I will admit that I had to give up on Henry James' Roderick Hudson
. Oh, it is ridiculously well-written and intelligent, but mostly a bore. I've never been terribly interested in James' obsessive treatment of American-European cross-pollination. But when he concentrates his eye on psychological detail and consciousness, brother is unstoppable.
The James family fascinates me. I always like those semi-freakish families where everybody speaks 10 languages and can paint, write poetry and dissect cadavers by age 12.
William James, especially, has been a hero (or nerd super-hero, if you like) for a while, and I have just started Richard D. Richardson's intellectual biography. Hot damn, what a fascinating time, family, person.
People are right to point out that James is one of the greatest writers to do philosophy, along with Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Plato, Augustine, Hume etc. I like the coda to his slightly bizarre "On Human Immortality"
(a defense of the concept of immortality and eternity, or rather a skeptical look at human knowledge and the dead certainty of materialism):
For my own part, then, so far as logic goes, I am willing that every leaf that ever grew in this world's forests and rustled in the breeze should become immortal. It is purely a question: are the leaves so, or not? Abstract quantity, and the abstract needlessness in our eyes of so much reduplication of things so much alike, have no connection with the subject. For bigness and number and generic similarity are only manners of our finite way of thinking; and, considered in itself and apart from our imagination, one scale of dimensions and of numbers for the Universe is no more miraculous or inconceivable than another, the moment you grant to a universe the liberty to be at all, in place of the Non-entity that might conceivably have reigned.
The heart of being can have no exclusions akin to those which our poor little hearts set up. The inner significance of other lives exceeds all our powers of sympathy and insight. If we feel a significance in our own life which would lead us spontaneously to claim its perpetuity, let us be at least tolerant of like claims made by other lives, however numerous, however unideal they may seem to us to be. Let us at any rate not decide adversely on our own claim, whose grounds we feel directly, because we cannot decide favorably on the alien claims, whose grounds we cannot feel at all. That would be letting blindness lay down the law to sight.