A biography and exegesis of William James that serves as self-help for the philosophically inclined.
In his latest, Kaag (Philosophy/Univ. of Massachusetts, Lowell; Hiking With Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are, 2018, etc.) notes that he began this book worse off than during his two previous philosophical memoirs. He was in the middle of a divorce, “had just watched my estranged, alcoholic father die,” and was spending much of his time in bed sleeping and reading James. That activity, however, isn’t a symptom of depression the way reading Schopenhauer might be. For Kaag, it proved to be a vital salve. “I think William James’s philosophy saved my life. Or, more accurately, it encouraged me to not be afraid of life.” If so, it wouldn’t be the first life James saved. His entire philosophy, writes the author, “from beginning to end, was geared to save a life, his life.” In this brief treatise, Kaag seeks to “offer the reader James’s existential life preserver.” This represents something of a formal departure for Kaag. Whereas American Philosophy and Hiking With Nietzsche were philosophical memoirs, this book is self-help philosophy that draws selectively from autobiography. This inversion makes it a more demanding text than its predecessors. If readers are to gather solace from James, it will come only from joining Kaag in thinking through his philosophy: responding to the challenge of scientific determinism; reflecting on the paradox of James’ famous assertion that “my first act of free will shall be to believe in free will”; and attempting to pluck the thorn of relativism from pragmatism’s side. Luckily, Kaag’s reading of James is as elucidating as readers have come to expect from him. Once again, he writes in a clear, focused, and winningly self-aware style that makes friends of James and himself for anyone who wonders if life is worth living.
A book in which Kaag further carves out his niche in philosophy: personal, practical, and crucial.