A STROLL WITH WILLIAM JAMES by Jacques Barzun

A STROLL WITH WILLIAM JAMES

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KIRKUS REVIEW

As old-fashioned as its title, this long, quirky, energetic ramble through the works of William James blends hero-worship and personal reflection in a curiously agreeable way. Much of the book is simply an explication of various Jamesian texts, especially from The Principles of Psychology. This might have bogged down in lecture-hall tedium, but James is so wonderfully quotable and Barzun is such a spirited teacher that the whole thing works pretty well. Beyond that, Barzun uses James as a measuring stick (and rod, when needed) for 20th-century thinkers. On pragmatistic grounds, he faults both Freud (whose opposition between the pleasure principle and the reality principle neglects the reality of pleasure) and T. S. Eliot (whose famous dictum ""Human kind/ Cannot bear very much reality"" arrogantly assumes truth is ""cut-and-dried and available""). Barzun views James not just as an exemplary modern mind and literary artist, but--much more dubiously--as one of the paladins of the Grand Epoch, from 1890 to 1914, when practically everything of any significance in contemporary culture was invented. In this vein, Barzun sounds at best like a harmless praiser of the past (rhapsodizing over a very fin de siÉcle ""faith in art""), at his worst like a positive crank (feverishly tabulating the triumphs of ""the reign of William and Henry,"" which saw the emergence of, among other things, the vacuum cleaner, the zipper, Coca Cola, and chewing gum). Even at his most opinionated, however, Barzun is always informative and sometimes quite amusing (as when he labels radical disciples of John Dewey ""veritable Smerdiakovs""). Serious students of philosophy can safely ignore this idiosyncratic introduction to James, but the beginner and the general reader may find in it some unexpected rewards.

Pub Date: March 16th, 1983
ISBN: 0226038696
Publisher: Harper & Row