William James: In Our Time

Contact Us

BBC Radio 4, 13 May 2010
In this discussion chaired by Melvyn Bragg with philosophers Jonathan Ree, John Haldane and Gwen Griffith-Dickson, we were given an introduction to James' thought. Brother of Henry James, William acknowledged numerous sources in his work, including Emerson's The American Scholar and Swedenborg. Although technically a philosopher, James was one of the first to acknowledge the importance of psychoanalysis in his focus on the emotions and the subconscious in his Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). His views were considered rather radical in the late Victorian period, but his emphasis on personal experience and subjectivity seems to chime in with modern sensibilities.
James was a staunch opponent of the organized Christian church; he believed that 'authenticity' was not found in rituals such as prayer but in the human psyche. To be 'saved' - in other words, to acknowledge oneself before God - it was necessary to value personal experience rather than observing particular precepts. James advocated the construction of one's own faith, to rely on one's own ideas and allow for the unexpected (hence his emphasis on Darwinism).
The programme asked whether James was a Freudian. Although there are oblique references in his work, James was more concerned with the randomness of human experience, combined with an emphasis on pragmatism, It did not matter whether his ideas 'worked' for individuals or not; what mattered to James was that individuals should exercise their right of self-determination to explore such ideas. However he was not a follower of John Stuart Mill (who believed that the world was constructed by experience). Rather James believed that the world comprised an interaction between subjectivity and objectivity - a coherence between individuals and the worlds they inhabit.
Did James' views have any real significance after his death in 1910? While Varieties of Religious Experience certainly sold well, the programme claimed he was ahead of his time in his emphasis on the importance of experience, rather than philosophy based on logic. The producer was Natasha Emerson.