BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Linda Simon, author of "Genuine Reality: A Life of William James."
Who was he?
PROFESSOR LINDA SIMON, AUTHOR, "GENUINE REALITY:" Well, at the turn
of the century, William James was probably the most popular
intellectual in American life. That doesn't even begin to say what he
meant to the people of the time. I think that if I were going to define
him in a concise way, I would say he was a liberator of hearts and
minds and spirits. He was also a professor of philosophy at Harvard,
which, I think, seems to contradict that first definition. He was a
psychologist who set up experimental psychology in this country,
although he did not believe, really, in laboratory work. He was a
psychical researcher and he was the eldest brother of Henry James, the
LAMB: Who were the Jameses, the family?
PROF. SIMON: The Jameses were a quirky family. There was Henry
James Sr., who was a s--kind of self-proclaimed philosopher, the
mother, Mary, who is a--still a little bit of a mystery to all of us,
and there were four sons and a daughter. The two eldest sons became
enormously well-known intellectuals. That's William and Henry. The
youngest daughter, Alice, is known for her victimization. She wrote a
diary that's--that's very interesting. And the two middle sons called
themselves failures. They were the sort of expendable members of the
James family. But at the time--this is from the mid-19th century
until Henry James died after World War I--the Jameses were enormously
influential in American life. They knew everyone. American
intellectuals were a rather small circle. They were on the--the level
of Emerson, the Alcotts, Thoreau, all of whom they knew. That's who
the Jameses were in terms of our intellectual history. Who they were
to each other is a different answer entirely.
LAMB: Who's John McDermott?
PROF. SIMON: John McDermott is--he was a--a teacher I had as an
undergraduate at Queens College, and at the time, still, I'm sure, the
reigning James scholar.
LAMB: You give him a lot of credit for all this. Can you remember
the first time he ever mentioned the Jameses to you?
PROF. SIMON: Well, you know, this was some sort of Western culture
or introduction to philosophy course. And you know what philosophers
are like when you're an undergraduate. They're so boring and they
seem so downcast. They're--they just don't seem like happy people.
And, in fact--we can get back to the part that they're not happy--but
all of a sudden, James burst on to the scene and he was lively. His
writings were accessible. And he said something to the spirit of who
a t--a 20-year-old is at that time, which is a person who's asking
questions about, `Who am I? What is the meaning of life? What should
I do with my life? How do we make moral decisions?'--those kinds of
questions. And James spoke to those so directly and--and so
LAMB: And James--John McDermott was at Queens College, was your
professor, and you were there, and all of a sudden...
PROF. SIMON: No, this happens--I mean, that I--I, you know, had the
fortune of taking this course with John McDermott--had nothing to do
with what happened later. The next time James came into my life,
really, was when I was working on a biography of Alice Toklas
and--which, of course, was also a biography of Gertrude Stein, and
Stein had been a student of James', an enormously adoring student of
James'. She credited him with opening up so many paths in terms of
literature and art as--and, more than that, for really affirming her
own spirit and sense of identity. She said once, `Is life worth
living? Yes, yes, 1,000 times yes when there is some man--such a man
as William James.'
LAMB: An--and you know, from writing the book, that--you--you write
somewhere in the middle when William James was teaching, how much he
liked teaching girls.
PROF. SIMON: Yes, he did like teaching girls. Well, he liked to
flirt and be adored. That was part of it. He was really rather a
professional flirt. This all comes, I think, from his long, long
protracted search for affirmation of his own self-worth and manhood.
And he sort of took that for the rest of his life. He liked to be
praised and--and adored. And his women students, especially, were
very willing to do that.
LAMB: By the way, who is Alice B. Toklas?
PROF. SIMON: The companion of Gertrude Stein.
LAMB: And when did you write that book?
PROF. SIMON: Long time ago. That was published in '77.
LAMB: What got your interest in her?
PROF. SIMON: Oh. Well, I had been to Paris, came home with a not
very original idea of writing a literary guide to Paris. That I did
didn't exactly congeal. But while I was doing some research, I
started reading Gertrude Stein, and--and she was just an exciting and
wonderful figure. Her centenary was sort of coming up. Someone else,
James Mellow, was working on a biography of Stein. And I thought it
would be just so much fun to write about Alice B. Toklas. But this
was a time when I did not consider myself a writer. This was just
something to do next. And I did it. The research was wonderful. The
writing was wonderful. Everything about it was wonderful, and I
decided afterwards why--why do anything else?
LAMB: What were you doing, if you weren't a writer?
PROF. SIMON: Nothing. I was looking--I was searching for myself.
LAMB: You weren't a teacher or...
PROF. SIMON: No. No, that came afterwards, also.
LAMB: Where were you living?
PROF. SIMON: Partly in New York and--no, I think I--I finished this.
I was living in New York, and then shortly after that moved to the
Berkshires. But--but it was a sort of self-contained activity. It
wasn't the begin--I didn't see it as the beginning of my career as a
LAMB: Who was Gertrude Stein?
PROF. SIMON: Well, Gertrude Stein was a quirky modernist. I think,
though, that there's some analogy to William James in that Gertrude
Stein is a sort of culture hero. You know, she had this salon in
Paris. She knew everyone. She advised Hemingway on his writing. She
championed Fitzgerald. And yet very few people actually read the
writings of Gertrude Stein because the writing she took seriously as a
modernist are impenetrable. And so she got her reputation from a kind
of spirit of modernism, of what the possibilities for literature and
language were. And because, I think, she paved a new way of living
for herself, as did Alice Toklas, that was not the expected destiny
for a Jewish girl brought up in Oakland, California.
LAMB: Now while--part of all this finding yourself, is this what this
writing has helped do?
PROF. SIMON: Yes.
LAMB: Is it--well, I mean--I guess I'm asking, because you--you read
it--about William James--that he was always trying to find himself in
all of his writings.
PROF. SIMON: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: Does it--does it work when you write it out?
PROF. SIMON: It works when you write biographies that you learn very
much about yourself, I think, because if you go into a biography
without a kind of psychological system that you're applying to your
subject, then what you know about your subject, what you believe is
true, is always tested against what you know about yourself or about
living. And the more you ask questions about your subject, I think,
the more you ask questions about yourself. And so, yes, it has taught
me a lot. And James--I worked on this book for about six years--was
just the most affirming and liberating companion. It's very hard to
think that the book is over, not that James is over in my life, but
that the book is over.
LAMB: Where did you write it?
PROF. SIMON: Well, I was teaching at Harvard until recently, and now
I'm at Skidmore. And most of the time, you know, I wrote it in James'
territory, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, near where he lived, where he
taught, where his voluminous papers are. It was...
LAMB: And where he's buried.
PROF. SIMON: And where he's buried, absolutely.
LAMB: And--and then are all the Jameses buried in the same place?
PROF. SIMON: Yes.
PROF. SIMON: Not all the James--not the two middle brothers.
They're buried in the Cambridge City Cemetery. There are--for those
who know the Cambridge area, there's a wonderful cemetery called Mount
Auburn. It's a garden cemetery, and it has statues and plantings and
benches, and people go there to meditate and withdraw. But the
Jameses were not buried there at all, although very many other
important people were. They're buried in the Cambridge City Cemetery,
which is just not very scenic.
LAMB: Who's this--these two?
PROF. SIMON: William James and his brother Henry.
LAMB: Henry James is there on the left.
PROF. SIMON: Yes.
LAMB: How much older or younger is he than William James?
PROF. SIMON: William James was the eldest. There's a 15-month
LAMB: And who was Henry James?
PROF. SIMON: Well, Henry James, of course, gave us the mer--recent
movies, "Washington Square" and "Wings of the Dove." He was a novelist
and short story writer, an essayist and biographer, a very prolific
writer and, certainly, now considered one of--one of the major
American writers. In his own time, it was--there was a lot of
competition out there. There was William Dean Howells. There was
Edith Wharton. She outsold him, to his great distress, many times.
But now he's been, you know, canonized in the Academy and--and,
indeed, deserves it. He's a wonderful writer.
LAMB: The two of them died when?
PROF. SIMON: William James died in 1910, and Henry James in 1916.
LAMB: Would they be surprised if they came back--and I was in the
bookstore last night looking on the shelves, there's--it's all there.
PROF. SIMON: Oh, they would be so happy. They so much wanted
success. They wanted money. Henry James wanted much more publicity
than just writing novels. He tried very much to write plays and
couldn't. They failed miserably. But he would have wanted that very
LAMB: Would they be surprised that their work is--they're on the
PROF. SIMON: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: ...and, you know, you can find the--under philosophy, you can
find William James; and under fiction, literature, lots of Henry
PROF. SIMON: Surprised--that kind of speaks to their self-confidence
and optimism. I would say William James would not be surprised. He
would be--he would feel so vindicated that finally people were reading
him. Henry, at the end of his life, was sadder. And I don't know. I
don't know that he ever really thought or believed that he would be
LAMB: Why did you call him Harry James throughout the first part of
the book, and then I--correct me if I'm wrong--once his father, Henry,
died, you started calling him Henry again.
PROF. SIMON: Right. Well, you know, when you have a family that
names all the children William Henry and Henry and William, you have
to find some way of distinguishing--Har--He--Henry James Jr. was
called Harry by the family. And then when he was able to have a
professional life, I called him Henry, because there wasn't the Henry
James Sr. looming.
LAMB: Now a couple of weeks ago, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. was here,
and he has his book, which is "The Disunity of America." It's been out
three times now since 1991. This time, in the back of the book, he
has the baker's dozen of books that--`indispensable to an
understanding of America.' And of the 13 authors that he names or
books that he names, William James' writings, two volumes, Library of
America in 1992. And he says, `The most American of philosophers, a
wonderfully relaxed, humane and engaging writer. His brother Henry,
people used to say, wrote novels like a psychologist, while William
wrote psychology like a novelist.' And that's in your book. I read
that in your book, also.
PROF. SIMON: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: Are you surprised that Arthur Schlesinger felt that William
James should be in the--in the baker's dozen?
PROF. SIMON: Oh, no, not at all. John Dewey, who was a later famous
American philosopher, said that when William James lived, it was James
first and no second. He was so enormously influential. And--and this
was before--let's do a little chronology just to get all this in
place. He published his major works, the works that are kind of
iconic, you know, late in his life. "Pragmatism" came out in 1907;
"Pluralism & the Meaning of Truth" and all the other books that--all
the other kind of keywords we associate with James came out very, very
close to his death.
He was so enormously popular before then, that the question is: Why?
And not among academics. It would be so wrong to call him an academic
philosopher or even to--even when I say he was an intellectual, I know
that some people are hearing, `Uh-oh, that's not for me.' He really
wanted to speak and directed his works toward ordinary people, to
students, to teachers, elementary school teachers, anybody that was
interested in any questions of spirituality or religion and--and not
on a kind of high philosophical vein, but, `How can I believe in God
if--if the--if science tells me that I should only believe what can be
proven?' I mean, a question like that. And James felt that what
unites us--and this from the inventor of pluralism and, you know,
that's, I'm sure, why Schlesinger has him on the list--but that there
is--he believed that there was certain things--human needs that united
us, and one of them was a craving to believe that there was some kind
of transcendent spirituality that we could have faith in, that was
beyond the empirical.
So even though he was grounded in experience and he--he exhorted
people to trust their own experience, they could know the world. They
didn't need philosophers to interpret the world for them. They didn't
need scientists to prove the world for them. They just needed to look
and feel and reflect on what it was to live in the world. Even that
person believed that we all have a craving for some spirituality.
LAMB: Now what do you teach at Skidmore right now?
PROF. SIMON: English.
LAMB: Do you teach...
PROF. SIMON: Yes, I'm teaching a course...
LAMB: ...the Jameses?
PROF. SIMON: ...in William James and the James family.
LAMB: When do you notice your students come to life about this whole
subject? How long's it take?
PROF. SIMON: Well, of course, they--they elect to take this course,
so they're interested in--in the ways that a novelist, a philosopher
and the--the daughter who didn't become anything fit together. But
one way that I saw them, you know, feel very enthusiastic was when we
were talking about psychical research.
LAMB: What's that mean?
PROF. SIMON: It means that--well, psychical research was James'
investigation into what we would call paranormal experiences, like
mediums that would get messages from beyond, hallucinations,
premonitions, anecdotes about people who had seen ghosts or felt that
a house was haunted, anything that convinced a person that what he
experienced was not explainable by any kind of real way. That's what
this group--and it was a very erudite group. This was not a fringe
looney group. That's what psychical research was. And when I ask my
students or any group, `Have you ever had a psychical experience,' no
matter how educated, no matter how intellectual and--the overwhelming
answer is, `Yes, I've had an experience that I would call a psychical
And if--you know, if I were to say to them, `Well, do you really
believe in ghosts? Do you believe that the dead can return,' I'm
sure, if pressed, there would be a limit to what they would admit to.
But they also admit that there are some experiences that you can't
explain and that we want to believe, perhaps, that there's something
LAMB: Who's Leonora Piper?
PROF. SIMON: Leonora Piper was the medium that James investigated
throughout his life. And there's an interesting story about how he
found her. I'm sure you'd like to hear it. The Jameses--well, of
course, William James had been interested in spiritualism--not
spiritualism in terms of seances and table rappings and the sort of
low-level popular, but the possibility of--of real spiritual
connections for a very long time. But the Jameses suffered a real
tragedy in 1885. They had a son who, at the age of about 18 months or
15 months, died of complications from whooping cough.
LAMB: That's Herman?
PROF. SIMON: Yes, Herman. It was the third child, and it was a
devastating loss, especially for Alice, who was William James' wife.
LAMB: And Alice was also William James' sister, so we can keep the
PROF. SIMON: And even to make it more complicated, William's son,
William, married an Alice. So William...
LAMB: Back to Leonora Piper.
PROF. SIMON: ...William's wife, Alice, felt the loss so deeply, as,
of course, anyone would. She was a--kind of a large, sturdy woman,
but photographs of her after the child's death show someone that looks
just stunned and drained and--and thin, and it was very devastating.
And she desperately wanted some c--assurance that Herman still existed
in some other realm. Her mother came back from a sitting with Leonora
Piper that she had attended with another of her daughters, and she was
very, very excited. She felt that Leonora Piper knew things about
both the James family and her own family, who were the Gibbonses, that
she could not have known unless she was an authentic medium. And it
was such a vulnerable moment for William and Alice, that they rushed
to her. She was then about 26. She was living in Boston. And she
had a very modest kind of personality. Some of the--some of the
mediums that advertised themselves were really showmen or showwomen,
you know, but Leonora Piper was just a--a woman who was kind and
quiet. And they sat--you know, they--they attended a seance and,
indeed, they were persuaded that she was authentic.
LAMB: What's a seance?
PROF. SIMON: Well, everybody's sitting around a table, and it's dark
or dim, the--the medium goes into a trance state and talks through
what is called a control. So she would be talking in the voice of
someone from, as they put it, beyond the veil. Leonora Piper's
mediums were men, and they were very arrogant and imperious men, but
that didn't seem to bother anybody. And she started talking and--and
what would happen is the sitters would ask her questions, and then she
would respond with messages about or from people that had died. She
gave the Jameses information about the burial of their son, Herman,
which certainly anybody could have known who knew the family, but
which were distinct--you know, the flowers and the way they arranged
them and certain things that they did--and, of course, persuaded the
Jameses that she was authentic, but they wanted that at that point.
LAMB: What did all those Harvard intellectuals think about these
PROF. SIMON: They would come.
LAMB: They would come?
PROF. SIMON: James was a founding member of the American Society for
Psychical Research, which was a branch of the London Society for
Psychical Research. The London branch included Oxford and Cambridge
faculty. Probably the most notable is Arthur Balfour, who later
became prime minister of England. So this is not--you have to really
understand it in context. These were not, sort of, New Age loonies.
These were people who felt that scientific investigation might uncover
something. And when the American branch was set up, James, some very
noted theologians, like Phillips Brooks from Harvard, James'
colleagues in the philosophy department, the head of it was Simon
Newcomb, who was the head of the Smithsonian and a--a noted
astronomer, probably the most famous scientist in America, and they
set up committees to investigate psychical research.
LAMB: By the way, this is really out of context. You mentioned Mr.
Balfour. I want to mention another British prime minister, Gladstone.
And the reason I want to mention it is because I want you to talk
about the `chew-chew' movement.
PROF. SIMON: Oh, yes.
LAMB: It has nothing to do with what we were just talking about, but
what was it?
PROF. SIMON: James was trained as a physician, although he never
practiced, and he...
LAMB: He was a medical doctor, in other words.
PROF. SIMON: Yes, he was a medical doctor. He just decided not to
practice that. His--his search for vocation went on very, very long,
far longer than most people's. But he was very open to alternative
medicine--what we would call alternative medicine--or mind cure
movements, or anything out there that might make one feel better.
Just to backtrack, one of the prevalent maladies, especially among the
educated class, was something called neurasthenia. We would call it
now depression or being stressed out, or whatever we would say. But
the symptoms were very similar. People would feel that they had very
little reason to live. They were not very optimistic. They would
have related gastrointestinal problems, and they--low self-esteem--I
mean, all of the--all of those issues. And it was a very popular
disease. It was almost a badge of bi--of intellectualism if you could
claim that you were neurasthenic.
So there were lots of--of self-help movements to try to deal with
these feelings. And one of them that James felt was a very exciting
one was started by a--a businessman named Horace Fletcher. He was
very overweight, and physically he felt terrible because he was so
very overweight. He was also feeling very pessimistic. He didn't
feel that being in business gave him much justification for living.
He was discontent. So he walked away from his business, and he
traveled. And one of the places he traveled to was Japan, and one of
the things that he found in Japan was--was a s--just a sense of
serenity that he wished he could achieve, but he was neurasthenic and
he wasn't at all serene.
About the same time, he discovered this `chew-chew' movement that was
popularized in England that Gladstone participated in. And it meant
that you would chew every mouthful of food 32 times. That was the
rule of it. And if you did that...
LAMB: We still hear this today.
PROF. SIMON: Oh, yeah.
LAMB: Thirty-two. I mean, I can remember somebody saying, `Chew your
food 32 times.'
PROF. SIMON: Thirty-two times. And if you did that, you would
reduce the food to liquid, you would lose weight, and also you would
eat differently from the way people in the mid-19th century were
eating. So instead of eating meat and eggs and fatty foods, you would
focus on grains and breads and cereals. And so I would guarantee this
to anyone out there, if you chew your food 32 times and cut out fats,
you will start losing weight. And Horace Fletcher did, indeed, lose
very great amounts of weight. He started feeling better, and so he
started exercising. And he found that even though he was, I think,
then in his 50s and had never done this before, he was stronger
and--and much more at peace with himself.
So he decided that this was not only a dietary help, but this was a
spiritual help, that if you could get yourself fit and strong, then
your whole mental state would be much better. But not to end it
there, if everybody's mental state was much better, society would be
utopian. There would be no problems. There would be no need for
jails, because people's aggressions would just melt away. Serenity
would be the result of this, and, therefore, by chewing your food 32
times, you could enact major social reform. And James thought that
was a wonderful idea. And not only James William, but Henry James did
this so assiduously that he claimed, after he did it for years and
years, that it really caused a kind of physical breakdown, because,
well f--whatever he blamed it on. But he was--tended to overweight,
and--and he thought Fletcherism was the answer to that.
LAMB: I wanted to ask you, after reading your book, i--if there was
ever a time when William James was not depressed?
PROF. SIMON: Oh, yes.
LAMB: But you know that it's--comes up so often in there. He's
always going to Europe to get rid of his depression. He's always gone
somewhere to get rid of his depression.
PROF. SIMON: Well, for a long time in his--as he was reaching
adulthood, that was c--certainly true. There were different reasons
for it. Yes, he was--he did suffer from depression, but, also, he
didn't have, really, any sense of--of a goal in his life for such a
long time. And he was persuaded by his father that having a goal
w--no matter what that goal was, would pretty much be pandering to the
marketplace. So for James to find a--a--an occupation that he could
justify really took a very long time. And you can imagine that if you
are, you know, a 20-year-old male and your father won't let you go to
college the way other young men did and your father didn't want you to
train for a profession the way your friends were, that you would feel
very despondent. You know, what--what were you supposed to do?
That wa--I think was the cause of--of a lot of James' depression early
in his life. Once he--once he got a job--which really shouldn't be a
surprise to anyone, but it was a surprise to them--once he got a job
and--and got affirmation and had a community and, especially, a
teaching job where he had a feeling of authority, his depressions
lightened considerably. And then when he married Alice, that was a
big change, also.
LAMB: Where was he born?
PROF. SIMON: He was born in New York City in the Astor House.
LAMB: Where's that?
PROF. SIMON: He--well, at the time, it was in lower New York,
because that's where New York City was located in 1842. And the Astor
House was really one of the most elegant hotels. The Jameses had
money. The grandfather, who I'm afraid to tell you was also named
William, settled in Albany, and he was reportedly the
second- --richest man in America, second only to John
Jacob Astor. Although he had very many children, they ended up with
enough money to live independently.
LAMB: This is a picture of him--or a painting of him.
PROF. SIMON: Yes. And he was...
LAMB: And that was Albany.
PROF. SIMON: That was Albany.
LAMB: How much money did he make, do you know? Or how much did he
pass on to his son?
PROF. SIMON: I d--I really don't remember. H--it was enough to
support a family of five. I mean, that was for sure--and servants
and--and not have to worry about managing money, because Henry James
Sr. was not a very astute money manager.
LAMB: And this is a picture of...
PROF. SIMON: Henry...
LAMB: ...Henry James Sr.
PROF. SIMON: Right.
LAMB: And where did he live most of his life?
PROF. SIMON: Well, he was brought up in Albany and settled with his
family in New York, lived here and there. A--they moved from New York
to Europe, back to New York, to Europe, to Newport, perhaps to Europe
again, back to Newport, then up to Cambridge. When he died, he was
living in Cambridge.
LAMB: Why Newport, Rhode Island?
PROF. SIMON: Newport--that's a very interesting question. The--they
had some close family, and not only were they family, they were very
close friends of the Jameses that--who were living in Newport. But it
is curious, because Henry James Sr. wanted to be in the--in the
cultural centers. He wanted recognition from his peers. He wanted to
lecture, and he wanted to write. And Newport was a little off the
beaten path. But at the times they were living there, the Jameses
were not ready to commit themselves to settle. So Newport, being a
kind of summer community, was just the right sort of place where
people were coming in and out, and you didn't have to pretend that you
had been there very long. And I think that suited what they needed at
LAMB: So in--when William James settled down teaching at Harvard, how
many different places were there in his life? You know, I--the...
PROF. SIMON: Mm-hmm.
PROF. SIMON: There was Cambridge, where th--he was teaching. There
was Chocorua, New Hampshire, where they had a--a country home, not
just for summers, but really for retreats, which is quite lovely and
s--still exists, much modified. And w--the--the really favorite place
that William James had was Putnam Camp in the Adirondacks. And that,
in fact, still exists, too. It was--he bought it with a group of
friends, among whom were the Putnam brothers, and he would go hiking
all the time. That was his r--that was his most serene and, you know,
LAMB: How many of all these places have you been?
PROF. SIMON: I've been to all of them.
LAMB: How did you do it?
PROF. SIMON: I wish I could have--well, I was, of course, living in
Cambridge. I came to Putnam Camp just by accident. A friend who knew
that it still existed took me there, and I really was fortunate enough
to be able to tour the Chi--Chocorua house. So, you know, it was
just--there it was. I wish I could have followed in his footsteps
through Europe. That would have been very nice, too, but...
LAMB: Did you go to Rhode Island to see that place?
PROF. SIMON: No, I didn't, actually. I didn't go to Rhode Island.
LAMB: What did it do for you to go to Chocorua?
PROF. SIMON: I had been there before, so I knew the lay of the
landscape, but it was interesting to see just the prospect--you know,
what he could look out on and--and the surrounding land. Chocorua was
a wonderful place. It's where he died. And it was a wonderful family
place for them.
LAMB: I underlined a couple things, 'cause I need your--I need you to
explain it all.
PROF. SIMON: OK.
LAMB: This is the Pitch of Life chapter, Chapter 19, and it's a quote
from William James. He says, "If Oxford men could be ignorant of
anything, it might also seem that they had remained ignorant of the
great empirical movement towards a pluralistic panpsychic view of the
universe into which our own generation has been drawn." Explain all
that. I mean, what--f--start with when you say--let me l--read it
again: "If Oxford men could be ignorant of anything, it might also
seem that they had remained ignorant of the great empirical movement."
What does it mean `empirical movement'?
PROF. SIMON: The belief that knowledge comes from interaction with
experience rather than from a logical deduction of abstract ideas.
LAMB: And then it says, `Towards a pluralistic panpsychic view of the
PROF. SIMON: Oh, well, the--the--the little clincher is panpsychic.
And I guess that deserves some explanation. James was an empiricist
who wanted to believe in what could not be known through experience.
He desperately wanted to believe in this spiritual realm, and he
conjured up explanations of what this could be. One of them was that
there was a `mother-sea' as he put it, in which souls of dead--of the
dead would just merge into this mother-sea. And our minds were
constructed almost as kind of sieves. The more receptive of--of us
could have the mother-sea sort of flow into our consciousness. And
the more receptive, of course, would be the mediums or--or maybe
ordinary people who were just quasi-receptive to this.
People reading that at the time got very incensed. They said, `No, I
want to have my soul separate from other souls. I don't want to merge
into a mother-sea. What's the good of that? And if I merged, I might
merge with people not of my class.' So they were very upset about that
and he sort of modified it.
But panpsychism, which was a philosophy that--that some people
expounded, but most notably a friend of his, a st--former student,
actually, named Charles Strong. Charles Strong was--was not an
engaging person the way William James was, and he was working on this
panpsychism and James was enormously excited about that. He thought
that somehow Strong could figure it out and convey what James had been
trying in all these sort of messy constructions to convey.
The interesting thing about Strong is that he was the son-in-law of
John D. Rockefeller, and through him, James met Rockefeller and
claimed that he gave Rockefeller some financial advice. So I think
that's a little-known fact about James that probably should be thought
about a little bit more. But--but James--this pluralistic
ps--panpsychism--pluralism means that anybody's view of reality is to
be respected and we should try to understand that view. It is v--what
you experience is valid for you. And a philosopher shouldn't tell you
what you have experienced.
LAMB: Could you put a--and I'm--I'm looking again at what Arthur
Schlesinger says about William James. As a matter of fact, he writes,
`So, too, was his argument for pluralism and an open universe against
those who contend for a monist system and a closed universe.' Trying
to understand all this and wanna know the politics of this. Walter
Lippmann was a student of William James. William James wrote many,
many times in The Nation magazine.
PROF. SIMON: Yes.
LAMB: If he were here today, what would be his politics?
PROF. SIMON: I hope that he would try to get us to understand that
we need to go a little bit further with multicultural diversity
because, in a way, multicultural diversity seems to come right from
James' pluralism. He was looking at a society that was changing
vastly and rapidly with--with immigrants, with a new middle class,
with--with people that were not necessarily coming from the same kind
of educational pedigree that James and his colleagues had.
These people needed to have a way of participating in the democracy.
That's what James thought. They needed to become responsible people.
They needed, as he put it, to know a good man when they saw one and
vote for that man. And at that time, of course, it was man; now he
would acknowledge it could be a woman, too. He convinced a lot of
people that they had the right to have that authority; that they
could, in fact, enact that role in the community. He felt very much
that if a philosopher could not be a moral philosopher, take a stand
in the moral questions of the community, then there was no reason to
LAMB: What impact do you think he had on Wil--Walter Lippmann, for
PROF. SIMON: Walter Lippmann adored him. Now Walter Lippmann had
his own political predilections before he met James, you know. He--he
was very much a man of the people before he met James. But he--he
just thought James was right on in terms of the integrity of ordinary
people and a kind of skepticism about people who claim to be the
authority or claim to be elite.
LAMB: OK. I gotta read you some more and I need some more
PROF. SIMON: OK.
LAMB: And this is back to the same page that we were reading earlier
in the book.
PROF. SIMON: Well, I hope these explanations are fine. If you want
me to explain further, I certainly will try.
LAMB: We're doing well. I need to...
PROF. SIMON: OK.
LAMB: ...keep asking questions, though. Here's another quote from
William James: "To understand life by concepts"...
PROF. SIMON: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: ...James said, "is to arrest its movement, cutting it up into
bits as if with scissors and immobilizing these in our
logical"--herbarium? Is that the way you pronounce that?
PROF. SIMON: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: "Where comparing them as dried specimens, we can ascertain
which of them statically includes or excludes which other." I don't
know where you want to start on that one, but I'll read it again, so
PROF. SIMON: OK.
LAMB: ...need some help. `To understand life by concepts'--why do we
want to understand life by concepts?
PROF. SIMON: He didn't want us to. He wanted us to understand life
through perception, not by the name that things had. He felt that if
we already came to experience with a preconception, a concept of what
that experience would be, we wouldn't be open to change. And for him,
the universe was going to change and we were going to change. And
our--our very interaction with the universe was going to be a
reciprocal reaction and, therefore, cause change in us and in the
This was all coming from Darwin. I mean, the universe can change
spontaneously and randomly. And individual interaction with the
universe is part of that. So he saw that as a very liberating idea.
This was not going to be a static universe that--that we live in. It
wasn't and was not going to be. Every time we take a step, we take a
step into something new and we are new.
LAMB: Let me continue reading. `To understand life by concepts,'
James said, `is to arrest its movement...'
PROF. SIMON: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: ...making your point--`cutting it up into bits as if with
scissors and immobilizing these in our logical herbarium where
comparing them as dried specimens we can ascertain which of them
statically includes or excludes which other.' Anything more need to be
said about this?
PROF. SIMON: For James--what we know--if I'm looking at the--the
chair I'm sitting in, for example, what I know about this chair comes
from who I am, my experience with chairs, where I am at the moment in
terms of my own life, and if I si--and, therefore, `chairness' is
totally meaningless. It makes this static and it makes me not
perceive a different experience in this chair, whereas if I found this
chair out in the lobby or if I sit in this chair tomorrow, it's all
going to be different.
Now with this chair, it's not going to be different in a major way,
but there are experiences that are different in major ways and that's
what James was saying. We are not static people in a static universe.
We are changing ourselves, and the universe is changing also.
And--and James' fellow philosophers felt that what they were doing was
undermined by this kind of view because what they were trying to do
was evolve systems whereby you could know the truth. And James was
saying, `I don't think so.' And James' students and the people he
talked to, it seemed so intuitively right and exciting. And what he
wanted was a universe in which there was novelty. For James, choice
and novelty were such important key words.
LAMB: On the same page right across from it is--this is 1908, in that
time frame, and he died in 19...
PROF. SIMON: Ten.
LAMB: ...10, but--I s--I see the word, `nervous,' `exhaustion,'
`colds,' `dyspepsia,' `vertigo,' and then a couple page later--pages
later, `chest pains,' `dizziness,' on and--I mean, there just seems
lo--constantly obs--consumed by the health problems.
PROF. SIMON: At that point, it was really a health problem. He h...
LAMB: How old was he--what--how old was he when he died?
PROF. SIMON: He was 68 and he had had heart disease for a long, long
time. There was heart disease in the family. So--I mean, although
that is interesting with James, too, yes, he was physically ill for
many years. But at the end when he was dying--first of all, he was
such a good performer, and he had been all his life, in making people
feel that he was not ill that even close friends were shocked that he
had died. The other thing is that his wife had an autopsy performed
to--just to make sure that this was not psychosomatic. Because just
as you're asking the question, his symptoms seemed so of a piece with
the earlier symptoms. And yet, no, he was--he was ill and he was
LAMB: How many biographies of Henry Ja--I mean, William James has
PROF. SIMON: Surprisingly few. The last one for general readers was
in 1967. It was written by Gay Wilson Allen. There was a--a
wonderful book about the James--the whole family by R.W.B. Lewis, I
think, in '91 or '92. But William James alone, that was the last one
that--it was really for general readers, you know, like you and other
LAMB: How'd you make yours different?
PROF. SIMON: First of all, I had some different material. I had
about 1,500 letters between James and his wife that had not been
available to Gay Wilson Allen. And those were wonderful letters, very
intimate letters and just a marvelous perspective on who James really
The other difference I think are--are new questions that we ask 30
years later about families, about the relationship between families.
I think the--the earlier view of the Jameses--and this was not just
Gay Wilson Allen--was that they were a kind of Bohemian family; that
everybody was a little eccentric, but that they were generally--the
father was interested in educating his children in this new and
unconventional way, but he adored his children in that--and that the
depressions were--were something else, you know, not necessarily
related to the--to the family's life.
LAMB: Who's this woman right here? The one up here.
PROF. SIMON: That is identified as Leonora Piper in James' hand. So
we can only assume that either it was Leonora Piper or a likeness of
her. It--it's a very romantic photograph.
LAMB: And she was, like, 26 in this picture.
PROF. SIMON: Yeah. She was very young.
LAMB: Right below that is another woman right there.
PROF. SIMON: Pauline Goldmark.
LAMB: And what do you say about her?
PROF. SIMON: She was an infatuation, one among many, but one that
James got particular pleasure from. He met her when she was a student
at Bryn Mawr. He would go lecturing at many, many colleges and meet
many students. And she was very bright and--and spunky. He tended to
like women that were forthright and--and had their own opinions
and--and had a sense of what they were gonna do in the world. And he
became correspondents with her and--and friends with her. He was
in--in his early 50s and it was--it was definitely an infatuation.
His letters to her are just so gushy.
LAMB: Did his wife, Alice, see those letters?
PROF. SIMON: Yes. Well, she must have because they exist. The
Jameses went through material and destroyed what they didn't want. To
destroy--so that they exist means that Alice had decided they could
stay for posterity.
LAMB: By the way, are there descendants...
PROF. SIMON: Yes, there are.
LAMB: ...active in the James family? You know, keeping the name
PROF. SIMON: Yes. Some of them--some of them are.
LAMB: Any of 'em writers?
PROF. SIMON: Not the ones that I'm in contact with. I must say,
though, that the spirit of generosity that James himself had
definitely appears in the--in the descendants that I've had any
contact with. They've been just wonderful.
LAMB: You say he was 5'8". Can you tell us anything more about his
PROF. SIMON: Lean, active, spry; he took great pride in his body.
He wanted to be, you know, lean and attractive.
LAMB: How old is he in the cover picture?
PROF. SIMON: Sixties.
LAMB: Do you know where this was taken?
PROF. SIMON: No, I don't. You know, it was a posed picture from one
of his books.
LAMB: You say in the book he was an expensive dresser.
PROF. SIMON: Yes. He loved to buy clothes. When he would go to
Europe, he would come home with all kinds of jackets and ties and
shirts made to order for himself. He had a--quite a different time
trying to find gifts for his wife or anybody else, but he found loads
of clothing for himself.
LAMB: You say his wife was frugal?
PROF. SIMON: His wife was frugal. Somebody had to be, but sh--but
not de--he--she didn't deny him what he wanted to do.
LAMB: And what was their relationship like?
PROF. SIMON: I think it was a wonderful marriage. He was--he could
be trying and demanding. He--and egotistical. But he adored her
and--and he was such an exciting and--and warm person to be with. So
I think it was a very, very good marriage.
LAMB: You dedicate this book to--is it...
PROF. SIMON: Thilo.
LAMB: ...Thilo and Aaron. Who are they, please?
PROF. SIMON: My husband and my son.
LAMB: How old is your son?
PROF. SIMON: Twenty.
LAMB: What's he do?
PROF. SIMON: He's a student in college.
PROF. SIMON: At Skidmore right now.
LAMB: Where you're teaching.
PROF. SIMON: Where I'm teaching.
LAMB: And which...
PROF. SIMON: But he has his own independent existence there.
LAMB: He--has he ever been in your class?
PROF. SIMON: No.
LAMB: What about your husband? What's he do?
PROF. SIMON: He's in business in--in the Albany area, where we're
LAMB: You talk about teaching at Harvard for six years. What did...
PROF. SIMON: Oh, much longer than that.
LAMB: Oh, I'm sorry. How long was it?
PROF. SIMON: Fourteen.
LAMB: Fourteen years.
PROF. SIMON: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: And what did you teach there?
PROF. SIMON: Well, I was the director of the writing center and I
taught expository writing.
LAMB: What did William James think of Harvard?
PROF. SIMON: He thought it was getting to be too specialized.
That's what he--he wrote an essay called the PhD Octopus. And he
said, `We're going in the wrong direction. We shouldn't be carving
out our tiny little areas where we're only talking to ourselves. We
should be generalists and we should be talking to people out there.'
So that was one criticism. He got a lot from Harvard, but he also
felt because he wasn't a Harvard graduate, as an undergraduate, that
he wasn't really, truly a Harvard man. And he had sometimes mixed
LAMB: Where had he gotten his undergraduate degree?
PROF. SIMON: He didn't get an undergraduate degree. His...
LAMB: At all?
PROF. SIMON: No. His father thought that colleges were, and this is
a quote, "hotbeds of corruption," and none of his children would
participate in that. William did go...
LAMB: And--and you also say he didn't get--he didn't have a doctorate
PROF. SIMON: No, no, no.
LAMB: I mean, a--a PhD.
PROF. SIMON: Oh, no. He never studied philosophy formally, which is
why to call him a philosopher puts a different meaning on it, you
know. He wasn't an academic philosopher. He studied at the Lawrence
Scientific School, which was a technical school. He studied
chemistry. And he went to the Harvard Medical School. You know, in
those days, you could do that without having an undergraduate degree.
But he had no formal f--liberal arts or philosophical education. It
was--it's wonderful that that could happen, isn't it?
LAMB: But you also talk about a new president that Harvard got when
he was there. He was only 35 years old.
PROF. SIMON: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: And what impact did Mr. Eliot have on the school?
PROF. SIMON: Enormous impact. He really made it the major
university that it is today. He started the elective system. He
hired bright, new faculty. He had a very clear sense of how to make
Harvard an institution that could move into the new century.
LAMB: One of the words you used early in this discussion was
`pragmatism,' and that word comes up often.
PROF. SIMON: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: What was his writing that had that word in it? What was it?
PROF. SIMON: Many, many writings that had that word in it and many,
many definitions of that word in those writings, much to the dismay of
his fellow philosophers.
LAMB: What does it mean?
PROF. SIMON: But basically it means--well, let me tell you the
problem he was trying to solve. One was to dissuade philosophers from
spending their attention on metaphysical problems that had no apparent
consequence. In other words, he was saying to them, `What does it
matter? Ask yourself, "How does it matter?" And if it doesn't matter,
then ask a question that does matter.' So he was looking to the
consequences of a belief or a system of beliefs.
And the word `consequences' is a very important word for pragmatism.
For James, pragmatism was a way of thinking, of solving problems, of
making especially moral decisions that looked to the effect in the
community and in one's own heart of holding those beliefs or making
those decisions. And this was not--it seems so self-evident to us.
We're so used to that. In fact, we've corrupted it and we call it
expediency, which is not what he meant at all.
James was writing in a time when people were making these decisions
because they were idealists and they were talking about all kinds of
high-sounding ideals for why we should, for example, go to war, which
James felt we should definitely not be doing. And he wanted to have
some influence on those moral decisions.
LAMB: L--let me go back to what Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote because
he says--you know, here's a nicely known historian who says, `These
are 13 books you must read, indispensable to understanding of
America.' Again, what is it that this book does to help you understand
America or his writings? It--it's--he cites a Library of America
series. What helps you understand the whole breadth of America?
PROF. SIMON: It helps you understand America's value of--of
innovation and individuality, that's for sure, but it also really so
deeply helps you understand America's potential for consensus,
although celebrating plurality. And that, I think, is such an
important message. If James could give us a message today, it would
be that. It would be that there's the possibility of empathy that
transcends our differences. If we're going to say we're celebrating
people because they're of their race, of their ethnicity, of their
sexual orientation, of their gender, of--of all the other ways that
we've sort of atomized the culture, what James is telling us is there
are some common needs and yearnings and cravings and desires that
LAMB: You say that he disdained the intellectual elite.
PROF. SIMON: Yes.
LAMB: Now what is not intellectual about all that we're talking about
here? In other words, what's the difference between all of what he's
writing and intellectually? If you had him in a room, could you tell
by looking at him--or what they had to say?
PROF. SIMON: Yes. By looking at them, I'm not sure. We all know
how t--to dress these days, but by what they had to say, yes. James
wanted what he had to say to be relevant to actual experience. He
wanted it to be applicable to actual experience.
LAMB: What does it mean, though, to be an intellectual in your
opinion, and are you--are you one of those?
PROF. SIMON: Yes. I guess anyone who deals with ideas and--and
spends a whole lot of time reading them, writing them, figuring them
out, making sense of experience in a way that makes it coherent, I
would say that's an intellectual.
LAMB: If William James came back today, given what you know about his
politics then, would he still be writing for The Nation magazine?
PROF. SIMON: I think he'd write for whoever wanted to publish him.
LAMB: But would he fit into their politics today?
PROF. SIMON: Oh. I don't know. I don't--I really don't know. My
LAMB: You know, you got a very favorable review in The Weekly
Standard, which is a conservative magazine, for your book.
PROF. SIMON: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: You know why?
PROF. SIMON: No. I didn't know I got a favorable review. Sometimes
these things are hidden from me. Why?
LAMB: It's long. It's, like, five pages.
PROF. SIMON: Uh-huh. Well, I'll have to read it. Why?
LAMB: But you don't thi--you--you don't know what his politics would
be, what label you'd put on him today if he came back?
PROF. SIMON: I think he'd probably be considered a conservative.
PROF. SIMON: Because he--he had a--a hierarchy of what was good,
meaningful, important. I don't think he would have patience with the
kind of relativism that perhaps is out there a little bit in terms
of--of h--of what we think, you know, when we're making moral
decisions. So I--I do think he would be a little bit conservative.
One of the--one of the sweetest things that James wrote was that the
biggest breach in nature is the breach between human minds. And I
think the sense of--of a commitment, not only--he said there's a kind
of outer tolerance. We're all very conversant in outer tolerance.
But it's the inner tolerance, that feeling that we actually do
empathize, we understand how someone feels--that's what's missing.
That he said was missing in his own time. Well, if it was missing in
his own time, I think it's certainly missing in our own time.
LAMB: By the way, Skidmore's located where?
PROF. SIMON: Saratoga Springs, New York.
LAMB: Here's the cover of the book. The title is "Genuine Reality:
A Life of William James." And our guest has been Skidmore Professor
Linda Simon. Thank you very much.
PROF. SIMON: Thank you.
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