William James And The Pre-Raphaelites’ Influence

This morning, for no particular reason, or perhaps because I’ve been reading Becoming William James, Howard Feinstein’s excellent psycho-biography of William James, I posted the following on Facebook:

William James was a better, more interesting, writer than Henry James.

These are, as my friend Margaret Toth pointed out, “fighting words.” But of course, as I noted in response, “That’s why I put them in a status. To get one started.” An entertaining and edifying one so far.

One of the defenses I mounted of William James–in response to Bryce Huebner saying that “Henry may have been the better philosopher”–was that I considered that William’s better writing made him a better philosopher too. (Just because I find the distinction between form and content a spurious one.) I then went on to say that William “certainly comes across as the wiser, the one with better insights into the human condition.”

Now, one aspect of a philosopher’s wisdom may be found in their work; another may be found in what they themselves found to be influential and important in their intellectual and psychological development.

A good example of this is the influence that the Pre-Raphaelites had on James. Their “aesthetic embodied tendencies that would emerge in William’s later work as a pyschologist and philosopher.” They:

[E]mphasized a psychological element in subjects that had hitherto received symbolic, allegorical treatment. Observation of the people around them was as important as learning the painter’s craft….[their] use of color and emphasis on realistic detail gave their painting a characteristic hard edge, creating a visual world of shapes with impermeable boundaries, like so many pieces of stained glass.”

Later, William James in his psychological work  “would prefer minute, phenomenological descriptions of minds in action.” In his philosophical pluralism, “he explored the relationship of personal worlds, he, too, emphasized the hardness of edge that divides human experience as decisively as lead separates the fragments of stained glass.”

But perhaps most impressively for me, James took the most inspiration from John Ruskin‘s views on artistic creation, on “the relationship between effort and talent.” For Ruskin had written:

It is no man’s business whether he has genius or not: work he must, whatever he is, but quietly and steadily; and the natural and unforced results of such work will always be the things that God meant him to do, and will be his best. No agonies nor heart-rendings will enable him to do any better. If he be a great man, they will be great things; if a small man, small things; but always, if thus peacefully done, good and right; always, if restlessly and ambitiously done, false, hollow, and despicable. [John Ruskin, Pre-Raphaelitism, 1851, pp. 12]

There is a simple and acute wisdom here, one that might be discerned quite clearly even as we disregard the predestinatory  note, and Ruskin’s belief–expressed elsewhere–about the great men being able to do great things “without effort.” For the injunction here is clear, one we find expressed in modern homilies too: do your work as best as you can; put the hours in; be steady and steadfast in your efforts; care not for rewards or recognition; do not torment yourself with anguish about whether your work was meant to recognized or valorized. The doing of it–and the staying with it, and enjoying the time spent on it–is ample reward.

Note: All quotes other than the ones from Ruskin are taken from Becoming William James, pp. 108-110.


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