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William James’s Personal Bout with a “Mental Disorder”

William James

William James

William James, psychologist and philosopher, passed away over a century ago.  Nevertheless, his remarkable body of work remains as fresh as fruit plucked from its tree but moments ago.

His views about his personal bout with a challenging experience developed over many years.  Today I think it will be instructive if we spent a little time reviewing what he learned.

A Glimpse at James’s Early Views on Mental Disorders

We begin in April of 1867. James is 25-years old. Suddenly, he interrupts his medical education and flees to Europe.

Later, on describing the feelings that led to his departure, James wrote “it was as if something hitherto solid within my breast gave way entirely, and I became a mass of quivering fear. . . . I awoke morning after morning with a horrible dread in the pit of my stomach.”

William and Henry James's Father, with Young Henry on the right

William and Henry James’s Father, with Young Henry on the right

Several years went by and then, gradually, James’s spirits lifted. His father, noticing the difference in him, asked about it, and then relayed the news by letter to another son, Henry, in March, 1873:

He came in here the other afternoon when I was sitting alone, and after walking the floor in an animated way for a moment, exclaimed “Dear me! What a difference there is between me now and me last spring this time: then so hypochondriacal” (he used that word, though perhaps in substantive form) “and now feeling my mind so cleared up and restored to sanity. It is the difference between life and death.” He had a great effusion. I was afraid of interfering with it, or possibly checking it, but I ventured to ask what especially in his opinion had promoted the change. He said several things: the reading of Renouvier (specially his vindication of the freedom of the will) and Wordsworth, whom he has been feeding on now for a good while; but especially his having given up the notion that all mental disorder is required to have a physical basis. This had become perfectly untrue to him. He saw that the mind did act irrespectively of material coercion, and could be dealt with therefore at first-hand, and this was health to his bones.

We see in the above that at this time James viewed his experience that led to his departure from medical school as a “mental disorder.” Moreover, his conceptualization of it had begun to develop from a physiological pathology model to one that gives at least some freedom to the will. In time, his views begin to develop even further.

Letter to Henry James, 1885

The two brothers. Henry is on the left and Professor William James is on the right

The two brothers. Henry is on the left and Professor William James is on the right

William James and his younger brother, Henry, shared an especially close fraternal bond. Historians have greatly benefited from this because the letters that the two brilliant men shared reveal insights about their deepest concerns.

In 1885, now a medical school graduate and teacher at Harvard, James writes to Henry:

To suggest personal will and effort to one “all sicklied o’er” with the sense of weakness, of helpless failure, and of fear, is to suggest the most horrible of things to him. What he craves is to be consoled in his very impotence, to feel the Powers of the Universe recognize and secure him, all passive and failing as he is.

In James’s letter to his brother, we see he has discovered that in marked contrast to his own favorable reaction to suggestions about the effectiveness of will and effort, some people react with horror. Such people view themselves as helpless, weak, passive, and failing. Rather than looking to a creative force within themselves, they look for the Powers of the Universe to fix them.

The Mature James

mature William JamesToward the end of James’s career, he adds a new way of viewing the types of concerns that affected him so profoundly when he was young. We begin to see this new way when James discusses individuals who view themselves as “healthy-minded.” These individuals believe that those who worry are “morbid-minded” and “diseased.”

James responds to this name calling by stating that those referred to as morbid-minded have argued that “the world’s meaning most comes home to us when we lay them most to heart.”

After describing the argument between the so-called “healthy-minded” and the “morbid-minded,” James then states:

In our attitude, not yet abandoned, of impartial onlookers, what are we to say of this quarrel? It seems to me that we are bound to say that morbid-mindedness ranges over the wider scale of experience, and that its survey is the one that overlaps. The method of averting one’s attention from evil, and living in the light of good is splendid as long as it will work. It will work with many persons; it will work far more generally than most of us are ready to suppose; and within the sphere of its successful operation there is nothing to be said against it as a religious solution. But it breaks down importantly as soon as melancholy comes; and even though one be quite free from melancholy one’s self, there is no doubt that healthy-mindedness is inadequate as a philosophical doctrine, because the evil facts which it refuses positively to account for are a genuine portion of reality; and may after all be the best key to life’s significance, and possibly the only openers of our eyes to the deepest levels of truth.

To James, people confront events daily that create feelings of helplessness, pain, sadness, horror, and dread. James argued that the feelings that go along with these kinds of events can lead toward truth. Thus, he counteracts any tendency to assume that those referred to as morbid-minded are automatically inferior to those referred to as “mentally healthy.”

The Development of James’s Views About Mental Health Concerns

william James QuoteAnd so, starting from James’s own bout with a challenging experience, we see that his views develop over the years.  Initially, mental health concerns are “mental disorders” which require a physical basis.  He then changes his mind, coming to believe these experiences are not completely controlled by one’s physiology, and therefore they could be dealt with through philosophical and poetic means.

It then occurs to him that in contrast to the benefits that his new perspective had for him, others prefer, even crave, to believe they are helpless in the face of these types of experiences. Finally, James comes to believe that some people can derive benefits from the kinds of challenging experiences that, to many, are properly viewed as symptoms of a diseased mind.

Like James, I have undergone a similar developmental trajectory.  As I have dealt with my own challenging experiences, I have, over a good many years, learned to greet them as old friends who have valuable messages to share with me. Sometimes they stay a little longer than I would like, and I may find it frustrating that they don’t always come right out and tell me what these messages are.   But my patience, through meditation and the maturity that sometimes comes in the course of passing years, has been steadily improving.

Well, I hope this discussion has deepened the reader’s views of the nature of experiences that lead to people expressing concerns to mental health professionals. Until next time, may all of your concerns be addressed with wisdom, love, and kindness.


Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on.  This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional intelligence.  To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.


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