“Common sense, dancing”

It’s my wife’s birthday, hence the first day of the short annual interregnum when I get to be the younger half. But the younger’s not the better, I’d better add.

She shares her nativity with my philosophical muse.

It’s the birthday of the psychologist and philosopher William James (books by this author), born in New York City (1842). He was the older brother of the novelist Henry James and one of the most prominent thinkers of his era. He was a man who started out studying medicine, went on to become one of the founders of modern psychology, and finished his life as a prominent philosopher.

He was a professor of physiology at Harvard when he was hired to write a textbook about the new field of psychology, which was challenging the idea that the body and the mind were separate. The book was called The Principles of Psychology (1890). It was used as a textbook in college classrooms, but it was also translated into a dozen different languages, and people read it all over the world.

One of the ideas he developed in the book was a theory of the human mind that he called “a stream of consciousness.” Before him, the common view was that a person’s thoughts have a clear beginning and end, and that the thinker is in control of his or her thoughts. But William James wrote: “Consciousness […] does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. Such words as ‘chain’ or ‘train’ do not describe it fitly as it presents itself in the first instance. It is nothing jointed; it flows.”

James’s ideas about consciousness were especially influential on writers, and novelists from James Joyce to William Faulkner began to portray streams of consciousness in their work, through language, letting characters think at length and at random on the page. Consciousness itself became one of the most important subjects of modern literature.

He also helped invent the technique of automatic writing, in which a person writes as quickly as possible whatever comes into one’s head. He encouraged audiences to take the practice up as a form of self-analysis, and one person who took his advice was a student named Gertrude Stein, who went on to use it as the basis of her writing style.

William James wrote: “Common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humor is just common sense, dancing.” WA

Nice blurb, Mr. Keillor.  WJ clearly has influenced generations of world-historical intellectuals. Every educated person ought to have heard of him, wouldn’t you think?

Every college freshman, in fact. College freshmen in Greece and Germany and France have generally heard of their seminal philosophers, their Platos and Hegels and Descartes et al.

But next week I’ll confirm again that this isn’t so, as yesterday I once again confirmed that America’s greatest philosopher is generally unknown in Carlin Romano’s so-called “America the Philosophical.”

Younger Daughter and I paid yet another call on her physical therapist at Vandy, who’s helping rehab her busted pinky. The PT is well-practiced in the art of small talk, a vocational asset I’m sure, but when the subject turned to my work it was clear that she’d never heard of WJ. To her credit, she had apparently heard of his little brother. “Didn’t he write novels?”

Well, I tried to boil down the gist of WJ’s importance in quick summary style. Suddenly our voluble therapist was without words. “That’s interesting.” Turning back to Younger Daughter for rescue: “What kind of cell phone do you have?”

It’s a cultural literacy deficit we have in America, at least as troubling as the budget deficit.

As for Mr. Keillor, our modern Mark Twain, our “national treasure” who’s been bringing the weekly news from Lake Wobegon for decades: my stepsister’s new boyfriend, with whom we visited during the holidays in Missouri, is from Anoka, Minnesota, the real Lake Wobegon, “the little town that time forget and the decades could not improve.” Are Anokans proud of their fictional alter ego?

“Never heard of it. Or him.”

If he were from Hannibal I guess he’d not have heard of Twain either. Sis has found herself a real American, a common man. Like the therapist, he’s nice and polite as can be. They both deserve their fanfare too. God bless the U.S.A.

And thank goodness for a sense of humor. May I have this dance?


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