Sick Souls, Healthy Minds, a Review

Tess Varner reviews John Kaag's most recent book


Sick Souls, Healthy Minds: How William James Can Save Your Life, by John Kaag (Princeton University Press), £18.99/$22.95.

Only halfway through reading John Kaag’s newest book, Sick Souls, Healthy Minds: How William James Can Save Your Life, I purchased additional copies from online booksellers and had them mailed to two friends and a former student. This is that sort of book -- the kind you read and instantly think of the people in your life who need to receive its message. And its message could not be more timely. In the middle of (or perhaps in the beginning of) a global pandemic that has thoroughly disrupted our lives, and in a moment that has thrown countless people into existential fear, despair, and depression due to social isolation, economic instability, and political unrest, many find themselves asking the kinds of questions like that on which the book centres: Is life worth living?

This is the question William James, the father of American philosophy, wrestled with throughout his life -- a life marked by moments of malaise, severe depression, and suicidal ideation. James drew a distinction between the sick souled and the healthy minded, and it is this distinction that serves as the basis of what Kaag offers with this book -- a guide for the sick souled to becoming healthy-minded, based on James’s philosophy of healthy-mindedness. Like James, the author has long hungered for a different way of looking at the world -- a healthy-minded one. He credits James’s philosophy for being a “lifesaver” for him, offering it to readers as the same.

Sick Souls, Healthy Minds is part intellectual history, part memoir, and part philosophical toolkit. Kaag takes the reader on a journey through James’s life, including his privileged upbringing, his existential despair, his romantic relationships, and his professional successes and failures. James’s own life story may not be riveting, but it is relatable. Many of us don’t know the affluence and opportunity which James was afforded, but most of us, I imagine, have wrestled with finding meaning in our lives and have wondered if all of the suffering we endure in our lives is worth it. It is clear in Kaag’s writing that he has wondered too. Weaving his own story in with James’ philosophical insights, including tales that invite the reader into his own marriages, divorces, and experiences with child-rearing, Kaag lays bare an example of what James calls “the sick-souled”.

Personal stories aren’t always welcome in mainstream philosophy. Some find them to be distracting, needless departures from philosophical ideas and argumentation. But it works well for Kaag, whose recent books, Hiking with Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are and American Philosophy: A Love Story, take similar approaches. Perhaps not every audience is interested in the philosophical inheritance of a young professor or how he used other thinkers’ work to make sense of his own life. But as someone who teaches philosophy and wants students to see how relevant philosophical ideas can be to their own lived experience, and how relevant their lived experience is to the philosophical positions they develop, I applaud this deeply personal approach to writing, and I appreciate a writing style aimed at a public audience that may not have rigorous training in philosophy.

Although stories of James’s and Kaag’s lives and innermost feelings figure prominently in Sick Souls, Healthy Minds, they certainly do not exhaust what the book offers. In each of the six chapters that make up the book, Kaag carefully introduces critical philosophical concepts -- such as determinism, free-will, consciousness, and transcendence -- concepts James had to work his way through in the development of his philosophy of healthy-mindedness. And as Kaag explores these and the ways they figure into James’s thinking, and indeed, into what later becomes pragmatism, he introduces scores of philosophical figures with whom James engaged, such as Josiah Royce, Charles Sanders Pierce, and Alain Locke -- providing a rich intellectual history of James and the movements he inspired that is succinct but nuanced, accessible, and important. Kaag skilfully knits together the ways that the study of philosophy and deep inner-experience inform the healthy-minded philosophy James espouses -- namely, that a life can be made worth living.

To treat prevalent and insidious problems like anxiety, depression, and suicide from a philosophical perspective is a bold move, one that might initially raise alarms from medical professionals. But Kaag is careful to be clear about what he is and is not doing in this book. He certainly doesn’t suggest that the Jamesian “lifesaver” is something to be trusted in lieu of seeking professional help. Rather, he reveals that philosophy, too, has something to offer to those who need to “find the courage to live”, and to those who want to live differently -- with zest for life.

The book offers hope in the form of a “maybe”: the answer James gave to the question “is life worth living?” “Maybe” may not be as satisfying as the hard “yes” with which people routinely, and perhaps uncritically, respond. But it is the answer in which James -- and Kaag -- find the most potential: “[James’s] ‘maybe’ is roughly fitted to the open question of the cosmos. Everything, from the smallest eukaryotic being to the most complex organic system, is in the process of making its own guesses... Without good guesswork there would be nothing like adaptation or growth, and for us, there would be nothing like meaning.” The “maybe” gives us the opportunity to make meaning out of our lives, in all their complexity, and Kaag demonstrates this in a well-written, creative, and ultimately hopeful book that will make a good companion for all whose lives need a measure of healthy-mindedness during difficult times.


Tess Varner, PhD, is assistant professor of philosophy at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. Her work focuses on American Philosophy, Environmental Ethics, and Feminist Philosophy. Her work can be found in Hypatia, The Pluralist, The Public Philosophy Journal, Environmental Values, and Organization and Environment.