Drawing from Life

Drawing from Life: John La Farge, William James, and the Search for Truth in Art, Science and Philosophy

Cecelia Watson

Cecelia Watson's project explored the influence of the painter John La Farge on William James’s psychology and philosophy. James and La Farge studied painting together as young men, and these lessons fed James’s understanding of evolved intelligence and the relationship between subject and object, inflected his descriptions of perception and his definition of truth, showed through in his vivid personal and literary style and fueled his pragmatic, pluralistic philosophy and religious speculations.

The project considered James’ work in the context of the larger intellectual landscape of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and suggested alternative ways to conceptualize the current relationship between science and art. James relied on artistic method to escort psychology and philosophy through the tangle of modernist anxieties about subjectivity and objectivity: How, asked the arts and sciences, were observers to uncover truth in the objects of their inquiry? Was there any “reality” to be found independent of the self? If so, could one circumvent the self and alight once again on securely objective epistemological foundations? Viewed in the broader context of nineteenth and early twentieth century anxieties over subjects and objects, La Farge’s method became the basis for James’s answer to the question, “What, and how, can we know?”