Gerald E. Myers about James M. Edie on William James
In the journal Philosophy and Phenomenological Research (Vol. 49, No. 3, Mar., 1989, pp. 538-541), Gerald E. Myers reviewed the book William James and Phenomenology, by the American philosopher James M. Edie. In his review, Myers relates Edie's remarks on a famous statement by William James:
The book's concluding note is that action is the central Jamesian category, returning Edie to something he mentions several times. This is the now famous episode of 1870 when James was depressed, dejected by thoughts of determinism, but seemed to recover, in part anyway, by reading C. Renouvier's definition of free will that led him to declare: "My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will." Edie's comment: "Action, in the philosophy of James, is another word for Freedom. By the decision to act he becomes a philosopher and the philosophy he developed is a philosophy of the free act" (p. 8o). Extracting the significance of this episode in combination with James's writings allows Edie (with J. Wild) to reiterate the existential character of James's philosophy, thus showing how existentialism and phenomenology meet in and contribute to that philosophy.I don't know enough about Renouvier's views, but I presume that William James is being ironic in his manner of expression, for if one has free will, then it would long precede any act of belief in free will. More precisely if less strikingly expressed, James could have said, "My first fully convinced act of free will shall be to believe in free will."
As for William James and phenomenology, I also know too little about that to understand how it meets with existentialism in his philosophy.