American Philosophy

Bertrand Russell admits “the highest possible excellence” in William James’s contributions to the then-fledgling discipline of psychology, somehow missing its continuity with the rest of James’s philosophical work. Principles is philosophical to the core. Consider:

“The hell to be endured hereafter, of which theology tells, is no worse than the hell we make for ourselves in this world by habitually fashioning our characters in the wrong way. Could the young but realize how soon they will become mere walking bundles of habits, they would give more heed to their conduct…”

To miss the philosophy in a passage like this, in a two-volume tome chock-full of similar wit and insight, is obtuse. It might be peevish and perverse. “The mind is at every stage a theatre of simultaneous possibilities… How different must be the worlds in the consciousness of ant, cuttle-fish,
or crab!” Or Yankee pragmatist and English patrician epistemologist!

Russell does give James his humane personal due, recognizing his “warm-heartedness and delightful humour,” and acknowledges that James persuaded him of the truth of radical empiricism and “would on this ground alone deserve a high place among philosophers.” He then goes on to mis-characterize the scope and intent of James’s pragmatism and Dewey‘s instrumentalism and naturalism, while again crediting the latter American’s personal character and generosity of spirit. But would any self-respecting Yank really have trouble answering a question like “Did you have coffee with your breakfast this morning?” Is the will to believe really no more sophisticated than Santa Claus? [James & Dewey on natural piety… Dewey’s natural religion]
The best diagnosis of Russellian resistance to common sense I’ve seen is in a charming new book by John Kaag, American Philosophy: A Love Story. It “hits the sweet spot between intellectual history and personal memoir,” writes a reviewer, a “transcendently wonderful love song to philosophy and its ability ‘to help individuals work through the trials of experience.'” Kaag hits the obtuse nail on the head:

“The point of American philosophy isn’t to be ‘right’ in any definitive sense of the word; such Cartesian certainty struck most American pragmatists as overly simplistic or just plain arrogant. The point of American philosophy is not to have a specific, rock-solid point, but rather to outline a problem, explore its context, get a sense of the whole experiential situation in which the problem arises, and give a tentative yet practical answer.”

That’s all too vague for Kaag’s Kantian love interest, and for Russell. But it works for me.

6 am/7:06, 46/83, 5:55

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