Blog

Why life might be worth living, according to philosopher William James

Making the value of your life a hypothesis, as psychologist-philosopher William James did, you might find meaning in it.

If you ever find yourself in doubt of yourself and other things in your life, remember to remain cognizant in evaluating things. Questioning whether life is worth living is only a part of many larger questions that many people face at some point or another. Whether you find satisfying answers can be difficult, though. Turning to philosophy can provide answers, with some effort at least.

“Is Life Worth Living?” A bold title for the 1896 lecture of philosopher and psychologist William James. And what better way to begin such a than with an 1881 self-help book of a similar title. James himself had been through the existential dilemma. He would ask, was life worth living?

The short answer is that it depends on the liver. Satisfied? If not, there is a more elaborate response. Philosopher John Kaag’s new book Sick Souls, Healthy Minds: How William James Can Save Your Life explores the Father of American Psychology’s personal journey in figuring out if life is worth living.

James would wake up each day “with a horrible dread at the pit of [his] stomach,” contemplating suicide in his early 20s and wondering “how other people could live, how I myself had ever lived, so unconscious of that pit of insecurity beneath the surface of life.” Through an arduous journey of figuring out what made life meaningful and worth living, the philosopher ends up conceding to “our usual refined optimisms and intellectual and moral consolations” and live as though life were worth living.

After Kaag witnessed a suicide by jumping off of the William James Hall at Harvard University in 2014, the philosopher began questioning why it had happened. Sick Souls, Healthy Minds aims to remedy those actions by offering James as a friend in those trying times of misery. Kaag shares own difficult time at age 30 as he was researching William James at Harvard University while going through a divorce and dealing with the death of his alcoholic father. Like his previous book on Nietzsche, Kaag searches for practical wisdom by combining his autobiographical experience alongside the famous philosopher. I still found myself believing that, though Kaag himself went through a tremendous amount of stress, his own story still pales in comparison to James’ style and work.

James’ research in studying philosophy and psychology alongside one another, radical empiricism, pragmatism, “anti-intellectualism” (to be clarified later) and overall revolutionary role in the theory of emotion that still resounds to this day make his life and rumination on its meaning much more impactful. His own life, from going on a scientific journey through the Amazon, studying medicine, and pondering life’s purpose, especially in light of On the Origin of Species, published in 1859, lead him to think humans were merely animals in a deterministic world of cause-and-effect. Choice, like free will, was only an illusion. This lead to his diary entries in 1870, in which he assumed free will was no illusion, and, out of his own free will, he would believe in free will. He wrote he would, “accumulate grain on grain of willful [sic] choice like a very miser” through making habits. After reading French philosopher Charles Renouvier’s, he came to believe these thoughts and kept them close in everything he did.

James’ pragmatism, that truth is not statically there to be perceived or discovered but is, in many cases, what we create in the stride of living, we can jump across the abyss that Nietzsche warned about staring into by jumping across it. James would write about a type of “anti-intellectualism” against the idea that the minds have “a world complete in itself” and need simply to find this world while having no power to re-determine its already-given character. These gave the psychologist-philosopher a type of deterministic that James would use to describe a type of “rich and active commerce” between minds and reality.

When new ideas join older ones, they “marry” one another, James described. You can form beliefs as hypotheses, and their values depend on how they relate to you. This hypothesis of life makes life valuable.

But Kaag also warns the prideful dangers of pragmatism, even if his explanations are a bit indulgent. Kaag’s doubts crept up on him during his first wedding, but his mother suggested to continue with the wedding as planned. He realized he could determine the truth that his marriage would be a happy one, but he also couldn’t the same way he could. It seemed as though James’ free will wouldn’t have helped.

James’ other work reflects the groundbreaking discoveries in psychology and cognitive science while creating the Department of Experimental Psychology at Harvard. James believed emotions are “constituted by, and made up of, those bodily changes which we ordinarily call their expression or consequence.” Being sad is not the cause of crying, but is what it feels like to cry in this sort of “biofeedback” in which we figure out our own emotions. This means, according to James, that whistling a happy tune could prevent yourself from feeling sad. The psychologist-philosopher mocked the cognitivist idea that emotions could simply be states of mind which cause us to have visceral reactions. Without the fiery passion of anger within your heart or heavy weight of mourning at a funeral, an emotion would only be “feelingless cognition.”

If, as Nietzsche said, every great philosophy is “a confession on the part of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir,” then the emphasis should be on “involuntary and unconscious.” Maybe, in philosophizing, the personal should let themselves feel what they feel.

%d bloggers like this: