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He Questioned the Meaning of Life. William James Answered. | Press "Enter" to skip to content

He Questioned the Meaning of Life. William James Answered.

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James stared down “the prospect of persistent existential disillusionment,” though the warm tone of his work belies this description, and often framed experience in a Buddhist-like perspective: “If one looks carefully,” as Kaag puts it, “suffering is not the exception but the rule.” Can we actively reduce this suffering? James thought so, or that at least it would truly benefit us to act as if we could. “My first act of free will,” he wrote, “shall be to believe in free will.”

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Perhaps the reason James remains beloved by so many readers more than a century after his death is that his pragmatism often shaded into self-help. He believed in the power of positive thinking, in bucking up; he counseled action, and not just philosophizing, in the face of uncertainty; he may have even, from time to time, turned his frown upside down. But he expressed all of his (and our) struggles and their potential solutions in the smartest possible ways, and never pretended that a revised mood was a settled state of affairs. He knew that living is a continual process, and that perhaps the best we can hope for is just enough therapy to make it to the next crisis.

“Philosophically speaking, James attempted something very hard, maybe impossible, at least for one person,” Kaag writes, in one of his characteristically elegant explanations. “He wanted to craft a philosophy that was absolutely honest to the twisted, often contradictory, facts of life, but also to the desire that many of us have to transcend them. In his words, he wanted to provide a way of thinking between the ‘tough-minded’ scientist and the ‘tender-minded’ idealist, preserving what is valuable about both sides.”

James conducted this project with a quality that Kaag calls “epistemic humility,” a concept that readers steeped in the rhetoric of 2020 might need defined. It means that you don’t know it all. And that whatever you do know might be more provisional than you think.

One of Kaag’s previous books, “American Philosophy,” was a charming, brainy and equally personal account of time he spent reveling in a philosopher’s remarkable and nearly abandoned private library in New England. The first part of that book spent considerable time on James, and a small number of its sentences reappear verbatim here. But if Kaag has borrowed some of his own planks, “Sick Souls, Healthy Minds” is a new house, a more modest and specific structure than his earlier works.


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