Our Contemporary, William James
WHAT strikes us in reading William James now is at once how distant and yet how close to us he is. Some of his most famous essays, particularly on determinism and freedom of the will, were written almost a century ago. Their philosophic idiom is not our current one, and they speak out of a different historical and human ambiance from ours. In point of actual chronology he can be squeezed into our century only in its first decade, though in those years he did produce some of his most decisive philosophical statements. Yet he belongs to our time, he is our contemporary in the 20th century, for deeper reasons than this narrow and literal-minded appeal to chronology can show. He speaks to us now, I believe, more forcefully than at any time since his death in 1910.
Even the great differences in the intellectual and spiritual milieu from which he wrote, and which at this distance we can discern more clearly, have a more immediate meaning and use for us now.
By contrast they help to reveal what our own very different situation is. In America in the latter part of the 19th century, and certainly in New England, God was very far from dead. The new tremors of agnosticism were stirring, of course, like the advance waves of an earthquake. Scientific materialism seemed by this time to be incorporated into the body of physics itself; and the shock of the theory of evolution altered not only our picture of the origin of mankind but also our perspective on its possible destiny. But these matters disturbed the intellectuals mostly. The faithful, if troubled at all, were quick and ingenious with the responses of their will to believe. New England and Boston particularly buzzed with their varied circles of spirituality and spiritualism.
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