Book Review – Sick Souls, Healthy Minds by John Kaag
Sick Souls, Healthy Minds: How William James Can Save Your Life
By John Kaag
Princeton University Press, 2020
UMass Lowell philosophy professor John Kaag recently published his third book, and the second to focus on the works, thought and life of William James (1842-1910). Kaag’s latest, “Sick Souls, Healthy Minds,” combines biography, memoir and self-help guide in one concise package, and is written in a way that would be inviting to people unfamiliar with the subject. In other words, don’t be put off if you struggle to remember anything from your Philosophy 101 class in college.
James was a co-founder of the philosophy of pragmatism, which centers around the idea that truth must be verified in the light of practical consequences. It is the only major school of philosophical thought to have emerged from the United States. James wasn’t just a philosopher. He was an early psychologist, and his courses on that subject at Harvard University were among the first in this country. He is also the author of “The Varieties of Religious Experience,” a highly influential attempt to consider religious truths not by the traditional standards, but by how they inform our actions, help us conceptualize experience, and shape outcomes in decision making.
It’s easy to see how James, an important thinker in philosophy, psychology and religion, would, unlike many contemporary academic philosophers, have much to say to people in times of crisis. “Sick Souls, Healthy Minds” charts these possibilities while outlining some of the ways the author’s life has been affected by his study of the man at the center of the book. Kaag details his emotional struggles through two divorces, fatherhood and recurring mental health issues. Kaag, as one might expect from a university professor, doesn’t completely throw open the curtains, and the reader sometimes has to guess at the undisclosed problems he is facing. Still, the hints are there, and the book doesn’t flinch from considering what is at stake: At key moments it almost seems written by a philosopher on a bridge, staring down at the waters below, and wondering if it is time to jump.
James himself struggled to find meaning and pleasure in life, and the struggle bore fruit. A deep study of his life and works can do more than polish your brain with shiny new thoughts — it can make everyday life seem more robust and engaging — and, in times of despair, it can introduce mental tools that may get you safely to the other side of the bridge when all seems lost.
Prof. Haag will be a featured guest on The 495 podcast Wednesday, July 15 at 12:30pm. Watch live on our facebook page, or listen to the episode after it airs here or through your favorite podcast service.