(Jeffrey Howard)

The Power of One Idea

“Thanks to you I have for the first time, an intelligible and reasonable conception of freedom,” writes the American philosopher William James in an 1872 letter to Charles Renouvier. “I am beginning to be reborn to the moral life.” Having battled melancholy and suicidal ruminations throughout much of his young adulthood, the eventual “Father of American Psychology” experienced the power lived ideas have to invigorate and animate us. Ideas truly have the ability to save. At least, that is what John Kaag argues in his new book.

In Sick Souls, Healthy Minds: How William James Can Save Your Life (2020), we are treated to an accessible exploration into the intellectual and emotional life of one of pragmatism’s founders. Part memoir and part history, this contribution is a testament to how one can build their life around fruitful ideas. Our technology-obsessed and materially-reductive age frequently neglects the salvific potency of ideas—to the great detriment of human flourishing. 

[Read “Meaning of Life No Longer Matters to Philosophers“]

‘Meat Sacks Destined for the Grinder’

“Today, James is usually described as a man who faced mental illness without the help of doctors,” notes Kaag. “This isn’t exactly true; he was the doctor. William James’ entire philosophy, from beginning to end, was geared to save a life, his life. Philosophy was never a detached intellectual exercise or a matter of wordplay . . . . It was about being thoughtful and living vibrantly.” This is not a dismissal of the benefits of medical science and technology, but a clarion call for us to reconsider the role ideas have in shaping society’s foundations and enabling us to better tackle existential challenges. If we experiment with ideas as “lived hypotheses,” we can arrive at those which will be of greatest use to us. Further, we can assuredly abandon those which tend to rot the soul or sicken the mind. 

Raised in a well-to-do family during Victorian America, William James was the older brother of the equally famous author Henry James and godson of Ralph Waldo Emerson, another pillar in the American pantheon of literature. In early adulthood, James was a generalist looking for his passion, a bit of a polymath, whom Kaag describes as “part poet, part biologist, part artist, part mystic.” 

So why exactly does William James matter today? Why should everybody, and not just the advantaged or bourgeois members of society, focus more on the fruitfulness of ideas? “There is no such thing as an unqualified good,” points out Kaag. “Appearances can be deceiving. Freedom is shot through with anxiety. Privilege can be an unshakable burden.” And no doubt James came from a background of privilege. His father was an independently wealthy man who ran in some of the most intellectually influential circles in America. This afforded William James an international education that included stopovers in Paris, Germany, and an expedition to the Amazon with world-renown Swiss biologist Louis Agassiz. He had an early education that would make most envious. 

James is a case in point that regardless of whatever social or material advantages one may have, emotional unwellness and despair can befall any of us. No one is exempt. One could confidently say that James had the deck stacked firmly in his favor. Those focused on societal injustices and economic inequalities are right to attend to the material lack of the many left behind—or oppressed—in America, but we shouldn’t be willfully ignorant regarding the impact ideas have to make human flourishing more abundant throughout society—at every socioeconomic level. 

In The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies (2001), political scientist Robert E. Lane suggests that there is no correlation between subjective well-being and material progress once individuals find themselves at the poverty line. In other words, once one is above this level of economic hardship, it appears that increased material wealth does not lead to higher levels of meaningful living. This evokes Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, hinting at the importance of physiological and safety demands being met before one can experience deep psychological wellness and self-fulfillment. Notably, Maslow’s framework should be viewed holistically rather than linearly or sequentially. The lower tiers of the pyramid are essential, but one can meet or attend to the other strata simultaneously in their attempts to create “the good life.”  

James had abundant financial and social support to rely on, but, I believe, his “sick soul” attests to the power an idea—in his case, the debate between determinism and free will—has to affect our emotional well-being. Some ideas lend themselves more to human flourishing than others. 

As Kaag puts it, “James was given every possible opportunity to flourish and be shielded from the world’s harsher realities.” However, something must be said for those who have enough leisure time to reflect deeply on the terrifying possibility that human existence is entirely meaningless. “It is as if only after a person has been given everything,” writes Kaag, “that one has the chance to realize that everything might never be enough to really matter.”

Perhaps you’ve also sat frequently with the possibility that “we are a bunch of meat sacks destined for the grinder.” 

One need not think James was some kind of trust-fund inheritor surprised to find his pursuit of consumeristic pleasures thoroughly hollow. He was serious about the questions of life, the apparent reality that it was cruel and unfair—existence burdensome in a predetermined world. Especially for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. To James, life was serious business. What could he do, he wondered, to relieve his suffering and that of his fellow sick souls?

[Read “Depression Isn’t Caused by a Chemical Imbalance“]

By Their Fruits, Not Their Roots

We would be wise to interrogate ourselves as to which ideas or core views we hold actually degrade our well-being and hinder our ability to be of benefit to our respective communities. Kaag writes: “We are, in the words of the twentieth-century German philosopher Martin Heidegger, ‘thrown’ into the world, set adrift, and through much of adolescence, live at the mercy of forces beyond our control.” A stifling thought ever in the forefront of young William James’ mind. One he would dedicate the final decades of his life to subverting and refuting.

We each maintain worldviews that are problematic in some key ways. They depress the spirit, make us less capable of solving human obstacles, and ultimately, lack the proper qualities of truth. We unfortunately and routinely accept as true certain ideas that ensnare or limit us. They sap us of motivation, make getting up in the morning seem insurmountable, and end up shaping the way we experience the world. As James famously says, “Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.” 

For William James, determinism was one of these ideas. He was weighed down by the obsessive thought that we all might just be “cogs in an unfortunately constructed machine.” Determinism—the view that the present and future have already been set by actions dating backwards ad infinitum—was the central idea that kept him mired in the throes of depression. He experienced it as a threat to all the values and meaning that truly matter to humans. One could consider it his greatest antagonist. His work is essentially a protest against a mechanistic world; or rather, his attempt to show the foolhardiness of assuming that determinism is a useful view to hold about human activity. 

How can we best evaluate ideas? James knew our dearest beliefs could not be verified or falsified in any comprehensive way. Especially not in a narrow empirical manner that appreciates only that which can be measured and observed—particularly in a controlled, decontextualized laboratory setting. These reductivistic empiricists work with the notion that truth is an object “out there” that can be obtained or uncovered. 

Alternatively, James argues, “Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events.” An idea has the qualities of truth in as much as it is useful in helping us resolve the problems we face. In other words, the principle of gravity is true by matter of its practical consequences. I am confident that gravity is true because when I live as if it were true, I am able to accomplish many amazing things. I stay alive because I understand that stepping off a tall building will result in me falling toward a terrifying death. I can also be assured that gravity is true because of the many technologies based on its being true that enable us to flourish more as human beings (safe air travel and construction of reliable buildings, to name a couple). I need not get lost in abstractions trying to prove that gravity corresponds with some idealistic notion of an unchanging, ultimate reality located in the realm of ideas or some metaphysical dimension.

And so, it is with free will. What are the fruits, or practical consequences, of assuming that we have the ability to choose otherwise? Are we as human beings going to live more or less flourishing lives if we act as if we occupy a deterministic existence? Does presuming free will lead us to create more desirable communities and more prosperous and just societies, or not? 

[Read “Truth Is Not Absolute, but That Which Works“]

Testing Out Our Lived Hypotheses

Why might belief in determinism be so problematic? “Remember that for every event, for the determinist, even an obviously evil or heinous one, could not have been otherwise,” explains Kaag. “Take the most gruesome murder or hate crime—did the perpetrator mean to do it? Did he or she have a genuine choice in the matter? Could he or she have avoided becoming a criminal? Not according to the determinist. In this case, remorse, regret, and moral culpability make very little, if any, sense.” As an undergraduate student in psychology and philosophy, I also wrestled with the uncomfortable ramifications of a deterministic world. It cast our justice system in an absurdly unjust light. It had the potential to undo many of the core frameworks that kept people actively engaged with the tasks of existence, pursuing the “good life,” or at least engaging in it in a deep and full-throated way.

How then do we evaluate the claim of determinism? A purely rationalistic pursuit of a priori explanations appears too detached from our chaotic experiences. How does the orderly and abstract magically morph into the concrete? Alternatively, a purely empirical approach seems incapable of accommodating aspects of existence that are not easily operationalized or quantifiably measured—particularly our most cherished values and vital human ideals. If we cannot prove (or disprove) determinism with any certainty, what route is left for us?

William James writes, “You want a system that will combine . . . the scientific loyalty to facts and willingness to take account of them, the spirit of adaptation and accommodation, in short, but also the old confidence in human values and the resultant spontaneity, whether of the religious or of the romantic type.” James’ philosophical work is an attempt to reconcile the seemingly difficult but messy facts of reality with the most deeply human values we hold—most of which are only made possible or meaningful in a world that accommodates some semblance of free will. 

This is not to suggest that we only adopt ideas that console our fragile psyches. Nor does it give individuals license to believe in whatever they want. Kaag writes: “Instead, an idea succeeds, literally ‘moves forward,’ through many tests, conducted by many different people, over an extended period of time. It is like science in this respect. The success of any specific inference is validated only for the time being in a provisional fashion.” Truth, James suggests, is something we moved toward as many individuals test lived hypotheses. We must accept that just about every idea we hold as true today will eventually prove false tomorrow, and that as a “community of inquirers”—a term coined by Charles Sanders Peirce, a fellow founder of pragmatism—we only come closer to a completeness of truth as a group. Hence, the vital connection between truth and democratic living. 

We iterate toward truth, experimenting with any given idea in our individual lives. If something proves fruitful in our unique circumstances, we offer it up to our fellow travelers as a promising idea upon which they can also experiment with in their particular context. Our task is to orient toward a methodology that centers on testing lived hypotheses. In this, we will realize that which buoys up our own spirits, gives us the tools to resolve our very real existential problems, and ultimately, pass it on to our neighbors to test in their own particular ways. 

“According to James, there is another advantage in tethering one’s ideas to the ground of experience,” argues Kaag. “Experience is common ground—the place where individuals with different ideas can meet and, many times, reach agreement. In order to evaluate any two theories, one is to look to their respective practical consequences and trace out their ‘sensational termini.’ If they reach the same end points, the ideas can be said to be practically the same.” The value of an idea—its justification for claiming truth—rests on the practical consequences of it also being confirmed by the lived experiences of the members of the wider community. “[N]either the whole truth nor the whole of good is revealed to any single observer, although each observer gains a partial superiority of insight from the peculiar position in which he stands,” writes James.

The power of one idea can change our entire being. It can lead us to despair and gloom just as much as it can enliven our minds and lift our hearts. If one finds themselves in a constant state of anxiety and depression, James’ life would suggest that one is likely maintaining some fruitless or rotten beliefs regarding what it means to be human. Circumstances have some constraining power over us, but as the stoic philosopher Epectitus is wise to remind in the Enchiridion (135 CE), we are “disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which [we] form concerning things.” 

We must not resign ourselves to predetermined mental or emotional states. Our well-being is not fated by a reductivistic view of biology, neurochemistry, or social circumstances. James reveals that we are more likely to rise above our melancholic stupor if we test out ideas as lived hypotheses. This requires us to engage fiercely with life and to sharply examine the mental models and philosophies that inform our actions. 

[Read “Wanderlust Is a Vice, Not a Virtue“]

Ideas Must Become Habits If They’re to Work

An idea alone does not have the power to save. We do not encounter the full force of its practical utility unless an idea becomes as concrete as a habit. Consider the relationship between our habits and our emotional lives; in what is now known as the James-Lange theory of emotion, William James argues that our emotions are often precipitated by our actions and not the other way around. We are, in part, depressed because we slouch our shoulders, frown, allow our living environments to be squalorly and disordered, or constantly complain. Our emotional life is part of a “biofeedback” loop that directs our actions just as our willful movements reinforce (or modify) our inner lives. James famously wrote in Principles of Psychology (1890): “We don’t laugh because we’re happy, we’re happy because we laugh.” 

This brings to mind a solo trip I took to Virginia Beach a few years ago. During a three-hour drive from Washington, DC, where I was living at the time, I determined to experiment upon this very idea. Like most people, I was aware that I usually felt a flutter of positive affect whenever I smiled, even if for a fleeting moment. But I wondered what would happen if I forced myself to sit up straight and grin like a Cheshire cat for the entire stretch of that excursion. Echoing the positive impact I’ve experienced from the Buddhist practice of zazen—a routine exercise, in part, centered on sitting in the proper posture—I found my forced expression of happiness brought about an unexpectedly strong emotion not unlike brief joy or quiet calm. This was not a single solution to the melancholy I was experiencing during my life at the time, but it bore witness to the reality that by embracing many small habits, manifested as incremental improvements in emotional wellness, I could strengthen my general state of mind over an extended period of time. 

The fruits of a belief-turned-habit shift one’s entire being. This is one of the key insights we can gain from William James’ unrelenting struggle to properly understand what it means to be human and how to combat the suffering that takes place within one’s inner life. 

[Read “The Brain Can Be Rewired Through Meditation and Mindfulness“]

‘My First Act of Free Will’

As mentioned at the beginning, James found himself reborn, enlivened by the insights of Charles Renouvier regarding free will and determinism. He recounts in his diary: “I think that yesterday was a crisis in my life. I finished Renouvier’s second Essais and see no reason why his definition of free will—‘the sustaining of a thought because I choose to when I might have other thoughts’—need be the definition of an illusion.” This planted the seed for what would eventually become his famous dictum, his Ebenezer to hurl at determinism. In a 1907 letter to H.G. Wells, he writes, “My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.” His epiphany provided him with an “absolute beginning,” as he wrote to his father in 1873. “It is the difference between life and death.” This awakening fueled his campaign as he sought to remake philosophy and psychology, to position them firmly within lived experience. 

As for the philosophical system William James helped bring into existence—pragmatism—it is ultimately “about life and its amelioration. That’s it. And that is enough,” says Kaag. I am not sure we can hope for much more than that which improves our situation a bit and better equips us to lift our fellow travelers.

John Kaag concludes that even William James’ suffering and “groping, however, was deeply meaningful, the stuff that can . . . save a life or make a soul a little less sick: his struggle with determinism, his excavation of free will, his emphasis on action and habit formation . . . . These were the different vectors of meaning that helped James make it to middle age.”

It is the little things, our seemingly mundane habits, that end up having an outsized impact. We are constrained, to some degree, and some people more than others, by our physical or economic circumstances—especially the most marginalized among us. Further, we receive some detrimental habits and worldviews from our parents and the communities in which we are brought up. However, William James proclaims that neither our beliefs, values, or lives are fated. There might actually be a great deal that is still left up to us. And therein lies the great hope for those with sick souls reaching for healthier minds.

Jeffrey Howard

Jeffrey is Founder and Editor of Erraticus. He also serves as Director of Communications and Marketing at Effectiveness Institute, a training firm dedicated to helping organizations strengthen the emotional intelligence of their team members. He is a former mental health professional and educator. He covers education, philosophy, psychology, and religion. He resides in Cascadia.

2 thoughts on “The Power of One Idea

  • I doubt if Jame’s first act of free-will was in fact one that he was free not to take. In other words the concept of free-will is imperfect and one must accept that logical argument about it is not sustained by its nature.

    Reply
    • Can you elaborate a bit more as to what you mean here?

      Reply

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