This essay first appeared on the Johns Hopkins University Press Blog, December 17, 2017, https://www.press.jhu.edu/news/blog/challenging-his-teacher%E2%80%99s-racism-was-huck-william-james; and then in the Huffington Post, December 31, 2017, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/challenging-his-teachers-racism-was-huck-william_us_5a490387e4b0d86c803c77a9
A moment of awakening to an honest reckoning with natural facts
In his youth, William James tried on a range of career possibilities. In the 1860s, his attention was focused on a career in science. He had spent his childhood in a host of schools on both sides of the North Atlantic guided by his father, Henry James, Senior, who promoted experiential learning and familiarity with natural facts for his five children. The elder James had high hopes for a “scientific career for Willy,” his oldest son. Like his father, Willy James had an appetite for the natural facts of scientific investigation and a reflective temperament. Henry James noticed the growing authority of science in this era, and hoped that his eldest son would train in science to give more respectability to his own idealistic belief that all the natural facts of our empirical world are mere shadows pointing to higher spiritual truths, which he hoped would help shed society of selfishness.