“[Professor William] James had good reason to believe in the mind’s power to work miracles. As a young man he had been an invalid, suffering from back pain, eye pains, headaches and permanent exhaustion. In his late twenties he experienced a nervous breakdown followed by deep depression; the ‘attack’ happened quite suddenly as he walked into a room at twilight and recalled a mental patient he had seen, staring blankly into space; suddenly, it seemed to him that he could easily find himself in the same state, and he experienced a ‘panic attack’ and a complete collapse of the will. For months afterwards he woke every day with a deep sense of foreboding; life seemed a meaningless charade.
At this point – in 1868 0 James came across the writings of the French evolutionary philosopher Charles Renouvier. Renouvier believed firmly in the reality of free will, and he taught that if the individual exercises his free will by striking out on his own, his whole life can be transformed. In his depression, James had ceased to believe in free will; he had come to accept that men are machines driven by desires, and that everything they do is a mere penny-in-the-slot-machine response. A man who believes that, inevitably comes to feel that there is no point in doing anything. But in April 1870, James came upon Renouvier’s definition of free will: ‘ the sustaining of a thought because I choose to when I might have other thoughts’, and saw that it appeared irrefutable. I may believe that all my physical acts are ‘inevitable’; but I can feel my own ability to go on thinking about something, or to change my mind and think about something else. James decided that he would accept Renouvier’s definition, and think and behave as if he had free will. The result was startling. His illness simply vanished. He accepted an appointment at Harvard as an instructor in physiology, married an attractive girl, and began the work that would bring him fame, The Principles of Psychology. James felt he had disproved nineteenth-century materialism by personal experience.” – Colin Wilson, The Psychic Detectives
Free will seems to be one of those concepts which becomes more and more ambiguous the more I consider it. Renouvier’s definition works fine for me, but there are deeper layers, still. Where is the ‘me’ that sustains the thought? How did this subject arise? Antecedents don’t necessarily constitute the ‘me’ that sustains the thought, but they certainly frame – and therefore define – any thought I might choose to sustain. But we’re more than composite reactions to stimuli, so there’s more still to consider.
On the other hand, James’s refutation of “nineteenth-century materialism” might seem trite today, but it was quite provocative at the time. The New Thought Movement was one of North America’s last great spiritual revolutions. Their worldview has been interpolated into all sorts of modern frames, but its Western origin lies here, in James’s lap.
Do you agree with James’s assessment of the ‘irrefutable’-ness of Renouvier’s definition? Would you make any revisions? Do you think James’s spiritualist inclinations have any relevance to modern students of psychology? Why?