William James: Not a Simple Temperament



In his masterful biography, William James in the Maelstrom of American Modernism, Robert D. Richardson writes that William James was not a simple temperament. Allow me to quote Richardson at length:

“James’s temperament was ruled neither by sturdy cause and effect nor by the familiar old matter versus spiritual. Empirical by choice, artistic by inclination, believing that experience always trumps theory, James was characterized by what Emerson calls, in his essay on experience, the ‘lords of life,’ namely, ‘Illusion,Temperament, Succession, Surface, Surprise, Reality, Subjectivity.’

“James temperament shines through all his works and days. It is not a simple temperament — nothing so manageable as mere optimism, nothing so steady as to count for even a closeted determinism, but always there, like the fifth string on the banjo. James’s temperament is a nuancing one, always fine-tuning, always shifting, often elusive. And in that always present temperament is the general…

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