William James, American Existentialist

Jeff Carreira Blog Posts 9 Comments

William Barrett introduced the philosophy of Existentialism to American academia with the publication of his book Irrational Man. In the book he is clear to state that Existentialism is strictly Continental European philosophical movement. Although Barret adds that “of all non-European philosophers William James probably best deserves the labeled an Existentialist.” Barrett goes on to claim that it would be more accurate to call James an Existentialist than a Pragmatist. Indeed many of the themes and concerns that occupy James’ philosophy are those that preoccupied the Continental Existentialists.

As the nineteenth century rolled into the twentieth the Existentialists began to realize that the modern world was heading toward an impending tragedy. The Enlightenment and the subsequent triumph of science and rationalism had eroded the stronghold of faith that had held humanity together for centuries. The dogma of the Christian church simply could not survive the challenge presented by the new understanding of the universe that science had brought. “God is dead.” Nitcshe announced.

The world of the middle ages, however brutal and difficult, was also existentially secure and known. The Earth and everything on it had been created by an all-knowing and all-powerful God. The purpose of being human was to live in accordance with God’s will as outlined in the Bible. The existential questions of “Who am I?” and “How shall I live?” were answered and the only mystery that remained was that of God himself. During the Enlightenment a new world order took hold based on the underlying assumption that the universe was knowable by the human mind. There was no more need for blind insubstatiated faith in anything. We could finally know the real truth of the universe, one that was empirical in nature and could be proven through observable facts. The revealed “truth” of the Bible, not to mention the existence of God, became increasingly difficult concepts to believe in.

A century before the Existentialists, the thinkers of the Romantic revolt realized that in the rush to rid ourselves of the superstitious believes of the Christian church we had lost something essential to human life and had left a void in the human heart where faith and hope had once dwelt. The Romantics looked nostalgically back to the middle ages and longed for the sense of awe and wonder that the Christian world had contained. Through their poetry, prose and music they attempted to re-enchant the world with spirit. 

A century later the Existentialists recognized the same tragic state of affairs. They realized that the human consciousness had become increasingly dominated by rationalism and materialism and that humankind was rapidly loosing the ability to have faith in anything that could not be seen. A road to nihilism seemed to lay before us. Unlike the Romantics, the Existentialists did not look longingly back to the traditional Christian world. Humankind, they realized, had in fact outgrown that faith and was maturing into the realization that the universe we lived in and our fate in it was terrifyingly uncertain. Human beings did not need to recreate the spirituality of the middle ages; it had to find a new way to bring meaning, truth and goodness into the vast mysterious universe that we had found ourselves in. We must find a new source of faith, but not one that rests on mythical beliefs about a creator God or a heavenly realm in the clouds. Finding this new source of goodness and faith in the modern world was at the heart of William James’ philosophical work and that is why Barrett can rightly claim that James is an American Existentialist.

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Nils Montan
Nils Montan
10 years ago

It appears that the book of James that Barrett cites to most often is “The Varieties of Religious Experience.” One reviewer on Amazon.com says: “I am neither a theologian, nor a scholar learned in the history of religions, nor an anthropologist. Psychology is the only branch of learning in which I am particularly versed. To the psychologist the religious propensities of man must be at least as interesting as any other of the facts pertaining to his mental constitution. It would seem, therefore, as a psychologist, the natural thing for me would be to invite you to a descriptive survey… Read more »

Nils Montan
Nils Montan
10 years ago

If I might, I would like to recommend a biography of James, Robert Richardson’s William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism. It is perhaps the finest intellectual biography I have ever read.

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
10 years ago

I am reading the irrational man now, and what I am reading about James and existentialism is very basic: an orientation towards the immediate and qualitative, the existent and the actual -toward concreteness and adequacy. ‘Philosophers can no longer attempt (as Locke and Hume) to construct human experience out of simple ideas and elementary sensations. The psychic life of men is not a mosaic of such mental atoms, and philosophers where able to cling to this believe so long only because they had put their own abstractions in place of concrete experience’. Whitehead (Platonist) shares in this general existential trend… Read more »

Anonymous
Anonymous
10 years ago

Hello again Liesbeth, re: ” he never calls into question is ‘Intelligence’ or as he means it ‘the scientific method’ Then along came Maslow (?) with his “peak experience” which seems to invite thought on emotion into the discussion. The Method became so embraced by intellectuals worldwide that resulted in a disdain for metaphysics and even spirituality, equating it with religion, ingraining a “too hip or cool to be spiritual” that even persists today. What seems to be happening to my hopeful mind is a less dogmatic attitude held by intellectuals and that spirituality is necessary in a holistic humanity… Read more »

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
10 years ago

I guess I failed to sign in to the above post, Liesbeth.

I wouldn’t want to disclaim my comments with anonymity.

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
10 years ago

Hi Frank, I always have difficulty reading your post, and I think you use a difficult kind of English, I think even in my own language it would be not easy to read. It might be that you are very educated and I am less. I am reading all these books not to become a better intellect (to get more knowledge), but because I keep on looking for some understanding that I did not find yet. Real action only comes from conviction. I absolutely do not want to be rude, but what I connect most with intellectual is the way… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
10 years ago

I just read something interesting in connection with spirituality vs philosophy. William James gives in varieies of religious experiences many examples of mystical experiences and in the end he divides them into different parts. There he says: ‘[mystical experiences] break down the authority of the non-mystical or rational consciousness, bases upon understanding and the senses alone. They show it to be only one kind of consciousness. They open out the possibility of other orders of truth’.
To redeem religion from unwholesome privacy, has been ‘reasons task’ and according to James philosophy will always have the opportunity to labor this task.

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
10 years ago

Hi Liesbeth, re: “who cares what we hope for.” I jars me to hear you say it and hope you’re not one of those science-oriented so entrenched with the Method that you’ve become hardened by it. It’s my view that Science has so influenced the intellectual community worldwide that it’s considered uncool to entertain spirituality or include it in their worldview. I’m not saying metaphysics should influence their scientific work but should be part of their humanity. W/o it, Science and agnosticism that pervades a large part of human beliefs currently has to a great extent the weakening of morality… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
10 years ago

I think I should clarify what I meant. It is not my idea to attack you, I just want to clarify. There is nothing wrong with dreaming or hoping, but what I mean is that ‘hoping’ has to be connected to some kind of action. If I say I hope to win a million dollars, but if I do not buy a lottery ticket, it is non-sense. The same is when I say: I hope that everybody in the world gets food, the minimum I need to do is donate 10 dollars in a funds with that goal, otherwise it… Read more »