William James's Narrative of Habit
by Renee Tursi

Amidst a wracking melancholia that revealed to him "that pit of insecurity beneath the surface of life," a young William James found rescue from his own "ontological wonder-sickness" in a definition of free will posited by the French philosopher Charles Renouvier (Varieties 135; Will 63). In James's 1870 diary entry that records this remarkable instance of mental and moral resummoning, he enlists Renouvier's concept of free will - "'the sustaining of a thought because I choose to when I might have other thoughts'" - in a grim struggle against his own morbid degree of "mere speculation and contemplative Grublei" (Letters 1: 147). Having previously determined suicide to be "the most manly form" to put his daring into, James now vows to direct his "free initiative" towards staunch belief in his "individual reality and creative power" (148).

While scholars have often fixed on this passage for its nascent markers of a pragmatism James most famously lodged in his celebrated declaration that "my first act of free will shall be to believe in free will," they tend to give only a nod to what James attests will be his means to subsequent acts of free will (147). Citing the English psychologist Alexander Bain and his postulates for the acquisition of habits, James writes, "I will see to the sequel" (148). Recollect, he instructs himself,
that only when habits of order are formed can we advance to really interesting fields of action - and consequently accumulate grain on grain of willful choice like a very miser; never forgetting how one link dropped undoes an indefinite number. (148)

Hence James rediscovers in habit, that usually so stolid affair, not only a newly valiant source for the homecoming of his very being, but also a language with which to express his restored creative energy. From this point on James begins with quiet urgency to develop a narrative of habit, one that proves integral to his writing on the processive self and challenges our assumptions about habit's aesthetic force.

Perhaps because we tend to dress habit in so prosaic a mood, readers of William James have neglected to address fully the range of its significance in his writing. More often than not habit's importance to his work is generally dealt with straightforwardly as constituting the topic of his engaging "Habit" chapter in The Principles of Psychology, or is handled as a building-block philosophical concept on the way to grander ideas - its function, for instance, in the tychistic ideas with which James worked. In his bench mark 1935 study of the philosopher, Ralph Barton Perry writes of James's "Habit," curiously, with no further analysis, that "it is not without bearing on its success that it should have sprung from an early and lifelong faith of his own in the benign effect of routine and the cumulative significance of little acts" (2: 90). Gerald Myers, who presents a more recent and deeper interpretative analysis, still only mentions the concept as a physiological layer underlying the will's "psychological habit" (199). George Cotkin, on the other hand, does recognize James's emphasis upon "the salutary role of habit formation," hearing in it an echo of the Victorian predilection to regard habit's disciplinary function as "an anodyne for doubt," yet he keeps his inquiry trained on the influences of "Scottish common-sense philosophy" and the principles of science (69-70). Even in as involved a cultural critique as Ross Posnock's, which at its core places James's work within a genealogical model of human thinking that presents the historical conditions of how we think, there is no intensive examination of habit's presence or power in that kind of human shaping; again, habit becomes subsumed by other ideas, as it does in the work of Bruce Kuklick, James Kloppenberg, and Kim Townsend. Only Joseph M. Thomas's searching exploration into how James's writerly reliance upon habit issues from his deeper and conflicted involvement with the concept stands as the welcome exception. He finds in James a discourse of habit that, in its attempt to "domesticate" experience rhetorically, fluctuates between signalling "an ethos of war" and one of "accommodation" (14, 15).

Just what habit signifies to James can remain enigmatic, for he often relocates its home far from where habit traditionally dwells. Neither routine nor repetition sums up its character, although these aspects certainly come into play. Nor is mere custom alone, what we usually regard as institutionalized or community-sanctioned habit, the "real" subject at hand, for his use of habit extends well into the spiritual and metaphysical aspects of the human circumstance. Rather, in his writing its features of intuition, intention, and tendency go hand-in-hand with James's ideas of rationality, morality, and the will to express a profound dynamism. If in good part habit causes a "settling in" or hardening of our experience like the rings of a tree, to use James's own image, it also paradoxically serves as the very source of re-animating or narrating those experiences. We have, James notes in his draft of the 1896 Lowell Lectures, "reproductive power stored up in the form of habit," a startling notion when considered creatively (Manuscript Lectures 39). Unlike Josiah Royce, who saw our daily mental negotiation of sense experience as the "destruction of possibilities" (World 450), James credits habit with the perpetuation of possibility, including its moral valence. An original thought would perish if left on its own; only habit, according to James, enables the environment to preserve an idea's ongoing potential. Such a view contradicts everything we have taken on faith from Walter Pater regarding habit and an inventive world on the cusp of modernism, for in 1888 the English essayist suggested that we fail on every creative plane by forming habits.

On the face of it, habit would appear to be a force hostile to James's open-minded thinking and writing, an ossifying power that could eventually render inert the goodness of even the most moral possibility. Beckett, who famously called habit "the great deadener" in an age of tremendous cultural remove from James, appears to answer him directly on this score (Waiting for Godot 82). Beckett writes that by giving our thoughts a place to rest from "the suffering of being," habit all too soon imprisons them (Proust 8). In a pertinent echo of one of James's enfigurations of habit in Pragmatism - that you can never wholly rinse away the taste of the whiskey that first filled the bottle of our own as well as our collective genealogical experience (83) - Beckett harangues that "the whiskey" or our cumulative thinking eventually "bears a grudge against the decanter" (Proust 10). Thus habit seems to have cast only a sinister and truculent shadow across the history of the everyday. Samuel Johnson observed that at first the grip of habit is too weak to be noticed, but soon it becomes too tight to be broken (165), for from the realm of the personal to the political, the consequences of habit's ease toward a customary passivity have never been slight. Francis Bacon recognized that "the contentious retention of custom is a turbulent thing" (qtd. in Abbott 24), and like Beckett, Emerson brooded on how soon habits become fixed, finessed by propriety and then worn as a "badge" of one's distinctions (75).

Poetically, as well, habit has earned scant appreciation. By the end of the nineteenth century, Pater leads his clarion call against it with the hope of fostering a truly modern sensibility. To him, a great artist's making will necessarily be in a supreme "failure [. . .] to form habits" (85). James himself could make the oracular pronouncement that genius comes only to the man who perceives in an unhabitual way (Principles 2: 754). Once a new manner has become "the race's average," he writes in The Will to Believe, "it becomes "a dead and stagnant thing," built up layer upon layer like the trunk of a tree (193). Yet the sturdiness and sheer means of support inherent in the metaphor's image undermines his attempt at a detraction of habit's qualities. As his own layered narrative of habit reveals, James would characterize the "failure to form habits" as anything but a strictly sublime moment. What he terms in "Habit" our own organic "plasticity," a quality of pliancy that might exhilarate the artist, should, to James's way of thinking, petrify him as well (Principles 1: 110). He suggests that the resulting uncanny metaphysical homelessness takes us far from what an artist might regard as an interesting cognitive or creative freedom; certainly James projects from his own experience that such a habitlessness could be manifestly paralyzing. Even in such a "popularized" and confident rendering of habit as we encounter in Principles, James's apprehensions and discomforts with the kind of uncanniness that the "unhabitual" gives rise to are never far below the surface. "Shipwreck in detail," to use James's words (Some Problems 73), looms ever-present because in disquieting ways, as Richard Hocks writes, "the same is always returning as the different" (Henry James 89).

A beginning look at the force of habit in James leads quickly to a simple but crucial premise. While the familiar maxim tells us that habit is second nature, there is no question that, to James, it operates as the very first kind of nature we have. "Make it clear," James writes in a teaching note to himself, "that without a body we need not be in the least subject to the law of habit" (Psychology: Briefer 448).(1) We are nothing, then, if not "bundles of habits," he informs us in Principles (1: 109). But as far as "mind" or "consciousness" per se is concerned, we are much more than bundles of mere physiology or biologically-based instinct. In late nineteenth-century American literary representations of psychological thought, as Gordon O. Taylor has written, there occurs a shift from an earlier notion of consciousness as a series of "static, discrete mental states" reflective of conventional values to a more fluid and physiological concept emphasizing "the nature of the sequential process itself" (5, 6). That is to say, the frame of reference moves away from regarding thought as an abstract mirror of sanctioned ethics and more towards viewing it as a response to environmental factors - the mind as "soul" replaced by the mind as "brain." For James, however, intellectual and scientific explorations remain wholly steeped in moral hues.(2) So the allaying effects of habit that James had experienced in the face of severe personal alienation suggest that, for him, it not only functions on the simple biological level, but also on the most intuitive and thus aesthetic - or pure sensory - level for a performance that, according to his pragmatic thinking, necessarily results in real, practical, and moral effects.

The preliminary terms of this process emerge in James's own episode of "panic fear" (reminiscent of the 1844 "vastation" experience of his father, Henry Sr.) that he presents as a "case" in The Varieties of Religious Experience, but later reveals as being in fact autobiographical.(3) Having entered his dressing-room one evening while in a pessimistic state, William was suddenly overcome by "a horrible fear of [his] own existence," a condition he refers to as a kind of soul sickness (Varieties 134). In the same instant an image appeared in his mind of a patient he claims to have seen in an asylum, a man who used to sit all day with his knees tucked under his chin, "looking absolutely non-human."

As James reports it,
This image and my fear entered into a species of combination with each other. That shape am I, I felt, potentially. [. . .] I awoke morning after morning with a horrible dread at the pit of my stomach, and with a sense of the insecurity of life that I never knew before, and that I have never felt since. (148)

By speaking simultaneously of an estrangement from his own familiar self and an eerie identification with someone or something wholly unfamiliar, James introduces elements that make up the uncanny, which, according to Freud, also functions aesthetically. To discern the rudimentary connection between habit and the uncanny that James goes on to make, however, first begs two questions: why must the Jamesian self undergo such a struggle in its quest to feel at home in the world? And why does James find the language of habit so well suited to the task?

Growing up within the James household, William found himself immersed in an untamed atmosphere of intellectual aimlessness, one that indulged in what Posnock describes as "purposeless knowledge of pure curiosity" (40). In 1868, queasy from forever "pointing at the void" in wonder, he was on the verge of despair himself from the over-examined life (Will 63). While Townsend has made much of James's sexual consternation as the source of his anxiety, in particular within the context surrounding James's episode of "panic fear," such a reading cuts short James's spiritual and metaphysical needs. If James's anxieties eased during his courtship and subsequent marriage to Alice Howe Gibbens, they did not disappear. James, like his father, found that anxiety would come to be essentially a spiritual problem, but unlike his father, he could meet that problem only by way of a pragmatic philosophy, not a religion in its traditional sense. As he contends in "Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results," religion is "a living practical affair" (Pragmatism 265). Hence "knowledge about a thing is not the thing itself"; the man who might best understand religion "might be the man who found it hardest to be personally devout" (Varieties 385). A sick soul to James, then, is one suffering from ontological doubt and purposelessness. In response to such an ailing soul, James offers the conviction that the only kind of life worth living is one we fight for spiritually and otherwise with unrelenting grimness and grit. Even an altogether morally good universe would be "too saccharine to stand," he implies:

Doesn't the very "seriousness" that we attribute to life mean that ineluctable noes and losses form a part of it, that there are genuine sacrifices somewhere, and that something permanently drastic and bitter always remains at the bottom of its cup?
(Pragmatism 141)

Such a statement, published in 1907, should refute any reader who thinks James had altogether vanquished the menace of his earlier personal despondency. As his life shows, learning how to live with uncertainty was the younger James's own besetting sin and grace. Ultimately it was in a philosophy of pluralism, in welcoming both the treachery and elation that can come with unfinished uses of knowledge that James could continue to make his way.
Lighting much of the path for James was the language of habit. It propels his thinking and prose style through a continual use of habit-based analogies that illustrate his meaning. As a launching point, James finds in Hegel the phrasing (although certainly not the ideas) he needs to express what he considers to be not only the central theme for all philosophies, but the driving metaphor for his own ontological searchings. The aim of knowledge says Hegel, in a passage James quotes, "is to divest the objective world of its strangeness, and to make us more at home in it" (A Pluralistic Universe 10).(4) Given James's own depressive crisis, the question of how we come to feel at home in the world carried with it an intensely earnest meaningfulness. In contrast to the rationalist ideas of his day, James's pluralism offered a view neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but melioristic rather. The world, it thinks, may be saved, on condition that its parts shall do their best. But shipwreck in detail, or even on the whole, is among the open possibilities. (Some Problems 73)

Adherents to pluralism, explains James, having no "'eternal' edition" to rely on, must always live with a certain degree of insecurity (The Meaning of Truth 124). This open-ended perspective meant he had no patience for rigidly fixed classifications or "systems with pigeon-holes" (qtd. in Perry 2: 700). They violated his sense of the character and expression with which life performs for us. We must take the "continuous transition" of life at face value, says James (Essays in Radical Empiricism 25). That means "first of all to take it just as we feel it" and not bewilder ourselves with disaffected abstractions about it; we must feel it before we can think it.

Thus our craving for explanation, in James's view, is decidedly psychological in nature, not philosophical. Such a conclusion led him to term rationality a "sentiment" rather than an a priori fact. That thought arises in us as a feeling of active agreement rather than passive acceptance establishes the beginning of thinking on the aesthetic, familiarizing level. When we come to understand an idea, James writes in his chapter on "The Sentiment of Rationality" in The Will to Believe, it means that idea has come to feel "at home" in us. If, however, the objective references of our thinking are drained of emotional relevance, as James himself clearly could attest, we are left with a "nameless unheimlichkeit": a condition of psychological homelessness that leaves us with powers, but no motives (71). This condition is the opposite of nightmare, which allows us motives but no powers, yet "when acutely brought home to consciousness it produces a kindred horror." To James, certain absolutist theories, such as materialism, which, with their ready-made worlds, deny "reality to the objects of almost all the impulses which we most cherish," count among the most objectionable philosophies for their potential to bring about this grievous state. If we concur with such a scheme, a dreadful feeling of homelessness overcomes us at the thought of there being "nothing eternal in our final purposes, in the objects of those loves and aspirations which are our deepest energies."

In contrast, James's ever-malleable design for the macrocosm waits for us to engender truths upon it - not vice versa. We fool ourselves into thinking that the world comes to us in a completed form, James explains (using the ideas of the German thinker R. Hermann Lotze), only because once we have the sentiment of rationality about something, when we next recognize it "out there" it feels a priori. His opposition in the 1870s to Herbert Spencer's "spectator theory" of knowledge stems from his conviction that "the knower is not simply a mirror floating with no foot-hold anywhere, and passively reflecting an order that he comes upon and finds simply existing. The knower is an actor" (Essays in Philosophy 21).

In keeping with this model James reaches for an animating, active phrase to extend his ideas. He writes that realities paraded before our consciousness for the first time invoke in us the practical question "what is to be done?" instead of the theoretic "what is that?" (Will 72). Hence our thinking comes not just by way of opportunism, a frequent misinterpretation of James's pragmatism, but by way of an inextricable and rigorous moral quality as well:

We are acquainted with a thing as soon as we have learned how to behave towards it, or how to meet the behavior which we expect from it. Up to that point it is still "strange" to us. (73)
Our thoughts are ours by answering us with their uses, good or bad - our own thoughts are "what we are least afraid of" because they now feel agreeable and familiar (75); they carry with them what in Principles he calls their "warmth and intimacy and immediacy" (1: 232) - terms that answer our needs in the deepest sense.

By linking as he does here the qualities of homelessness, strangeness, and fear along with their contrary states, James anticipates Freud's exploration of the uncanny, which traces meanings of the German word for uncanny, "the unheimlich" (literally "unhome-like"), that bring together these same terms. In surveying the word unheimlich's varied usages, Freud discovers that certain definitions of the uncanny journey so far in the direction of ambivalence that they meet their opposite meaning: terror comes to be tinged with a freedom from fear, the unfamiliar with the familiar. Thus all paths lead Freud to designate the uncanny as "that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar" ("The Uncanny" 17: 220).

To James, our mind travels a similarly circular road, but one contentedly lacking the predetermined, transgressive nature of Freud's. Never free from "the ingredient of expectancy," our consciousness, as James sees it, constantly seeks to "banish uncertainty from the future" (Will 67), to turn the strangeness felt in the "aboriginal sensible muchness" of our experiential world into thoughts that feel at rest, at peace, and familiar by constant appraisal against the past (Some Problems 32). Again he turns to the home-like for an analogy of this process:

What is meant by coming "to feel at home" in a new place [. . .]? It is simply that, at first, when we take up our quarters in a new room, we do not know what draughts may blow on our back, what doors may open, what forms may enter, what interesting objects may be found in cupboards and corners. When after a few days we have learned the range of all these possibilities, the feeling of strangeness disappears. (Will 67-68)

Every new room in life, every unclassified experience strikes us a baffling "mental irritant" that we must soothe by explanation (67). Echoing Hume and the empiricist tradition, James holds that to explain something means that we can refer to its antecedents, and that to know something is to be able to predict its consequences. Remarkably, the agent that allows us to do both, James asserts, is habit. Are not all intellectual satisfactions mere matters of consistency, he asks:
not of consistency between an absolute reality and the mind's copies of it, but of actually felt consistency among judgments, objects, and habits of reacting, in the mind's own experienceable world? And are not both our need of such consistency and our pleasure in it conceivable as outcomes of the natural fact that we are beings that do develop mental habits - habit itself proving adaptively beneficial [. . .]? (The Meaning of Truth 58)

In other words, habit gives us footholds in the morass of the unknowable by emptying experience of its uncanniness. Only then do thoughts truly feel sufficient and at home.
We begin to comprehend habit's primacy for James when he declares it to be "the source of whatever rationality" things "may gain in our thought" (Will 67).(5) If the conceived world consisted of singularities only, with no two things alike, our powers of reasoning would be rendered useless, "for logic works by predicating of the single instance what is true of all its kind" (Pragmatism 69). As William Hazlitt wrote, without custom (and prejudice), "I should not be able to find my way across the room; nor know how to conduct myself in any circumstances, nor what to feel in any relation of life" (Sketches 69). Yet any such notion of "truth" in a Jamesian context must be understood as a psychological conception, not a theoretical one. Whether or not any "real" sameness exists in things, or whether or not we are correct in our assessment of a "sameness" in things, has no bearing on James's pragmatic view of habit. As he states in his chapter on "Conception" in Principles, "our principle only lays it down that the mind makes continual use of the notion of sameness, and if deprived of it, would have a different structure from what it has" (1: 435). For James it comes down to a matter of our intention (and the force of habit's intention) to cover the same, as always, through the mediation of language - be it merely thought or actually articulated. "Perhaps even, in view of our theoretically possible error," he writes in his notes for Principles, "it might be well to change the name of the psychological principle of sameness, & to call it the law of constancy in our meanings" (Manuscript Essays and Notes 285). Moreover, by provision of a kind of continuing answering trust that habit can coax from our thoughts, thinking becomes believing and gives our ideas their meaningfulness and profound moral potency. "What is this but saying that our opinions about the nature of things belong to our moral life?" he wrote in 1875 (Essays, Comments, and Reviews 307).

An entire spectrum of such habit-born canniness comes to bear somewhat dramatically on the very elemental and even poetic narrative link James makes to habit. As his discussion of psychical research illustrates, he is thoroughly dependent in this realm upon the language of habit. In 1909 he published "The Confidences of a 'Psychical Researcher,'" an essay that reflects his later philosophy of religion and flirtation with metaphysics in its discussion of "supernatural" or "psychic" phenomena. James's open-mindedness welcomed inquiry into the vaguenesses of this aspect of the universe as much as any other. But having devoted a fair amount of his own energy to keeping abreast of formal research into the field, as well as to witnessing ("or trying to witness") such phenomena, James concluded that he could only remain puzzled (Essays in Psychical Research 362).(6) Yet while he was convinced that fraud was behind most psychic performances brought to his attention, his "white crow" embodied in the acclaimed "spiritist" Leonora Piper aside, he by no means dismissed the idea that such other-worldly phenomena occur. In his essay "Is Life Worth Living?" from The Will to Believe, he writes that our science is a drop, our ignorance a sea. Whatever else be certain, this at least is certain - that the world of our present natural knowledge is enveloped in a larger world of some sort of whose residual properties we at present can frame no positive idea.(7) (50)
One explanation he offered for the experience of psychics was that while the medium feels that spirits exhibit a "tendency to personate," the more likely scenario is that, if there be spirits at all, they are unwitting "passive beings" whose stray bits of memory are at the hands of the medium's "will to personate" (Essays in Psychical Research 368).

By opening the door to psychological (or, one might argue, psychoanalytic) aspects without totally abandoning the metaphysical ones, James is able to open his language and widen the terrain by removing its restrictive definitional fences in a way that once again, through the force of habit, recasts the uncanny in home-like ways. Indeed, James re-emphasizes that with this essay he goes on record for "the presence, in the midst of all the humbug, of really supernormal knowledge" (372). He wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience, in good part, to give evidence of what he meant by such a statement. As he explained in 1904 in answer to a colleague's questionnaire on religious feeling, "the whole line of testimony" on the point of having felt God's presence, for example, leads him to conclude that such real effects cannot be refuted (Letters 2: 214). "No doubt there is a germ in me of something similar that makes response," he acknowledges, for even though James was personally incapable of spiritual belief in the conventional sense ("I can't possibly pray," he wrote, "I feel foolish and artificial"), he felt that his "need" for some sort of cosmic divinity, pragmatically speaking, proved his belief in the idea of such a force or in a "universe of spiritual relations surrounding the earthly practical ones" (214, 213). He used the term "religion" in the supernaturalist sense to mean that it is in our relation to "an unseen world" that the "true" significance of our human life lies (Will 48). "Religious experience," per se, he defines as "any moment of life that brings the reality of spiritual things more 'home' to one" (Letters 2: 215). So he holds that other sorts of preternatural phenomena might likewise find equally valid response; "'normal' or 'sane' consciousness," he maintains, "is so small a part of actual experience" (213).

Steeped in the language of habit, James's early model of consciousness bears its own consistency with this point of view. Developed from the scientific approach to psychical phenomena taken by the German philosopher, psychologist, and physicist Gustav Theodor Fechner, James's rendering presents a threshold process along the lines of Fechner's wave theory.(8) According to James, our level of consciousness can rise and fall; "normal" consciousness, finding itself in a lowered state, might then very well experience an overflow of the supernormal or unconscious into its own "stream of thought." This notion, by assigning consciousness a purely filtering, sieve-like function rather than a generative one, not only allowed for paranormal occurrences, but also provided the initial steps toward satisfying his desire to do away with the Cartesian model of a mind that produces its contents.(9) But even with the gate of consciousness lowered, so to speak, just how, without the "humbug" help of a self-styled spiritualist, might unexplained forms of knowledge actually go about getting themselves rationalized by us?

James's answer aligns habit and knowing in a fanciful but serious musing on the birth of human consciousness; its cosmic scope and narrative buoyancy illustrate what Ann Douglas has aptly described as James's "celestial gaiety" (140). Reflecting the work of the American pragmatist Charles Peirce, James's speculations suggest that we consider radicalizing the ideas of evolutionary theory and assign the same principles to inorganic matter that have been applied to organic matter. Then, drawing on the ideas of panpsychism - a theory that proposes a universe entirely steeped in psychical aspects - he says we might imagine that amidst the aimless possibilities which were first swimming about in a kind of cosmic sea, "a few connected things and habits arose, and the rudiments of regular performance began" (Essays in Psychical Research 369). These wisps and shreds, or "diffuse soul-stuff' of the original chaos, would, thanks to habits begun, be in a position to have some relation to the cosmos, but not enough to be "hunted down and bagged" (373,369). When we do experience occult phenomenon, James goes on to say, we feel them to have something of this nature; they are incoherent, wayward, and fitful. "They seem like stray vestiges of that primordial irrationality," he writes, "from which all our rationalities have been evolved." Coming through our lowered threshold of consciousness as "lawless intrusions," these uncanny phenomenon disturb us as well and seem to have but one purpose: to baffle. So if there is an environment of other-consciousness trying to get into "consistent personal form" (373) - the complement to a "will to personate" on our side of things - it would have to design a strategy to make itself congenial to our own process of consciousness:

it might get its head into the air, parasitically so to speak, by profiting by weak spots in the armor of human minds, and slipping in and stirring up there the sleeping tendency to personate. It would induce habits in the subconscious region of the mind it used thus, and would seek above all things to prolong its social opportunities by making itself agreeable and plausible. It would drag stray scraps of truth with it from the wider environment, but would betray its mental inferiority by knowing little how to weave them into any important or significant story. (373)

Primordial irrationality, then, must produce a conception of sorts that can mature into a welcoming form. Hence only habit, in its role as what the Scots used to call the "canny woman" or midwife, can facilitate the "birth" of narrative in the form of a canny, familiar story.
These elements come together in a letter to his wife, Alice, of a night spent in the New Hampshire woods during the summer of 1898. Occurring as it did during his preparatory phase for a series of upcoming lectures in Scotland on religious themes - what was to become, of course, The Varieties of Religious Experience - the incident, a "Walpurgis Nacht," as he termed it, caused in him a moment of "spiritual alertness" that distilled for him a variety of influences he felt to be concurrent in that circumstance: nature, the idea of America, the "wholesomeness" of his travelling companions, thoughts of his wife and children, his brother Henry, and the subject of his present work (Letters 2: 76-77). The metaphysical result came to him, he wrote, as an "intense significance of some sort, of the whole scene, if one could only tell the significance"; as it stood, the whole event remained "a mere boulder of impression" that nonetheless he felt would be keenly - and rightly, as it turned out - linked to his Edinburgh lectures.

It is in a kind of poetics of habit that he makes what he can of the whole experience. He writes to Alice that as "memory and sensation all whirled inexplicably together," he felt the experience would be "worth repeating year by year, if repetition could only procure what in its nature I suppose must be all unplanned for and unexpected" (77). He believed that in such a habit-related idea he understood what a poet is: "a person who can feel the immense complexity of influences that I felt, and make some partial tracks in them for verbal statement." A month later, in an address delivered at Berkeley, he was able to make the more confident pronouncement that poets and philosophers are both "path-finders" in that respect, and that the articulation of such an uncanny "boulder of impression" has something to do with habitual canny-making narrative properties (Pragmatism 258). In The Varieties of Religious Experience, he describes how this poetic task evolves in the human spirit. A "sick soul" will recognize "the profoundest astonishment" at his own unsatisfactory state and will say to himself:

The strangeness is wrong. The unreality cannot be. A mystery is concealed, and a metaphysical solution must exist. If the natural world is so double-faced and unhomelike, what world, what thing is real? An urgent wondering and questioning is set up, a poring theoretic activity, and in the desperate effort to get into right relations with the matter, the sufferer is often led to what becomes for him a satisfying religious solution. (128)
Thus his habit-driven narrative again reveals in its language the desperate human need to banish metaphysical homelessness.