Trotting out William James’s signature parting words once again today, for our last Stroll Thru Western Civilization class of the summer. They were never more apt.
“There is no conclusion. What has 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!”
That was James’s farewell in the summer of 1910, an encomium to a certain “pluralistic mystic” whose openness to new experience and constant intellectual reconstruction was unstinting. Aristotle and his peripatetics were early exemplars of that kind of openness in philosophy. Plato’s mind, from a Jamesian perspective, was not so supple.
But we still need to read and argue with Plato, and not simply dismiss him. That’s one of the few nonambivalent conclusions our main texts have led us to this summer. The empiricist-rationalist conversation has not concluded. The stroll continues.
But we need to stroll with a lightness of step, and resist the heaviness of heart that weighs down too many philosophers with too inflated a self-regard. A few years before his final farewell James acknowledged this malady, and punctured its pretensions.
I am convinced that the desire to formulate truths is a virulent disease. It has contracted an alliance lately in me with a feverish personal ambition, which I never had before, and which I recognize as an unholy thing in such a connection. I actually dread to die until I have settled the Universe’s hash in one more book, which shall be epoch-making at last, and a title of honor to my children! Childish idiot—as if formulas about the Universe could ruffle its majesty, and as if the common-sense world and its duties were not eternally the really real!
So this is not goodbye, it’s “talk to you later.” Meanwhile, I just want to leave my fellow strollers with the message on the sign on the little looping trail in my neighborhood. I used to recite it mantra-like, every time I passed it. So though the sign’s now gone the message is indelibly stored in memory, and in an old photo* on my bulletin board:
There is implicit “advice to be given,” after all. It pairs well with Mr. Einstein‘s: “The important thing is not to stop questioning.”
5:50/5:58, 77/92/72, 7:49
*Found another one:
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