One of my favorite Star Trek moments melds with one of my favorite James quotes, to produce a simple and even obvious point* that 7 out of 10 working philosophers don’t get. (Actual numbers vary, depending on which subset of philosophers you’re polling.)
I’ve said it before. An open, evolving, personal and pluralistic universe invites and promises adventure (“zest” was James’s preferred word), for those who go to meet it. Pluralism thus becomes a humanism: we (each and all, as individuals and as a species) have the opportunity and the capacity to make a constructive difference in the world. We’re all better off for that, and must “respect one another’s mental freedom.”
It was in just this spirit that an inspired scriptwriter once had Captain Picard of the starship Enterprise giving a copy of A Pluralistic Universe to young Ensign Crusher, who protests: “William James won’t be on my Starfleet exams.” Picard answers, “Nothing really important will be. Open yourself to the past, history, art, philosophy, and all of this might mean something.”
James (like Emerson) would also tell the young man to take from his book what is useful and life-giving to him, and then put it down and go collect fresh experiences. A Pluralistic Universe contains what may be the single most important statement in James’s entire corpus of published works:
“I am tiring myself and you, I know, by vainly seeking to describe by concepts and words what . . . exceeds either conceptualization or verbalization. As long as one continues talking, intellectualism remains in undisturbed possession of the field. The return to life can’t come about by talking. It is an act; to make you return to life, I must set an example for your imitation, I must deafen you to talk, or to the importance of talk. . . . Or I must point, point to the mere that of life, and you by inner sympathy must fill out the what for yourselves”.
This is a perplexing, disconcerting thing to read in the middle of a book, and might incline some readers to put it down in tired exasperation. But a footnote anticipates and defuses the mood, with a little help from James’s friend Henri Bergson.
“In using concepts of his own to discredit the theoretic claims of concepts generally, Bergson… shows us to what quarter we must practically turn if we wish to gain that completer insight into reality which he denies that they can give.”
James is with Bergson on this. Fight bad concepts with better ones – the ones that admit their own limitations and point to what they cannot say, and move us past contemplation for its own sake. The crucial point, then…
*Don’t just sit there, Wesley. Think. Then, do something. (And don’t just tweet about it, Wil.)