A Life of William James
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 A solid, brass-tacks biography of the great American philosopher and founder of pragmatism. Though his ideas received substantial attention in their time, James has only come back into prominence, especially outside the US, with the onset of postmodernism. An age that despairs of fixed meaning finds a welcome resonance in James's belief that truth should rest upon utility and practicality. But Simon (The Biography of Alice B. Toklas, 1977, etc.) is not so interested in James the thinker as James the conflicted, suffering, frail, frustrated man. Her detailing of his childhood is particularly revealing. His father, a wealthy and neurotic erstwhile philosopher, kept the family constantly abroad, pulling James and his siblings out of any school where they seemed to be happily settling in. The existential expatriatism and ``philosophical hypochondria'' of this childhood left deep marks. For years, James struggled to find a focus acceptable to his father, moving, between breakdowns, from art to science to medicine. When he alighted at Harvard to teach at the medical school, he was by no means certain he'd found his mÇtier, and while he stayed put, he quickly moved from anatomy and physiology to psychology, ethics, and philosophy with an ease made possible only by his innate brilliance and the looser academic standards of the 19th century (James never even earned a Ph.D.). Very quickly, he began to enjoy enormous and lucrative success as a lecturer and public philosopher. However, as Chesterton once snidely observed, ``It was his glory that he popularized philosophy. It was his destruction that he popularized his own philosophy.'' Though a lifelong sufferer from those exotic 19th- century diseases now filed under the label of neurosis, James finally succumbed to the ultimate hypochondriac reward at the ripish age of 68. Simon does such a good job on James's life, one only wishes she'd spent a little more time on his ideas. (b&w photos, not seen)

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-15-193098-8
Page count: 496pp
Publisher: Harcourt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15th, 1997
Note: Simon is a freelance contributor to Kirkus.


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