Title and Author: William James – In the Maelstrom of American Modernism by Robert D. Richardson

Synopsis of Content:

A detailed and thorough biography of the father of American psychology this book is full of insight into the intellectual world of the 19th century and Harvard University as well as the extremely full and productive life of William James.

James, and his brother Henry James, author, were both prolific writers. William James lived from 1842 to 1910. He was a professor of philosophy and psychology at Harvard University. He was instrumental at defining psychology as a science rather than simply another branch of philosophy. Much of his writings were a life long struggle to define on a philosophical level the essence of existence. He lectured widely in the US and in Europe.

James was trained as a medical doctor. He helped define the modern concept of consciousness much as Freud defined the modern concept of unconsciousness. In the philosophical sphere he believed in pragmatism and he also wrote extensively on religious beliefs.

Richardson defines this as an intellectual biography focusing on James’ work. It is a narrative and does not try to analyze or critique James’ work. James believed that the mind is activity. He believed that our world is defined by our mind. He believed that our philosophy is a product of our temperament.


It is beyond the scope of this summary to define all the things that a reader can learn from this work. At least one will learn how psychology developed in its early American years and how intellectuals in Europe and the US worked together in its development.

From his life alone, how he lived it, how he worked and how he collaborated with others there is much to be learned. His unwillingness to accept beliefs as they were handed down, his need to thoroughly understand concepts and his efforts to resolve mysteries and apparent conflicts in thought are a lesson for us all.

This book is for the thinker. Anyone who is interested in how great minds have wrestled with great ideas will benefit from this work.

Readability/Writing Quality:

This is a well written book. It is not a quick read. At 527 pages in paperback it takes some time. As it is an intellectual work it uses an expansive vocabulary which can be a challenge for those who have not read in this area widely.

Notes on Author:

Robert D. Richardson is an award winning biographer who has written on Emerson and Thoreau as well as on James.

Publication Information:

William James – In the Maelstrom of American Modernism by Robert D. Richardson

Copyright 2006 by Robert D. Richardson, Jr. Published by First Mariner Books.

Source by Daniel Murphy