Written by John Kaag 


Review by Gunnel Minett

William James is generally considered to be one of the leading thinkers of the late nineteenth century, one of America’s most influential philosophers, and also as the ‘Father of American psychology’.He established the philosophical school known as ‘pragmatism’, and is one of the founders of functional psychology. This book is about getting to know James as a person.

William James is obviously a hero of the author John Kaag, who is a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. In this book, Kaag inter-weaves in his own life story with that of James in order to illustrate the man behind works such as The Principles of Psychology. The monumentalwork comprises 1,200 pages in two volumes. It took James twelve years to complete and is generally regarded as one of the most influential books in the founding of psychology as an academic discipline. 

Kaag emphasises that James was a complicated person who had both highs and lows in his personal life. Unlike most people who struggle with depression and constantly questioned their place in life, James was able to use these conditions to his advantage. He ‘studied’ himself to learn about human psychology. Despite the poor mental health of his early life, he was regarded, in later life, as a major thinker and drew large crowds when he lectured all over America. 

Kaag explains that his motive for writing the book was arose from his witnessing a stranger committing suicide on his way to work one day. Kaag seems to draw a parallel with James’s sometimes troubled, illustrating that even apparently bad things can lead to something positive. However, achieving this may require reading between the lines and seeing beyond the obvious, just as James did.

Published by Princeton University Press, 2020, 224PP, £ 13.41, ISBN 978-0691192161