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William James at the Boundaries

Philosophy, Science, and the Geography of Knowledge

At Columbia University in 1906, William James gave a highly confrontational speech to the American Philosophical Association (APA). He ignored the technical philosophical questions the audience had gathered to discuss and instead addressed the topic of human energy. Tramping on the rules of academic decorum, James invoked the work of amateurs, read testimonials on the benefits of yoga and alcohol, and concluded by urging his listeners to take up this psychological and physiological problem.
            What was the goal of this unusual speech? Rather than an oddity, Francesca Bordogna asserts that the APA address was emblematic—it was just one of many gestures that James employed as he plowed through the barriers between academic, popular, and pseudoscience, as well as the newly emergent borders between the study of philosophy, psychology, and the “science of man.” Bordogna reveals that James’s trespassing of boundaries was an essential element of a broader intellectual and social project. By crisscrossing divides, she argues, James imagined a new social configuration of knowledge, a better society, and a new vision of the human self. As the academy moves toward an increasingly interdisciplinary future, William James at the Boundaries reintroduces readers to a seminal influence on the way knowledge is pursued.

392 pages | 19 halftones, 2 line drawings, 1 table | 6 x 9 | © 2008

Biography and Letters

History of Science

Philosophy: General Philosophy

Psychology: General Psychology


“Francesca Bordogna’s book begins with a memorable account of William James’s astonishing appearance at the 1906 meeting of the American Philosophical Association, where he challenged members to undertake a survey of ‘the limits of human power,’ a survey that he thought would transform philosophy. James failed, but Bordogna’s remarkable book, by returning us to that challenge, and by sketching out the paths not taken since then, might well prove to be itself transformational and even rejuvenative.”

Geoffrey Harpham, Director, National Humanities Center

“I learned a great deal from this wonderful history of James’s involvement in the shaping of the academy and intellectual thought. I can imagine telling any and all of my students in philosophy—as well as psychology or neuroscience—that if you want to understand your discipline, how it came to be as it is, then read this splendid book.”

Owen Flanagan, Duke University

“Francesca Bordogna convincingly argues that current dissatisfaction with the twentieth century’s specialization and professional neutrality in regard to morality and social issues has created an epistemological space for revisiting James’s model of keeping the boundaries between philosophy and science permeable. Her challenging and thought-provoking book is strikingly original and carefully researched. By placing James squarely at the creative intersection of the various disciplines, professions, and social activities of his time, she challenges the newly rigidified disciplinary habits that we instead inherited. This thought-provoking work makes an important contribution to the history of science and psychology.”

Charlene Haddock Seigfried, Purdue University

"Bordogna’s agenda: to investigate the many ways that James crossed the boundaries that were being erected between the disciplines in the mapping of knowledge domains. . . . She has written a great book."

Eugene Taylor | Journal of the History of Behavioral Sciences

"As history of ideas the book is successful: it provides an interesting, sometimes even gripping, account of certain issues that were very much alive a hundred and some years ago and have their analogues in today’s explosion of new cross-boundaries disciplines."

Ruth Ann Putnam | Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

"[Bordogna] is meticulous, precise, and nimble--and far more professional than James, decrier of the ’Ph.D. Octopus,’ ever was or wanted to be."

Amy Kittelstrom | Journal of American History

Table of Contents

Introduction: Mental Energy, Boundary Work, and the Geography of Knowledge

1          Philosophy and Science


2          Philosophy Versus the Naturalistic Science of Man

James’s Early Negotiations of Disciplinary and Pedagogical Boundaries

3          James and the (Im)moral Economy of Science


4          Mental Boundaries and Pragmatic Truth


5          Pragmatism, Psychologism, and a “Science of Man”


6          Ecstasy and Community

James and the Politics of the Self


7          The Philosopher’s Place

James, Münsterberg, and Philosophical Trees

8          The Philosopher’s Mind

Routinists, Undisciplinables, and “The Energies of Men’”






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