Time to resume the regular Friday routine of dipping into Robert Richardson’s compendious biography William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism. I’ll try not to be redundant, not to repeat scenes from our last pass through this richly detailed glimpse into the life and thought of my favorite philosopher. That shouldn’t be hard, Richardson packs a lot into each chunk of forty-something pages and we only scratched the surface the first time. (But, Spring ’10 Intro students, do take a look at those older posts– to be designated WJ 1 , WJ 2, WJ 3 etc.) Note in particular the discussion in WJ 1 of “sacred matter,” in light of what we read and talked about on Wednesday regarding Epicurus on the afterlife and Democritus on atoms. Also, the connection between James and Ralph Waldo Emerson, the “sage of Concord” who still provokes strong reactions either of loyalty or scorn. (See, for instance, a recent diatribe against his “cult” that proposes to “give Emerson the boot.”) Also attend to the importance in James’s philosophy of the very concept of attention, which Richardson says he learned to value as a young art student.
How important is William James, for American philosophy and in general? Well, the English philosopher-mathematician Alfred North Whitehead (best known for overstating the importance of Plato by declaring all subsequent philosophy a series of footnotes thereto) famously listed him as one of “four great thinkers,” filling out the quartet with Plato (of course), Aristotle, and Leibniz. (That’s ironic: James despised Leibniz.)
John McDermott: “William James is to classic American philosophy as Plato was to Greek and Roman philosophy.” Pretty important.
This is a bit redundant, but relevant and revealing: thinking of how horrified we’ve all been in recent days by the devastation wrought by Haiti’s recent earthquake, it’s striking to contrast James’s reaction to the ’06 San Francisco quake. (He was nearby, in Palo Alto.) He was suitably humane and concerned for the victims, but he was also intrigued and excited by it, and quick to note the silver lining: such disasters may elicit the “best energies of a great many people,” and James “was all energy”– except when he was depressed, as periodically he was. But the down-times never permanently dented his constitutional joie de vivre. In his psychology he made a great deal of the importance of habit (“the enormous fly-wheel of society”), but he was also always “open to new experiences” and always expected them to teach him something useful.
He was a pluralist: “there are many centers of the universe, many [real and instructive] points of view.” Each of us has a “lantern” (as his beloved Robert Louis Stevenson depicted the “interior spark” of unique personal subjectivity) with which to light up the sources of joy that will speak uniquely to each of us.
He sprang from a remarkable family, a “house of wits” including his famous younger brother Henry (the novelist). Henry, ever the close observer of life, documented William’s early traits of personality: “intensity of animation and spontaneity of expression.” From the inside, those traits felt to William like “torn-to-pieces-hood” and “zig-zag and interruption.” He would always be a restless person, given to constant motion and activity. Not the stereotypical scholar.
He was an experimentalist (like Dewey) by nature, cheerfully offering himself up as a physiological guinea-pig for experiments with psycho-active substances that he always hoped would open unexpected doors of perception. Alcohol “excites the ‘yes’ function” (but is still not to be trusted), laughing gas nearly makes Hegel make sense, yoga and fletcherizing (basically masticating food to smithereens– his brother swore by it) and what we would call “alternative” therapies are worth a shot.
As this first installment ends, in the spring of 1861, the 19-year old William James has just learned of the confederate attack on Fort Sumter that launched the American Civil War. He’s prepared to march off and do his soldierly duty. If we didn’t know how the story continues, we might worry over his life-prospects at this point. And isn’t it disquieting to think of all the philosophers that might have been, but of whom we’ve never heard, because they did march off to fight and die in the endless procession of bloody conflicts that make it hard, sometimes, to think of our species as progressing. But James did think that, even though the “war to end war” that raged not long after his own death in 1910 was only another beginning. James had a better idea, a “moral equivalent” of war without all the carnage. So far, war has been the only force that can discipline a whole community, and until an equivalent discipline is organized, I believe that war must have its way. But I have no serious doubt that the ordinary prides and shames of social man, once developed to a certain intensity, are capable of organizing such a moral equivalent…
We’re still looking for leaders who’ll apply that idea consistently, and really earn their pacifist stripes. James would tell us, on his better days, not to get too discouraged. Roll up your sleeves, he’d say, pitch in and clean up the rubble.