R. D. Richardson writes in The Heart of William James (a collection of James’ essays and writings): On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings was William James’s own favorite among his short pieces of writing. On April 24, 1899, he wrote to one correspondent that the piece contained “the perception on which my whole individualistic philosophy is based.” To another he wrote on April 18 of the same year, “I care very much indeed for the truth it so inadequately tries by dint of innumerable quotations to express.” The blindness he has in mind, the sorry truth, as James put it in “Human Immortality,” is “that we are doomed, by the fact that we are practical beings with very limited tasks to attend to, and special ideals to look after, to be absolutely blind and insensible to the inner feelings, and to the whole inner significance of lives that are different from our own.”
James aims to set this right, to restore our sight. What “Self-Reliance” is to the work of Emerson, what “Song of Myself” is to the work of Whitman, On a Certain Blindness is to the work of James. The piece deserves a place among the defining documents of American democracy. In it, James quotes, at length, Robert Louis Stevenson, Wordsworth, Whitman, Tolstoy, and others. The use of skillfully edited lengthy quotations is a technique James also employed in The Varieties of Religious Experience. Here as there, readers have the feeling that they are hearing one witness after another give personal testimony. Each is allowed his or her own voice for his or her own experience.
Perhaps great writers, like all great artists, can, if they try, enter into other lives by a sort of imaginative sympathy or negative (in the sense of self-forgetting) capability. It is worth noting that the English word “empathy,” from the German “Einfuhlung,” only appeared in the first decade of the twentieth century. But most of us cannot, or cannot easily, enter into the lives and points of view of people unlike ourselves.
So James is daringly open to stating his conclusion in negative as well as in positive terms. Our blindness as to the lives of others, he says, “absolutely forbids us to be forward in pronouncing on the meaninglessness of forms of existence other than our own; and it commands us to tolerate, respect, and indulge those whom we see harmlessly interested and happy in their own ways, however unintelligible these may be to us. Hands off: neither the whole of truth, nor the whole of good, is revealed to any single observer.”
A lengthy piece for a web posting, I’ve divided it in two and given it more paragraph breaks for readability. If you wish to print it out, you can find the whole essay here. It is refreshing to see a leading scientist of his day reaching to the mythopoetic to find observations rooted in Truth. It is a rare sight these days. [dj]
OUR JUDGMENTS CONCERNING THE WORTH OF THINGS, big or little, depend on the feelings the things arouse in us. Where we judge a thing to be precious in consequence of the idea we frame of it, this is only because the idea is itself associated already with a feeling. If we were radically feelingless, and if ideas were the only things our mind could entertain, we should lose all our likes and dislikes at a stroke, and be unable to point to any one situation or experience in life more valuable or significant than any other.
Now the blindness in human beings of which this discourse will treat is the blindness with which we all are afflicted in regard to the feelings of creatures and people different from ourselves.
We are practical beings, each of us with limited functions and duties to perform. Each is bound to feel intensely the importance of his own duties and the significance of the situations that call these forth. But this feeling is in each of us a vital secret, for sympathy with which we vainly look to others — the others are too much absorbed in their own vital secrets to take an interest in ours. Hence the stupidity and injustice of our opinions, so far as they deal with the significance of alien lives. Hence the falsity of our judgments, so far as they presume to decide in an absolute way on the value of other persons’ conditions or ideals.
Take our dogs and ourselves, connected as we are by a tie more intimate than most ties in this world; and yet, outside of that tie of friendly fondness, how insensible, each of us, to all that makes life significant for the other! — we to the rapture of bones under hedges, or smells of trees and lamp-posts, they to the delights of literature and art.
As you sit reading the most moving romance you ever fell upon, what sort of a judge is your fox-terrier of your behavior? With all his good will towards you, the nature of your conduct is absolutely excluded from his comprehension. To sit there like a senseless statue, when you might be taking him to walk and throwing sticks for him to catch! What queer disease is this that comes over you every day, of holding things and staring at them like that for hours together, paralyzed of motion and vacant of all conscious life?
The African savages came nearer the truth; but they, too, missed it, when they gathered wonderingly round one of our American travelers who in the interior had just come into possession of a stray copy of the New York Commercial Advertiser, and was devouring it column by column. When he got through, they offered him a high price for the mysterious object; and being asked for what they wanted it, they said: “For an eye-medicine” — that being the only reason they could conceive of for the protracted bath which he had given his eyes upon its surface.
The spectator’s judgment is sure to miss the root of the matter and to possess no truth. The subject judged knows a part of the world of reality which the judging spectator fails to see, knows more whilst the spectator knows less; and wherever there is conflict of opinion and difference of vision, we are bound to believe that the truer side is the side that feels the more and not the side that feels the less.
Let me take a personal example of the kind that befalls each one of us daily.
Some years ago, whilst journeying in the mountains of North Carolina, I passed by a large number of ‘coves,’ as they call them there, or beads of small valleys between the hills, which had been newly cleared and planted. The impression on my mind was one of unmitigated squalor. The settler had in every case cut down the more manageable trees, and left their charred stumps standing. The larger trees he had girdled and killed, in order that their foliage should not cast a shade. He had then built a log cabin, plastering its chinks with clay, and had set up a tall zigzag rail fence around the scene of his havoc, to keep the pigs and cattle out.
Finally, he had irregularly planted the intervals between the slumps and trees with Indian corn, which grew among the chips; and there he dwelt with his wife and babes — an axe, a gun, a few utensils, and some pigs and chickens feeding in the woods, being the sum total of his possessions.
The forest had been destroyed; and what had ‘improved’ it out of existence was hideous, a sort of ulcer, without a single element of artificial grace to make up for the loss of Nature’s beauty. Ugly indeed seemed the life of the squatter, scudding, as the sailors say, under bare poles, beginning again away back where our first ancestors started, and by hardly a single item the better off for all the achievements of the intervening generations.
Talk about going back to Nature! I said to myself, oppressed by the dreariness, as I drove by. Talk of a country life for one’s old age and for one’s children! Never thus, with nothing but the bare ground and one’s bare hands to fight the battle! Never, without the best spoils of culture woven in! The beauties and commodities gained by the centuries are sacred. They are our heritage and birthright. No modern person ought to be willing to live a day in such a state of rudimentariness and denudation.
Then I said to the mountaineer who was driving me: “What sort of people are they who have to make these new clearings?” “All of us,” he replied; “why, we ain’t happy here unless we are getting one of these coves under cultivation.” I instantly felt that I had been losing the whole inward significance of the situation. Because to me the clearings spoke of naught but denudation, I thought that to those whose sturdy arms and obedient axes had made them they could tell no other story.
But when they looked on the hideous stumps, what they thought of was personal victory. The chips, the girdled trees and the vile split rails spoke of honest sweat, persistent toil and final reward. The cabin was a warrant of safety for self and wife and babes. In short, the clearing, which to me was a mere ugly picture on the retina, was to them a symbol redolent with moral memories and sang a very paean of duty, struggle, and success.
I had been as blind to the peculiar ideality of their conditions as they certainly would also have been to the ideality of mine, had they had a peep at my strange indoor academic ways of life at Cambridge.
Wherever a process of life communicates an eagerness to him who lives it, there the life becomes genuinely significant. Sometimes the eagerness is more knit up with the motor activities, sometimes with the perceptions, sometimes with the imagination, sometimes with reflective thought. But wherever it is found, there is the zest, the tingle, the excitement, of reality; and there is ‘importance’ in the only real and positive sense in which importance ever anywhere can be.
Robert Louis Stevenson has illustrated this by a case drawn from the sphere of the imagination, in an essay which I really think deserves to become immortal, both for the truth of its matter and the excellence of its form.
“Toward the end of September,” Stevenson writes, “when school-time was drawing near and the nights were already black, we would begin to sally from our respective villas, each equipped with a tin bull’s-eye lantern. The thing was so well known that it had worn a rut in the commerce of Great Britain; and the grocers, about the due time, began to garnish their windows with our particular brand of luminary. We wore them buckled to the waist upon a cricket belt, and over them, such was the rigor of the game, a buttoned top-coat. They smelled noisomely of blistered tin; they never burned aright, though they would always burn our fingers; their use was naught; the pleasure of them merely fanciful; and yet a boy with a bull’s-eye under his top-coat asked for nothing more.
The fishermen used lanterns about their boats, and it was from them, I suppose, that we had got the hint; but theirs were not bull’s-eyes, nor did we ever play at being fishermen. The police carried them at their belts, and we had plainly copied them in that; yet we did not pretend to be policemen. Burglars, indeed, we may have had some haunting thoughts of; and we had certainly an eye to past ages when lanterns were more common, and to certain story-books in which we had found them to figure very largely. But take it for all in all, the pleasure of the thing was substantive; and to be a boy with a bull’s-eye under his top-coat was good enough for us.
“When two of these asses met, there would be an anxious ‘Have you got your lantern?’ and a gratified ‘Yes!’ That was the shibboleth, and very needful too; for, as it was the rule to keep our glory contained, none could recognize a lantern-bearer, unless (like the polecat) by the smell. Four or five would sometimes climb into the belly of a ten-man lugger, with nothing but the thwarts above them — for the cabin was usually locked, or choose out some hollow of the links where the wind might whistle overhead. There the coats would be unbuttoned and the bull’s-eyes discovered; and in the chequering glimmer, under the huge windy hall of the night, and cheered by a rich steam of toasting tinware, these fortunate young gentlemen would crouch together in the cold sand of the links or on the scaly bilges of the fishing-boat, and delight themselves with inappropriate talk. Woe is me that I may not give sonic specimens….
But the talk was but a condiment; and these gatherings themselves only accidents in the career of the lantern-bearer. The essence of this bliss was to walk by yourself in the black night; the slide shut, the top-coat buttoned; not a ray escaping, whether to conduct your footsteps or to make your glory public: a mere pillar of darkness ill the dark; and all the while, deep down in the privacy of your fool’s heart, to know you had a bull’s-eye at your belt, and to exult and sing over the knowledge.
“It is said that a poet has died young in the breast of the most stolid. It may be contended, rather, that this (somewhat minor) bard in almost every case survives, and is the spice of life to his possessor. Justice is not done to the versatility and the unplumbed childishness of man’s imagination. His life from without may seem but a rude mound of mud; there will be some golden chamber at the heart of it, in which he dwells delighted; and for as dark as his pathway seems to the observer, he will have some kind of a bull’s-eye at his belt.
“… There is one fable that touches very near the quick of life: tin fable of the monk who passed into the woods, heard a bird break into song, hearkened for a trill or two, and found himself on his return stranger at his convent gates; for he had been absent fifty years, and of all his comrades there survived but one to recognize him. It is not only in the woods that this enchanter carols, though perhaps he is native there. He sings in the most doleful places. The miser hears him and chuckles, and the days are moments. With no more apparatus than an ill-smelling lantern I have evoked him on the naked links. All life that is, not merely mechanical is spun out of two strands: seeking for that bird and hearing him. And it is just this that makes life so hard to value, and the delight of each so incommunicable.
And just a knowledge of this, and a remembrance of those fortunate hours in which the bird has sung to us, that fills us with such wonder when we turn the pages of the red ist. There, to be sure, we find a picture of life in so far as it consists ill mud and of old iron, cheap desires and cheap fears, that which we in ashamed to remember and that which we are careless whether we forget; but of the note of that time-devouring nightingale we hear no news. ..
Say that I came [in such a realistic romance] on some such business as that of my lantern-bearers on the links; and described the boys as very cold, spat upon by flurries of rain, and drearily surrounded, ill of which they were; and their talk as silly and indecent, which it certainly was…. To the eye of the observer they are wet and cold and drearily surrounded; but ask themselves, and they are in the heaven of a recondite pleasure, the ground of which is an ill-smelling lantern.
“For, to repeat, the ground of a man’s joy is often hard to hit. It may binge at times upon a mere accessory, like the lantern, it may reside in the mysterious inwards of psychology…. It has so little bond with externals … that it may even touch them not; and the man’s true life, for which he consents to live, lie altogether in the field of fancy…. In such a case the poetry runs underground. The observer (poor soul, with his documents!) is all abroad.
For to look at the man is but to court deception. We shall see the trunk from which he draws his nourishment; but l u himself is above and abroad in the green dome of foliage, hummed ilu-ough by winds and rested in by nightingales. And the true realism were that of the poets, to climb up after him like a squirrel, and catch ;nine glimpse of the heaven for which he lives. And the true realism, •always and everywhere, is that of the poets: to find out where joy re-%ides, and give it a voice far beyond singing
“For to miss the joy is to miss all. In the joy of the actors lies the sense of any action. That is the explanation, that the excuse. To one who has not the secret of the lanterns, the scene upon the links is meaningless. And hence the haunting and truly spectral unreality of realistic books . . . In each, we miss the personal poetry, the enchanted atmosphere, that rainbow work of fancy that clothes what is naked and seems to ennoble what is base; in each, life falls dead like dough, instead of soaring away like a balloon into the colors of the sunset; each is true, each inconceivable; for no man lives in the external truth, among salts and acids, but in the warm, phantasmagoric chamber of his brain, with the painted windows and the storied walls.”
These paragraphs are the best thing I know in all Stevenson. “To miss the joy is to miss all.” Indeed, it is. Yet we are but finite, and each one of us has some single specialized vocation of his own. And it seems as if energy in the service of its particular duties might be got only by burdening the heart towards everything unlike them. Our deadness towards all but one particular kind of joy would thus be the price we inevitably have to pay for being practical creatures.
Only in some pitiful dreamer, some philosopher, poet, or romancer, or when the common practical man becomes a lover, does the hard externality give way, and a gleam of insight into the ejective world, as Clifford called it, the vast world of inner life beyond us, so different from that of outer seeming, illuminate our mind. Then the whole scheme of our customary values gets confounded, then our self is riven and its narrow interests fly to pieces, then a new centre and a new perspective must be found.
The change is well described by my colleague, Josiah Royce:
“What then is thy neighbor? Thou hast regarded his thought, his feeling, as somehow different from thine. Thou hast said: ‘A pain in him is not like a pain in me, but something far easier to bear.’ He seems to thee a little less living than thou. His life is dim, it is cold, it is a pale fire beside thy own burning desires…. So, dimly and by instinct, thou hast lived with thy neighbor, and hast known him not, being blind. Thou hast made [of him] a thing, no Self at all. Have done with this illusion and simply try to know the truth. Pain is pain, joy is joy, everywhere even as in thee. In all the songs of the forest birds; in all the cries of the wounded and dying, struggling in the captor’s power; in the boundless sea, where the myriads of water-creatures strive and die; amid all the countless hordes of savage men; in all sickness and sorrow; in all exultation and hope; everywhere from the lowest to the noblest, the same conscious, burning, willful life is found, endlessly manifold as the forms of the living creatures, unquenchable as the fires of the sun, real as these impulses that even now throb in thy own little selfish heart. Lift up thy eyes, behold that life, and then turn away and forget it as thou canst; but if thou hast known that, thou hast begun to know thy duty.”
This higher vision of an inner significance in what, until then, we had realized only in the dead external way, often comes over a person suddenly; and when it does so, it makes an epoch in his history. As Emerson says, there is a depth in those moments that constrains us to ascribe more reality to them than to all other experiences. The passion of love will shake one like an explosion, or some act will awaken a remorseful compunction that hangs like a cloud over all one’s later day.
This mystic sense of hidden meaning starts upon us often from non-human human natural things. I take this passage from Obermann, a French novel that had some vogue in its day:
“Paris, March 7. — It was dark and rather cold. I was gloomy, and walked because I had nothing to do. I passed by some flowers placed breast-high upon a wall. A jonquil in bloom was there. It is the strongest expression of desire: it was the first perfume of the year. I felt all the happiness destined for man. This unutterable harmony of souls, the phantom of the ideal world, arose in me complete. I never felt anything so great or so instantaneous. I know not what shape, what analogy, what secret of relation it was that made me see in this flower a limitless beauty…. I shall never enclose in a conception this power, this immensity that nothing will express; this form that nothing will contain; this ideal of a better world which one feels, but which it would seem that nature has not made.”
Wordsworth and Shelley are similarly full of this sense of a limitless significance in natural things. In Wordsworth it was a somewhat austere and moral significance, a ‘lonely cheer.‘
“To every natural form, rock, fruit or flower,
Even the loose stones that cover the high-way.
I gave a moral life: I saw them feel,
Or linked them to some feeling: the great mass
Lay bedded in a quickening soul, and all
That I beheld respired with inward meaning.”
“Authentic tidings of invisible things!” Just what this hidden presence in Nature was, which Wordsworth so rapturously felt, and in the light of which he lived, tramping the hills for days together, the poet never could explain logically or in articulate conceptions. Yet to the reader who may himself have had gleaming moments of a similar sort the verses in which Wordsworth simply proclaims the fact of them come with a heart-satisfying authority:
The morning rose, in memorable pomp,
Glorious as e’er I had beheld — in front,
The sea lay laughing at a distance; near,
The solid mountains shone, bright as the clouds,
Grain-tinctured, drenched in empyrean light;
And in the meadows and the lower grounds
Was all the sweetness of a common dawn –
Dews, vapours, and the melody of birds,
And laborers going forth to till the fields.”
“Ah! need I say, dear Friend! that to the brim
My heart was full; I made no vows, but vows
Were then made for me; bond unknown to me
Was given, that I should be, else sinning greatly,
A dedicated Spirit. On I walked
In thankful blessedness, which yet survives.”
As Wordsworth walked, filled with his strange inner joy, responsive thus to the secret life of Nature roundabout him, his rural neighbors, tightly and narrowly intent upon their own affairs, their crops and lambs and fences, must have thought him a very insignificant and foolish personage. It surely never occurred to any one of them to wonder what was going on inside of him or what it might be worth. And yet that inner life of his carried the burden of a significance that has fed the souls of others, and fills them to this day with inner joy.