Is life worth living? This question, the title of one of William James’ essays, is one James himself struggled with in his life and work. Trained as a doctor, James never practiced medicine. Perhaps due to his own struggles with depression and melancholy, he was drawn to philosophy and psychology. That interest turned into a serious academic career. Known as the father of American psychology, James is the founder of functional psychology and cofounder of the James-Lange Theory of Emotion. He also wrote an important work on the psychology of religious experience. James’ philosophical work forms some of the seminal thinking on pragmatism—the belief that usefulness, not truth, should be the focus of philosophical ideas.
In A Pluralistic Universe, James directly attacks philosophical monism, specifically, the concept of the Absolute. This idea, which has dominated philosophy since Plato, is the belief in a single essence that makes up the universe. It is the belief that the universe is coherent and that all experience of it is of more or less the same ilk. Against this, James argues for pluralism. “Pragmatically interpreted, pluralism . . . means only that the sundry parts of reality may be externally related. Everything you can think of, however vast or inclusive, has on the pluralistic view a genuinely external environment of some sort or amount. Things are with one another in many ways, but nothing includes everything, or dominates over everything. The word “and” trails along after every sentence.” In other words, though some objects may be inherently connected to other objects, there is nothing inherent in every object that connects it to every other object. Ultimately, the world is many, not one.
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William James (1842–1910) was born at the Astor House in New York City. His father, Henry James Sr., was a Swedenborgian theologian. His godfather was poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. James studied science at Harvard University and enrolled in Harvard Medical School, earning an MD in 1869. In 1878, he married Alice Gibbens, and in 1882, he became a member of the theosophical society. James suffered various forms of depression throughout his life. Though he studied medicine, he was drawn to philosophy and psychology. He began writing on these subjects and eventually began teaching at Harvard. He held professorships of both philosophy and psychology, ending his career as emeritus professor of philosophy in 1907. Medical historians consider him the 14th most eminent psychologist of the twentieth century.