How William James Can Save Your Life

John Banville at Literary Review:

William James in turn experienced a vastation of his own. In Varieties of Religious Experience he provides a report by a ‘French correspondent’ – in reality, himself – that describes how on an ordinary evening, at twilight, ‘suddenly there fell upon me without warning, just as if it came out of darkness, a horrible fear of my own existence’. His terror became embodied in the image of an epileptic patient he had seen in an asylum, ‘like a sculptured Egyptian cat or Peruvian mummy, moving nothing but his black eyes … That shape am I.’

Despite all this, or because of it, James was a remarkably bright and affirmative character, not naturally, but as a result of hard work. Robert Silvers, editor of the New York Review of Books, once asked Isaiah Berlin who his ideal dinner guest would be. Without hesitation Berlin exclaimed, ‘William James!’ And indeed James’s brand of philosophy – pragmatism – has features in common with Berlin’s own thinking on liberty and pluralism.

more here.