How William James Can Save Your Life
A fresh, compelling introduction to the life-affirming philosophy of William James.
A New Yorker--Briefly Noted Book
Finalist. Next Big Idea Prize. Top 6 Non-Fiction Books of the Year
In 1895, William James, the father of American philosophy, delivered a lecture entitled "Is Life Worth Living?" It was no theoretical question for James, who had contemplated suicide during an existential crisis as a young man a quarter century earlier. Indeed, as Kaag writes, "James's entire philosophy, from beginning to end, was geared to save a life, his life"―and that's why it just might be able to save yours, too. Sick Souls, Healthy Minds is a compelling introduction to James's life and thought that shows why the founder of pragmatism and empirical psychology―and an inspiration for Alcoholics Anonymous―can still speak so directly and profoundly to anyone struggling to make a life worth living.
Kaag tells how James's experiences as one of what he called the "sick-souled," those who think that life might be meaningless, drove him to articulate an ideal of "healthy-mindedness"―an attitude toward life that is open, active, and hopeful, but also realistic about its risks. In fact, all of James's pragmatism, resting on the idea that truth should be judged by its practical consequences for our lives, is a response to, and possible antidote for, crises of meaning that threaten to undo many of us at one time or another. Along the way, Kaag also movingly describes how his own life has been endlessly enriched by James.
"I’m another reader who has felt at least temporarily saved and encouraged by James, so of course I’d advise you to read Kaag’s primer."
- John Williams, New York Times
"Earnest and accessible...Kaag shows how today's anxious souls might apply James's principles and learn how to "be not afraid of life."
New Yorker--Briefly Noted
James would have liked this book...James’s ideas have rippled through the past century more powerfully than those of any other American thinker. Kaag’s little book reminds us why."
James Kloppenberg, Charles Warren Professor of American History, Harvard University
"John Kaag, who by his own admission is “not always entirely sold on life’s value,” writes with the fervor of one determined to hear life’s higher notes...in these anxiety-inducing times, it may be worth testing the buoyancy of James’s existential life preserver.”
- Heller McAlpin, Wall Street Journal
This short book is an excellent introduction to William James and his philosophy. It is timely, too, given the state of the world as it plunges towards hell in a handcart. Help, even if not of the life-saving kind, is available. As John Kaag beautifully has it, ‘Pragmatism is about life and its amelioration. That’s it.’
--Booker Prize Winner, John Banville
"Kaag deftly interweaves the evolution of his own thinking with a lucid account of James’s development...this brainy self-help book is a twofer."
- M.J Anderson, The Boston Globe
“Encountering William James at the right moment feels like making a friend who knows what you need to hear. . . . Sick Souls, Healthy Minds left me with a much better sense of how and why James can have that effect.”
- Scott McLeme, Inside Higher Ed
In short: Can William James save your life? Maybe. Should you read this book? Definitely.
Rebecca Buxton, editor of the Philosopher Queens
"Kaag writes movingly about his own struggles with depression... This is a tough, honest book that offers no easy answers but contains lots of insight about how James tamed his own black dog.”
"In this beautifully written book, which is filled with bracing insights, John Kaag shows why William James has had a deep, life-altering, therapeutic effect on his readers over the past century―and can continue to have the same effect on new readers today."
"Not since Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance have I read such a mesmerizing confluence of personal experience and formal thought as John Kaag's American Philosophy: A Love Story. That combination is on display again in his Sick Souls, Healthy Minds―a brief and powerful book about one of America's most profound minds, William James, and what he can teach us about what makes life worth living."