In 1895, William James, the father of American philosophy, delivered a lecture entitled “Is Life Worth Living?” It was no theoretical question for James, who had contemplated suicide during an existential crisis as a young man a quarter century earlier. Indeed, as John Kaag writes, “James’s entire philosophy, from beginning to end, was geared to save a life, his life”—and that’s why it just might be able to save yours, too. Sick Souls, Healthy Minds is a compelling introduction to James’s life and thought that shows why the founder of pragmatism and empirical psychology—and an inspiration for Alcoholics Anonymous—can still speak so directly and profoundly to anyone struggling to make a life worth living.
Kaag tells how James’s experiences as one of what he called the “sick-souled,” those who think that life might be meaningless, drove him to articulate an ideal of “healthy-mindedness”—an attitude toward life that is open, active, and hopeful, but also realistic about its risks. In fact, all of James’s pragmatism, resting on the idea that truth should be judged by its practical consequences for our lives, is a response to, and possible antidote for, crises of meaning that threaten to undo many of us at one time or another. Along the way, Kaag also movingly describes how his own life has been endlessly enriched by James.
Eloquent, inspiring, and filled with insight, Sick Souls, Healthy Minds may be the smartest and most important self-help book you’ll ever read.
Awards and Recognition
- Finalist for the PROSE Award in Philosophy, Association of American Publishers
- One of Next Big Idea Club's Most Anticipated Nonfiction Books of Spring
"[William] James would have liked this book. [John] Kaag ties James’s ideas directly to the challenges and puzzles of his own life — and his readers’ lives. . . . James’s ideas have rippled through the past century more powerfully than those of any other American thinker. Kaag’s little book reminds us why."—James T. Kloppenberg, Washington Post
"This short book is an excellent introduction to William James and his philosophy."—John Banville, Literary Review
"Characteristically elegant. . . . [Kaag] questioned the meaning of life. William James answered."—John Williams, New York Times Book Review
"Pithy and exacting. . . . Kaag, who by his own admission is ‘not always entirely sold on life’s value,’ writes with the fervor of on determined to hear life’s higher notes. . . . in these anxiety-inducing times, it may be worth testing the buoyancy of James’s existential life preserver."—Heller McAlpin, Wall Street Journal
"Earnest, accessible. . . . As [John] Kaag traces [William] James’s intellectual path away from determinism and depression, he both clarifies thorny academic questions and offers dashes of self-help, showing how today’s anxious souls might apply James’s principles and learn how to 'be not afraid of life'."—New Yorker
"Kaag writes movingly. . . . This is a tough, honest book that offers no easy answers. . . . Kaag acknowledges that our passage through life is fraught with risks, but those risks always include the chance of happiness."—Ron Charles, Washington Post Book Club
"[A] lucid and absorbing book."—Andrew Stark, Times Literary Supplement
"Kaag's reading of James is as elucidating as readers have come to expect from him. Once again, he writes in a clear, focused, and winningly self-aware style that makes friends of James and himself for anyone who wonders if life is worth living. A book in which Kaag further carves out his niche in philosophy: personal, practical, and crucial."—Kirkus Reviews
"Encountering William James at the right moment feels like making a friend who knows what you need to hear for your own good and can deliver it without making you defensive. At least that has been my own experience of reading him over the years, and Sick Souls, Healthy Minds left me with a much better sense of how and why James can have that effect."—Scott McLemee, Insider Higher Education
"In short: Can William James save your life? Maybe. Should you read this book? Definitely."—Rebecca Buxton and Anthony Morgan, The Philosopher
"Masterful. . . .Truly a pleasure to read."—Mark D. White, Psychology Today
"A highly readable summary of [William] James’ life and thoughts."—David Luhrssen, Shepherd Express
"An engaging book, especially for William James fans."—Paradigm Explorer
"Not since Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance have I read such a mesmerizing confluence of personal experience and formal thought as John Kaag's American Philosophy: A Love Story. That combination is on display again in his Sick Souls, Healthy Minds—a brief and powerful book about one of America's most profound minds, William James, and what he can teach us about what makes life worth living."―Robert D. Richardson, author of William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism
"In this beautifully written book, which is filled with bracing insights, John Kaag shows why William James has had a deep, life-altering, therapeutic effect on his readers over the past century—and can continue to have the same effect on new readers today."—Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, author of American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas