Posts Tagged ‘1906 San Francisco earthquake’

WJ 13.1

April 21, 2010

James loved the Parthenon, aesthetically, architecturally, symbolically. Me too.  It’s one of the great monuments to wisdom,and gilded Athena is cool… WJ 13

But let’s talk now about his response to great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. [USGS] He was there, or close enough in Palo Alto, during a visit to Stanford. His vivid description of the April 18 disaster (as detailed in the preceding link) reveals a predominant attitude of excitement, exuberance, even boyish delight in the unexpected demonstration of nature’s awesome but usually-restrained energies.

Most of Stanford lay in ruins. James went into San Francisco and saw the “whole population in the streets”… his first, instinctual response was to greet the earthquake with a wild Olympian joy…. in his heart of hearts he embraced and welcomed chaos, cataclysm, change, Zerrissenheit (brokenness), impulse, and chance.

His openness to experience, even to disastrous experience, is the key to the temperament that was now driving James’s interest in radical empiricism, panpsychism, pluralism, and pragmatism. We may ignore no experience.

Also of note, at this time: the infamous “bitch-goddess” letter to H.G. Wells decrying our squalid national aping after the lowest-common-denominator variety of “success.” (This link includes Alain de Botton’s TED Talk on the subject. Wouldn’t it have been fun to see WJ’s TED Talk? Wonder what he’d have said about James Randi‘s?)

And in the late Fall of ’06 he commences the lectures that are later published as Pragmatism. He begins with the announcement that the history of philosophy records an ongoing “clash of human temperaments,” loosely ranging under the headings of “Tough-Minded” and “Tender-Minded.”  The former tend to favor empiricism, facts, materialism, pessimism, irreligion, fatalism, pluralism, and skepticism. The latter: rationalism, intellectualism, idealism, optimism, religion, free-will, monism, and dogmatism. But most of us are a composite of both types, and pragmatism (which derives directly from Darwin) promises to mediate between them.

This first lecture (“The Present Dilemma in Philosophy“) is also where James goes after Leibniz’s “superficiality incarnate” and the “airy and shallow optimism of current religious philosophy.”

One of Pragmatism‘s more intriguing analogies:

We stand in much the same relation to the whole of the universe as our canine and feline pets do to the whole of human life. They inhabit our drawing-rooms and libraries. They take part  in scenes of whose significance they have no inkling. They are merely tanget to curves of history the beginnings and ends and forms of which pass wholly beyond their ken. So we are tangents to the wider life of things.

Maybe so. (Our cat “Zeus” is trying to use my keyboard as a pillow, even as I type this.) But the smartest “dogs” in our pound seem to exhibit a greater curiosity and potential for mental expansion than I’ve detected in my own charmingly simple walking & blogging companions. I predict we’ll continue to fruitfully explore the wider life, without any serious risk of disenchanting our drawing rooms.

The Energies of Men” is one of James’s enduringly-popular essays from this time. Ideas power the world, he writes. “Ideas set free beliefs, and the beliefs set free our wills. The  result is freedom…”

James gave his last Harvard lecture in January 1907, “dying as a Professor” but continuing to think and lecture elsewhere.  And he continues to discover and celebrate other thinkers, including Gustav Fechner… who inspires James to observe  that “when we die, it’s as if an eye of the world were closed.”

But his eyes are still wide open. There’s  so much to experience, so much to see.

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WJ 1.1

January 22, 2010

Time to resume the regular Friday routine of dipping into Robert Richardson’s compendious biography William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism. I’ll try not to be redundant, not to repeat scenes from our last pass through this richly detailed glimpse into the life and thought of my favorite philosopher. That shouldn’t be hard, Richardson packs a lot into each chunk of forty-something pages and we only scratched the surface the first time. (But, Spring ’10 Intro students, do take a look at those older posts– to be designated WJ 1 , WJ 2, WJ 3 etc.) Note in particular the discussion in WJ 1 of “sacred matter,” in light of what we read and talked about on Wednesday regarding Epicurus on the afterlife and Democritus on atoms. Also, the connection between James and Ralph Waldo Emerson, the “sage of Concord” who still provokes strong reactions  either of loyalty or scorn. (See, for instance, a recent diatribe against his “cult” that proposes to “give Emerson the boot.”)  Also attend to the importance in James’s philosophy of the very concept of attention, which Richardson says he learned to value as a young art student.

How important is William James, for American philosophy and in general? Well, the English philosopher-mathematician Alfred North Whitehead (best known for overstating the importance of Plato by declaring all subsequent philosophy a series of footnotes thereto) famously listed him as one of “four great thinkers,” filling out the quartet with Plato (of course), Aristotle, and Leibniz. (That’s ironic: James despised Leibniz.)

John McDermott: “William James is to classic American philosophy as Plato was to Greek and Roman philosophy.” Pretty important.

This is a bit redundant, but relevant and revealing: thinking of how horrified we’ve all been in recent days by the devastation wrought by Haiti’s recent earthquake, it’s striking to contrast James’s reaction to the ’06 San Francisco quake. (He was nearby, in Palo Alto.) He was suitably humane and concerned for the victims, but he was also intrigued and excited by it, and quick to note the silver lining: such disasters may elicit the “best energies of a great many people,” and James “was all energy”– except when he was depressed, as periodically he was. But the down-times never permanently dented his constitutional joie de vivre. In his psychology he made a great deal of the importance of habit (“the enormous fly-wheel of society”), but he was also always “open to new experiences” and always expected them to teach him something useful.

He was a pluralist: “there are many centers of the universe, many [real and instructive] points of view.” Each of us has a “lantern” (as his beloved Robert Louis Stevenson depicted the “interior spark” of unique personal subjectivity) with which to light up the sources of joy that will speak uniquely to each of us.

He sprang from a remarkable family, a “house of wits” including his famous younger brother Henry (the novelist). Henry, ever the close observer of life, documented William’s early traits of personality: “intensity of animation and spontaneity of expression.” From the inside, those traits felt to William like “torn-to-pieces-hood” and “zig-zag and interruption.” He would always be a restless person, given to constant motion and activity. Not the stereotypical scholar.

He was an experimentalist (like Dewey) by nature, cheerfully offering himself up as a physiological guinea-pig for experiments with psycho-active substances that he always hoped would open unexpected doors of perception. Alcohol “excites the ‘yes’ function” (but is still not to be trusted), laughing gas nearly makes Hegel make sense, yoga and fletcherizing (basically masticating food to smithereens– his brother swore by it) and what we would call “alternative” therapies are worth a shot.

As this first installment ends, in the spring of 1861, the 19-year old William James has just learned of the confederate attack on Fort Sumter that launched the American Civil War. He’s prepared to march off and do his soldierly duty. If we didn’t know how the story continues, we might worry over his life-prospects at this point. And isn’t it disquieting to think of all the philosophers that might have been, but of whom we’ve never heard, because they did march off to fight and die in the endless procession of bloody conflicts that make it hard, sometimes, to think of our species as progressing.  But James did think that, even though the “war to end war” that raged not long after his own death in 1910 was only another beginning. James had a better idea, a “moral equivalent” of war without all the carnage. So far, war has been the only force that can discipline a whole community, and until an equivalent discipline is organized, I believe that war must have its way. But I have no serious doubt that the ordinary prides and shames of social man, once developed to a certain intensity, are capable of organizing such a moral equivalent…

We’re still looking for leaders who’ll apply that idea consistently, and really earn their pacifist stripes. James would tell us, on his better days, not to get too discouraged. Roll up your sleeves, he’d say, pitch in and clean up the rubble.

Raw energy, “pure delight”

August 27, 2009

Rebecca Solnit’s new book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster “investigates the fleeting, purposeful joy that fills human beings in the face of disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes and even terrorist attacks…” My favorite example, which she discusses: William James’s reaction to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, his first-hand account of which exudes a strange joy and gratitude for the mere opportunity to be present to witness such unanticipated destruction and its amelioration. It is, I once wrote,

James’s personal account of the great San
Francisco earthquake, an account that must be at least curious
and possibly illuminating to anyone who has ever been visited
with an earthquake experience of his own. My own small quake
experience was in Palm Springs, California, on May 7, 1995, a
relatively insignificant shimmy on the Richter scale (5.0) but
enough to awaken me from a deep sleep at 4 a.m. with an
immediate, inexplicable awareness of exactly what was happening.
I confess that the dominant feeling for me, then, was fear.
James’s firsthand account of the events of April 18, 1906
is, by contrast, not one born of fear at all:
@EXT: [L]ying awake at about half past five . . .I felt the bed
begin to waggle. . . . Sitting up involuntarily and taking a
kneeling position, I was thrown down on my face. The room was
shaken like a rat by a terrier . . . [My] emotion consisted
wholly of glee . . . at the vividness which such an abstract idea
or verbal term as “earthquake” could put on when translated into
sensible reality and verified concretely. . . . I felt no trace
whatever of fear; it was pure delight . . .
@TEXT:James described his total quake experience as “mind-
enlarging,” reporting in the quake’s aftermath a sense of
cheerful solidarity among the survivors, “a kind of uplift in the
sense of a ‘common lot’ that took away the sense of loneliness
that (I imagine) gives the sharpest edge to the more usual kind
of misfortune. . . .”88
It is no coincidence, I think, that one of the first things
James wrote after the quake was an essay called The Energies of
Men. Like Emerson and Thoreau before him, he was alert to the
very human significance of natural events. An earthquake, even a
puny one, is a release of vast amounts of energy. We are
conservators and expenders of energy, too, but much of our effort
is dissipated. “The human individual lives usually far within his
limits . . . [H]e energizes below his maximum, and he behaves
below his optimum,”89 habitually. But here is our greatest seed
of hope: our bad habits were made to be broken. Like Emerson,
James is a champion of self-reliance and the spirit of reform.
Perhaps more than Emerson, he is also a champion of hope as the
collective human urge so admirably displayed by those San
Franciscans whose “hearty frame of mind” and eagerness to make a
fresh beginning amidst natural devastation he found so
uplifting.

an account that must be at least curious and possibly illuminating to anyone who has ever been visited with an earthquake experience of his own. My own small quake experience was in Palm Springs, California, on May 7, 1995, a relatively insignificant shimmy on the Richter scale (5.0) but enough to awaken me from a deep sleep at 4 a.m. with an immediate, inexplicable awareness of exactly what was happening. I confess that the dominant feeling for me, then, was fear.

James’s firsthand account of the events of April 18, 1906 is, by contrast, not one born of fear at all:

Lying awake at about half past five… I felt the bed begin to waggle… Sitting up involuntarily and taking a kneeling position, I was thrown down on my face. The room was shaken like a rat by a terrier… [My] emotion consisted wholly of glee… at the vividness which such an abstract idea or verbal term as “earthquake” could put on when translated into sensible reality and verified concretely. . . . I felt no trace whatever of fear; it was pure delight . . .

James described his total quake experience as “mind-enlarging,” reporting in the quake’s aftermath a sense of cheerful solidarity among the survivors, “a kind of uplift in the sense of a ‘common lot’ that took away the sense of loneliness that (I imagine) gives the sharpest edge to the more usual kind of misfortune. . . .”

It is no coincidence, I think, that one of the first things James wrote after the quake was an essay called “The Energies of Men.” Like Emerson and Thoreau before him, he was alert to the very human significance of natural events. An earthquake, even a puny one, is a release of vast amounts of energy. We are conservators and expenders of energy, too, but much of our effort is dissipated. “The human individual lives usually far within his limits . . . [H]e energizes below his maximum, and he behaves below his optimum,” habitually. But here is our greatest seed of hope: our bad habits were made to be broken. Like Emerson, James is a champion of self-reliance and the spirit of reform.

Perhaps more than Emerson, he is also a champion of hope as the collective human urge so admirably displayed by those San Franciscans whose “hearty frame of mind” and eagerness to make a fresh beginning amidst natural devastation he found so uplifting.