I have been revisiting some of the literature that advances a phenomenological interpretation of James's thought. I hope to be making this a book, so over the next few weeks, I will be revisiting and exploring Wilshire, Wild, and Edie on James. With that said, I often wonder if there are aspects of the phenomenological interpretation that are overstated. Let me start with Wild's preface in his The Radical Empiricism of William James, "James is primarily not interested in science, but in mental phenomena and their patterns as we are directly familiar with them and live them through" (viii). This starting place is echoed again a page later. "I have constantly tried to let James speak for himself, so as to expose the reader directly to his extraordinary powers of finding stable patterns in the concrete, and of describing them as they are lived" (ix). Clearly, this is the first interpretative premise that announces the whole intention of Wild's book.
As I am starting into the work, however, this claim is more hermeneutic assumption than what is proven, and I am finding that to be my main problem with Wild. The fact that Wild claims James is not interested in science is a bit sketchy to me. James's biography is somewhat relevant. James was a medical doctor who spent many years describing and being astonished by the physiology of the human body. He founded the first psychology lab in the United States, and his magnum opus -- The Principles of Psychology (1890) -- that Wild and Wilshire look to was not an initial work of phenomenology (even though it could very well be argued that like Merleau-Ponty James meshes psychology and phenomenologically-like claims). More to the point, James is working in the tradition of introspectionist psychology (and even Chapter 2 of the Principles is on the functions of the brain) and his pragmatism might convey a more openness to what can be experienced, but that just might mean that James is a big-tent naturalist. Big-tent naturalism does not mean closed off to science (or religion in James's case). That's why I am suspicious of reading James with Wild's presupposition in mind, "The Principles is full of concrete descriptions which can convey to the attentive reader a sense of the logos of the phenomena as they appear" (viii). Now, the fact could be that James's limitation of what psychology was as well as some later philosophical moves (like the creative move of radical empiricism) contain implications for phenomenology as well as what James might claim about the relation between philosophy and science.
Now, I want to be clear on the blog that I am suspending judgment on the truth of whether or not James is a phenomenologist. It could very well be that his thought should be read by phenomenologists for non-phenomenological reasons, or that he truly does have a system that borders on phenomenology, which I will call proto-phenomenology if and when that arises. The danger is reading into James the James we want to find. Initially, my doubt of Wild's interpretation resonated with me when I read the following,
In my comments, I have compared and contrasted them with later insights of phenomenology. When James's descriptions are still too vague and confused, I have tried to clarify them; where they are sound but inchoate, I have sometimes tried to develop them further; where they are mistaken, I have criticized them.
The danger of reading phenomenology into those spaces of James's thought where we find the descriptions are vague is that their might be some context ignored. However, we'll have to wait and see if Wild really does read phenomenology into James at the expense of historical context and interpreting James's thought as a whole.