Archive for November 21st, 2017

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November 21, 2017

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How to Live an Experiment

November 21, 2017

More Jamesian happiness today. We’ve briefly considered On a Certain Blindness (1899), which sounds a fundamentally altruistic note. It’s as interested in (though necessarily less comprehending of) others’ “springs of delight” as in one’s own. (We’ll take a closer look at Blindness next time.)

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 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.

Why do we philosophize? James says we seek a more rational “frame of things,” marked by “a strong feeling of ease, peace, & rest” affording transition from confusion and perplexity to pleasure in rational comprehension. That’s a subjective definition of rationality, concerned not simply with the degree of objective fit between our ideas and the world but with the palpable and personal perception therof.

The poet Walt Whitman celebrated the feeling of sufficiency just “as I am,” and James says that “fluent” feeling is rationality’s sine qua non. “Whatever modes of conceiving the cosmos facilitate this fluency, produce the sentiment of rationality.” The very coupling of sentiment and rationality was already a clue, of course, that James’s approach would defy rational convention. Not many epistemologists are interested in how rationality feels. That didn’t deter James, who was given to mocking “our bald-headed young PhDs, boring one another at conferences” with their erkentnisstheories etc.

“Every one knows how when a painful thing has to be undergone in the near future, the vague feeling that it is impending penetrates all our thought with uneasiness and subtly vitiates our mood even when it does not control our attention; it keeps us from being at rest, at home in the given present. The same is true when a great happiness awaits us.” Anticipation is making me wait, is keeping me waiting, sang Carly Simon in a song made silly by association with ketchup. The waiting is the hardest part, sang Tom Petty. Fluency and sufficiency are hard to have and hold, but when you finally get there it’s the greatest deliverance and homecoming. Indeed, “coming to feel at home” is the great prize in life for the human animal.

“It is of the utmost practical importance to an animal that he should have prevision of the qualities of the objects that surround him, and especially that he should not come to rest in presence of circumstances that might be fraught either with peril or advantage.” Evolution wants us (so to speak) to feel at home in secure surroundings, and spurs our curiosity to interrogate our surroundings and insure their homeliness. 
Must we wait and hope for the fluent feeling of homey sufficiency to descend and grace us? No, we must muster our subjective energies and go after it. 

in every fact into which there enters an element of personal contribution on my part, as soon as this personal contribution demands a certain degree of subjective energy which, in its turn, calls for a certain amount of faith in the result,–so that, after all, the future fact is conditioned by my present faith in it,–how trebly asinine would it be for me to deny myself the use of the subjective method, the method of belief based on desire!

If you’re climbing in the Alps and must face either certain death or a death-defying leap, you’d better believe in yourself. “The part of wisdom clearly is to believe what one desires; for the belief is one of the indispensable preliminary conditions of the realization of its object. There are then cases where faith creates its own verification.” That’s the view Bertrand Russell derided as the will to make-believe. But Russell was no climber, though like us all he was a chooser and a decider.

Are our choices and decisions freely willed? It so, we can’t allow ourselves to be compelled to believe. “Our first act of freedom, if we are free, ought in all inward propriety to be to affirm that we are free.” That was James’s own decision, when he “just about touched bottom” and then fortuitously discovered Renouvier’s definition of free will as the directed control of one’s own attentive mind and decided to experiment with it. To attend to one thing and not another is to court a specific range of possibilities. James was forever battling the Rationalist/Idealist Hegelians and Positivist Necessitarians  of his day, whose doctrines seemed to deny possibility as a real feature of our world. 

“A world with a chance in it of being altogether good, even if the chance never come to pass, is better than a world with no such chance at all… the chance that in moral respects the future may be other and better than the past has been” is more rational if it frees us to entertain and experiment with more possibilities, and occasionally to summon our personal energy, to sustain a promising but insecure leap of belief and action towards something better. That’s taking a chance, and not surrendering to fate.
As we’ve noted, some of us are more at home in a personal world of chance and risk. Those who are, studies seem to show, are happier.

The “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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