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ABOUT THE NEXT BOOK CLUB DISCUSSION:
On January 1, 2013, the William James book discussion group starts with the 1892 essay, “The Will to Believe”.  I’m going to post a reminder almost once a week, giving information about William James and his work so that everyone with an interest has a chance to get into the discussion.
After covering this short essay, we’ll poll the participants to decide whether to do another essay or to move on to one of his book length masterpieces, “The Variety of Religious Experience” and “Pragmatism”. The seeds of the two books are contained in “The Will to Believe”.

Text of "The Will to Believe"

Wikipedia entry

ABOUT WILLIAM JAMES:
Imagine growing up with Ralph Waldo Emerson as your godfather; Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne and Mehlville coming over for dinner. It wasn’t just chance that William James became one of the most important figures in American psychology and philosophy and his brother Henry became one of the greatest writers of all time.

William wanted to be an artist. But he graduated from Harvard and taught there throughout his working life; first in medicine, then psychology and finally philosophy. He was widely loved as a kind and generous man who helped others to realize their potential. Gertrude Stein wrote, "Is life worth living? Yes, a thousand times yes when the world still holds such spirits as Professor James."

William suffered from ill health and depression throughout his life. After a particularly bad bout in 1870 he wrote, “my first act of free will shall be to believe in free will”. An essay I hope to use for discussion down the road is, “The Dilemma of Determinism”.

At the beginning of the twentieth century a common witticism was that William was the better writer and Henry the better psychologist. William always wrote in a style that was very accessible to the layman. The only real barrier to reading him is the drift in the English language during the century that stands between.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (16+ / 0-)

    Our reason is quite satisfied ... if we can find a few arguments that will do to recite in case our credulity is criticized... Our faith is faith in someone else's faith, and in the greatest matters this is most the case. - William James

    by radical empiricist on Fri Nov 23, 2012 at 02:13:45 PM PST

  •  Also... (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dave in Northridge, Timaeus, Portlaw

    James's work was critical to Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.

    William a better writer than Henry?

    I've never heard that but (having read both William and Henry pretty extensively) if William James had been an essayist a la Emerson, then...yeah. he probably would be a better writer than Henry.

    •  Writing (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Portlaw, Chitown Kev

      I think the point of the joke was that William wrote simply and directly, partly I think because most of his writings were first lectures.

      Henry, famous for his long run on sentences, is undoubtedly one of the all time great literary writers and thus is almost never simple or direct.

      Our reason is quite satisfied ... if we can find a few arguments that will do to recite in case our credulity is criticized... Our faith is faith in someone else's faith, and in the greatest matters this is most the case. - William James

      by radical empiricist on Fri Nov 23, 2012 at 03:53:41 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  That's interesting. Am in the middle of (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Chitown Kev

      reading a review (in the New York Review of Books) of a biography of David Foster Wallace. In it, the reviewer talks about the influence of AA on Wallace and his work. Of course, I am only on page one of the review yet found that fascinating.
      As for whether William was a better writer than James, I heard that in the first lecture I attended when a college freshman in an era beyond modern memory. I read William, in those years, with interest, but had trouble with James.

      •  Oops, meant Henry not James. Yikes. eom (0+ / 0-)
      •  You say that (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Portlaw

        as I, too, read the review of the Wallace biography and I am re-reading Infinite Jest
        (for the 4th time). I've also been reading Wallace's new book of essays Both Flesh and Not (it's easy to see why some of those particular essays had been laying around...it's not Wallace at his absolute best but even then, most of them are very very good

        The first time that I read Infinite Jest was right after I got sober in 1996 (which was when IJ was released).

        I'm very very tempted to review both the biography of Wallace and the new book of essays.

        •  Have Infinite Jest on my list to read but (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Chitown Kev

          may not start until after the New Year. However, I would be extremely interested, eager, to read your reviews of the biography and the new book of essays. Suspect that I am not the only one. Did you ever review Infinite Jest?

          •  Ya know, as soon as I wrote that comment (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Portlaw

            I knew this would be asked.

            My views on Infinite Jest are interesting.

            When I first read it in 1996, I loved the cynical take on AA even as it took the program seriously. I also thought that DFW wrote the best sentences that I had ever seen.

            Now I'm reading IJ armed with a degree in classics, a minor in English and a lot of the critical terminology. I still love the book for the same reasons that I did when I first read it 16 years ago but now IJ sort of reminds me of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land. I'm also actually looking up all of the words that I didn't and still don't know in the dictionary and that, too, has been a big help in understand the novel.

            Writing a review of Wallace...that's scary and intimidating...which probably means I should do it.

  •  Varieties of Religious Experience (5+ / 0-)

    ha been on my list for quite a while. So hard to keep up with current events, background on current events, and the background on the background on current events (i.e. this). Looking forward to it, though!

    Stay fired up: now is the time to focus on downticket change! #Forward

    by emidesu on Fri Nov 23, 2012 at 02:35:20 PM PST

  •  Question (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Timaeus, Portlaw

    What's your source for this?

    Imagine growing up with Ralph Waldo Emerson as your godfather; Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne and Mehlville coming over for dinner.
    My understanding of Concord and Boston during this period (when the James family was mostly in Europe) is that Emerson as godfather makes sense based on Henry James Sr.'s interests, and Emerson in the 1850s (William James's teenage years) generally meant Thoreau, but I have serious doubts about Melville at the James dinner table ever.

    You really didn't even need a teaser paragraph. That's why I ask.

    -7.75, -8.10; All it takes is security in your own civil rights to make you complacent.

    by Dave in Northridge on Fri Nov 23, 2012 at 03:08:02 PM PST

    •  At the dinner table (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Portlaw, Dave in Northridge

      Melville didn't live in Boston for very long, I think just a few years. Because the point is peripheral it oversimplifies. Emerson and Thoreau were common visitors; Hawthorne less so, Melville perhaps only a time or two. I came across this years ago when active on the James Family List and then the William James List. Between those and the reading about James I was doing at that time, I'm not sure where the Melville reference came from. I didn't try to source it because the point was simply that William and Henry grew up with some of the cutting edge thinkers and writers of their time. The European trips and schooling goes further in that direction, but in trying to get folks interested in reading WJ, these teasers are very simple.

      Our reason is quite satisfied ... if we can find a few arguments that will do to recite in case our credulity is criticized... Our faith is faith in someone else's faith, and in the greatest matters this is most the case. - William James

      by radical empiricist on Fri Nov 23, 2012 at 03:47:53 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Varieties of Religious Experience changed my life. (5+ / 0-)

    The book Alcoholics Anonymous saved my life.  In it, Bill Wilson quotes "Varieties of Religious Experience" several times, so I read it.  This "objective" study of transformative mystical experiences and religious conversions opened my mind to a new way of looking at the experiences of Saints, prophets, and visionaries.  Previously, I would have tended to lump them all into a category somewhere between psychotic and charlatan, associating them with the current religious right.   It was not too long before I experienced an unexplainable mystical "conversion" myself that, I believe, would not have happened had I not studied "Varieties".  Unfortunately, I never got any of  my "program buddies" to read it.  It can be intimidating to begin (10 lectures starting out with premise and definitions).  So a study through the Kos community is something i will relish.  I have been ready to read it again for some time.   So count me in for "Will to Believe" and I look forward to conversing with all of you.    John Cox

  •  This quote has stuck with me for many many years. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Portlaw, Susipsych
    The greatest discovery of my generation is that human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes of mind.  
  •  The Varieties of Religious Experience (0+ / 0-)

    is a wonderful book.  IIRC, it was based on lectures he gave at...I forget which prestigious college.  And yes, he was one of Gertrude Stein's professors, again IIRC.

    (And maybe I don't RC, b/c I read all this eons ago when I was in college.  I do recall one of my professors saying that his wife was very spiritual.)

    But I'd be interested in reading & discussing if your group is publishing during a time when I can participate...do you have a specific day of the week/time of day you want to publish?

    And would you want to publish (or also publish) under the Readers & Book Lovers group?  Seems like it'd be a natural there....

    To make the argument that the media has a left- or right-wing, or a liberal or a conservative bias, is like asking if the problem with Al-Qaeda is do they use too much oil in their hummus. Al Franken

    by Youffraita on Fri Nov 23, 2012 at 10:49:12 PM PST

    •  Gifford Lectures @ U of Edinburgh (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Youffraita

      Being a long time lurker, new diarist, I'm still trying to figure out the best way to approach this. I joined the Book group but didn't realize I could publish there.

      I set the start for January 1, not just to give time to attract participants, but in order to figure out the best way to structure the discussions.

      Our reason is quite satisfied ... if we can find a few arguments that will do to recite in case our credulity is criticized... Our faith is faith in someone else's faith, and in the greatest matters this is most the case. - William James

      by radical empiricist on Sat Nov 24, 2012 at 05:26:19 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

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