The Creation of Chaos

William James and the Stylistic Making of a Disorderly World

By Frederick J. Ruf

Subjects: Literary Theory
Series: SUNY series in Rhetoric and Theology
Paperback : 9780791407028, 185 pages, September 1991
Hardcover : 9780791407011, 185 pages, October 1991

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Table of contents



Introduction William James, Stylist

1. "The Malestrom": The Chaotic in The Principles of Psychology, Part 1


James and Chaos: The Critical View

The Chaotic: "Chaosmos"

The Tempestuous World: Roots of the Chaotic in James's Crisis Years, 1867-1872

2. "A Mind So Purely Fluid": The Chaotic in The Principles of Psychology, Part 2

External Chaos: The Plenum

A Circumscription of the Chaotic

Internal Chaos: The Stream






The Relationship of Inner to Outer Chaos

The Neural Stream

The Function of Chaos: "Old Fogeyism"

3. "The Floods and Waterspouts of God": The Chaotic in The Varieties of Religious Experience


Biographical Context

The Chaotic in the Varieties of Religious Experience

Religion and the Chaotic

4. "Meanderings, Zigzags, and Circles":Creating Chaos in The Principles of Psychology


The Constructive Role of Form

Genre Realism

The Constructivist View of Narrative

The Form of the Principles of Psychology

James's "Rhetoric"

Formal Eclecticism

Interactions of Forms in the Principles

Multiple Voices

Domesticated Chaos: Image Streams


Chaos Out of Cosmos

5. "Instruction from the Living Voice":Creating Chaos in The Varieties of Religious Experience


Genetic Multiplicity

Multiplicity of Voices

Disruptive Disorientation

6. Conclusion, "Fronting Life": The Chaotic and Religious Orientation

Orientation: Scope, Authority, and Benefit

Chaotic Orientation

The Chaotic and Disorientation

"Ordinariness": The Rhetoric of Religious Symbols


Select Bibliography



This is the first book-length study of William James' style, arguing that the manner in which James writes The Principles of Psychology and The Varieties of Religious Experience serves to construct a chaotic world for his readers.

The book examines the uses of chaos in western literature and philosophy and reaches two conclusions: that chaos may be "utter confusion and disorder," but, paradoxically, that disorder is communicated through some particular order — in Joyce's term, all chaos is "chaosmos. " Secondly, what is essential about chaos is what it does: nothing is inherently chaotic, rather chaos is used to contrast with or challenge something that is more structured or formed. Finally, the author presents an examination of the religious function of James' chaotic worldview as a disorientation which orients.

Frederick J. Ruf is Assistant Professor in the Theology Department at Georgetown University.


"This book manages to be original in two ways at once: it is both a rhetorical reading of James (much needed and well done) and a reflection on chaos as a religious symbol. The latter aspect draws from a variety of sources which makes for fascinating reading. This double focus allows the author to discuss James' style from a specific perspective, namely chaos, which gives the book unity and enables much insight. This double perspective also allows for a double reading of the two texts which this book examines, The Principles and The Varieties. In sum, James is located not in any specific tradition (say, American pragmatism) but rather is put into conversation with a whole range of people who wrote about chaos. " — Stephen Webb, Wabash College