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When Misery and Metaphysics Collide: William James on ‘the Problem of Evil’

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 May 2012

Emma K. Sutton
Emma K. Sutton, PhD student, The Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at UCL, 183 Euston Road, London NW1 2BE, UK. Email:
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William James is often described as one of America's foremost philosophers and the founder of American psychology. During the second half of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth century he published several key texts on a broad range of topics, including the psychology of religion, ethics, epistemology and metaphysics. Many are still in current use, and contemporary philosophers continue to pore over them. Biographers, meanwhile, happily speculate on everything from James's parental relationships to the state of his marriage. However, there has been relatively little detailed exploration of how James's published writings and his private life may have intersected. This article explores one such intersection: that between James's protracted experience of ill health and the elaboration of the notion of evil in his writings.

Copyright © The Author(s) 2011. Published by Cambridge University Press


1 Daniel W. Bjork, William James: The Centre of his Vision (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 1997), 81.

2 Howard M. Feinstein, Becoming William James (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999), 229fn.

3 Donald E. Capps, ‘“That Shape Am I”: The Bearing of Melancholy on the Varieties of Religious Experience’ in idem (ed.), Men, Religion and Melancholia (Berkeley, CA: Yale University Press, 1997), 29, 34–5, 68–9.

4 William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985), 136.

5 James saw himself, and a select few colleagues, as a band of renegade fighters assailing a philosophical enemy stronghold. For example, in a letter to one such fellow pluralist, Ferdinand Canning Scott Schiller in 1896, James wrote: ‘I can foresee a more or less systematic siege of monism & absolutism on my own part for the rest of my days (so far as I may retain ability to do anything).’ William James to Ferdinand Canning Scott Schiller, 15 September 1896, in Ignas K. Skrupskelis and Elizabeth M. Berkeley (eds), The Correspondence of William James, Vol. 8 (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2000), 203. Note also the characteristic reference to his feared incapacity for work as a result of his chronic invalidism.

6 In James’s Hibbert Lectures, entitled A Pluralistic Universe, the exponents of monistic idealism that he singles out as his chief adversaries are Rudolf Hermann Lotze, Josiah Royce and Francis Herbert Bradley: William James, ‘A Pluralistic Universe’, Ralph Barton Perry (ed.), Essays in Radical Empiricism and a Pluralistic Universe (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1971).

7 James, op. cit. (note 4), 113.

8 Ibid.

9 James, op. cit. (note 6), 177–8.

10 Ibid., 181.

11 They have focused, in particular, on James’s debt to Charles Renouvier, another nineteenth-century philosopher. See Ralph Barton Perry, The Thought and Character of William James: Volume I. Inheritance and Vocation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1935), 659.

12 William James to Henry James Jr, 25 October 1869, in Ignas K. Skrupskelis and Elizabeth M. Berkeley (eds), The Correspondence of William James, Vol. 1, (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 1992), 113–14.

13 See, for example: William James to Henry James Jr, 5 April 1868, ibid., 41–3; William James to Thomas Wren Ward, 24 May 1868, in Ignas K. Skrupskelis and Elizabeth M. Berkeley (eds), The Correspondence of William James, Vol. 4 (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 1995), 309; Diary 1, William James Papers, Houghton Library, Harvard, II. bMS Am 1092.9 B (ii) (4550).

14 William James to Robertson James, 14 November 1869, ibid., 389.

15 Miscellaneous notes, William James Papers, Houghton Library, Harvard, II. bMS Am 1092.9, A (ii), (4473).

16 James, op. cit. (note 4), 113–14.

17 Ibid., 135. In an 1874 review of the alienist Henry Maudsley’s work, James implies that he believes that ‘no evil seems worthy of that name when compared to the evil of insanity’: William James, ‘Recent Works on Mental Hygiene (1874)’, F.H. Burkhardt, F. Bowers and I.K. Skrupskelis (eds), The Works of William James: Essays Comments and Reviews (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987), 277.