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William James Studies Catenary Curves


et us move now to Harvard's Houghton Library. A librarian has brought me a copy of another Dionysius Lardner book, his Handbook of Natural Philosophy. I open it and find an astonishing signature in front. It says, "William James, 1858." This was the very book that the father of the philosophy of pragmatism read when he was only 15.

And what was this book that young William James read? It is a richly illustrated volume on mechanics and the mathematics of machines. We read Newton's laws of motion and materials science. Then we move on to mechanisms.

There's a section on clockwork and another on clockwork movements of stars and planets. The book dances with gears and escapements. We study stamping machines and the great newspaper presses just coming into being. James is no passive reader. In the back, he's penciled in his own graphical construction of the catenary curve – the pendent shape of a suspension bridge chain.

Chain hanging in a catenary form (photo by JHL)

"The Four Volumes taken together," says Lardner, provide the background in natural philosophy that "is expected in all well educated persons." And William James was on his way to becoming one of the most educated persons on this planet.

James started out by studying art. He tired of that and went into science, then anatomy, then medicine. Next he went off to the Amazon to do field studies in biology with Louis Agassiz. He came back and worked in physiology. That led to an interest in psychology. He broke with 19th-century academic tradition and created a new practical school of clinical psychology.

No sooner had he put a revolution in psychological thinking into motion than he moved off into religion. Psychology, he said, had come to seem like a "nasty little subject." James moved on to other links in a long unfolding chain of ideas.

His essay The Varieties of Religious Experience is stunningly objective reporting of the most subjective thing that could happen to any person. Then James took up philosophy and as a philosopher he laid his final mark on America.

And here I was priviledged to touch the first link in the chain of James's thinking – a boy's book on mechanics. I know this process, this movement from concrete forms to their own abstractions. James began with graphical art – beauty that presents itself to the eye. There in the Harvard Library, I held one end of the catenary, the chain, that James followed into all the many subtler concatenations within his own rich mind.

D. Lardner, HandBook of Natural Philosophy. (London: Walton and Maberly, 1856): Copy residing in the Houghton Library at Harvard University.