How to Live an Experiment

More Jamesian happiness today. On a Certain Blindness (1899) sounds a fundamentally altruistic note, as interested in (though necessarily less comprehending of) others’ “springs of delight” as in one’s own. I’ve just finished Matthieu Ricard’s Altruism, and am struck by the consanguinity of Ricard’s Buddhism with James’s pragmatic pluralism. The latter celebrates individuality, subjectivity, and selfhood, sure; but it equally extols empathy and compassion.

Those virtues were on impressive display, I noted out in the courtyard as we flipped our routine and squeezed out a little more late-afternoon daylight walkabout discussion time (“it gets late real early” now, to borrow a Yogi-ism), when young William James advised a friend – and himself – to counter what we’d nowadays call SAD (seasonal affective disorder) with a fictive inner shift of attention:

Image result for skimming gullsRemember when old December’s darkness is everywhere about you, that the world is really in every minutest point as full of life as in the most joyous morning you ever lived through; that the sun is whanging down, and the waves dancing, and the gulls skimming down at the mouth of the Amazon, for instance, as freshly as in the first morning of creation; and the hour is just as fit as any hour that ever was for a new gospel of cheer to be preached. I am sure that one can, by merely thinking of these matters of fact, limit the power of one’s evil moods over one’s way of looking at the cosmos.

Today, we turn back to two of his earlier essays: The Sentiment of Rationality (1879) and The Dilemma of Determinism (1884).

They convey the themes most central to James’s perpetual interest in personal flourishing: enthusiastic acceptance of one’s own and others’ distinctive individuality as the pre-eminent condition of feeling oneself “at home” in the world, at peace and at liberty to enjoy “the sufficiency of the present moment”; and, a sense of one’s own free agency as pragmatically vindicated by those who act on it (“my first act of free will shall be to believe in free will”). For James, to be happy is fully to inhabit the present and confidently anticipate your fitness to meet the future freely.

The latest “Stone” essay, “How to Live a Lie,” proposes that James was a “free will fictionalist” who willfully accepted propositions that defy rational belief. I don’t think much of the Times headline-writer’s decision to label that a “Lie,” fiction at its best is a vehicle of truth. Better to call it living an experiment, in the Millian sense: each of us, insofar as our lives become for us projects in pursuit of well-being, are experimentalists seeking the right personal fit between our beliefs, statements, actions, and experience. James was a life-long free will experimentalist, who found that believing in free will conduced to the best version of himself, made the most “rational” sense of his experience, made him a better philosopher and a better human being, made him happy in the fullest sense of the term. No lie.

5:30/6:15, 66/75

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