William James, MD: Philosopher, Psychologist, Physician | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

William James, MD: Philosopher, Psychologist, Physician

William James, MD: Philosopher, Psychologist, Physician
Emma K. Sutton

University of Chicago Press, 2023
240 pp. Illus. b/w. Paper: $30.00; Cloth: $99.00
ISBN-10: ‎ 0226828964: ‎ 978-0226828961

Reviewed by: 
Amy Ione
April 2024

According to Emma K. Sutton, the life and thinking of William James was defined by the question what does it mean to be “fit to live.” Her biography of him, William James, MD: Philosopher, Psychologist, Physician,  characterizes this in terms of his preoccupation with his own ill health, his interest in medical ideas, and his personal values. Sutton also argues that James has long been incorrectly portrayed as a man who recovered from a spiritual crisis of his youth and then lived a productive life. Her alternative proposal, which she describes as “an avowedly emotional one,” (p. 8) maintains that James’ views on the body, mind, and soul were interwoven with his personal and psychological wrestling with his own invalidism. In other words, that his work was defined by life-long health problems and that his suffering made living a difficult process for him. She further explains that “[u]nderlying this book is the question of how and why people come to acquire and champion the particular ideas they profess” (p. 5).

To the author’s credit, she does not depend solely on James’ canonical writings to capture her perception of how his thinking twisted and turned. Rather, it is clear that she conducted voluminous research to supplement his well-known works, as evidenced by an impressive array of quotations and endnotes taken from his book reviews, manuscript notes, diaries, and his extensive correspondence. These are inserted throughout the study in support of her case.

Admittedly, I’ve not read the standard biographies Sutton references and says she refutes. Nor am I acquainted with the extensive minutiae found in James’ notebooks, correspondence, and so forth. Additionally, I do not disagree that who we are contributes to the how and the why of our urge to champion certain ideas. Nonetheless, as I will explain after summarizing this book, I found her presentation of a tormented James too narrowly defined, too internally focused, and overly psychoanalyzed. This book does offer a robust summary of some views on health in the nineteenth century, even as it does not cover the full complexity of nineteenth century debates about health and disability [1]. More importantly, her focus on his health seems to distort the fullness of who James was as a person and his legacy.

Sutton presents her argument in five chapters, with a preceding introduction and an afterword or conclusion. The thrust of the introduction, “The Public Physician,” is that, although James was known as “the psychological pope of the New World,” most accounts fail to adequately explain that his preoccupation with health, healing, invalidism, and their implications for society grew out of his own ill health in a nineteenth century environment preoccupied with the medically “normal.” Sutton writes:

“James considered himself a genuine invalid to the end of his days… [and] the consequences of James’s self-diagnoses, and the significance he attached to them, extended beyond the immediacy of his own suffering and into the metaphysical, ethical, psychological, and political content of his work … I argue that James’ thinking was formed in reaction not just to the academic provocations of his colleagues, or to large-scale historical developments, the wars and general machinations of government, but also to the intimate details of his personal world and especially the mundane machinations of his own body (pp. 4-6, her italics).

The first chapter, “Misery and Metaphysics,” summarizes what the author describes as James’ crisis period. She talks about how a back condition of his early adulthood led him to begin to think about evil, a key concept that appeared in many of his later writings. The back condition also impacted his career path. His thoughts about suicide are among the topics discussed in this chapter that sets the stage for her argument that his ill health shaped his approach to topics such as the mind/body problem and the free will debate.

Chapter 2, “Health and Hygiene,” offers commentary on the importance James placed on being healthy and introduces his neurasthenia, a condition of nervous exhaustion. This period also corresponds to the publication of Principles of Psychology and his marriage to Alice Howe Gibbens (1849-1922). Sutton describes this point of his life in terms of hygienic morality, which in the late nineteenth century covered a wider range of topics than the types of everyday activities we think of today in terms of hygiene. The idea during this time when social diseases like syphilis and tuberculosis raged, was that it is a moral duty to prevent disease and restore the body to its natural state of health. In addition, according to Sutton, it was seen as a sin or a crime to disregard the “laws of health.” These “laws” promoted the body’s natural state as one of health and said there are ways we can injure our own health (e.g., alcoholic intake). She tells us that some of James’ early lectures at Harvard on physiology and hygiene show that his belief in health as an ideal shaped his work on habits, emotions, and his talks to teachers about how to apply psychology in the classroom.

“Religion and Regeneration,” the theme of Chapter 3, adds religion to the mix. Sutton tells the reader that during the 1880s and 1890s James experienced a major transformation in his thinking about how science and religion are related to one another. This insight was also rooted in his interest in health and healing. An indication of this transformation was his decision to move away from the idea that physiological research represented the only path to healing and thus the variability of belief, too, became a topic he pursued. This broader perspective not only revised how he saw the etiology of disease; it also led him to become more open to mental and spiritual healing modalities. We learn that it was in this period that James began to contribute to the field of psychical research. He delved into hypnotism, visited spiritual mediums, and explored telepathy. He even visited mental healers to gain relief from his own array of symptoms. 

Chapter 4, “Energy and Endurance,” is the most difficult chapter in the text. Perhaps this is due to how James’ understanding of God went through many modifications over the course of his life. Here Sutton attempts to correlate his shifting views on sickness and health with energy, which is presented in this chapter as a fundamental component of his thinking. Here Sutton attempts to interweave nineteenth-century views on the role of the energy into how this theme is found in his writings. 

Chapter 5, “Politics and Pathology,” is the best chapter in the book because Sutton attempts to draw together multiple strands of James’ legacy. Even still, because it again follows the narrowly defined scope of this book, we rarely meet the warm and compassionate James in a personal sense, although he surfaces occasionally. Whereas others saw a man as both personally and socially kind, her argument is narrower. She writes that during the last two decades of his career William James took issue with the stigmatization associated with mental pathology and tried to re-frame how society thinks about mental health. This socially oriented section characterizes his advocacy for invalids, the infirm, and what she calls the mentally diseased as political behavior and as an outgrowth of his views of pathology, which she again argues were related to his own conditions. Sutton places this in terms of his efforts to improve the conditions and treatment of those confined in lunatic asylums within the mental hygiene movement. 

Without a doubt, James lived at a time when there was an emphasis on normalcy and the perfectibility of the body. Discussions about eugenics and the theory of degeneration were often at the forefront when thinkers debated the issues, and there were numerous debates. Sutton argues that James came out strongly against these ideas in the debates because they impacted him personally given his invalidism. She asserts that he was particularly affected by the aggressive and violent tone he felt was a part of these discussions because he did not feel he fit the definitions of the healthy and the “normal.” For example, Sutton tells us, when theorists like Max Nordau talked about the need for the healthy to crush the degenerates, James saw this kind of appeal as a call to knock down humans like him. 

William James’ legacy has always included the idea that his work challenged orthodoxy, including the assumptions of other nineteenth century thinkers. Similarly, he is usually given credit for his openness to alternative thinking. Indeed, it is acknowledged that his contributions took place on many levels. While this book touches on all of the above, aside from sections here and there, it under-emphasizes his humanity, except in the last chapter. This seems strange since Sutton acknowledges that, to James, philosophizing was not an abstract occupation but an impassioned response to his own life experiences and challenges. Whereas Sutton conveys that she does not believe there was an essential James, by giving limited attention to how James operated outside of the mind-space of his health concerns, she does him a disservice. For example, she repeatedly tells us that he returned to certain themes such as health and evil in his writings because he felt he was evil and unhealthy. She does not, however, similarly probe his humanity through his actions and communicate his legacy. For example, his writings on habits were remarkably prescient in terms of what we now know about brain plasticity [2]. And some of his ideas about human variability have now been quantified by genetics researchers.

As for his humanity in action, James inspired and shaped the thinking of many, including his students. Of particular significance are his women students because at this time Harvard, his institution, did not allow women to study there. I suspect if Sutton were asked about this she would argue that his urge to please and nurture the underclass (women, the disabled, etc.) was the outcome of his personal sense that in not meeting society’s health norms, he, too, was a lesser person. 

One of his students was Mary Whiton Calkins (1863-1930). She was refused a Ph.D. by Harvard University because of her gender. Calkins, who is now recognized as more of an experimentalist than James, said in her autobiography that through her discussions with James she gained a vivid sense of the concreteness of psychology and the validity of the thoughts and feelings of individuals [3]. She initiated studies in the 1890s that are now recognized as some of the earliest quantitative research into synesthesia, which she called pseudo-chromesthesia [4]. 

Another female student who praised him was Gertrude Stein (1874-1946). James, together with Hugo Münsterberg, mentored Stein while she was a student at Radcliffe. Some of this work led her to explore the significance of repetitive speech. James and Stein remained close throughout his life and there is no indication that she perceived him as a tormented individual. To the contrary, she said that William James delighted her. She found his personality, teaching style, and his amusing ways pleasing. She particularly liked the way he urged students to keep their minds open, writing: “Is life worth living? Yes, a thousand times yes when the world still holds such spirits as Professor James.” One day Stein refused to take an exam in his class, leaving the room after writing, “Dear Professor James, I am so sorry but really I do not feel a bit like an examination paper in philosophy today.” The next day he responded: “Dear Miss Stein, I understand perfectly how you feel. I often feel like that myself”—and then awarded her the highest mark in the course. He said that Stein was one of his most intelligent students, and it was at his urging she enrolled at the Johns Hopkins Medical School. Like James, she decided a medical career was not for her [5].

Another testimonial from a colleague, in this case psychologist Edward L. Thorndike, who later served as a president of the American Psychological Association, similarly suggest a less self-absorbed and tormented individual. Writing of James after his death, Thorndike recalled James’ kindness and interpersonal compassion:

As a teacher he manifested, when occasion offered, the same brilliancy and marvelous choice of epithet that characterized his writing. He was utterly without pretentiousness or dogmatics. The characteristic most striking to his students was his kindness. His judgment seemed never to err except through charity or trustfulness, and a large fraction of his life was given up to personal service at the call sometimes of friendship, sometimes of need and sometimes of mere distress. He was so appreciative of all points of view and so tolerant of all honest differences in opinion that he founded no “school” of psychologists — trained no group to one type. He did not personally make converts, much less declared disciples (p. 473-4, [6])

In summary, based on the source material with which I was acquainted before reading this book, it never occurred to me that James might be continually tormented by the question of whether he was “fit to live.” He seemed more like a man who looked beyond his own person and recognized the humanity within each of us. Sutton offers a provocative argument to the effect that health challenges impacted James’ life and thinking. Based on his writings, however, I would argue that while he may have asked himself what it means to be fit to live, he also asked himself other questions. Among them are “What does it mean to be human, how does one live a full life, and how can one extend one’s hand to others?”


1.         Ione, A., Neuroscience and Art: The Neurocultural Landscape. [in press]: Springer.

2.         James, W., Habit. 1890: Henry Holt.

3.         Clakins, M.W., Autobiography of Mary Whiton Calkins, in History of Psychology in Autobiography, C. Murchison, Editor. 1930, Clark University Press: Worcester, MA. pp. 31-61.

4.         Calkins, M.W., A Statistical Study of Pseudo-Chromesthesia and of Mental-Forms. The American Journal of Psychology, 1893. 5(4): pp. 439-464.

5.         Stein, G., Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein. 2012, New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

6.         Thorndike, E.L., Communications and discussions: William James. Journal of Educational Psychology, 1910. 1(8): p. 473-474.