U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Most of the References to Music in William James’s The Principles of Psychology (1890)  

One interesting thing to do with old texts is to make new texts out of them. For example, searching for every instance of “music” in William James’s The Principles of Psychology (allowing for some errors and giving myself permission to overshoot the direct reference to “music” if it seems useful) yields the following:


When we are learning to walk, to ride, to swim, skate, fence, write, play, or sing, we interrupt ourselves at every step by unnecessary movements and false notes. When we are proficients, on the contrary, the results not only follow with the very minimum of muscular action requisite to bring them forth, they also follow from a single instantaneous “cue.”

The marksman sees the bird, and, before he knows it, he has aimed and shot. A gleam in his adversary’s eye, a momentary pressure from his rapier, and the fencer finds that he has instantly made the right parry and return.

A glance at the musical hieroglyphics, and the pianist’s fingers have ripped through a cataract of notes. And not only is it the right thing at the right time that we thus involuntarily do, but the wrong thing also, if it be an habitual thing. Who is there that has never wound up his watch on taking off his waistcoat in the daytime, or taken his latchkey out on arriving at the door-step of a friend?


No one can describe the order in which he brushes his hair or teeth; yet it is likely that the order is a pretty fixed one in all of us. These results may be expressed as follows: In action grown habitual, what instigates each new muscular contraction to take place in its appointed order is not a thought or a perception, but the sensation occasioned by the muscular contraction just finished. A strictly voluntary act has to be guided by idea, perception, and volition, throughout its whole course. In an habitual action, mere sensation is a sufficient guide, and the upper regions of brain and mind are set comparatively free.

A musical performer will play a piece which has become familiar by repetition while carrying on an animated conversation, or while continuously engrossed by some train of deeply interesting thought; the accustomed sequence of movements being directly prompted by the sight of the notes, or by the remembered succession of the sounds (if the piece is played from memory), aided in both cases by the guiding sensations derived from the muscles themselves. But, further, a higher degree of the same “training” (acting on an organism specially fitted to profit by it) enables an accomplished pianist to play a difficult piece of music at sight; the movements of the hands and fingers following so immediately upon the sight of the notes that it seems impossible to believe that any but the very shortest and most direct track can be the channel of the nervous communication through which they are called forth.

The following curious example of the same class of acquired aptitudes, which differ from instincts only in being prompted to action by the will, is furnished by Robert Houdin: With a view of cultivating the rapidity of visual and tactile perception, and the precision of respondent movements, which are necessary for the success in every kind of prestidigitation, Houdin early practised the art of juggling with balls in the air; and having, after a month’s practice, become thorough master of the art of keeping up four balls at once, he placed a book before him, and, while the balls were in the air, accustomed himself to read without hesitation. “This,” he says, “will probably seem to my readers very extraordinary; but I shall surprise them still more when I say that I have just amused myself with repeating this curious experiment. Though thirty years have elapsed since the time I was writing, and though I have scarcely once touched the balls during that period, I can still manage to read with ease while keeping three balls up.”


The habit of excessive novel-reading and theatre-going will produce true monsters in this line. The weeping of a Russian lady over the fictitious personages in the play, while her coach-man is freezing to death on his seat outside, is the sort of thing that everywhere happens on a less glaring scale. Even the habit of excessive indulgence in music, for those who are neither performers themselves nor musically gifted enough to take it in a purely intellectual way, has probably a relaxing effect upon the character. One becomes filled with emotions which habitually pass without prompting to any deed, and so the inertly sentimental condition is kept up. The remedy would be, never to suffer one’s self to have an emotion at a concert, without expressing it afterward in some active way.


We do, it is true, when we study the connection between a musical note and its outward cause, find the note simple and continuous while the cause is multiple and discrete. Somewhere, then, there is a transformation, reduction, or fusion. The question is, Where – in the nerve-world or in the mind-world? Really we have no experimental proof by which to decide…

A pendulum may be deflected by a single blow, and swing back. Will it swing back the more often the more we multiply the blows? No; for it they rain upon the pendulum too fast, it will not swing at all but remain deflected in a sensibly stationary state. In other words, increasing the cause numerically need not equally increase numerically the effect.

Blow through a tube: you get a certain musical note; and increasing the blowing increases for a certain time the loudness of the note. Will this be true indefinitely? No; for when a certain force is reached, the note, instead of growing louder, suddenly disappears and is replaced by its higher octave. Turn on the gas slightly and light it: you get a tiny flame. Turn on more gas, and the breadth of the flame increases. Will this relation increase indefinitely? No, again; for at a certain moment up shoots the flame into a ragged streamer and begins to hiss. Send slowly through the nerve of a frog’s gastrocnemius muscle a succession of galvanic shocks: you get a succession of twitches. Increasing the number of shocks does not increase the twitching; on the contrary, it stops it, and we have the muscle in the apparently stationary state of contraction called tetanus…

No more do musical sounds combine per se into concords or discords. Concord and discord are names for their combined effects on that external medium, the ear. Where the elemental units are supposed to be feelings, the case is in no wise altered. Take a hundred of them, shuffle them and pack them as close together as you can (whatever that may mean); still each remains the same feeling it always was, shut in its own skin, windowless, ignorant of what the other feelings are and mean.

There would be a hundred-and-first feeling there, if, when a group or series of such feelings were set up, a consciousness belonging to the group as such should emerge. And this 101st feeling would be a totally new fact; the 100 original feelings might, by a curious physical law, be a signal for its creation, when they came together; but they would have no substantial identity with it, nor it with them, and one could never deduce the one from the others, or (in any intelligible sense) say that they evolved it. Take a sentence of a dozen words, and take twelve men and tell to each one word. Then stand the men in a row or jam them in a bunch, and let each think of his word as intently as he will; nowhere will there be a consciousness of the whole sentence.


(quote) “In a musical concord the vibrations of the several notes are in relatively simple ratios. The mind must unconsciously count the vibrations, and be pleased by the simplicity which it finds.”

Reply: The brain-process produced by the simple ratios may be as directly agreeable as the conscious process of comparing them would be. No counting, either conscious or “unconscious,” is required.

And (to consider shorter periods) just as, in the senses, an impression feels very differently according to what has preceded it; as one color succeeding another is modified by the contrast, silence sounds delicious after noise, and a note, when the scale is sung up, sounds unlike itself when the scale is sung down; as the presence of certain lines in a figure changes the apparent form of the other lines, and as in music the whole æsthetic effect comes from the manner in which one set of sounds alters our feeling of another; so, in thought, we must admit that those portions of the brain that have just been maximally excited retain a kind of soreness which is a condition of our present consciousness, a codeterminant of how and what we now shall feel.

Ever some tracts are waning in tension, some waxing, whilst others actively discharge. The states of tension have as positive an influence as any in determining the total condition, and in deciding what the psychosis shall be. All we know of submaximal nerve-irritations, and of the summation of apparently ineffective stimuli, tends to show that no changes in the brain are physiologically ineffective, and that presumably none are bare of psychological result.

But as the brain-tension shifts from one equilibrium to another, like the gyrations of a kaleidoscope, now rapid and now slow, is it likely that its faithful psychic concomitant is heavier-footed than itself, and that it cannot match each one of the organ’s irradiations by a shifting inward iridescence of its own? But if it can do this, its inward iridescences must be infinite, for the brain-redistributions are in infinite variety. If so coarse a thing as a telephone-plate can be made to thrill for years and never reduplicate its inward condition, how much more must this be the case with the infinitely delicate brain? I am sure that this concrete and total manner of regarding the mind’s changes is the only true manner, difficult as it may be to carry it out in detail. If anything seems obscure about it, it will grow clearer as we advance. Meanwhile, if it be true, it is certainly also true that no two “ideas” are ever exactly the same, which is the proposition we started to prove. The proposition is more important theoretically than it at first sight seems.


Different instruments give the “same note,” but each in a different voice, because each gives more than that note, namely, various upper harmonics of it which differ from one instrument to another. They are not separately heard by the ear; they blend with the fundamental note, and suffuse it, and alter it; and even so do the waxing and waning brain-processes at every moment blend with and suffuse and alter the psychic effect of the processes which are at their culminating point. Let us use the words psychic overtone, suffusion, or fringe, to designate the influence of a faint brain-process upon our thought, as it makes it aware of relations and objects but dimly perceived.

If we then consider the cognitive function of different states of mind, we may feel assured that the difference between those that are mere “acquaintance,” and those that are “knowledges-about”… is reducible almost entirely to the absence or presence of psychic fringes or overtones. Knowledge about a thing is knowledge of its relations. Acquaintance with it is limitation to the bare impression which it makes. Of most of its relations we are only aware in the penumbral nascent way of a “fringe” of unarticulated affinities about it.

And, before passing to the next topic in order, I must say a little of this sense of affinity, as itself one of the most interesting features of the subjective stream. In all our voluntary thinking there is some topic or subject about which all the members of the thought revolve. Half the time this topic is a problem, a gap we cannot yet fill with a definite picture, word, or phrase, but which, in the manner described some time back, influences us in an intensely active and determinate psychic way. Whatever may be the images and phrases that pass before us, we feel their relation to this aching gap…


… Many Bostonians, crede experto (and inhabitants of other cities, too, I fear), would be happier women and men to-day, if they could once for all abandon the notion of keeping up a Musical Self, and without shame let people hear them call a symphony a nuisance.


I might conceivably be as much fascinated, and as primitively so, by the care of my neighbor’s body as by the care of my own. The only check to such exuberant altruistic interests is natural selection, which would weed out such as were very harmful to the individual or to his tribe. Many such interests, however, remain unweeded out – the interest in the opposite sex, for example, which seems in mankind stronger than is called for by its utilitarian need; and alongside of them remain interests, like that in alcoholic intoxication, or in musical sounds, which, for aught we can see, are without any utility whatever.


We learn to appreciate what is ours in all its details and shadings, whilst the goods of others appear to us in coarse outlines and rude averages. Here are some examples: A piece of music which one plays one’s self is heard and understood better than when it is played by another. We get more exactly all the details, penetrate more deeply into the musical thought. We may meanwhile perceive perfectly well that the other person is the better performer, and yet nevertheless––at times get more enjoyment from our own playing because it brings the melody and harmony so much nearer home to us. This case may almost be taken as typical for the other cases of self-love…

And this is also surely the reason why one’s own portrait or reflection in the mirror is so peculiarly interesting a thing to contemplate . . . not on account of any absolute “c’est moi,” but just as with the music played by ourselves. What greets our eyes is what we know best, most deeply understand; because we ourselves have felt it and lived through it. We know what has ploughed these furrows, deepened these shadows, blanched this hair; and other faces may be handsomer, but none can speak to us or interest us like this.


Inspirational speaking, playing on musical instruments, etc., also belong to the relatively lower phases of possession, in which the normal self is not excluded from conscious participation in the performance, though their initiative seems to come from elsewhere.

In the highest phase the trance is complete, the voice, language, and everything are changed, and there is no after-memory whatever until the next trance comes. One curious thing about trance-utterances is their generic similarity in different individuals. The “control” here in America is either a grotesque, slangy, and flippant personage… or, if he ventures on higher intellectual flights, he abounds in a curiously vague optimistic philosophy-and-water, in which phrases about spirit, harmony, beauty, law, progression, development, etc., keep recurring. It seems exactly as if one author composed more than half of the trance-messages, no matter by whom they are uttered. Whether all sub-conscious selves are peculiarly susceptible to a certain stratum of the Zeitgeist, and get their inspiration from it, I know not; but this is obviously the case with the secondary selves which become “developed” in spiritualist circles…

As an example of the automatic writing performances I will quote from an account of his own case kindly furnished me by Mr. Sidney Dean of Warren, R. I., member of Congress from Connecticut from 1855 to 1859, who has been all his life a robust and active journalist, author, and man of affairs. He has for many years been a writing subject, and has a large collection of manuscript automatically produced. “Some of it,” he writes us, “is in hieroglyph, or strange compounded arbitrary characters; each series possessing a seeming unity in general design or character, followed by what purports to be a translation or rendering into mother English. I never attempted the seemingly impossible feat of copying the characters. They were cut with the precision of a graver’s tool, and generally with a single rapid stroke of the pencil. Many languages, some obsolete and passed from history, and professedly given. To see them would satisfy you that no one could copy them except by tracing.”

These, however, are but a small part of the phenomena. The “automatic” has given place to the impressional, and when the work is in progress I am in the normal condition, and seemingly two minds, intelligences, persons, are practically engaged. The writing is in my own hand but the dictation not of my own mind and will, but that of another, upon subjects of which I can have no knowledge and hardly a theory; and I, myself, consciously criticize the thought, fact, mode of expressing it, etc., while the hand is recording the subject-matter and even the words impressed to be written. If I refuse to write the sentence, or even the word, the impression instantly ceases, and my willingness must be mentally expressed before the work is resumed, and it is resumed at the point of cessation, even if it should be in the middle of a sentence. Sentences are commenced without knowledge of mine as to their subject or ending. In fact, I have never known in advance the subject of disquisition…


Herbart writes: “How a bit of bad grammar wounds the ear of the purist! How a false note hurts the musician! or an offence against good manners the man of the world!”


Every artist knows how he can make a scene before his eyes appear warmer or colder in color, according to the way he sets his attention. If for warm, he soon begins to see the red color start out of everything; if for cold, the blue.

Similarly in listening for certain notes in a chord, or overtones in a musical sound, the one we attend to sounds probably a little more loud as well as more emphatic than it did before. When we mentally break a series of monotonous strokes into a rhythm, by accentuating every second or third one, etc., the stroke on which the stress of attention is laid seems to become stronger as well as more emphatic. The increased visibility of optical after-images and of double images, which close attention bringsabout, can hardly be interpreted otherwise than as a real strengthening of the retinal sensations themselves.

And this view is rendered particularly probable by the fact that an imagined visual object may, if attention be concentrated upon it long enough, acquire before the mind’s eye almost the brilliancy of reality, and (in the case of certain exceptionally gifted observers) leave a negative after-image of itself when it passes away. “If we wish to begin to observe overtones, it is advisable, just before the sound which is to be analyzed, to sound very softly the note of which we are in search. . . . The piano andharmonium are well fitted for this use, as both give overtones that are strong. Strike upon the piano first the g [of a certain musical example previously given in the text]; then, when it vibrations have objectively ceased, strike powerfully the note c, in whose sound g is the third overtone, and keep your attention steadily bent upon the pitch of the just heard g; you will now hear this tone sounding in the midst of the c. . . . If you place the resonator which corresponds to a certain overtone, for example g of the sound c, against your ear, and then make the note c sound, you will hear g much strengthened by the resonator… This strengthening by the resonator can be usedto make the naked ear attentive to the sound which it is to catch. For when the resonator is gradually removed, the g grows weaker; but the attention, once directed to it, holds it now more easily fast, and the observer hears the tone g now in the natural unaltered sound of the note with his unaided ear.”

Wundt, commenting on experiences of this sort, says that “on carefully observing, one will always find that one tries first to recall the image in memory of the tone to be heard, and that then one hears it in the total sound. The same thing is to be noticed in weak or fugitive visual impressions. Illuminate a drawing by electric sparks separated by considerable intervals, and after the first, and often after the second and third spark, hardly anything will be recognized. But the confused image is held fast in memory; each successive illumination completes it; and so at last we attain to a clearer perception…”


In listening to poetry, drama, or heroic narrative we are often surprised at the cutaneous shiver which like a sudden wave flows over us, and at the heart-swelling and the lachrymal effusion that unexpectedly catch us at intervals.

In listening to music the same is even more strikingly true. If we abruptly see a dark moving form in the woods, our heart stops beating, and we catch our breath instantly and before any articulate idea of danger can arise.

If our friend goes near to the edge of a precipice, we get the well-known feeling of “all-overishness,” and we shrink back, although we positively know him to be safe, and have no distinct imagination of his fall…

Professor Lange writes: “No one has ever thought of separating the emotion produced by an unusually loud sound from the true inward affections. No one hesitates to call it a sort of fright, and it shows the ordinary signs of fright. And yet it is by no means combined with the idea of danger, or in any way occasioned by associations, memories, or other mental processes. The phenomena of fright follow the noise immediately without a trace of ‘spiritual’ fear. Many men can never grow used to standing beside a cannon when it is fired off, although they perfectly know that there is danger neither for themselves nor for others––the bare sound is too much for them.”

Imagine two steel knife-blades with their keen edges crossing each other at right angles, and moving to and fro.Our whole nervous organization is “on-edge” at the thought; and yet what emotion can be there except the unpleasant nervous feeling itself, or the dread that more of it may come? The entire fund and capital of the emotion here is the senseless bodily effect which the blades immediately arouse.

This case is typical of a class: where an ideal emotion seems to precede the bodily symptoms, it is often nothing but an anticipation of the symptoms themselves. One who has already fainted at the sight of blood may witness the preparations for a surgical operation with uncontrollable heart-sinking and anxiety. He anticipates certain feelings, and the anticipation precipitates their arrival. In cases of morbid terror the subjects often confess that what possesses them seems, more than anything, to be fear of the fear itself. In the various forms of what Professor Pain calls “tender emotion,” although the appropriate object must usually be directly contemplated before the emotion can be aroused, yet sometimes thinking of the symptoms of the emotion itself may have the same effect. In sentimental natures the thought of “yearning” will produce real “yearning”…

In every asylum we find examples of absolutely unmotived fear, anger, melancholy, or conceit; and others of an equally unmotived apathy which persists in spite of the best of outward reasons why it should give way. In the former cases we must suppose the nervous machinery to be so ‘labile’ in some one emotional direction that almost every stimulus (however inappropriate) causes it to upset in that way, and to engender the particular complex of feelings of which the psychic body of the emotion consists. Thus, to take one special instance, if inability to draw deep breath, fluttering of the heart, and that peculiar epigastric change felt as “precordial anxiety,” with an irresistible tendency to take a somewhat crouching attitude and to sit still, and with perhaps other visceral processes not now known, all spontaneously occur together in a certain person; his feeling of their combination is the emotion of dread, and he is the victim of what is known as morbid fear…

Since musical perceptions, since logical ideas, can immediately arouse a form of emotional feeling, they will say, is it not more natural to suppose that in the case of the so-called “coarser” emotions, prompted byother kinds of objects, the emotional feeling is equally immediate, and the bodily expression something that comes later and is added on? In reply to this we must immediately insist that æsthetic emotion, pure and simple, the pleasure given us by certain lines and masses, and combinations of colors and sounds, is an absolutely sensational experience, an optical or auricular feeling that is primary, and not due to the repercussion backwards of other sensations elsewhere consecutively aroused. To this simple primary and immediate pleasure in certain pure sensations and harmonious combinations of them, there may, it is true, be added secondary pleasures; and in the practical enjoyment of works of art by the masses of mankind these secondary pleasures play a great part. The more classic one’s taste is, however, the less relatively important are the secondary pleasures felt to be in comparison with those of the primary sensation as it comes in.

Classicism and romanticism have their battles over this point.

Complex suggestiveness, the awakening of vistas of memory and association, and the stirring of our flesh with picturesque mystery and gloom, make a work of art romantic.

The classic taste brands these effects as coarse and tawdry, and prefers the naked beauty of the optical and auditory sensations, unadorned with frippery or foliage. To the romantic mind, on the contrary, the immediate beauty of these sensations seems dry and thin. I am of course not discussing which view is right, but only showing that the discrimination between the primary feeling of beauty, as a pure incoming sensible quality, and the secondary emotions which are grafted thereupon, is one that must be made. These secondary emotions themselves are assuredly for the most part constituted of other incoming sensations aroused by the diffusive wave of reflex effects which the beautiful object sets up.

A glow, a pang in the breast, a shudder, a fullness of the breathing, a flutter of the heart, a shiver down the back, a moistening of the eyes, a stirring in the hypogastrium, and a thousand unnamable symptoms besides, may be felt the moment the beauty excites us.

And these symptoms also result when we are excited by moral perceptions, as of pathos, magnanimity, or courage. The voice breaks and the sob rises in the struggling chest, or the nostril dilates and the fingers tighten, whilst the heart beats, etc., etc. As far as these ingredients of the subtler emotions go, then, the latter form no exception to our account, but rather an additional illustration thereof. In all cases of intellectual or moral rapture we find that, unless there be coupled a bodily reverberation of some kind with the mere thought of the object and cognition of its quality; unless we actually laugh at the neatness of the demonstration or witticism; unless we thrill at the case of justice, or tingle at the act of magnanimity; our state of mind can hardly be called emotional at all. It is in fact a mere intellectual perception of how certain things are to be called––neat, right, witty, generous, and the like.

Such a judicial state of mind as this is to be classed among awarenesses of truth; it is a cognitive act. As a matter of fact, however, the moral and intellectual cognitions hardly ever do exist thus unaccompanied. The bodily sounding-board is at work, as careful introspection will show, far more than we usually suppose.


In fact, in an organism as complex as the nervous system there must be many such reactions, incidental to others evolved for utility’s sake, but which would never themselves have been evolved independently, for any utility they might possess. Sea-sickness, the love of music, of the various intoxicants, nay, the entire æsthetic life of man, we have already traced to this accidental origin. It would be foolish to suppose that none of the reactions called emotional could have arisen in this quasi-accidental way.

It is in this way that I should reply to Mr. Gurney’s criticism on my theory. My “view,” this writer says (Mind, IX. 425), “goes far to confound the two things which in my opinion it is the prime necessity of musical psychology to distinguish––the effect chiefly sensuous of mere streams or masses of finely colored sound, and the distinctive musical emotion to which the form of a sequence of sound, its melodic and harmonic individuality, even realized in complete silence, is the vital and essential object. It is with the former of these two very different things that the physical reactions, the stirring of the hair––the tingling and the shiver––are by far most markedly connected… If I may speak of myself, there is plenty of music from which I have received as much emotion in silent representation as when presented by the finest orchestra; but it is with the latter condition that I almost exclusively associate the cutaneous tingling and hair-stirring. But to call my enjoyment of the form, of the note-after-noteness of a melody a mere critical ‘judgment of right’ [see below, p. 472] would really be to deny to me the power of expressing a fact of simple and intimate expression in English. It is quintessentially emotion. . . . Now there are hundreds of other bits of music . . . . which I judge to be right without receiving an iota of the emotion. For purposes of emotion they are to me like geometrical demonstrations or like acts of integrity performed in Peru.”

The Beethoven-rightness of which Gurney then goes on to speak, as something different from the Clementi-rightness (even when the respective pieces are only heard in idea), is probably a purely auditory-sensational thing. The Clementi-rightness also; only, for reasons impossible to assign, the Clementi form does not give the same sort of purely auditory satisfaction as the Beethoven form, and might better be described perhaps negatively as non-wrong, i.e., free from positively unpleasant acoustic quality. In organizations as musical as Mr. Gurney’s, purely acoustic form gives so intense a degree of sensible pleasure that the lower bodily reverberation is of no account. But I repeat that I see nothing in the facts which Mr. Gurney cites, to lead one to believe in an emotion divorced from sensational processes of any kind.


A supply of ideas of the various movements that are possible left in the memory by experiences of their involuntary performance is thus the first prerequisite of the voluntary life. Now the same movement involuntarily performed may leave many different kinds of ideas of itself in the memory. If performed by another person, we of course see it, or we feel it if the moving part strikes another part of our own body.

Similarly we have an auditory image of its effects if it produces sounds, as for example when it is one of the movements made in vocalization, or in playing on a musical instrument.

All these remote effects of the movement, as we may call them, are also produced by movements which we ourselves perform; and they leave innumerable ideas in our mind by which we distinguish each movement from the rest.

It looks distinct; it feels distinct to some distant part of the body which it strikes; or it sounds distinct.

These remote effects would then, rigorously speaking, suffice to furnish the mind with the supply of ideas required. But in addition to these impressions upon remote organs of sense, we have, whenever we perform a movement ourselves, another set of impressions, those, namely, which come up from the parts that are actually moved. These kinaesthetic impressions, as Dr. Bastian has called them, are so many resident effects of the motion.

Not only are our muscles supplied with afferent as well as with efferent nerves, but the tendons, the ligaments, the articular surfaces, and the skin about the joints are all sensitive, and, being stretched and squeezed in ways characteristic of each particular movement, give us as many distinctive feelings as there are movements possible to perform.

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Reading some of this (not every word) confirms that there is something about James’s writing, at least in his long mode, that doesn’t much appeal to me, though I find it difficult to say exactly what the unappealing element is. I once tried to read some of The Varieties of Religious Experience but didn’t get v. far. (I’d make an exception, I guess, for “The Moral Equivalent of War,” which may have something to do with its being short; not that I agree with it especially, but it has stuck with me.)

    The excerpt here in which he talks about classicism v. romanticism in the arts in terms of primary vs. secondary sensations doesn’t much resonate with me, at least not w/r/t music. YMMV, of course. I do get different ‘sensations’ when listening to, say, a Mozart piano concerto vs. say Rachmaninoff’s Third (the Martha Argerich live recording from the early 1980s is the one to listen to, imo), but I’m not sure sorting the sensations into ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ does much of anything helpful.

    This prob. misses the main pt of the post, which I take it is how one can take old texts and turn them into new ones…

    • I share your initial experience of finding WJ hard to like, at the level of style, for a long time. A book like Principles of Psychology is remarkable because it is so long, and James maintains a consistent tone and syntax throughout–it is almost inhuman. But I think that what can seem irksome about WJ at first–a certain aridity, fussiness, Yankee practicality-turns out to be much stranger and more charming as one gets deeper into the very radicalism of the project that WJ is trying to construct.

      • Despite not having read all that much WJ, I would be interested at some point in reading a post from you on how you see the radicalism of his project, etc. (I’m pretty sure there have been posts from various people here on WJ from the time before I started reading this blog. But presumably w somewhat different takes than yours, since everyone prob. has his/her own.)

  2. Dear Louis,

    I will try to write something about why I think James is a radical: a big task! In the meantime, here is a great example of someone much smarter than me making the case: the French philosopher David Lapoujade. The sections on James in Isabelle Stengers’s beautiful book Thinking with Whitehead and Steven Shaviro’s Without Criteria are excellent, as well.

    Here is Lapoujade on James:


    • Kurt,
      Thanks! The Lapoujade link is on my to-read list for the weekend. (I’ll let you know if I manage to comprehend it ;))

Comments are closed.