William James and Modernist Psychology

This is an excellent book.

I can’t recommend it highly enough.

As we have already seen, the first American Modernist was the artist James Abbott McNeil Whistler whose extraordinary and highly unusual life took him out of the antebellum United States to Russia and from there to France in the 1850s and 1860s where he became part of the circle that included Charles Baudelaire and Édouard Manet which was the fountain of Modernism.

Baudelaire, Manet, Whistler, Théophile Gautier and others in this circle were developing the novel idea of art for art’s sake – the idea that art had no utility or social purpose, particularly flattering nobles or the hated bourgeois philistines or glorifying God – which led to the idea of the autonomy of aesthetics from ethics. This idea would be further developed by aesthetes like Friedrich Nietzsche and Oscar Wilde who argued that an aesthetic existence might even be superior to an ethical one.

Meanwhile in the United States, William James who also had a cosmopolitan upbringing was developing a new psychological foundation for Modernism in his philosophy of pragmatism.

The following excerpt comes from Robert M. Crunden’s book American Salons: Encounters With European Modernism, 1885-1917:

“Most important of all for cultural history, James revolutionized thinking about consciousness. He rejected the conventional framework for discussing consciousness that started “with sensations, as the simplest mental facts” and proceeded “synthetically, constructing each higher stage from those below it.” Such an approach abandoned empiricism because “no one ever had a simple sensation by itself.” From birth, consciousness was “of a teeming multiplicity of objects and relations,” and what people called “simple sensations” were “results of discriminative attention, pushed often to a very high degree.” Thought was a process with five characteristics: it was “part of a personal consciousness,” “always changing,” “sensibly continuous,” always appeared “to deal with objects independent of itself,” and chose some subjects for attention while excluding others. As he elaborated these themes, James paid particularly attention to the constant change, the flux of consciousness, and found himself deep in water imagery: “whatever was true of the river of life, of the river of elementary feeling, it would certainly be true to say, like Heraclitus, that we never descend twice into the same stream.”

He was soon ready for what might well have been the most important paragraph in the book: “Consciousness, then, does not appear to itself chopped in bits. Such words as ‘chain’ or ‘train’ do not describe it fitly as it presents itself in the first instance. It is nothing jointed; it flows. A ‘river’ or a ‘stream’ are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described. In talking of it hereafter, let us call it the stream of thought, of consciousness, or of subjective life.” To go from this formulation to an example for modern novelists one merely had to look at the briefer version: “Thus, for instance, after looking at my clock just now (1879), I found myself thinking of a recent resolution in the Senate about our legal-tender notes. The clock called up the image of a man who had repaired its gong. He suggested the jeweller’s shop where I had last seen him; that shop, some shirt-studs which I had bought there; the latter, the equal number of greenbacks, and this, naturally, the question of low long they were to last …”

As James gradually abandoned psychology for philosophy and religion, his position became firmer – and more compatible with modernism. In the years before his death in 1910, he reduced mind and body to the status of pure experience, both being merely different ways of patterning the only materials that existed. “If you ask what any one bit of pure experience is made of, the answer is always the same: “It is made of that, of just what appears, of space, of intensity, of flatness, brownness, heaviness, or what not.” The stream-of-consciousness overflowed its banks and reality became the field of consciousness. Few young modernists could possibly have been aware of the drift of James’ mind, but he was heading their way. …

He had come to the point where he could write, as he did in the title of one chapter in his posthumous Essays in Radical Empiricism (1912), of “A World of Pure Experience.” Empiricism, a word he had clung to throughout most of his philosophical life, could hardly go farther. Mind, in essence, became a function of the stream of experiences. Distinctions between mind and body, between in-the-brain and out-in-the-world, disappeared. The world was made up solely of experiences, the flux of life that had been so important a part of the Principles of Psychology. Well before the novelists made the issue one of the major contributions of modernist discourse, James could put into italics: “the relations that connect experiences must themselves be experienced relations, and any kind of relation experienced must be accounted as ‘real’ as anything else in the system.” On this principle, “a ‘mind’ or ‘personal consciousness’ is the name for a series of experiences run together by certain definite transitions, and an objective reality is a series of similar experiences knit by different transitions.”

William James believed that consciousness flowed like a river. Life is like a stream of experience. Every moment in life is a unique experience for its subject.

Henry James, the novelist and brother of William James, took this idea of the stream-of-consciousness, combined it with his own aestheticism and introduced it to literature:

“It was indeed. Even as William James was only beginning to put into words the scientific version of the stream-of-consciousness, his younger brother had embodied it in a novel. Not Proust, not Joyce, but Henry James deserves credit for this extraordinary innovation in literature. …

Like a radical empiricist, she wanted to cultivate her faculties and inhabit a world of pure experience. Yet she found that her most decent yearnings brought her to the edge of unspeakable deceit. She used her free will and found that her intentions went awry. The world was one of confusion, of flux – of modernity …

The quest for pure experience, for the perfectly free imagination, became obsessive for James as he grew older and increasingly realized that some options in life were no longer possible for him …

“Conscious of what he had missed all his life, and what he seemed doomed to miss yet again, Howells laid his hand on Sturges’ shoulder and said something like this: “Oh, you are young, you are young – be glad of it: be glad of it and live. Live all you can: it’s a mistake not to. It doesn’t matter much what you do – but live. This place makes it all come over to me. I see it now. I haven’t done so – and now I’m old. It’s too late. It has gone past me – I’ve lost it. You have time. You are young. Live!” James admitted to amplifying and improving the words a bit – the journal was his, after all – but the core of meaning was obvious. If you have a consciousness, cultivate it. Take chances. Your will is freer when you are young. Make your own universe. Don’t let institutions hold you back. Think of the possibilities, of the results!

The idea was so adapted to James’ sensibility that the seed began to sprout as soon as planted. He began with “the figure of an elderly man who hasn’t ‘lived’, hasn’t at all, in the sense of sensations, passions, impulses, pleasures – and to whom, in the presence of some great human spectacle, some great organization for the Immediate, the Agreeable, for curiosity, and experiment and perception, for Enjoyment, in a word, becomes, sur la fin, or toward it, sorrowfully aware.”

You only have one life. The only way to truly “live” is to wallow in the stream-of-consciousness and to collect and savor every unique experience like collecting seashells on a beach. As an artist, you should capture and retrieve experience and express your own subjectivity in your work.

Henry James lived in Late Victorian Britain in the time of Whistler, Oscar Wilde, Algernon Swinburne and Walter Pater when Modernism was emerging there:

“In many ways, London was ready for Whistler’s remarks (The Ten O’Clock). Literary Englishmen for a generation had been thinking along comparable lines. Priority for most important modernist ideas belong to Paris, but for English speakers the story probably began with Swinburne and Pater. An acute if erratic sensibility, Swinburne could write, in the study of William Blake (1868): “Art for art’s sake first of all, and afterwards we may supposed all the rest shall be added to her …” As a friend of both Whistler and Pater, Swinburne was also in an excellent position to carry ideas and attitudes from literature to painting and back again, and if no one could ever recall Whistler reading a book, many could recall Swinburne’s devotion to Anna Whistler and his closeness to the painter until they different too significantly over the meaning of “The Ten O’Clock” ideas to remain intimate. Swinburne’s knowledge of Baudelaire, and his feelings of kinship with the early French modernists, made him the vital link with the development of British modernist attitudes. He became the spokesman for the solipsistic tendencies of modernism, the creator of a separate world where society was unwelcome and the imagination had full rein.

With Pater, aestheticism archived its most notorious formulation. Shy and retiring, Pater hid a multitude of skeptical and cynical attitudes behind the mask of a minor don. Given to wicked quips, like Whistler, he probably did himself out of clerical or professional eminence with remarks like: “It doesn’t matter in the least what is said, as long as it is said beautifully,” with clear reference to the theology of the Church of England. Unlike most writers and painters associated with the aesthetic movement, he had a serious interest in philosophy, particularly the problem of the relationship between external objects and the perceptions of individuals, and the way the minds deals with sensuous experience. He could never really answer the questions involved, but he came to believe that people were the prisoners of their sense impressions and that consciousness amounted to single moments that passed so quickly before anyone could truly apprehend them, they were gone. Far more than religion and morality, a work of art could help a person cope with the apparent chaos of consciousness. A work of art could capture such moments forever, and thus impose a kind of order and permanence on the life of the mind. The conclusion to The Renaissance, possibly written as early as 1865 and in print by 1868, became the most quoted serious statement on the subject:

This is important.

This is the Modernist ideal of the meaning of life. Liberalism doesn’t answer this question.

“Every moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or sea is choicer than the rest; some mood of passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irresistibly real and attractive to us” – but only for that moment. “Not the fruit of experience, but the experience itself, is the end.” Life can only have a limited number of worthy sensations, and the problem of living is to focus oneself on where “the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy.” To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain ecstasy, is success in life.”

This is how Gautier put it:

“To develop freely every intellectual fancy, whether or not it shocks taste, conventions, and rules; to hate and repulse to the utmost what Horace called the profanum vulgus, and what moustachioed, long-haired rapins mean by ‘shopkeepers,’ ‘philistines,’ or ‘bourgeois’; to celebrate the pleasures of love with a passion capable of scorching the paper on which we record them, insisting upon love as the sole end and sole means of happiness; and to sanctify and deify Art, regarded as second Creator.”

What has gone missing here?

Everything but the inner aesthetic experience and the expression of it by the individual. If the meaning of life is the aesthetic pleasure of endless stimulation and the collection of novel experiences by self-absorbed individuals, where do other people fit into this worldview? The obligations that we have to other people in our society became a burden for us. They hold us back from being true to ourselves.

About Hunter Wallace 12371 Articles
Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Occidental Dissent


  1. Hunter is really getting into the gay literary scene

    People Hunter cites:

    William James was gay
    Henry James was gay, & brother of William
    Théophile Gautier was gay
    Marcel Proust was gay
    Algernon Swinburne was gay
    Walter Pater was gay
    Oscar Wilde was gay

    From the famous interview on Ugandan TV, conservative host asks his lesbian male-dressing guest – ‘Why are you gay?’ – 1 minute –

  2. Self-absorption like you wrote about says, “I am God.” And, “My brain is so powerful, I can understand anything through my reasoning skills.” That leads to other delusions, like: I’m so smart and contain so much depth that I can and should change the world in my image. The rejection of a higher power always leads to replacing it with a personality cult. Everyone with delusions of divinity wants to lead that cult, because they just should.

  3. Most college psychology 101 courses always start with William James, then next is Russian Pavlo’s Dog. After him, (((Sigmund))).

    Get the picture?

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