PROFESSOR PERRY'S monumental work on William James has been long awaited by the University. It is an immeasurably valuable source book as well as a thorough and fascinating study of William James himself. Thanks to a habit of the James family--that of preserving all their correspondence--Professor Perry had a rich and varied assortment of material at his disposal with which he has done remarkably well in editing and assembling.
He has treated the thought and character of the great American philosopher and psychologist with respect but with the most commendable objectivity. As it is stated on the box in which the two volumes are contained, he took pains to let James and his contemporaries speak for themselves. His comments are at the same time helpful and interesting in putting William James in his proper place in "the golden day" of American literature and in interpreting the manifold indications of the man's genius.
In perhaps the most startling chapter of his work Professor Perry gives us James's opinion of psychology. As one of the great leaders in the growth of the new science it is amazing to discover that he had a rather belittling attitude toward it on what seems like purely personal grounds.
"It seems to me," he is quoted in a letter to the psychologist Sully, "that psychology is like physics before Galileo's time,--Not a single elementary law yet caught a glimpse of. A great chance for some future psychologies to make a greater name than Newton's, but who then will read the books of this generation?"
"It is clear," Professor Perry remarks, "that James did not, like Hall, accept the experimental psychology of his day as marking the advent of the new era. This was clearly not what he was looking for! It is true that he had from the beginning, and never lost, a respect for facts. He distrusted speculation in vacuo, abstract dialectic, and learning from books. . . . But James felt, as we have seen, a growing distaste for experimental psychology owing to physical and temperamental reasons. He lacked the strength to spend long hours in a laboratory; a recurrent lumbago prevented his standing, and trouble with his eyes interfered with his use of the microscope. With his precarious health there went a fitfulness of mood that incapacitated him for continuous routine. And then James had a romantic mind, eager for new adventure and repelled by detail and repetition. The psychological laboratory frankly bored him, not because of its instruments, but because of its measurements. This appears politely but unmistakably in a passage of the "Principles on the Experimental Method":--
"Within a few years what one may call a microscopic psychology has arisen in Germany, carried on by experimental methods, asking of course every moment for introspective data, but eliminating their uncertainty by operating on a large scale and taking statistical means. This method taxes patience to the utmost, and could hardly have arisen in a country whose natives could be bored."
As a treatment of one of Harvard's greatest thinkers of the past by its great philosopher or the present, Professor Perry's "The Thought and Character of William James" commends itself particularly to Harvard men.