves outside of the academy in a big way.

One explanation is that these books (and especially Menand's) are especially well-written and wide-reaching – whatever the reason their authors chose James, it's their skills that have put him back on the map. Another is structural and somewhat cynical: these things tend to cycle, and it's James's turn due to shifts in the market for books and ideas.

There's a third reason (and more, besides), and it came to mind when I saw what Merriam-Webster had chosen as their "Word of the Year" for 2011: pragmatic. Granted, that's small-p pragmatism (M-W defines it as "practical as opposed to idealistic"), which historians of Pragmatism are careful to differentiate from its big-P relative.

But what interested me was the way the news media picked it up: it was taken to be a sign of the times. In a year of continued economic hardship crowned with this summer's debt ceiling debacle, pragmatism was a quality prized (and missing) both at home and in Washington. Searches peaked in the summer and again with the failure of the super committee.

Whatever "Word of the Year" means, can we link "pragmatism's" prominence to James's? Unclear. As so often happens, the word he went so far to popularize a hundred years ago quickly ran away from its champion. Still, there's something thrilling for a historian reading James's account of who we are, what we know, and how we know it.

In an age when (as a senior scholar recently told me) it's more frowned upon to name your theoretical debts than it is not to, it's surprising how much like James's account of the self sounds like the cultural-historical model of individual agency. As "theory" waned, pragmatism clambered in on the sly to structure our historical assumptions.


NB: It was also Aldo Leopold's birthday today – four years ago that would've been way bigger news to me. Anyway, for what it's worth.

Maybe today isn't special and James is big news because he's always big news, because he is "the most entertaining philosopher," as John Banville recently claimed.

Maybe. I do not have a good empirical sense of how or whether James has faired better or worse recently for the larger public.

If he has, then I can think of two explanations apart from yours (well one is pretty close to yours):
1. James enjoyed a renaissance among intellectual historians starting 30 years ago, probably w/ one Richard Rorty. Those historians wrote big and imposing books (_Uncertain Victory_, I'm looking at you) that soon became classics, inspiring further study. In the last decade, after a long period of stewing, we are seeing the popularization of a now mature historiography in the books you mention.

2. Pragmatism does a better job of clearing away mental cobwebs, of cleaning intellectual house, than it does of launching new programs. It is a John the Baptist sort of philosophy, always making the way straight for the Lord. That being the case, readers rediscover pragmatism and James at moments when big ideas begin to shift. Maybe we're sitting in the middle of some sort of end. The end of postmodernism? The end of agent-centered explanation? Is Henry's much awaited dawn of a new age of structural thinking upon us? Perhaps. Someone quick run a correlation between volume of James literature published and the advent of philosophical revolutions. (Ben Schmidt, I'm looking at you. Although I know you'll laugh at me for such an ill-formed query.)

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