15 May, 2012

William James And Me

It's hard not to be an admirer of William James (1842-1910), especially as someone who professes interest in the history of psychology. He was a legendary professor at Harvard and one of the earliest of American psychologists - at least before dedicating himself to philosophy. You may be more familiar with his brother Henry James, the author.

I was in Boston in May of 2000 as my wife attended a conference. Since I knew the William James's house was being developed into some apartments or condominiums, I thought I ought to head out to 95 Irving Street in Cambridge and see the place for myself. As it turns out, it's only about three blocks from where the Harvard psychology department is.

Anyway - I got there on a Friday afternoon only to find workmen swarming all over the place. I took a couple of pictures to use in my history class, but didn't look around much since "No Trespassing" signs were everywhere and I was in a rule governed mood.

On the subway back to downtown, I said to myself, "You dufuss! A real opportunity was missed." I knew that Thorndike, as James's student, had housed chicks in the basement when the university had no space. This was an important precursor to the Thorndike's famous "cats and puzzle box" period, and as a learning theorist, I should have asked to see it. A few months earlier people lived there, and in a few months new people would be there. Alas, a once in a lifetime chance squandered.

Well, by Saturday, I remembered that it would be easier to get forgiveness than permission, and I had to go back. It was late afternoon, and the workmen had gone home. The front door was secured. My rule governed mood had evaporated, and as I walked around, one couldn't help but notice that the exterior basement door wasn't latched - jammed shut, but not latched. One good shoulder blow and I was in the basement! Of course, it didn't look the same - a new concrete floor had been poured and partitions were going in. Not a speck of chicken poop anywhere. But, I was there.

I should add that also close by is the Swedenborg Chapel (across from James Hall) - a study center for those interested in his mystical philosophy. I couldn't help but note the current proximity to the James's home since Emanuel (1688-1772) had played such a pivotal role in James's father's life (mental health). William later suffered from the same sort of "vastations" (debilitating anxiety) that his father had experienced.

It was an afternoon well spent.