A story about the mind and William James


As I sat down this morning to type this post I knew I wanted to write about two things. The first was the story of William James and the second the state of my mind. If you are reading this I hope that the latter is as interesting to you as the former.

A short history

William James was born into a wealthy American family in 1842. So wealthy in fact that he was brought into the world at the luxurious Astor House hotel in New York, a place famous for guests such as the infamous Abraham Lincoln. His start in life was a strong one in which he was not left wanting, but would get invariably more difficult as he grew older. As a child he received an extensive trans-Atlantic education, learning both German and French and frequently travelling to Europe with his family where he would later live.

As privileged as he was it didn’t protect William from the ravages of illness. In his early adulthood he suffered through problems with his eyes, back and stomach to name just a few. Alongside this he was diagnosed with Neurasthenia and experienced bouts of depression, during which he contemplated suicide on many occasions.

Despite these setbacks he began studying medicine at Harvard in 1864 going on to join an expedition up the Amazon in 1865, (although he had to return after 8 months due to sea sickness and smallpox). When his studies were interrupted because of illness again in 1867 he chose to move to Germany in search of relief and stayed there until November 1868. The following year he finally earned his M.D. degree, but would never practice medicine, his heart just wasn’t in it.

His ill health and the failure in his pursuits led him to a precipice in life in 1870. In his diary he wrote, “Today I about touched bottom, and perceived plainly that I must face the choice with open eyes.” “Shall I frankly throw the moral business overboard, as one unsuited to my innate aptitudes?” In other words, is suicide a better choice?

From this devastating low James made a decision to conduct a yearlong experiment before taking any drastic action. During the next twelve months he would believe that he had control over himself and his destiny, that he could become better and had the free will to change. As he began his experiment he wrote “I will assume for the present - until next year - that it is no illusion. My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.” There was no proof of course that this was true, but he chose to believe that change was possible nonetheless. Over the next year he practiced daily and wrote in his diary as if his choices and control over himself were never in question.

It took a little longer than a year to see the fruits of his labour, but it began in 1872. In that year he joined in philosophical discussions with Charles Peirce (the father of pragmatism), Oliver Wendell Holmes (Supreme Court Justice) and Chauncey Wright (Philosopher) that became known as The Metaphysical Club. Their discussions and debates would go on to change the American intellectual thought from traditional European metaphysics to one of a pragmatist and positivist nature that we see today. In 1873 he began instructing physiology at Harvard. Two years later he taught his first experimental psychology course (the first to be offered to students in America) and went on to become emeritus professor of philosophy in 1907. In 1878 he married and went on to have five children. Before his death from cardiac failure in 1910 (he never escaped the ill health) he would publish a huge amount of works on psychology and later be regarded as the “Father of American psychology”. All this from a man that had considered his life not worth living.

My frantic mind

The reason I bring this history up is because as always I have been doing my own thinking and philosophising. I used to be a great proponent of Free Will and had a strangely strong belief in my abilities despite the depression I was working through at the same time. As I’ve got older my cynical side has grown, probably through my experience of people and the greater world. But to some extent that feeling of free will has remained in the background whilst a general lethargy and lack of direction has taken precedence. To be fair the lack of direction has always been my nemesis, it’s not a new adversary, but as you get older it becomes a stronger foe. So you can perhaps see why I enjoy reading a little of the life of William James and others like him, especially at this moment in time.

If I am honest with you (when have I not been, I’m talking to a computer!) my healthy habits flit from one to the next like a Hummingbird chasing fruit flies. Consequently my meditation practice has been swapped for lifting weights (a different meditation of sorts), my reading been replaced with cooking and my writing, well that has been non-existent. When I am not practicing my dedication to free will I allow the doubt and consternation to creep in. It’s consistent questions in my mind causing strife, “What is the point? Why struggle?” This isn’t always a problem if I am able to keep my mind busy, but when I have free time (as I have lately of my own choosing) it is a difficult position to be in.

What brings me back to life is usually something simple. A reminder that I am contributing to something greater than myself in a drip feed sort of way. I am no William James of philosophy (not yet anyway), but I become conscious of my life’s offering after conversations with strangers and friends alike. When I see the impact of my words, or just the result of me listening and not talking. The chance to have a positive impact on people’s lives, to enhance their wellbeing, their mental state is what claws me back from the edge of the cliff.

So here I am metaphorically sat on the edge of the cliff. One leg dangling over the edge, the other drawn back to my chest in a state of shock and awe at what’s beyond. But I’m not here to enjoy the view, I’m here to change the scenery in my own little way. We all have that inside of us if we want to employ it. It’s merely a matter of belief in your own free will and control over your destiny.

Time to suspend my cynical side and get back to my belief.

Tom :)


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