The buzzing blooming life of William James

The Boston Globe has a review of a new biography of William James. He is often called the ‘father of modern psychology’ and is equally well-known for his work in philosophy.

Not quite as well-known is his drug-experimentation, fascination with parapsychology and interest in numerous women.

It’s almost a clich√© that psychology talks will start with a quote from James. Largely because his work, most notably the book The Principles of Psychology, touched upon almost every area now part of mainstream cognitive science.

His interests were truly eclectic, however, and his writing explores a diverse range of thoughts and experiences.

One of my favourite James quotes is a sentence he wrote after taking nitrous oxide (‘laughing gas’), recorded in an essay on the experience:

“There are no differences but differences of degree between different degrees of difference and no difference.”

James also experienced terrible depressions and suicidal thoughts throughout his life, giving him first hand experience of a mind gone awry.

Perhaps a combination of natural curiosity and an interest in altered states led James to radical and still-influential theories of mental life.

A recent review from The New York Times summed it up like so:

It is hard to maintain the illusion of the disembodied philosopher in the face of this larger-than-life and fascinatingly cracked personality, who pragmatically turned the very fissures of his soul into metaphysical positions.

There’s more in the reviews, and the book itself, William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism (ISBN 0618433252), has recently hit the shelves.

Link to Boston Globe review of James biography (via 3Q).
Link to review from LA Times.
Link to extensive review from The New York Times.

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