Archive for the ‘William James’ Category


William James: The Mind as Artist – Jacques Barzun

March 23, 2012

Barzun at age 40. At 84 years of age, he began writing his swan song, to which he devoted the better part of the 1990s. The resulting book of more than 800 pages, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present, reveals a vast erudition and brilliance undimmed by advanced age. Historians, literary critics, and popular reviewers all lauded From Dawn to Decadence as a sweeping and powerful survey of modern Western history, and it became a New York Times bestseller. The book introduces several novel typographic devices that aid an unusually rich system of cross-referencing and help keep many strands of thought in the book under organized control. Most pages feature a sidebar containing a pithy quotation, usually little known, and often surprising or humorous, from some author or historical figure. In 2007, Barzun commented that "Old age is like learning a new profession. And not one of your own choosing."

An essay from the master in 1985. I have returned to the practice of mindfulness as my prayer life has been wanting of late. The lecturer I am following early on made the point that one should not confuse mindfulness with meditation (although the two almost always proceed together). The error that arises is that one confuses failures in anger, depression or addiction as somehow being a failure of the mindfulness practice, when, in fact, is nothing of the sort. So I feel good about my umpteenth attempt at developing the practice, convinced that a solid mindfulness practice is also the foundation of a vital prayer life of the heart. Your mind is a road to the heart and for some of us that road is neither wide nor smooth.

Anytime you consider mindfulness you become completely aware of its cousin, mindlessness, the bottle of muddy water which you wish to let sediment settle to the bottom and clear. How much of that is James’ stream-of-consciousness, endless chatter of a mind seems almost nonsensical in some ways. You don’t think at all, René, m’en souvient.  Read a bit further


The part that conventional knowledge plays in the history of culture has never been properly assessed. Conventional knowledge is usually based on some evident truth, above which is reared a superstructure of misunderstanding and fallacy. Conventional knowledge about William James starts with the truth that he expounded the doctrine known as Pragmatism. Next, by verbal and historical association, James is linked with John Dewey, also a Pragmatist. General opinion then assumes that James’s view of the human mind is identical with Dewey’s. Now, Dewey’s being the better known, thanks in his extensive writings on education, the linkage leads directly to the conclusion that James’s Pragmatic psychology finds the pattern of thought in the mental operations of science: the mind of man is a scientist in posse. [vocab: In potential but not in actuality]

In How We Think, Dewey gives the outline of this act of mind, which he calls the reflective. It consists of five steps:

(1)     the occurrence of a difficulty;
(2)     the definition of it;
(3)     the occurrence of suggestions to explain or resolve it;
(4)     the rational elaboration of each suggestion—its bearing and implications; and
(5)     the corroboration of one of them by experiment or other kinds of testing.

Dewey concludes that “thinking comes between observations at the beginning and at the end of a problem.”

This “model” is perfectly good as far as it goes, but the first thing to say about it is that it does not begin at the beginning. It takes for granted a mind already full of objects, ideas, abstractions, generalities, concepts, and rules. If we concede that this is how we think, there appears to be a play on words hidden in the thought-cliche that unites James and Dewey and their Pragmatisms.

For what Dewey describes is either deliberate cogitation or well-established habits for meeting difficulty; he is concerned with reasoning, formal and informal. James begins much earlier, biographically speaking. He begins with consciousness and examines how it behaves in its rawest possible state, before it has acquired enough experience to define problems and canvass clear-cut suggestions.

What does James find? The complex answer is in The Principles of Psychology under the title “The Stream of Thought,” a title which in the Briefer Course published the following year became the influential phrase “the stream of consciousness.” In the first place, according to James, consciousness is not an entity, but a function. The usual notions of a receptacle for ideas, a mirror of external objects, a sensitive plate recording impressions, a subject-spectator watching the “real world” must he given up if we are to understand what goes on not in but as consciousness. Consciousness is clearly involuntary: not I think but it thinks, whether I want it to or not. Languages record an awareness of the fact in expressions like methinks, it m’en souvient, es dunkt mich, and again in “it occurs to me,” “the idea crossed my mind,” and so on. I think is not parallel to I walk. That we have the sensation of owning this self-propelling stream is also true, but making it do our bidding is difficult — and rare. And that is why it is important for education to follow Dewey’s analysis and make out of the five steps a conscious method of organized and sequential thought.

But it is equally important (and for much more than education) to understand the working of the mind in its native, original course. It can be shown, for instance, that a great deal of criticism in the arts is vitiated by ignorance of the way the mind perceives and pre-perceives objects. Thus all theories of “pure” art assume impossibilities in both the making and the witnessing of art. And even in science and mathematics, as more than one great discoverer has testified, the deliberate march of mind in five steps is not so much actual as ideal: it helps to verify rather than to create — the reason being that the mind is natively not a scientist but an artist.

James does not use that figurative way of telling how consciousness works, but the metaphor is not far-fetched, nor is it meant here to bestow an honorific quality, let alone take sides in the foolish, profitless rivalry between art and science. The term is used only as a catchword that may help to remove the conventional error caused by Dewey’s pedagogic intention.

The mind according to James is a stream composed of waves flowing endlessly without gaps. Each wave (or pulse) prresents a crest or focus of intensity surrounded by a fringe. The focus is clear, the fringe dimmer, and what is in the fringe surges forward to become the next clear focus as the previous one fades out. We record this phenomenon in many of our ways of speech. We refer to what is “uppermost” in our minds; we know and speak of what “interests” us and can name what “holds our attention”: all these words imply the focus.

Compared with it, the fringe, aura, or margin is vague and thus not readily namable. It takes the power of a poet to evoke the fringe by offering a series of images to focus on. In life, we have intimations or presentiments of what may come next to mind, but these escape the net of words because the stream has a way of pressing forward as if driven by a purpose, looking toward an end not yet known — quite as in a story full of suspense. The “interest” at the focus wants each following pulse to be equally interesting or attention wanders off to something more promising.

This rough summary of James’s description of the stream shows to begin with that there is a form to thought as it is given to us natively. Thought is not the scattered bits of a kaleidoscope that Dewey dismissed as of no use to him. On the contrary, there is no disconnection at any point, and the sense of making toward a goal on the crest of interest, with troughs of lesser intensity, but true connection, is a fundamental form. We find it embodied in every kind of human discourse, from the sentence to the symphony.

To be sure, the products of art or communication are trimmed and compressed by other operations of the mind. Even the so-called stream-of-consciousness novel is a simplified artifact and not a transcript of the luxuriant shoots of ideas and feelings in the author’s consciousness. The fact remains that the works of the artistic intelligence are not made by imposing on absolute chaos an order from outside, but rather by effecting a distillation of the stream and ultimately respecting its inherent form.

What remains to be said is that in the mode of inquiry Dewey propounds, “purpose” bears the workaday meaning of setting out for results. In the portion of James’s work I have discussed, purpose is an intrinsic quality: the stream moves forward from crest to crest and toward an end without effort and without a defined goal. The mind’s interests, says James, are practical and aesthetic, and these root tendencies must also, I think, be distinguished from deliberate worldly practicality and aesthetic aims. It then becomes clear that James’ Pragmatism differs from Dewey’s in being, as it were, innate — not exclusively a logic and a method, but simply the way consciousness pursues and makes the most of its interests.


Do you know what William James thought of Catholicism? – Derek Jeter

March 1, 2012

William James

It began as a simple enough query from a reader, Gordie, in Ypsalanti, Michigan (I lie, I have no idea where Gordie comes from. I just like the name of the town.). Gordie had asked “Do you know what William James thought of Catholicism?” I checked a couple of books in my library and came up with the fact that William’s brother Robert had converted to Catholicism but the other members of the James family appeared to have never been part of the Church and R.D. Richardson had never devoted any space to answering the question. An abstract of a dissertation on the net gave an exhaustive approach to exploring what that question really meant:

In their responses to the works of the American psychologist and philosopher William James (1842-1910), American Catholic thinkers have developed at least five different approaches: Neo-Scholastic, Neo-Traditionist, Radical, Liberal, and Academic. Investigation of these responses may suggest some answers to the general question, In what ways have Catholic intellectuals related to American culture and society during the twentieth century?

This dissertation is a study of the Neo-Scholastic and Neo-Traditionist responses. It begins with an account of the American Catholic intellectual scene in 1900 and an exposition of James’s religious philosophy. Next, the Neo-Scholastic and the Neo-Traditionist responses are analyzed separately; the development of their major themes is traced; their distinctive characteristics are defined; and their historical and ideological relationships are described.

Finally some implications of the study are suggested regarding the historiography of American Catholicism and the conduct of systematic theology by American Catholics. Catholic writers have regularly responded to James’s religious philosophy from the beginning of the century to the present.

The earliest responses came from those who associated themselves with Neo-Scholastic (usually Neo-Thomist) philosophy and theology; and this variety was dominant from 1900 to 1960. It developed through four stages:

(1) Naive, dominant before 1907, which evaluated James by his usefulness to Catholics;

(2) Religious, typical until 1920, which condemned James for his Protestantism, Modernism, immoral teaching, and Americanism;

(3) Rational, dominant from  to 1910, which judged James’s logic, epistemology, and metaphysics to be radically incompatible with its own; and

(4) Reflective, dominant among Neo-Scholastics since the 1960′s, which tolerated James’s radical differences and encouraged more extensive inquiry and dialog.

A major alternative to Neo-Scholasticism was embodied in the Neo-Traditionism formulated by Robert Channon Pollock (1901-1978) of Fordham University beginning in the 1940′s. Relying on Augustinian themes, he detected radical sympathies and compatibilities between James’s philosophy and the intellectual and moral heritage of the Catholic tradition.

For the historiography of American Catholic intellectual life, a chronology of its development and a taxonomy of its varieties are suggested. For American Catholic theology, this dissertation suggests greater emphasis on the value and practice of pluralism; greater commitment to professional standards in the practice of scholarship, philosophy, and theology; and greater involvement with the main currents of American intellectual life–including the religious philosophy of William James.

If you read the above carefully you begin to see the lines of an adversarial relationship between James’ religious philosophy and the Church. Yet I am want to see that, preferring my own blind Catholic fandom of faith. I’m ashamed to admit to it but basically anyone I have considered my intellectual mentors have crossed into the Church along with my conversion in 2006 . So I’m obviously not the person who should be addressed that question, its baseball equivalent would be “Do you think the Red Sox can beat the Yankees in 2012?”  

Many years ago I read Jacques Barzun’s A Stroll With William James which was Barzun’s tribute to James as mentor and I found it impossible not to come away from it without a deep appreciation for the masters who lead us to develop our intellects. I’m just selfish enough to protect those whom I feel that debt/affinity for. I doubt there is anyone I dearly love whom I would not consider in some way Catholic since my conversion, even while  others may muster all sorts of reasons why they could never be considered as such.

So it is not that I couldn’t give Gordie a good answer, but it needs a little explanation and it is very different from the dissertation writer noted above. Here are four reasons I can muster for James’ favorable view of Catholicism:

  1. Richardson writes in his introduction to The Heart of William James that James possessed  the most free-ranging mind of any American thinker, and the chief source of his liberty, as his student, friend, and colleague Santayana put it in The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy,

“was his personal spontaneity, similar to that of Emerson, and his personal vitality, similar to that of nobody else. Convictions and ideas came to him, so to speak, from the subsoil. He had a prophetic sympathy with the dawning sentiments of the age, with the moods of the dumb majority. His scattered words caught fire in many parts of the world. His way of thinking and feeling represented the true America, and represented in a measure the whole ultramodern, radical world.”

Those very notions of “free-ranging” and spontaneous I find very Catholic. Obedience is extraordinarily freeing, almost synonymous with freedom to me and most thinkers I am drawn to exhibit that kind of character. Let’s face it, Jesus was like that, read Chesterton on the Sermon on the Mount, if you don’t believe me. This is the kind of character that Santana is referring to above. Even while reading The Varieties of Religious Experience, you knew the author was religious but not in any way attached to a particular denomination although paradoxically you knew that he would be an ecclesial Christian.
R.D. Richardson, The Heart of William James

To me the only real ecclesial Christians are Catholic but their ecclesiality is often compromised and paradoxical from the start. I know of no other religious grouping where the modifier “Cafeteria” can be attached. For some reason “Cafeteria Jews”, Cafeteria Muslims,” or “Cafeteria Baptists” doesn’t sound right. “Cafeteria Catholic” appears to mean that the person in question doesn’t accept all of the beliefs of the Church. I’m not sure how others think about it, but I see the person as someone still working on accepting their faith and obedience. Even as something fundamental as abortion and right to life we see Catholics like E.J. Dionne and Peggy Noonan on opposite sides of the question.

2.  Emerson, in his essay “Experience,” listed what he considered “the lords of life”; they were illusion, temperament, succession, surface, surprise, reality, and subjectiveness. Nicolas of Cusa, that pluralist in Christian clothing, thought “the precondition for the abundance of nature lies in what is restless, limited, changeable, and composite.” Italo Calvino projected six lectures (and completed five) on lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, multiplicity, and consistency. In like manner, William James defended “incompleteness, ‘more,’ uncertainty, insecurity, possibility, fact, novelty, compromise, remedy and success” as being authentic realities.

James further thought of the organization of the self as “a system of memories, purposes, strivings, fulfillments, and disappointments.” And he declared that philosophy “has always turned on grammatical particles, with, near, next, like, from, towards, against, because, for, through, my.” These words, he said, “designate types of conjunctive relations, arranged in a roughly ascending order of immediacy and inclusiveness.”
R.D. Richardson, The Heart of William James

Having insight into the human condition strikes me as being very Catholic. It’s not so much the insights per se that affect me as much as the fact that the insights are right. “Right and practical,” as Richardson puts it and I can’t disagree with his assessment. Who decides what is right? Well, we do.

3.  William James believed, as Emerson had, that self-trust is the quality on which a good life is best built, and — again like Emerson — James gave us the reason why we may safely trust our best impulses: “If we survey the field of history and ask what feature all great periods of revival, of expansion of the human mind, display in common, we shall find, I think, simply this: that each and all of them have said to the human being The inmost nature of the reality is congenial to powers which you possess” (The Principles of Psychology, vol.2).

As neurophysiology and neurobiology make rapid strides — almost daily — in showing us precisely how the brain works, all the while minding us just how fantastically complicated the brain really is, we see, as no previous generation has, a clearer and clearer form in the slowly dissolving mist. We see that we each have within us a something, call it a brain or mind or process, that reflects, thinks about, and responds and thus, in a sense, contains the world. When and if there is a final reality, something on which everyone will eventually agree, it will be seen to be commensurate with powers we in fact possess.

James stood for the individual, and he argued that each individual matters. Beyond that, James believed that we are connected, though not always in ways we see or understand. “Our lives are like islands in the sea,” he said in the late essay Confidences of a Psychical Researcher,

“or like trees in the forest. The maple and the pine may whisper to each other with their leaves, and Conanicut and Newport hear each other’s fog-horns. But the trees also commingle their roots in the darkness underground, and the islands also hang together through the ocean’s bottom. Just so there is a continuum of cosmic consciousness, against which our individuality builds but accidental fences, and into which our several minds plunge as into a mother-sea or reservoir.”
R.D. Richardson, The Heart of William James

That’s almost perfect, if you ask me. It strikes the same balance that I see in Jesus telling us “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

Regard that and juxtapose the image you have of  the mystical body of Christ —  is it not the roots of the trees in the forest commingling in the dark subsoil that James is suggesting above? The only thing I would change in Richardson’s assessment is not that James stood for the individual, and that each individual matters but that James stood for the person, and he argued that each person matters.

And just to repeat the line that limns our imago dei: “The inmost nature of the reality is congenial to powers which you possess.” Isn’t that beautiful? And doesn’t it just define why we are all human adorans? It saddens me that so many of my fellow men are ignorant of that.

4.  And in his next breath, James refused the easy notion that man is the measure of all things. “I firmly disbelieve, myself,” he wrote in the concluding paragraphs of Pragmatism,

“that our human experience is the highest form of experience extant in the universe. I believe rather that we stand in much the same relation to the whole of the universe as our canine and feline pets do to the whole of human life. They inhabit our drawing-rooms and libraries They take part in scenes of whose significance they have no inkling. They are merely tangent to curves of history the beginnings and ends and forms of which pass wholly beyond their ken. So we are tangents to the wider life of things.”
R.D. Richardson, The Heart of William James

There is in that assessment of man-as-dog-or-cat, a very wise view of the human condition as creature. You can’t get very far away from it. Without the forgiveness of sins that Christ made possible for us there is damnably little that recommends us to God’s Kingdom of Heaven. Once again James seems to have it right on. See this in his plea for how teachers should treat their pupils:

“I beg you, that you make freemen of your pupils by habituating them to act, whenever possible, under the notion of a good. Get them habitually to tell the truth, not so much through showing them the wickedness of lying as by arousing enthusiasm for honor and veracity. Wean them from their native cruelty by imparting to them some of your own positive sympathy with an animal’s inner springs of joy.”

It’s positive reinforcement over the rolled-up newspaper, but he spares us that liberal twaddle of Rousseau’s Noble Savage. There is very little in man that one could self-congratulate and describe as “elevating.”

It’s not very academic, Gordie, and really nothing more than flaming opinion, but it is why you will find William James Paying Attention to the Sky. Thanks for the question (the short answer is “No,” by the way), but now you know better than to ask me stuff.  ;-)


On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings Part II – William James

February 29, 2012

William James, Fully Alive

Part II of a remarkable essay


Richard Jefferies has written a remarkable autobiographic document entitled The Story of My Heart. It tells, in many pages, of the rapture with which in youth the sense of the life of nature filled him. On a certain hill-top, he says:

“I was utterly alone with the sun and the earth. Lying down on the grass, I spoke in my soul to the earth, the sun, the air, and the distant sea far beyond sight…. With all the intensity of feeling which exalted me, all the intense communion I held with the earth, the sun and sky, the stars hidden by the light, with the ocean — in no manner can the thrilling depth of these feelings be written — with these I prayed, as it they were the keys of an instrument…. The great sun burning with light; the strong earth, dear earth; the warm sky; the pure air; the thought of ocean; the inexpressible beauty of all filled me with a rapture, an ecstasy, an inflatus. With this inflatus, too, I prayed….

The prayer, this sold-emotion, was in itself, not for an object; it was a passion. I hid my face in the grass, I was wholly prostrated, I lost myself in the wrestle, I was rapt and carried away…. Had any shepherd accidently seen me lying on the turf, he would only have thought that I was resting a few minutes. I made no outward show. Who could have imagined the whirlwind of passion that was going on within me as I reclined there!”

Surely a worthless hour of life when measured by the usual standards of commercial value. Yet in what other kind of value can the preciousness of any hour, made precious by any standard, consist, if it consist not in feelings of excited significance like these, engendered in someone by what the hour contains?

Yet so blind and dead does the clamor of our own practical interests make us to all other things, that it seems almost as if it were necessary to become worthless as a practical being, if one is to hope to attain to any breadth of insight into the impersonal world of worths as such, to have any perception of life’s meaning on a large objective scale. Only your mystic, your dreamer, or your insolvent tramp or loafer, can afford so sympathetic an occupation, an occupation which will change the usual standards of human values in the twinkling of an eye, giving to foolishness a place ahead of power, and laying low in a minute the distinctions which it takes a hard-working conventional man a lifetime to build tip. You may be a prophet at this rate; but you cannot be a worldly success.

Walt Whitman, for instance, is accounted by many of us a contemporary prophet. He abolishes the usual human distinctions, brings all conventionalisms into solution, and loves and celebrates hardly any human attributes save those elementary ones common to all members of the race. For this he becomes a sort of ideal tramp, a rider on omnibus-tops and ferry-boats, and, considered either practically or academically, a worthless unproductive being. His verses are but ejaculations — things mostly without subject or verb, a succession of interjections on an immense scale. He felt the human crowd as rapturously as Wordsworth felt the mountains, felt it as an overpoweringly significant presence, simply to absorb one’s mind in which should be business sufficient and worthy to fill the days of a serious man. As he crosses Brooklyn ferry, this is what he feels:

Flood-tide below me! I watch you face to face;
Clouds of the west! sun there half an hour high!
I see you also face to face.
Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes! how curious you are to me!
On the ferry-boats, the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home, are more curious to me   than you suppose;
And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence, are more
to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.
Others will enter the gates of the ferry, and cross from shore to shore;Others will watch the run of the flood-tide;
Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east;
Others will see the islands large and small;
Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high;
A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them,
Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring in of the flood-tide, the falling back to the sea of the ebb-tide.
It avails not, neither time or place — distance avails not;
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt;
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd;
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d;
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood, yet was hurried;
Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships, and the thickstem’d pipes of steamboats, I look’d.
I too many and many a time cross’d the river, the sun half an hour high;
I watched the Twelfth-month sea-gulls — I saw them high in the air,
floating with motionless wings, oscillating their bodies,
I saw how the glistening yellow lit up parts of their bodies, and left the rest in strong shadow,
I saw the slow-wheeling circles, and the gradual edging toward the south.
Saw the white sails of schooners and sloops — saw the ships at anchor,
The sailors at work in the rigging, or out astride the spars,
The scallop-edged waves in the twilight, the ladled cups, the frolicsome crests and glistening,
The stretch afar growing dimmer and dimmer, the gray walls of the granite store-houses by the docks,
On the neighboring shore, the fires from the foundry chimneys burning high … into the night,
Casting their flicker of black … into the clefts of streets.
These, and all else, were to me the same as they are to you.

And so on, through the rest of a divinely beautiful poem. And it you wish to see what this hoary loafer considered the most worthy way of profiting by life’s heaven-sent opportunities, read the delicious volume of his letters to a young car-conductor who had become his friend:

“New York, Oct. 9, 1868.

“DEAR PETE. It is splendid here this forenoon — bright and cool. I was out early taking a short walk by the river only two squares from where I live…. Shall I tell you about [my life] just to fill up? I generally spend the forenoon in my room writing, etc., then take a bath fix up and go out about 12 and loaf somewhere or call on someone down town or on business, or perhaps if it is very pleasant and I feel like it ride a trip with some driver friend on Broadway from 23rd Street to Bowling Green, three miles each way. (Every day I find I have plenty to do, every hour is occupied with something.)

You know it is a never ending amusement and study and recreation for me to ride a couple of hours of a pleasant afternoon on a Broadway stage in this way. You see everything as you pass, a sort of living, endless panorama — shops and splendid buildings and great windows: and on the broad sidewalks crowds of women richly dressed continually passing altogether different, superior in style and looks from any to be seen anywhere else — in fact a perfect stream of people — men too dressed in high style, and plenty of foreigners — and then in the streets the thick crowd of carriages, stages, carts, hotel and private coaches, and in fact all sorts of vehicles and many first class teams, mile after mile, and the splendor of such a great street and so many tall, ornamental, noble buildings many of them of white marble, and the gayety and motion on every side: you will not wonder how much attraction all this is on a fine day, to a great loafer like me, who enjoys so much seeing the busy world move by him, and exhibiting itself for his amusement, while he takes it easy and just looks on and observes.”

‘Truly a futile way of passing the time, some of you may say, and not altogether creditable to a grown-up man. And yet, from the deepest point of view, who knows the more of truth, and who knows the less — Whitman on his omnibus-top, full of the inner joy with which the spectacle inspires him, or you, full of the disdain which the futility of his occupation excites?

When your ordinary Brooklynite or New Yorker, leading a life replete with too much luxury, or tired and careworn about his personal affairs, crosses the ferry or goes up Broadway, his fancy does not thus soar away into the colors of the sunset’ as did Whitman’s, nor does he inwardly realize at all the indisputable fact that this world never did anywhere or at any time contain more of essential divinity, or of eternal meaning, than is embodied in the fields of vision over which his eyes so carelessly pass. There is life; and there, a step away, is death. There is the only kind of beauty there ever was. There is the old human struggle and its fruits together. There is the text and the sermon, the real and the ideal in one.

But to the jaded and unquickened eye it is all dead and common, pure vulgarism, flatness and disgust. “Hech! it is a sad sight!” says Carlyle, walking at night with someone who appeals to him to note the splendor of the stars. And that very repetition of the scene to new generations of men in secula seculorum, that eternal recurrence of the common order, which so fills a Whitman with mystic satisfaction, is to a Schopenhauer, with the emotional anaesthesia, the feeling of ‘awful inner emptiness’ from out of which he views it all, the chief ingredient of the tedium it instills. What is life on the largest scale, he asks, but the same recurrent inanities, the same dog barking, the same fly buzzing, forevermore? Yet of the kind of fibre of which such inanities consist is the material woven of all the excitements, joys and meanings that ever were, or ever shall be, in this world.

To be rapt with satisfied attention, like Whitman, to the mere spectacle of the world’s presence, is one way, and the most fundamental way, of confessing one’s sense of its unfathomable significance and importance. But how can one attain to the feeling of the vital significance of an experience, if one has it not to begin with? There is no receipt which one can follow. Being a secret and a mystery, it often comes in mysteriously unexpected ways. It blossoms sometimes from out of the very grave wherein we imagined that our happiness was buried.

Benvenuto Cellini, after a life all in the outer sunshine, made of adventures and artistic excitements, suddenly finds himself cast into a dungeon in the Castle of San Angelo. The place is horrible. Rats and wet and mould possess it. His leg is broken; and his teeth fall out, apparently with scurvy. But his thoughts turn to God as they have never turned before. He gets a bible, which he reads during the one hour in the twenty-four in which a wandering ray of daylight penetrates his cavern; he has religious visions; he sings psalms to himself and composes hymns; and thinking, on the last day of July, of the festivities customary on the morrow in Rome, he says to himself: “All these past years I celebrated this holiday with the vanities of the world; from this year henceforward I will do it with the divinity of God. And then I said to myself, ‘Oh, how much more happy I am for this present life of mine than for all those things remembered!”

But the great understander of these mysterious ebbs and flows is Tolstoi. They throb all through his novels. In his War and Peace, the hero, Peter, is supposed to be the richest man in the Russian empire. During the French invasion he is taken prisoner, and dragged through much of the retreat. Cold, vermin, hunger, and every form of misery assail him, the result being a revelation to him of the real scale of life’s values.

Here only, and for the first time, he appreciated, because he was deprived of it, the happiness of eating when he was hungry, of drinking when he was thirsty, of sleeping when he was sleepy, and of talking when he felt the desire to exchange some words…. Later in life he always recurred with joy to this month of captivity, and never failed to speak with enthusiasm of the powerful and ineffaceable sensations, and especially of the moral calm, which he had experienced at this epoch. When at daybreak, on the morrow of his imprisonment, he saw [I abridge here Tolstoi's description] the mountains with their wooded slopes disappearing in the grayish mist; when he felt the cool breeze caress him; when he saw the light drive away the vapors, and the sun rise majestically behind the clouds and cupolas, and the crosses, the dew, the distance, the river, sparkle in the splendid, cheerful rays; his heart overflowed with emotion. This emotion kept continually with him, and increased a hundred-fold as the difficulties of his situation grew graver….

He learnt that man is meant for happiness, and that this happiness is in him, in the satisfaction of the daily needs of existence, and that unhappiness the fatal result, not of our need, but of our abundance…. When calm reigned in the camp, and the embers paled and little by little went out the full moon had reached the zenith. The woods and the fields round about lay clearly visible; and beyond the inundation of light which filled them, the view plunged into the limitless horizon. Then Peter cast his eyes upon the firmament, filled at that hour with myriads of stars. ‘All that is mine,’ he thought. ‘All that is in me, is me! And that is what they think they have taken prisoner! That is what they have shut up in cabin!’ — So he smiled, and turned in to sleep among his comrades.”

The occasion and the experience, then, are nothing. It all depends on the capacity of the soul to be grasped, to have its life-currents at absorbed by what is given. “Crossing a bare common,” says Emerson, “in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in m thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear.”

Life is always worth living if one have such responsive sensibilities But we of the highly educated classes (so called) have most of us got far, far away from Nature. We are trained to seek the choice, the rare, the exquisite, exclusively, and to overlook the common. We are stuffed with abstract conceptions, and glib with verbalities and verbosities; and in the culture of these higher functions the peculiar sources of joy connected with our simpler functions often dry up, and we grow stone-blind and insensible to life’s more elementary and general goods and joys.

The remedy under such conditions is to descend to a more profound and primitive level. To be imprisoned or shipwrecked or forced into the army would permanently show the good of life to many an over-educated pessimist. Living in the open air and on the ground, the lopsided beam of the balance slowly rises to the level line; and the over-sensibilities and insensibilities even themselves out. The good of all the artificial schemes and fevers fades and pales; and that of seeing, smelling, tasting, sleeping, and daring and doing with one’s body, grows and grows.

The savages and children of nature to whom we deem ourselves so much superior, certainly are alive where we are often dead, along these lines; and could they write as glibly as we do, they would read us impressive lectures on our impatience for improvement and on our blindness to the fundamental static goods of life. “Ah, my brother,” said a chieftain to his white guest, “thou wilt never know the happiness of both thinking of nothing and doing nothing; this, next to sleep, is tin most enchanting of all things. Thus we were before our birth, and thus we shall be after death. Thy people, … when they have finished reaping one field, they begin to plough another, and as if the day were not enough, I have seen them plough by moonlight. What is their life to ours — their life that is as nought to them? Blind that they are, they lose it all! But we live in the present.”

The intense interest that life can assume when brought down to I In non-thinking level, the level of pure sensorial perception, has been beautifully described by a man who can write, Mr. W. H. Hudson, in his volume, Idle Days in Patagonia.

“I spent the greater part of one winter,” says this admirable author at a point on the Rio Negro, seventy or eighty miles from the sea… It was my custom to go out every morning on horseback with my gun and, followed by one dog, to ride away from the valley; and no sooner would I climb the terrace and plunge into the grey universal thicket than I would find myself as completely alone as if five hundred instead of only five miles separated me from the valley and river. So wild and solitary and remote seemed that grey waste, stretching away into infinitude, a waste untrodden by man, and where the wild animals are so few that they have made no discoverable path in the wilderness of thorns…

Not once, nor twice, nor thrice, but day after day I returned to this solitude, going to it in the morning as if to attend a festival, and leaving it only when hunger and thirst and the westering sun compelled me. And yet I had no object in going — no motive which could be put into words; for although I carried a gun, there was nothing to shoot — the shooting was all left behind in the valley…. Sometimes I would pass an entire day without seeing one mammal, and perhaps not more than a dozen birds of any size. The weather at that time was cheerless, generally with a grey film of cloud spread over the sky, and a bleak wind, often cold enough to make my bridle hand quite numb…. At a slow pace, which would have seemed intolerable in other circumstances, I would ride about for hours at a stretch.

On arriving at a hill, I would slowly ride to its summit, and stand there to survey the prospect. On every side it stretched away in great undulations, wild and irregular. How grey it all was! hardly less so near at hand than on the haze-wrapped horizon, where the hills were dim and the outline blurred by distance. Descending from my look-out, I would take up my aimless wanderings again, ,and visit other elevations to gaze on the same landscape from another point; and so on for hours, and at noon I would dismount and sit or lie on my folded poncho for an hour or longer.

One day, in these rambles, I discovered a small grove composed of twenty to thirty trees, growing at convenient distance apart, that had evidently been resorted to by a of deer or other wild animals. This grove was on a hill differing in from other hills in its neighborhood; and after a time I made a point of finding and using it as a resting-place every day at noon.

I did ask myself why I made choice of that one spot, sometimes going out of my way to sit there, instead of sitting down under any one millions of trees and bushes on any other hillside. I thought nothing about it, but acted unconsciously; only afterwards it seemed to me afterwards having rested there once, each time I wished to rest again the wish came associated with the image of that particular clump of trees, polished stems and clean bed of sand beneath; and in a short time I formed a habit of returning, animal-like, to repose at that same spot.

It was perhaps a mistake to say that I would sit down and rest, I was never tired: and yet without being tired, that noonday pause, during which I sat for an hour without moving, was strangely grateful. All day there would be no sound, not even the rustle of a leaf. One day while listening to the silence, it occurred to my mind to wonder what the effect would be if I were to shout aloud. This seemed at the time a horrible suggestion, which almost made me shudder.

But during those solitary days it was a rare thing for any thought to cross my mind. In the state of mind I was in, thought had become impossible. My state was one of suspense and watchfulness: yet I had no expectation of meeting with an adventure, and felt as free from apprehension as I feel now when sitting in a room in London. The state seemed familiar rather than strange, and accompanied by a strong feeling of elation; and I did not know that something had come between me and my intellect until I returned to my former self — to thinking, and the old insipid existence [again] .

“I had undoubtedly gone back; and that state of intense watchfulness, or alertness rather, with suspension of the higher intellectual faculties, represented the mental state of the pure savage. He thinks little, reasons little, having a surer guide in his [mere sensory perceptions]; In is in perfect harmony with nature, and is nearly on a level, mentally, with the wild animals he preys on, and which in their turn sometimes prey on him.”

For the spectator, such hours as Mr. Hudson writes of form a mere tale of emptiness, in which nothing happens, nothing is gained, anti there is nothing to describe. They are meaningless and vacant tracts of time. To him who feels their inner secret, they tingle with an importance that unutterably vouches for itself. I am sorry for the boy or girl, or man or woman, who has never been touched by the spell of this mysterious sensorial life, with its irrationality, if so you like to call it, but its vigilance and its supreme felicity. The holidays of life are its most vitally significant portions, because they are, or at least should be, covered with just this kind of magically irresponsible spell.

And now what is the result of all these considerations and quotations? It is negative in one sense, but positive in another. It 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, although each observer gains a partial superiority of insight from the peculiar position in which he stands. Even prisons and sickrooms have their special revelations. It is enough to ask of each of us that he should be faithful to his own opportunities and make the most of his own blessings, without presuming to regulate the rest of the vast field.


On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings Part I – William James

February 28, 2012

William James

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.


Ever Not Quite – R.D. Richardson

February 27, 2012

William James, Young and Old

One of my less savory habits is to peek to the last pages of a biography to find a sense of the closing days of a great man. This is from Richardson’s magisterial life of William James, nominated for many honors. Read the stuff about the second law of thermodynamics and substitute global warming theory…


WILLIAM JAMES RETURNED TO CAMBRIDGE in early September 1909. Going to Putman Camp was out of the question. Country walking meant too much struggling up hills; indeed, walking “at any angle” was difficult, Cambridge was bleak. All the elms had been attacked by leopard-moth caterpillars. “The College yard now contains nothing but butts of trees,’ he wrote Pauline Goldmark. “Most of the limbs having been killed and amputated.”

In mid-September he went to Worcester, Massachusetts, at Stanley Hall’s invitation. Hall was celebrating the twentieth anniversary of Clark University with an international conference of psychologists. Sigmund Freud, who was fifty-three and beginning to be well known, was there. His book, The Interpretation of Dreams had appeared, as had The Psychopathology of Everyday Life and Three Essays on Sexuality, though none had yet been translated into English.

The psychoanalytic movement was in its earliest stages, the first international congress had been held in Salzburg in 1908, and the lectures Freud gave at Clark in 1909 would form the basis, of his Five Lectures on Psychoanalysis, published in 1916. Accompanying Freud was a thirty-four-year-old Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung, who had met Freud three years earlier and who was now a favored, perhaps the favored disciple. James went to Worcester “in order to see what Freud was like,” the one he hit it off with — up to a point — was Jung.

James was very ill but had lost none of his intellectual curiosity or his enthusiastic generosity. According to Freud’s biographer Earnest Jones, James’s “parting words, said with his arm round my [Jones's] shoulders were “The future of psychology belongs to your work. James’s comment to his colleague Mary Calkins was less wholehearted. “I strongly suspect Freud with his dream-theory, of  being a regular hallucine” (deluded one) he told her. “But I hope that he and his disciples will push it to its limits, as undoubtedly it covers some facts, and will add to our understanding functional’ psychology.” To his old friend Theodore Flournoy, about whom Jung had spoken warmly, James wrote ten days later that Freud “made on me personally the impression of a man obsessed by fixed ideas.” James told Flournoy that Freud had given an interview to a Boston paper in which he “condemned the American religious therapy (which has had such extensive results) as very dangerous because so `unscientific.’ Bah!”

Jung, on the other hand, “made a very pleasant impression” on James. James had two conversations with Jung, who noted that they “got along excellently with regard to the assessment of the religious factor in the psyche.” After his second conversation with James, Jung even found himself beginning to have doubts about certain aspects of Freud’s work.

After two days in Worcester, James was ready to go home. Freud accompanied him on the mile-and-a-half walk to the railroad station. “James stopped suddenly,” Freud recalled, “handed me a bag he was carrying and asked me to walk on, saying that he would catch up as soon as he had got through an attack of angina pectoris which was just coming on. I have always wished that I could be as fearless as he was in the face of approaching death.”

In October The Meaning of Truth appeared. A grumpy thank-you note from brother Bob urged William, “For God’s sake stop your research for truth (pragmatic or otherwise) and try and enjoy life.” In November James found himself lying late in bed and doing just “a little writing.” In the spirit of trying everything, he undertook a course of treatments, twenty-one over a month’s time, with a Christian Science practitioner, Mr. Strang. In December he caught a cold, and the wretched business of Eusapia and Munsterberg unfolded. [Eusapia Palladino (1854 – 1918) was a Italian Spiritualist medium who was debunked by Hugo Münsterberg, who succeeded James at Harvard University]

James was increasingly limited physically, but as he turned sixty-eight, on January 11, 1910, he was keeping up an extensive correspondence, working on his introduction to philosophy, finishing and sending off several essays, sitting for his portrait by Bay Emmet, and preparing for and speaking at a banquet in his honor. He was able to work — write — an hour and a half a day. Late in January The Moral Equivalent of War was published. James had recast the argument, dropping the idea of voluntary poverty and proposing instead that young people be universally conscripted to work in coal and iron mines, on fishing boats, at road- and tunnel-building, in foundries, and on building construction. As John Dewey would remark, “An immense debt is due William James for the mere title of his essay.”

In February he published A Suggestion Concerning Mysticism (written in mid-December 1909). The suggestion was “that states of mystical intuition maybe only very sudden and great extensions of the ordinary “field of consciousness.” Any sudden lowering of the threshold between conscious and unconscious “will … bring a mass of subconscious memories, conceptions, emotional feelings and perceptions of relation etc. into view all at once.” In other words, the sudden enlargement is the mystical state. This seems to be an uncharacteristically reductive conclusion, but it does democratize the mystical state, and may indeed signal James’s acceptance that he himself had had such states. One old friend wrote him, “But my dear man! — I could have described the general experience years ago and told you all about it — if you’d ever thought to ask me.”

Early in February further ominous signals came from England about Henry’s state of mind, which made Alice want to go immediately to Rye to be with him. A letter from Henry of February 8, 1910, spoke of “the last dismal six weeks of persistent and depressing stomachic crisis,” and of collapsing and going to bed. All this he summed up as “some rather depressing discouragements for a fortnight.”

William’s son Harry took ship at once to go to his uncle, who was glad to see him, but who then suffered a new and terrifying collapse. Harry described, in a letter home, how Henry James “panted and sobbed for two hours until the doctor arrived, and stammered in despair so eloquently and pathetically that as I write of it the tears flow down my cheeks again. He talked about Aunt Alice and his own end and I knew him to be lilt mill not only the frustration of all his hopes and ambitions” — in October 1909 had come the second royalty report, with its grim word of the utter failure of the New York Edition — “but the vision looming close and threatening to his weary eyes, of a lingering illness such as hers; in sight of all that, he wanted to die.”

Then Henry himself wrote William. In an extraordinary letter he described his collapse of just before Harry’s arrival and gave a vivid sense of his state of mind: “The week before he [ Harry] came — arrived – was all collapse. It seems in fact all difficult and endlessly uphill – and I have a kind of terror of finding myself alone here again with my misery. This, I know, is the perfect platitude of weakness, but I long for you, and yearn for you, dearest William, Alice, and Peggy — and offer you all I have for your possible society. I would say to Harry “Take me back to THEM – ANYhow.”

That letter, of course, did it. A lifetime of Henry’s reserve and ,self-control  seemed to have simply evaporated. William and Alice determined to go to England at once. They had the eminent French philosopher Emile Boutroux staying with them at Irving Street. James’s shortness of breath had become so severe he could barely speak to introduce Boutroux’s lectures As soon as Boutroux left, William — who now had trouble with any exertion whatever — took ship with Alice to be with Henry, who had obviously suffered a major nervous collapse, the worst such episode of his life.

William and Alice found Henry at Rye, where Alice now had two invalids on her hands. Henry was deeply depressed, though he had occasional short remissions. William was essentially housebound. Edith Wharton sent over a car and driver for ten days so they could get out. William kept at work, writing and sending off “A Pluralistic Mystic,” on the life and work of Benjamin Paul Blood, whom he had admired for so long. The essay is a kind of coda to A Pluralistic Universe. Looking at Blood from a philosophical, not a religious, point of view, James is concerned with Blood’s later mysticism, as it expresses itself in “a sort of `left-wing’ voice of defiance, and breaks into what to my ear has a radically pluralistic sound.”

James endorses Blood flamboyantly and generously, quoting extensively and with obvious approval. “Certainty is the root of despair,” Blood had written:

“The inevitable stales, while doubt and hope are sisters. Not unfortunately the universe is wild — game flavored as a hawk’s wing. Nature is miracle all. She knows no laws; the same returns not, save to bring the different. The slow round of the engraver’s lathe gains but the breadth of a hair, but the difference is distributed back over the whole curve, never an instant true — ever not quite.”

Blood’s “ever not quite,” which James has made famous, is another response to Plato. In the Theaetetus, when Socrates and his always-too-quickly-agreeing young men are making fun of Heraclitus, Socrates proposes that a good Heraclitean “oughtn’t even to use the word `so’ because what’s so wouldn’t any longer be changing.” All a good Heraclitean might be able to say, Socrates goes on, would be “not even so.” “Ever not quite,” James said, “is fit to be pluralism’s heraldic device.” As with “certainty” so with “conclusions.” “Let my last word, then, speaking in the name of intellectual philosophy, be his word: — `There is no conclusion. What has been concluded, that we might conclude in regard to it? There are no fortunes to be told, and there is no advice to be given. — Farewell!”

Early in May, writing his son Harry, William gave his considered diagnosis of Henry’s condition, which he called “typical melancholia” (that is, severe depression). He asked Harry not to “use the word melancholy but speak rather of a bad nervous breakdown.” “Melancholia,” he explained, “suggests insanity, which this is not.” He added, “The inevitable course is complete recovery.” Henry, still convinced that his Fletcherizing was the real root of the problem, wanted to believe that his depression had an organic cause, while William was struggling to convince himself that his own all-too-organic symptoms had at least “an element of nervous hyperaesthesia,” as he claimed in a letter to Dr. William Osler, the great Canadian physician who was now the Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford. As he well knew, there was a possible advantage to his believing his trouble to be nervous, because with a change of attitude there might be it chance for improvement.

James was well enough to go to Bad Nauheim by himself in May, stopping in Paris to see Henry Adams and Henri Bergson. In June Alice and the hard-to-move Henry joined him. Henry was still very much down. William wrote his mother-in-law that he was unable, and Henry unwilling, to do anything but sit and watch the time pass. Alice wrote in her diary, “William cannot walk and Henry cannot smile.”

Just as life had slowed almost to a halt, William finished reading Henry Adams’s Letter to American Teachers of History. This “letter,” which fills 125 printed pages and which was later published as The Degradation of the Democratic Dogma, is Adams’s grim extension of the second law of thermodynamics to the course of human history. William Thomson, later Lord Kelvin, had said in a paper of 1852, called “On a Universal Tendency, in Nature to the Dissipation of Mechanical Energy,” that the inevitable and irreversible running down of the earth’s energy — defined as heat available, for work — meant that the earth was headed for a “thermal death” that the earth would become “unfit for the habitation of man as at present constituted, unless operations have been, or are to be performed, which are impossible under the laws to which the known operations going going on at present in the material world, are subject.”

Seven years before publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, Thomson had thus “tossed the universe into the ash-heap.” Adams now interpreted the sixty years leading up to 1910 as a struggle not just between Darwin and Thomson, but between the application of Darwin to history (evolutionism) and the application to Thomson’s idea (degradation of energy, or degradationism).

Adams had bitten deeply into the apple of entropy. The gloomy Spenglerian “Letter” James read presented with tacit approval the fevered predictions by the French astronomer Camille Flammarion of the eventual and inevitable approach of the terminal ice. “No longer will man live, no longer will he breathe — except in the equatorial zone, down to the last day when the last tribe, already expiring in cold and hunger, shall, camp on the shores of the last sea in the rays of a pale sun which will henceforth illumine an earth that is only a wandering tomb, turning around a useless light and a barren heat.”

Adams had, in his Education, drawn attention to a leading feature of the new American world of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century — its love affair with energy — and he had proposed the dynamo or generator as the symbol of that energy. William James’s life work was the discovery, retrieval, and harnessing of previously unused energies that lie dormant within us.

So James was stirred, in June 1910, to rise in protest against the urbane and learned pessimism of his friend Adams’s book-length funk. Finishing Adams’s “Letter” in mid-June, James fired off a riposte. The beginning was jolly enough. Referring to the “Letter,” James said, “To tell the truth it doesn’t impress me at all, save by its wit and erudition, and you I ask you whether an old man soon about to meet his maker can hope to save himself from the consequences of his life by pointing to the wit and learning he has shown in treating a tragic subject. No, sir, you can’t do it, — can’t impress God in that way.”

He then got down to cases. “I protest against your interpretation of some of the specifications of the great statistical drift downwards of the original high-level energy.” Adams had neglected to remember, and James reminded him, that history is “the course of things before that terminus in the course of things it was a question of what use was made of any giyen spoonful of energy.

Physically a dinosaur’s brain may show as much intensity of energy exchange as a man’s, but it can do infinitely fewer things, because as a force of detent  it can only unlock the dinosaur’s muscles, while the man’s brain, in locking far feebler muscles, indirectly can by their means issue proclamations, write books, describe Chartres Cathedral etc. and guide the energy- of the shrinking sun into channels which never would have been entered otherwise — in short make history. Therefore the man’s brain and muscles are from the point of view of the historian, the more important place of energy-exchange, small as this may be, when measured in absolute physical units.

For this reason, James concluded, sweeping his hand across Adams’s chessboard, “the `second law’ is wholly irrelevant to `history.”

It is impossible, after reading James for any length of time, to refrain using italics oneself. But even italics fail to do justice to this magnificent outburst, the last stand of William James for the spirit of man.  What can one say about the philosophical bravado, the cosmic effrontery, the sheer panache of this ailing philosopher with one foot in the grave talking down the second law of thermodynamics? It is a scene fit to set alongside the death of Socrates. The matchless incandescent spirit of the man!

The end came more quickly than anyone expected or imagined. By the end of June, Henry was beginning to emerge from his depression, but William had increasingly bad nights. On July 3 Bob James died of a heart attack in his sleep in Concord. “What a triumph, to slip out like that,” William wrote his son Billy. Early July was spent dragging about the Continent; William and Alice and Henry returned to Rye on the twenty-third. Henry was finally having some good days, but William was “worse anti worse since leaving Nauheim.” He wrote out instructions for Horace Kallen to follow in getting Some Problems in Philosophy ready for the press. “Say that I hoped by it to round out my system, which now is too much like an arch built only on one side.”

He was very weak, breathing became more difficult, but he still had moments of what he chose to call improvement. On August 10 he noted in his diary, “On the whole have gained strength and breathe better, but Lord, how little.” Next day he left Rye with Alice and Henry, who was accompanying them back to America. William was so weak he had to be carried aboard the ship they took, not to Boston but to Quebec, because William wanted to see Chocorua again.

They arrived at Chocorua on August 19. Henry commented on the dreariness of the train trip, on “that flat desert of fir trees broken only here and there by a bit of prehistoric swamp.”

“Better than anything in Europe, Henry,” William replied. “Better than anything in England.”

He could no longer sit up; he was taking digitalis and morphineThey fed him milk every half hour. On the twenty-fourth he said to Alice, “I can’t stand this again — cruel cruel.” He added, “It has come so rapidly, rapidly.” He made a “solemn request” that Alice “go to Henry when his time comes.” On August 26, at two-thirty in the afternoon, with Alice holding his head, William James died. At the end there had been, Alice noted, “no pain and no consciousness.”

ALICE NOTED IN HER DIARY that the autopsy showed “acute enlargement of the heart. He had worn himself out. They have laid him in the coffin and I can see his face no more.” No one was harder hit than Henry, who, a week later, wrote to Tom Perry:

“I sit heavily stricken and in darkness — for from far back in dimmest childhood he had been my ideal Elder Brother, and I still, through all the years, saw in him, even as a small timorous boy yet, my protector, my backer, my authority and my pride. His extinction changes the face of life for me — besides the mere missing of his inexhaustible company and personality, originality, the whole unspeakably vivid and beautiful presence of him. And his noble intellectual vitality was still but at its climax — he had two or three ardent purposes and plans. He had cast them away, however, at the end — I mean that, dreadfully suffering, he wanted only to die.”

To H. G. Wells, Henry wrote, “He did surely shed light to man, and gave, of his own great spirit and beautiful genius, with splendid generosity. Of my personal loss — the extinction of so shining a presence in my own life, and from so far back…I won’t pretend to speak…I feel abandoned and afraid, even as a lost child. But he is a possession, of real magnitude, and I shall find myself still living upon him to the end.”

He would not be the only one.


Why We Remember William James – R. D. Richardson

February 7, 2012

William James


James’s understanding of how each of us operates in the world is like George Eliot’s description of the pier glass and the candle in Middlemarch:

“Your pier glass or extensive surface of polished steel,” Eliot writes, “rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination and lo! The scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially, and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable,” she concludes. “The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person.”

For William James, too, the world as a whole is random, and each person makes a pattern, a different pattern, by a power and a focus of his own. There is no single overarching or connecting pattern, hidden or revealed. “We carve out order,” James wrote, “by leaving the disorderly parts out; and the world is conceived thus after the analogy of a forest or a block of marble from which parks or statues may be produced by eliminating irrelevant trees or chips of stone.”

Eliot’s image also suggests something important about James’s own life. Just as his early career plans careened wildly from civil engineering to painting to chemistry to being a naturalist to becoming a physician or a researcher in physiology, so any biography that undertakes to locate or exhibit the central James, the real James, the essential James, or that tries to make a shapely five-act play out of his life, runs the risk of imposing more order than existed — like the medieval hagiographer who gave the world what a modern scholar summarized as “all and rather more than all that is known of the life of St. Neot.”

We have at least three main reasons to remember William James.

  1. First, as a scientist, a medical doctor, and an empirical, laboratory-based, experimental physiologist and psychologist, he was a major force in developing the modern concept of consciousness, at the same time that Freud was developing the modern concept of the unconscious. James was interested in how the mind works; he believed mental states are always related to bodily states and that the connections between them could be shown empirically.
  2. Second, as a philosopher (psychology, in James’s day, was a branch of philosophy and taught in the philosophy departments of universities), James is famous as one of the great figures in the movement called pragmatism, which is the belief that truth is something that happens to an idea, that the truth of something is the sum of all its actual results. It is not, as some cynics would have it, the mere belief that truth is whatever works for you. It must work for you and it must not contravene any known facts.James was interested more in the fruits than in the roots of ideas and feel-tugs. He firmly believed in what he once wonderfully called “stubborn, irreducible facts.” Written in readable prose intended for both the specialist and the general reader, James’s books, in the words of one colleague, make Philosophy interesting to everybody.”
  3. Third, James is the author of The Varieties of Religious Experience, the founding text of the modern study of religion, a book so pervasive in religious studies that one hears occasional mutterings in the schools about King James — and they don’t mean the Bible. James’s point in this book is that religious authority resides not in books, bibles, buildings, inherited creeds, or historical prophets, not in authoritative figures — whether parish ministers, popes, or saints — but in the actual religious experiences of individuals. Such experiences have some features in common; they also vary from person to person and from culture to culture. The Varieties of Religious Experience is also, and not least, the acknowledged inspiration for the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous. It is James’s understanding of conversion that AA has found especially helpful.

In trying to specify the groundnote of James’s thought, his gifted student, colleague, and biographer Ralph Barton Perry pointed to “the one germinal idea from which his whole thought grew … the idea of the essentially active and interested character of the human mind.” The mind was never for James an organ, a “faculty,” or any kind of fixed entity. There is a good deal of truth to the comment of Paul Conkin that if psychology lost its soul with Kant, it lost its mind with James.

Mind for James was a process of brain function, involving neural pathways, receptors, and stimuli. Mind does not exist apart from the operations of the brain, the body, and the senses. Consciousness is not an entity either, but an unceasing flow or stream or field of impressions. James was convinced that no mental state “once gone can recur and be identical with what was before … There is no proof that an incoming current ever gives us just the same bodily sensation twice.” James proposed that the elementary psychological fact … [is] not thought or this thought or that thought, but my thought.”

The process of mind, the actual stream of consciousness, is all there is. James throws down his challenge to Platonism: “A permanently existing `idea’ which makes its appearance before the footlights of consciousness at periodic intervals is as mythological an entity as the Jack of Spades.”

In place of the mythological world of fixed ideas, James has given us a world of hammering energies, strong but evanescent feelings, activity of thought, and a profound and relentless focus on life now. For all his grand accomplishments in canonical fields of learning, James’s best is often in his unorthodox, half-blind, unpredictable lunges at the great question of how to live, and in this his work sits on the same shelf with Marcus Aurelius, Montaigne, Samuel Johnson, and Emerson.

James’s best is urgent, direct, personal, and useful. Much of his writing came out of his teaching, and it has not yet lost the warmth of personal appeal, the sound of the man’s own voice. In one of his talks to teachers he said, “Spinoza long ago wrote in his Ethics that anything that a man can avoid under the notion that it is bad he may also avoid under the notion that something else is good. He who acts habitually sub specie mali, under the negative notion, the notion of the bad, is called a slave by Spinoza. To him who acts habitually under the notion of good he gives the name of freeman. See to it now, I beg you, that you make freemen of your pupils by habituating them to act, whenever possible, under the notion of a good.”‘

James’s life, like all lives lived with broad and constant human contact, was marked by losses and tragedy, which he felt as deeply as anyone. Yet death moved him, most often, not to speculate on the hereafter but to redouble his energies and mass his attentions on the here and now. He remarked in Pragmatism that “to anyone who has ever looked on the face of a dead child or parent” — and he had done both — “the mere fact that matter could have taken for a time that precious form, ought to make matter sacred ever after. It makes no difference what the principle of life may be, material or immaterial, matter at any rate co-operates, lends itself to all life’s purposes. That beloved incarnation was among matter’s possibilities.”

It is not hard to see how the writer of such sentiments became a much-loved person. How he came to be such a writer and such a man in the first place is more difficult to understand. James’s life, especially his early life, was full of trouble, but the keynote of his life is not trouble. He is a man for our age in his belief that we are all of us afflicted with a certain blindness “in regard to the feelings of creatures and people different from ourselves.” He understood, and he said repeatedly, how hard it is to really see things, to see anything, from another’s point of view. He had a number of blindnesses himself. But he did not abandon the effort to understand others, and he proposed that wherever some part of life “communicates an eagerness to him who lives it,” there is where the life becomes genuinely significant.

He himself looked in what he called the “hot spot” in a person’s consciousness, the “habitual center” of his or her personal energy. James understood the appeal of narrative, and so it is with a narrative that he made his point about joy. He tells a story, taken from an essay by Robert Louis Stevenson, in which Stevenson describes a curious game he and his school friends used to play as the long Scottish summers ended and school was about to begin.

Towards the end of September,” Stevenson writes, “when school time was drawing near and the nights were already black, we would begin to sally forth from our respective [houses], each equipped with a tin bull’s eye lantern.”

… 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 lantern under his top-coat asked for nothing more.

When two of these [boys] met, there would be an anxious “Have you got your lantern?” and a gratified “Yes!”… 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 fishing boat 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 checkering glimmer, under the huge windy hall of the night, and cheered by the rich steam of the toasting tinware, these fortunate young gentlemen would crouch together in the cold sand of the links or the scaly bilges of the fishing boat and delight themselves with inappropriate talk.

But the talk, says Stevenson, was incidental. “The essence of this bliss was to walk by yourself on a black night, the slide shut, the top-coat buttoned, not a ray escaping … a mere pillar of darkness in the dark, and all the while, deep down in the privacy of your heart, to know you had a bull’s eye at your belt, and to sing and exult over the knowledge.”

“The ground of a person’s joy,” says James, is often hard to discern. “For to look at a man is to court deception … and to miss the joy is to miss all. In the joy of the actors lies any sense of the action. That is the explanation, which is the excuse. To one who has not the secret of the Lanterns, the scene upon the links is meaningless.”

The great Hasidic masters say that we each have a tiny spark in us waiting to be blown into a fire. Jean-Paul Sartre said there are really no individuals, only universal singulars. William James would say that each of us is alone, but each of us has a lantern.

Without the lantern, the interior spark, we are in the position of the old man who was observed by a reporter, a few minutes after the San Francisco earthquake, standing in the center of Union Square, and who was, “with great deliberation, trying to decipher the inscription of the Dewey monument through spectacles from which the lenses had fallen.”

Theory Of Emotion [From the Wikipedia Article on William James]
James is one of the two namesakes of the James-Lange theory of emotion, which he formulated independently of Carl Lange in the 1880s. The theory holds that emotion is the mind’s perception of physiological conditions that result from some stimulus. In James’s oft-cited example; it is not that we see a bear, fear it, and run. We see a bear and run, consequently we fear the bear. Our mind’s perception of the higher adrenaline level, heartbeat, etc., is the emotion.

This way of thinking about emotion has great consequences for the philosophy of aesthetics. Here is a passage from his great work, Principles of Psychology, that spells out those consequences:

[W]e must immediately insist that aesthetic emotion, pure and simple, the pleasure given us by certain lines and masses, and combinations of colors and sounds, is an absolutely sensational experience, an optical or auricular feeling that is primary, and not due to the repercussion backwards of other sensations elsewhere consecutively aroused. To this simple primary and immediate pleasure in certain pure sensations and harmonious combinations of them, there may, it is true, be added secondary pleasures; and in the practical enjoyment of works of art by the masses of mankind these secondary pleasures play a great part.

The more classic one’s taste is, however, the less relatively important are the secondary pleasures felt to be, in comparison with those of the primary sensation as it comes in. Classicism and romanticism have their battles over this point. Complex suggestiveness, the awakening of vistas of memory and association, and the stirring of our flesh with picturesque mystery and gloom, make a work of art romantic. The classic taste brands these effects as coarse and tawdry, and prefers the naked beauty of the optical and auditory sensations, unadorned with frippery or foliage.

To the romantic mind, on the contrary, the immediate beauty of these sensations seems dry and thin. I am of course not discussing which view is right, but only showing that the discrimination between the primary feeling of beauty, as a pure incoming sensible quality, and the secondary emotions which are grafted thereupon, is one that must be made.

William James’ Bear
From Joseph LeDoux’s description of William James’s Emotion:

Why do we run away if we notice that we are in danger? Because we are afraid of what will happen if we don’t. This obvious (and incorrect) answer to a seemingly trivial question has been the central concern of a century-old debate about the nature of our emotions.

It all began in 1884 when William James published an article titled “What Is an Emotion?”The article appeared in a philosophy journal called Mind, as there were no psychology journals yet. It was important, not because it definitively answered the question it raised, but because of the way in which James phrased his response. He conceived of an emotion in terms of a sequence of events that starts with the occurrence of an arousing stimulus {the sympathetic nervous system or the parasympathetic nervous system}; and ends with a passionate feeling, a conscious emotional experience. A major goal of emotion research is still to elucidate this stimulus-to-feeling sequence — to figure out what processes come between the stimulus and the feeling.

James set out to answer his question by asking another: do we run from a bear because we are afraid or are we afraid because we run? He proposed that the obvious answer, that we run because we are afraid, was wrong, and instead argued that we are afraid because we run:

Our natural way of thinking about… emotions is that the mental perception of some fact excites the mental affection called emotion, and that this latter state of mind gives rise to the bodily expression. My thesis on the contrary is that the bodily changes follow directly the PERCEPTION of the exciting fact, and that our feeling of the same changes as they occur is the emotion (called ‘feeling’ by Damasio).

The essence of James’s proposal was simple. It was premised on the fact that emotions are often accompanied by bodily responses (racing heart, tight stomach, sweaty palms, tense muscles, and so on; sympathetic nervous system) and that we can sense what is going on inside our body much the same as we can sense what is going on in the outside world. According to James, emotions feel different from other states of mind because they have these bodily responses that give rise to internal sensations, and different emotions feel different from one another because they are accompanied by different bodily responses and sensations.

For example, when we see James’s bear, we run away. During this act of escape, the body goes through a physiological upheaval: blood pressure rises, heart rate increases, pupils dilate, palms sweat, muscles contract in certain ways (evolutionary, innate defense mechanisms). Other kinds of emotional situations will result in different bodily upheavals. In each case, the physiological responses return to the brain in the form of bodily sensations, and the unique pattern of sensory feedback gives each emotion its unique quality. Fear feels different from anger or love because it has a different physiological signature {the parasympathetic nervous system for love}. The mental aspect of emotion, the feeling, is a slave to its physiology, not vice versa: we do not tremble because we are afraid or cry because we feel sad; we are afraid because we tremble and are sad because we cry


Introducing William James – R.D. Richardson

February 6, 2012

William James

“If this life be not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a game of private theatricals from which one may withdraw at will. But it feels like a real fight — as if there were something really wild in the universe which we, with all our idealities and faithfulnesses, are needed to redeem.”
William James


He had not been sleeping well in Palo Alto all semester — he suffered from angina and had recently been much troubled by gout — and so William James was lying awake in bed a few minutes after five in the morning on April 18 when the great earthquake of 1906 struck. James was sixty-four, famous now as a teacher and for his work in psychology, philosophy, and religion. He was spending the year a visiting professor at Stanford University, twenty-five miles south of San Francisco. His mission was to put Stanford on the map in philosophy.

Jesse Cook, a police sergeant on duty that morning in the San Francisco produce market, first noticed the horses panicking, then saw the earthquake start. “There was a deep rumble, deep and terrible,” said Cook, “and then I could actually see it coming up Washington Street. The whole street was undulating. It was as if the waves of the ocean were coming toward me.” John Barrett, city desk news editor of the Examiner, was already in his office when he heard “a long low moaning sound that set buildings dancing on their foundations.” Barrett and his colleagues suddenly found themselves staggering. “It was as though the earth was slipping … away under our feet. There was a sickening sway, and we were all flat on our faces.” Looking up, Barrett saw nearby buildings “caught up in a macabre jig … They swayed out into the street, then rocked back, only to repeat the movement with even more determination.”

James Hopper, a reporter for the Call, was home in his bed. He rushed to his window. “I heard the roar of bricks coming down,” he wrote, “and the same time saw a pale crescent moon in the green sky. The St Franc hotel was waving to and fro with a swing as violent and exaggerated as tree in a tempest. Then the rear of my building, for three stories upward, fell. The mass struck a series of little wooden houses in the alley below. I saw them crash in like emptied eggs, the bricks passing through the roofs as though through tissue paper. I had this feeling of finality. This is death.”

Out in the streets, “trolley tracks were twisted, their wires down, wriggling like serpents, flashing blue sparks all the time.” Barrett saw that “the street was gashed in any number of places. From some of the holes water was spurting; from others gas.” Astonished guests in the Palace Hotel looked out one of its few intact windows and saw a woman in a nightgown carrying a baby by its legs, “as if it were a trussed turkey.”

In the first moments after the quake there was total silence. “The streets,” Hopper recalled, “were full of people, half clad, disheveled, but silent, absolutely silent.”

In San Jose, south of Palo Alto, along the line of the rip, the buildings of the state asylum at Agnews collapsed with a roar heard for miles, killing a hundred people, including eighty-seven inmates. Some of the more violent survivors rushed about, attacking anyone who came near. A doctor suggested that since there was no longer any place to put them, they should be tied up. Attendants brought ropes and tied the inmates hand and foot to those (small) trees that had been left standing.

In Palo Alto the stone quadrangle at Stanford was wrecked. Fourteen buildings fell; the ceiling of the church collapsed. The botanical garden was torn up as if by a giant plow. A statue of Louis Agassiz fell out of its niche and plunged to the pavement below, where it was photographed with its head in the ground and its feet in the air. Stanford was still on Easter vacation. Almost all the students were gone. One, however, was staying on the fourth floor of Encina Hall, a large stone dormitory. He sprang out of bed but was instantly thrown off his feet. “Then, with an awful, sinister, grinding roar, everything gave way, and with chimneys, floorbeams, walls and all, he descended through the three lower stories of the building into the basement.” The student, who later told all this to James, added that he had felt no fear at the time, though he had felt, “This is my end, this is my death.”°

The first thing William James noticed, as he lay awake in bed in the apartment he shared with his wife, Alice, on the Stanford campus, was that “the bed [began] to waggle.” He sat up, inadvertently, he said, then tried to get on his knees, but was thrown down on his face as the earthquake shook the room, “exactly as a terrier shakes a rat.” In a short piece of writing about the quake, written twenty-three days later, James recalled that “everything that was on anything else slid off to the floor; over went bureau and chiffonier with a crash, as the fortissimo was reached, plaster cracked, an awful roaring noise seemed to fill the outer air, and in an instant all was still again, save the soft babble of human voices from far and near.”‘

The thing was over in forty-eight seconds. James’s first unthinking response to the quake was, he tells us, one of “glee,” “admiration,” “delight,” and “welcome.” He felt, he said, no sense of fear whatever. “Go it,” I almost cried aloud, “and go it stronger” The Marcus Aurelius whom James admired, and who had prayed, “O Universe, I want what you want,” could scarcely have improved on James’s unhesitating, fierce, joyful embrace of the awful force of nature. It was for James a moment of contact with elemental reality, like Thoreau’s outburst on top of Mount Katandin, like Emerson’s opening the coffin of his young dead wife, or like the climax of Robert Browning’s poem “A Grammarian’s Funeral” (one of James’s favorites), in which the funeral procession of the outwardly unremarkable but deeply dedicated scholar — whose patient work has ignited the renaissance of learning — climbs from the valley of commonplace life to the heroic alpine heights where his spirit belongs:

Here — here’s his place,
where meteors shoot, clouds form,
Lightnings are loosened,
Stars come and go!
Let joy break with the storm.

James’s second response was to run to his wife’s room. Alice was unhurt, and had felt no fear either. Then James went with a young colleague, Lillien Martin, into the devastation of downtown San Francisco to search for her sister, who was also, it turned out, unhurt. James’s active sympathy and quick mobilization were characteristic, as was his third response to the event, which was to question everyone he saw about his or her feelings about the quake. His diary for the next day, April 19, says simply, “Talked earthquake all day.” It was also entirely characteristic that he next wrote up and published a short account of the experience, in which he noted that it was almost impossible to avoid personifying the event, and that the disaster had called out the best energies of a great many people.

James’s care for his wife, his concern for his colleague, and his writing up what he learned seem usual enough; it is his initial, unexamined, unprompted response that opens a door for us. James possessed what has been called a “great experiencing nature”; he was astonishingly, even alarmingly, open to new experiences. A student of his noted that he was at times a reckless experimenter with all sorts of untested drugs and gasses. This risk-taking, this avidity for the widest possible range of conscious experience, predisposed him to embrace things that many of us might find unsettling.

It has been suggested that the earthquake experience was for James the near equivalent of a war experience. It may have been that, and it may have been even more than that. He no longer believed — if he ever had — in a fixed world built on a solid foundation. The earthquake was for him a hint of the real condition of things, the real situation. The earthquake revealed a world (like James’s own conception of consciousness) that was pure flux having nothing stable, permanent, or absolute in it.

James had four years to live after the earthquake of 1906, and his work was far from done. In 1909 he was still trying to make sense of some of his most challenging and sweeping ideas in a book called A Pluralistic Universe. Here he firmly rejects what he calls the “stagnant felicity of the absolute’s own perfection” He rejects, that is, the idea that everything will finally be seen to fit together in one grand, interlocked, necessary, benevolent system. For James there are many centers of the universe, many points of view, many systems, much conflict and evil, as well as much beauty and good. It is, he said, “a universe of eaches.”

James’s universe is unimaginably rich, infinitely full and variegated, unified only in that every bit of it is alive. Citing the German thinker Gustav Fechner for protective intellectual cover — a common maneuver for the canny enthusiast whose intoxicated admiration extended outward to writers and thinkers in all directions — James speaks approvingly of “the daylight view of the world.” This is the view that “the whole universe in its different spans and wave-lengths, exclusions and envelopments, is everywhere alive and conscious.”

In Pragmatism, published a year after the quake, he wrote, “I firmly disbelieve, myself, that our human experience is the highest form of experience extant in the universe. I believe rather that we stand in much the same relation to the whole of the universe as our canine and feline pets do to the whole of human life. They inhabit our drawing rooms and libraries. They take part in scenes of whose significance they have no inkling. They are merely tangent to curves of history the beginnings and ends and forms of which pass wholly beyond their ken. So we are tangent to the wider life of things.”


Marilynne Robinson On William James

December 30, 2011

A review of a book I have on my wish list…Not the first time to post Marilynne Robinson. Selections from her On Human Nature here and here, if you wish to explore more. Years ago I first read Jacques Barzun’s A Stroll with William James, and it became a hugely formative work in my life and I look forward to revisiting James again after so many years and in the light of my conversion to Catholicism.


William James was born in 1842 and died in 1910. His contemporary, the philosopher George Santayana, said James “represented the true America, and represented in a measure the whole ultramodern, radical world.” He continues to be strikingly radical, and modern as well, though the richness of his vision creates a modernity that is as sunlight to moonlight, to borrow a phrase of his, compared with the wised-up and rather disheartened worldview we associate with this term.

Through the whole of his work, James elaborates, without repetition, a philosophic method that never becomes a system or an ideology. This is a conscious and highly meaningful act of restraint, one that paradoxically opens and enlarges the conceptual universe of philosophy. In his Principles of Psychology he says, “The only real truth about the world, apart from particular purposes, is the total truth.” This standard, though impossible in itself, permits and requires crucial inclusions that have not been characteristic of dominant schools of modern thought. He says, “The world contains consciousness as well as atoms — and the one must be written down as just as essential as the other, in the absence of any declared purpose regarding them on the creator’s part, or in the absence of any creator…. Atoms alone, or consciousness alone, are precisely equal mutilations of the truth.”

James insists that reality, philosophically understood, must include humankind and all it entails, notably thought itself, on equal terms with all other phenomena. The great ages in history, he says, “have said to the human being, ‘the inmost nature of the reality is congenial to powers which you possess.’” This may sound to us like an optimism the culture has outlived. But he may only be describing an exceptionalism we dread to acknowledge.

James’s philosophy has the qualities of a lucid and deeply coherent vision that is not to be distinguished from his method. He says, “If philosophy is more a matter of passionate vision than of logic — and I believe it is, logic only finding reasons for the vision afterwards,” then a vision that is defective or thin fails as philosophy. He brings an aesthetic standard to bear on thought, discovering “a certain native poverty of mental demand” in the work of some contemporaries, admiring by comparison scholasticism and Hegel because they both “ran thick.” A great philosophy must create a conceptual world large enough for a vigorous mind to inhabit, and within which, and against which, it can exercise its powers. His “pragmatism,” his insistence that ideas are meaningful not for their internal logic or coherence but in the ways they are reflected in behavior, secures a central place for thought within phenomenal reality by underscoring its effect. For better and worse, subjectively and therefore objectively, ideas shape the world.

On no grounds whatever, our chastened worldview is taken to require the exclusion from philosophic thought of the human self as experience. Now, when our mingled nature is overwhelmingly an issue in determining the future of the planet, we fold ourselves into the natural order that only we can threaten, as if it were realism rather than evasion to minimize our singular gifts and propensities and to pass ourselves off as nothing more than the cleverest of the apes.

Like old Adam hiding in the Edenic underbrush, trying to deny that his presence has added any new element to the world’s being, we minimize the fact that we, alone in nature, can and do make choices whose consequences are profound, endless, unfathomable. Refusing our exceptionalism we deny its essence and mystery — the mind in time and through time, the ponderings of aged civilizations as surely as the sudden lonely insight. The openness of James’s method to the reality of everything human is sound and empirical. In this and in much else he represents choices we would do well to return to, options we would still find of use.

It is difficult for any selection to do justice to the thought of William James, and difficult as well for a reviewer to do justice to the seventeen fine essays collected in The Heart of William James. He is fortunate to have Robert Richardson as his biographer, editor and interpreter, a kindred spirit whose admiration for James is thoroughly compounded with his enjoyment of him. He makes the great man accessible as if he were presenting an honored friend, ready to step out of the way and allow a wonderful conversation to begin. And James is indeed a remarkable acquaintance, full of the pleasures of fine prose and humorous insight, and demanding all the same.

Thought, the continuous interior weather called thinking, was vitally important to James, for a number of years perhaps a matter of life and death. As a young man he passed through a profound and prolonged crisis, mental or emotional or spiritual, insofar as such distinctions can be thought of as meaningful to him. In retrospect he laid his despair to his loss of belief in freedom of the will. His depression was disabling to him physically, and the cures he sought out in Europe did nothing to relieve it. He struggled with thoughts of suicide. Then he read a book by the French philosopher Charles Bernard Renouvier, who argued that one was made free by acting as if he were free. So began his convalescence, and after it an extraordinary career that made him internationally famous in his lifetime and a figure of continuing influence in American and world culture.

It seems reasonable to speculate that these dark years moved James to immerse himself in the study of the new science of psychology and also to develop a philosophy that emphatically foregrounds the mind. His experience of an idea as an entrapment may have moved him to develop his spacious, pluralist, open philosophy, which never subordinates the reports of consciousness to a system, and neither precludes new insight nor denies the authority of the context of individual consciousness that so largely determines issues of ambivalence or belief/disbelief. (For James these latter form one category, one settled state of mind.)

From our perspective, James’s account of his depression might itself seem questionable, since it does fall far outside the range of our understanding of such things, even calling up that ungenerous but respectable critical method rightly named suspicion. To chalk it up to genetics or chemical imbalance or to lay it to the complexities of his childhood and family might seem more plausible to the general educated reader.

We tend to undervalue the importance of thinking and of books in one part of our cultural mind, even while we live among great libraries and universities. One need only mention Newton or Darwin to make the point that ideas and books participate very deeply in reality — in Jamesian terms, they do indeed inform behavior — and therefore it seems fair to believe that James’s sufferings were as he described them and ended as he said they did, with his reading of Charles Renouvier.


“Will” was a potent concept in the thought of the time, and it is crucial to James’s thinking. In the first of these essays, “What Is an Emotion?,” though he makes no allusion to it, James is writing from a perspective rather like that he describes in The Varieties of Religious Experience, of one looking back from the far side of a life-altering and wholly subjective event, in his case an overwhelming depression, and considering the understanding with which he emerged from it. He makes references in his treatment of emotion to the science of the moment, unsettled on the subject then as it is now.

What he proposes might finally seem to the modern reader to reflect critical thought less than it does a stoical nineteenth-century upbringing, perhaps reflecting class and gender. And this in turn might create a presumption against him that would diminish the pleasure of reading on. He is, however, entirely deserving of the reader’s trust.

James argues that emotion is not prior to its expression but identical with it, and that emotion can be limited by the decision to contain its expression. In his view, this would not mean its suppression, an idea that takes an emotion to be a fixed quantity that will either be expended in some proportion to its strength, or will be put out of sight, to fester or to distort the consciousness forced to contain it. Rather, he says, composure diminishes fear, calm dissipates anger.

Over time or from a little distance the nature of the emotion will change — “Refuse to express a passion, and it dies.” And, as a corollary, “if we wish to conquer undesirable emotional tendencies in ourselves, we must assiduously, and in the first instance cold-bloodedly, go through the outward motions of those contrary dispositions we prefer to cultivate,” kindliness, cheerfulness and geniality, for example. He knows he is repeating a commonplace. He says, “there is no more valuable precept in moral education than this.” So he has no doubt seen instances of cold-blooded kindliness and probably dealt in it himself.

But the assumption that in this way the will can shape not only behavior but experience too means there is nothing false in this sort of feigning, though James’s language suggests he is alive to the humor of it. Skeptics might dismiss it as hypocrisy, but this would be the consequence of an assumption very foreign to his thinking, that the true self is another fixed quantity, that it has no role in determining its own character or shaping its own moral aesthetic.

Suspicions might arise because James is in fact proposing a regime of good manners, an assertion of the will relative to oneself that would involve tact and restraint, and would make one a better friend, a better citizen. If this seems at first a less thrilling notion than the will to power, also abroad in the world at the time, James’s implicit response is the power, magnanimity and embrace of individual human consciousness he enacts in his writing. He is the perceiver eager to grant the autonomy, the essential unknowability, of everything and anything.

The James persona, an affable presence, a voice thinking, always draws attention to itself as one perceiver, always speaking its mind, as they say, sometimes prying apart conventional associations to consider their workings, sometimes mildly and ironically overturning the world of great opinion, Kant, Hegel, Spencer, by appeal to an audience as fellow perceivers. The voice is personal and impersonal, singular and universal, like the voice of Walt Whitman, whom James sometimes quotes at length and whom he calls “a contemporary prophet.”

Freedom for James has a civil and moderated form, or a complex contextuality, for which America as an idea provides him with terms. Everything central to James’s work is a consequence of his refusal to countenance the idea that there is an ontological hierarchy that grants a greater degree of reality to any system or abstraction or anything objectively known or knowable than it does to thought and perception.

Completion or conclusion are no more appropriate to philosophy than they are characteristic of the universe of phenomena. On one hand he grants that the world exists for us only as we know it, and on the other hand he sees the individual consciousness as efficacious, active in the creation of a reality that is also objective, available to our knowledge in a degree that permits efficacy. In his words, the mind has a vote.

And he proposes a deeper liberty of conception in this new world. In the second essay, “The Dilemma of Determinism,” he says, “The principle of causality, for example — what is it but a postulate, an empty name covering simply a demand that the sequence of events shall some day manifest a deeper kind of belonging of one thing with another than the mere arbitrary juxtaposition which now phenomenally appears? It is as much an altar to an unknown god as the one that Saint Paul found at Athens.”

The Apostle saw, among the many shrines to the many gods of Athens, one dedicated to a deity whose name and attributes were unknown to the Athenians. Their intent in raising it may have been no more than prudent. But Paul makes the plausible suggestion that this is in fact the God behind all things, the god in whom “we live and move and have our being,” he says, quoting a Greek poet. Causality, in which we also live and move, is unexplained now, just as it was in 1884 when James delivered this essay as an address to the Harvard Divinity School, though all our certitudes depend on the pretense that there are no such radical mysteries underlying them.

Here James is making an argument for what he calls “chance,” his name for a proposed ontological basis for human freedom. But his argument figuratively extends emancipation to being itself, and literally asserts that being is aloof from forms of comprehension that yield determinism. Indeterminism “admits that possibilities may be in excess of actualities, and that things not revealed to our knowledge may really in themselves be ambiguous.

Of two alternative futures which we conceive, both may now be really possible; and the one become impossible only at the very moment when the other excludes it by becoming real itself. Indeterminism thus denies the world to be one unbending unit of fact.” Whoever uses his word “chance” “squarely and resolutely gives up all pretence to control the things he says are free…. It is a word of impotence, and is therefore the only sincere word we can use, if, in granting freedom to certain things, we grant it honestly, and really risk the game.”

The centrality of the observer in a universe of indeterminacy is a concept with a very modern sound. James describes “a pluralistic, restless universe, in which no single point of view can ever take in the whole scene.” The physicist Stephen Hawking says, “Quantum physics tells us that no matter how thorough our observation of the present, the (unobserved) past, like the future, is indefinite and exists only as a spectrum of possibilities. The universe, according to quantum physics, has no single past, or history.” And he says, “We create history by our observation, rather than history creating us.” This would seem to enhance the efficacy of the observer, since James’s “impotent” human perceiver concedes and in some sense apprehends that a million unencountered potentialities inhere in any experience.

James’s discipline of tact would not allow him to endorse Hawking’s interpretation of our circumstance that it “makes us in a sense the lords of creation.” But James’s model of reality asserts an equally essential role for the observer. Unlike Hawking, James proceeds from profound attention to the actual workings of consciousness. He is the mind’s observer as he is the observer of other reality, in order to engage the epistemological problem to which consciousness is central. In this James is not modern at all, though his approach seems eminently sensible. Hawking takes what is now the conventional view, that intelligence is an artifact of the complexity of physical reality, and free will an illusion. He seems not to find it strange that the lord creator of the glorious cosmos should itself be of marginal interest to the study of the reality it makes and has made.

James does not exclude categories of thought or feeling from among the data that are of interest to the perceiver, and therefore from the fact of the given world. He says, “If a certain formula for expressing the nature of the world violates my moral demand, I shall feel as free to throw it overboard, or at least to doubt it, as if it disappointed my demand for uniformity of sequence, for example; the one demand being, so far as I can see, quite as subjective and emotional as the other is.”

Subjectivity is for him profoundly human, honorable, distractible, fallible — indeed indistinguishable from a thinking self. In his acknowledging its centrality he assumes that what matters in human and subjective terms matters in fact. That is to say, the phenomena of perceived meaning are for him a fully legitimate part of the universe of things. He says, “To be rapt with satisfied attention, like Whitman, to the mere spectacle of the world’s presence, is one way, and the most fundamental way, of confessing one’s sense of its unfathomable significance and importance.”

This is quoted from the essay titled “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings.” The blindness he describes is precisely the failure to perceive and value the interior universe that is the reality of any other life, any other mind. Awareness of it, 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, although each observer gains a partial superiority of insight from the peculiar position in which he stands.” His epistemology yields a social and political ethic because he takes seriously the observer as a phenomenon within the phenomenal world.

Even if one grants the harmony of this ethic with democracy and with the consciously American identity James chose for himself, nevertheless his keeping the reality of the observer, and its human character, active as a factor in his thinking is entirely warranted, not only from the perspective of philosophy and psychology but also from the perspective of the science that follows him in positing its centrality. Physicists use the term “observer” in ways that are special to the discipline and defined by context. A molecule can be said to “observe.” But however the term is used it clearly describes something continuous with human awareness or attention — of an experimenter, for example — and Hawking uses it only in this sense.

Yet his observer is a disembodied potency, collectively lord of creation, free of the tedious burden of mortal limits. This vision has much in common with mysticism, and might be seen as a vindication of mysticism, of Solomon’s “Wisdom, the fashioner of all things” who is “more beautiful than the sun, and excels every constellation of the stars.” James, on the other hand, gives the observer flesh and particularity, phenomenal this-worldliness, complicating every problem Hawking’s abstraction passes over. Words like “beautiful” and “excellent” inevitably become subjective and elusive precisely because they are factors in any actual humanly embodied construction of reality.


The controversy that engrosses certain of us at present, called, however accurately, the argument between science and religion, is a good illustration of the precedence vision takes over logic in these matters. The brilliance of the physical world, the superb intricacy of the cell, the antic indeterminacy of the electron, are used by one side to prove there must be a Creator and by the other side to demonstrate that nature is sufficient unto itself and God an unnecessary hypothesis.

Both theists and atheists feel their case is made, on the basis of exactly the same evidence. This is interesting in its own right. The vision that pre-exists their logic is surely determining in the great majority of cases, “logic only finding reasons for the vision afterwards.” Looked at directly, this common feature of the thinking of the two sides should yield significant insight into the workings of the mind, and should in any case alleviate the rancor that comes with so many years of mutual incomprehension.

James deals with this old controversy in the essay “Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results.” The dispute, he says, is not really about “hair-splitting abstractions about matter’s inner essence, or about the metaphysical attributes of God. Materialism means simply the denial that the moral order is eternal, and the cutting off of ultimate hopes; theism means the affirmation of an eternal moral order and the letting loose of hope. Surely here is an issue genuine enough, for anyone who feels it; and, as long as men are men, it will yield matter for serious philosophic debate. Concerning this question at any rate, the positivists and pooh-pooh-ers of metaphysics are wrong.”

If human presence in the cosmos has the centrality James — and Hawking — claim for it, then “this need of an eternal moral order,” which “is one of the deepest needs of our breast,” is not to be dismissed. Such intuitions could as well reflect our incomprehensible (though struggling and error-prone) ability to comprehend the universe as physics and astronomy. Scientific materialism, says James, is “not a permanent warrant for our more ideal interests, not a fulfiller of our remotest hopes.” For scientific materialism, our ideals and hopes have nothing to do with the nature of things and will die an absolute death.

In James’s understanding, it is theism that places us in the cosmos whole and wholly human. “A world with a God in it to say the last word, may indeed burn up or freeze, but we then think of him as still mindful of the old ideals and sure to bring them elsewhere to fruition; so that, where he is, tragedy is only provisional and partial, and shipwreck and dissolution not the absolutely final things.” But metaphysics is only half the conversation, so “as long as men are men,” as long as we are human, there will be voices in this vast, cold universe debating ultimate things. And this is also beautiful.


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