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WJ 2

June 24, 2020

Revisiting Robert Richardson’s 2006 William James bio, 2d installment.

This week’s reading includes young William’s attempts to buck up his younger brother’s spirits in a letter that evokes images he’d imbibed while traveling with scientist Louis Agassiz’s South America expedition, in the 1860s (more on that, and more). I wrote about this once, while drawing a connection between John Dewey’s naturalistic version of spirituality and James’s…

In an uncharacteristic moment of self-revelation the stolid Yankee once apparently confided in his old student Max Eastman about a youthful “mystical experience” from his [John Dewey’s] early stint in Oil City, Pennsylvania:

The essence of the experience was a feeling of oneness with the universe, a conviction that worries about existence and one’s place in it are foolish and futile. “It was not a very dramatic mystic experience,” Eastman continued. There was no vision, not even a definable emotion—just a supremely blissful feeling that his worries were over. Eastman quoted Dewey, “. . . to me faith means not worrying. . . . I claim I’ve got religion and that I got it that night in Oil City.”

This melds very well with a homiletic, therapeutic, stoic, yet somehow joyous and de novo expression of James’s unique view, dating from his pre-philosophic youth but anticipating his most mature thought:

“Remember 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.”

I find it compelling, and not at all coincidental or incongruous, that the two great pragmatic meliorists of classical American Philosophy each achieved in their twenties the same quasi-stoic insight that, as we have noted, carried the world’s oldest person happily through her many days. [The world’s oldest person had just died when I wrote that; her position was quickly filled, of course. But it’s not a job with a lot of long-term security.] The power of imaginative self-transcendence to conquer egoistic distemper, especially when coupled with the wide-open perspective of life as a self-replicating, self-correcting chain, is unrivaled. It has been conclusively “verified.” The spirit of acceptance and the spirit of reform belong together. The mature James, for one, is full of admiration for the spirit of acceptance in whatever blissful forms it may assume in the actual lives of men and women. And he is full of expectancy and hope. William James’s “Springs of Delight”: The Return to Life

He wasn’t so sunny while aboard ship during the Brazilian expedition: he became very depressed and homesick, and probably would at that time have been incapable of cheering himself with the letter he sent to Bob.

But the 23-year old James was already a kind of incipient Stoic, in 1865. He was much more of one when he got his land legs back under him. One of the more engaging graduate seminars I’ve participated in was “Pragmatism and Stoicism,” jointly offered by John Lachs and John Stuhr at Vanderbilt.

It’s hard for some people to get that link (Pragmatists and Stoics, not Lachs and Stuhr). Some think that Pragmatists are all about “go-go-go”-ing, trying to change the world and ameliorate its wounds, never noticing cliffs and sharp edges. Not so. A wise Pragmatist knows there’s a time to put on the Stoic’s hat and accept external conditions as they stand, while turning inward and conjuring some skimming gulls.

And a wise Jamesian is prepared to act on the belief that such an inward turn is freely available to us all.

But at 25, we learn in this week’s reading of Robert Richardson, James has now added another vocation to his “reject” list– “Medicine is busted,” he told a friend– and is one step closer to a breakdown and possible suicide that would have been anything but stoically reasonable. “Barely able to walk or work, he fell into a deep depression.”

How he climbed out of that pit of despair, and taught himself the strategy of recovered delight he’d deploy again and again throughout a productive but oft-challenged lifetime, is the story we’ll unfold in coming installments.

Originally published 9.18.09

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Richardson’s James (1)

June 23, 2020

With the passing of Robert Richardson last week, it seems like a good time to revisit some old (2009) posts on his William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism (2006).


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(9/11… will this infamous date ever again arrive without a shudder?)
Today commences our new regular Friday feature in Intro to Philosophy, a discussion of Robert Richardson’s William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism.

Richardson’s previous bios of Emerson and Thoreau were excellent. His turn to James should help firm up a wider scholarly recognition of a lineage that some philosophers, at least, have been reluctant to claim. But not me. Just read James’s Emerson appreciation on the occasion of RWE’s 1903 centenary, if you doubt the connection. James was more  thoroughly simpatico than anyone with the characteristic Emersonian hunger for experience, as expressed in lines like: “The day is good in which we have the most perceptions.” (And btw: family legend has it that Emerson, a friend of James’s eccentric Swedenborgian father, actually “blessed” the infant William.)

Richardson (whose wife, by the way, is the wonderful nature poet/essayist/novelist Annie Dillard) begins his story by placing us with James in his bedroom in Palo Alto, California, in the pre-dawn of April 18, 1906, as the Great Earthquake began to “waggle” his room “like a terrier shaking a rat.”  James met nature’s fury with “glee, admiration, delight,” but not fear. He, like Thoreau and Emerson before him, loved the “moment of contact with elemental reality” and was always on the prowl for such instances of primal immediacy and intensity. He was very good with words, but still better with experiences. He was “astonishingly, even alarmingly open to new experiences.” Not a bad thing for a Radical Empiricist to be.
James was also wide open to mysteries unseen, an attender of seances  and investigator of psychic phenomena. He believed, or hoped, that “we stand in much the same relation to the universe as our canine and feline pets do to the whole of human life.” There’s much more going on, that is, than we can comprehend. Yet it goes on all around us, under our cold noses. So: we must learn to pay close and careful attention (as noted by Winifred Gallagher’s new book Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life).
Richardson notes James’s wonderful advice to teachers: “make freemen of your pupils by habituating them to act, whenever possible, under the notion of a good.” Anything you avoid on the presumption of its badness can also propel you towards something else that is good. Therein lies the path to our positive happiness.
James thought we were all afflicted with “a certain blindness” when it comes to admitting that others don’t all see the world as we do. And he sided with Robert Louis Stevenson’s great insight that personal joy wells up for each of us from the inside, subjectively. Since we can’t literally see the springs of others’ inner joy we must train ourselves to reach out to them with our own inner sympathy. Remoteness from plain sight is no excuse. He doesn’t buy the view expressed in an old Dilbert cartoon: “what’s inside a person doesn’t count because no one can see it.” It does count, more than anything. “To miss the joy is to miss all.”
And he placed another humane presumption on our side: in “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life” James wrote: “the best simply imaginary world would be one in which every demand was gratified as soon as made.” He knows that such a “wishing cap” world is not a practical possibility. We can’t all possess every last object of our perpetually roiling desires. He knows we must all make concessions to scarcity and the demands of peaceful coexistence. But to his credit, he wants our desires to be met. That is the the simple generosity of spirit in terms in which he understands happiness: the satisfaction of desires as they arise is a prima facie good. Failing that, we must still aim to meet as many desires as logically and practically “com-possible.”
Sacred matter. “Death moved him, most often, not to speculate on the hereafter but to redouble his energies and mass his attentions on the here and now. He remarked in Pragmatism that ‘to anyone who has ever looked on the face of a dead child or parent ‘–and he had done both– ‘the mere fact that matter could have taken for a time that precious form, ought to make matter sacred ever after’…” (7)
Delightful pessimism. “William [brought] home a volume of Schopenhauer and [read] ‘amusing specimens of his delightful pessimism’… he later came to loathe Schopenhauer’s pessimism, which he took as equivalent to determinism… Schopenhauer’s pessimism, James wrote twenty-five years later, is ‘that of a dog who would rather see the world ten times worse that it is, than lose his chance of barking at it.’” (14)
Biographically speaking: by the end of this week’s reading, on the eve of full Civil War hostilities in 1861, the 19-year old William has toyed with but rejected an artistic career. He is one step closer to the existential crisis, coming in just a few short years,  that would either break or make the budding philosophical career of William James…
(And speaking of existential crises: the death of Socrates is also on today’s class agenda.)

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Emerson’s opinion of your opinion of someone else’s opinion

June 22, 2020

Robert Richardson’s death has sent me back to his writing, which I’m sure he’d say is the better part of him that survives — that, and his beloved Annie. (See his “fan letter”/bio of her, appended to the previous post below.)

I too am perpetually arrested by Emerson’s bold statement about young scholars in libraries, with which Richardson began his lovely little book on Emersonian creativity.

And I love Emerson’s distaste for much if not most “academic controversy,” which tends to dilute and diminish whatever it touches. I’m reminded of James’s comment on “the baldheaded young PhDs  boring themselves at conferences” etc., a remark I found funny before I became a balding older one. But the point is solid, too much formal scholarship is pedantic and trifling. Emerson, and those who truly appreciate him as Bob Richardson did, aimed higher.

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The first sentence of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s that reached me still jolts me every time I run into it. “Meek young men,” he wrote in “The American Scholar,” “grow up in libraries believing it their duty to accept the views which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote those books…”

*  *  *

“Yet however much he read, there were whole categories of books the mature Emerson would not read. He would not read theology or academic controversy. He wanted original accounts, first-hand experience, personal witness. He would read your poem or your novel, but not your opinion of someone else’s poem or novel, let alone your opinion of someone else’s opinion…” First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process

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Robert Richardson, farewell

June 20, 2020


Robert Richardson, superlative biographer of Emerson, Thoreau, and William James, has died.

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When I couldn’t initially confirm this sad report I recalled what he said when he and I had just spoken ten years ago, after he delivered his keynote at the William James centenary conference in Chocorua, New Hampshire. 
He concluded our discussion  quoting Mark Twain, “it’s a terrible death to be talked to death.” For Twain, reports of his death were “greatly exaggerated.” I’d hoped the same might be true in this instance, but evidently not.
I’d thanked him for his body of work, & for mentioning during Q-&-A the wonderful WJ statement affirming the capacity of materialist metaphysics to capture the totality of our embodied experience: “To anyone who has ever looked on the face of a dead child or parent the mere fact that matter could have taken for a time that precious form, ought to make matter sacred ever after. That beloved incarnation was among matter’s possibilities.”
Thank you, Bob Richardson, for incarnating such humane and sensitive insight into the lives and thoughts of our tradition’s best and brightest.

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Daughters Day

June 19, 2020

Dads Day is coming, I’m just gonna go ahead and surrender to the sentimental mood. From my point of view it’s really Daughters Day. Wish I could take ’em out to a ballgame this weekend.

Herschel Greer Stadium, Nashville c.2005

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Letting go, moving on

June 18, 2020

Toy Story 3 is trending in social media just because it’s ten today?

Yes, kids, ten years does vanish in a flash. I guess that’s just now dawning on millennials and Z’s.

I’m nostalgic for Toy Story 1, myself, having viewed it with Older Daughter on VHS a few dozen times at least in her most impressionable early days. They both came out in ’95.

We moved in to our place 24 years ago on Memorial Day weekend. She was a precocious toddler, soon to discover Woody and Buzz et al. Younger Daughter, technically of Gen Z, would arrive three years later.

Some nice people with two small children of their own came by to look at our place yesterday, and I found myself getting sentimental as I described to them the landscape of our yard back in the Toy Story era — swing set over there, tree swing here where the bird-feeders now hang, wiffle-ball field just there (we called the car-port roof the Green Monster).

And so I realize that I’m quite not ready to move on, though the swing set’s long gone and it’s been several seasons since we whacked a wiffle-ball off the Monster. Hoping they don’t make us an offer we can’t refuse.

But when the time comes, whenever it comes, it’ll be nice to think of a new generation of youngsters making new memories on that sacred ground, memories they can someday look back on with the same wistful fondness I’m feeling this morning.

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Don’t even think about it

June 17, 2020
First attempt at posting this tweet, auto-correct changed “sensorial” to senatorial, precisely the opposite of what I’m talking about. But senatorial perception would be nice too. Not to mention presidential.



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Talk talk talk, words words words

June 16, 2020

Talking’s a start, as I was saying, and it’s way better than not talking.

Language and communication lifted our species from brute existence, created culture, invented philosophy which, as James said, is “essentially talkative and explicit” — hence our need for poetry, a form of verbalism that does its work, conveys its meaning, more by implication and ostension than explication. We must talk, but we must never forget that there’s more to life than talking. There’s much that cannot be explicated but should be noted and appreciated.

And that’s why I’d amend the statement “Philosophers can explain…” with: good philosophers know they can’t explain everything.

“What an awful trade that of professor is,” James complained at term’s end in 1892, “paid to talk, talk, talk!… It would be an awful universe if everything could be converted into words, words, words.” Richard Ford’s character Frank Bascombe expanded on the same theme: “Real mystery the very reason to read (and certainly write) any book, was to them [his teaching colleagues] a thing to dismantle, distill and mine out into rubble they could tyrannize into sorry but more permanent explanations; monuments to themselves, in other words. In my view all teachers should be required to stop teaching at age thirty-two and not allowed to resume until they’re sixty-five, so that they can live their lives, not teach them away live lives full of ambiguity and transience and regret and wonder, be asked to explain nothing in public until very near the end when they can’t do anything else. Explaining is where we all get into trouble…”

That’s how I put it twenty years ago, and look at me: still talking. I didn’t retire at 32. I’m approaching Ford’s age of resumption.

But I’m also still talking about talking’s limitations, still parroting James’s talk on the subject. “I am tiring myself and you, I know, by vainly seeking to describe by concepts and words what… exceeds either conceptualization or verbalization. As long as one continues talking, intellectualism remains in undisturbed possession of the field.”

Intellectualism talks too much. That’s why I’m still walking.

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“Philosophers can explain”

June 15, 2020

It was a rare acknowledgement, in the opening of the 60 Minutes segment last night on re-opening higher education in the Fall, of the existence and relevance of philosophers in America.

This fall, college will start with a test. Can America’s universities reopen during the greatest pandemic in a hundred years? Some universities are remaining online, others are still unsure, but a growing number are preparing for perhaps the largest coordinated return institutions have made since the virus hit. In many ways, colleges and universities are the perfect places for an American reawakening. Scientists can track and trace, behavioral experts can make the pitch and philosophers can explain the balance between collective good and the individual. But, we go to college to be social, with no distance. College students are going to have to step up by staying apart. If they do, they may lead the way not just for the next semester, but for the entire country and its future.

Well, we can try. I know I’ve been trying, lo these many years, to open a serious conversation about the proper tension between personal rights and public responsibilities, about what it means to be an individual living harmoniously in a community of mutually-interested citizens. I started teaching during the Reagan years. It was a hard conversation before then, but Reagan made it harder. And here we are.

In this region in particular it’s a hard sell, the notion of the common good or the public interest–a notion most directly engaged in my classroom in discussions about Rousseau, Locke, Hobbes, and the social contract. A lot of students have been raised, if only implicitly, to insist that nothing constrains their absolute right to do as they please and not be instructed, obstructed, impeded, or otherwise guided in any way by any agency or authority. Individualism rules.

But I was heartened to see local radio personality Jason Moon Wilkins’s observation about the striking contrast in social attitudes in an adjacent region that also calls itself southern, “Southernmost Illinois” (where Older Daughter attended SIU):

One striking thing – the level of compliance with mask wearing and the way it was handled by businesses. If you went inside – you wore a mask. Period.

But there was one exception – a Winery that will remain nameless. The 3 percenter bumper stickers in the parking lot gave it away. The loud talking manager had her mask hanging under her chin. We left.

Will that be an option this Fall, if students reject the mask requirement? Just leaving? We need to be clear: if they won’t comply, they don’t need to show up in the first place. Many of my colleagues have already indicated a preference for avoiding that encounter in the first place. As a society, though, it’s past time to have that hard conversation. Your right to do entirely as you please ends at the tip of my mask, and mine at yours. “Philosophers can explain…”

I kinda know how that’s gonna go, in many instances. I’ll explain, and the most vocal young libertarians will resist. But at least we’ll be talking, either through masks or through zoom. It’s a start.

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Stretching habits

June 12, 2020

I have a long-standing habit of stretching after our daily morning dogwalk, witha routine improvised decades ago from a popular book on the subject. It began mostly as an exercise in meditation and (before the word was cliche) “mindfulness,” continued as a comfortable and comforting habit, and has become an indispensable form of physically-therapeutic self-maintenance I can’t afford to miss.

The last couple of years I merged the stretching habit with my baseball obsession, always tuning in to the MLB highlights show while going through my routine. Then the pandemic ended the highlights, among other things, but reruns of old games in March, April, and May called by revived Hall of Fame voices (Vin, Joe, Tony, Jack…) more than managed to fill the gap.

Until it didn’t.

There came a day, just days ago, when my appetite for old games suddenly wilted. Maybe it’s the time of year. Or maybe it’s the time of man…

The Smithsonian channel’s Aerial America program was good stretching company at first, I used to tune it in a few winters back when we first got our stationary bike. I liked to pretend I was powering a pedal-driven glider like the one in Kim Stanley Robinson’s cli-fi novel Pacific Edge. “Hard work; it was one of the weird glories of their time, that the highest technologies were producing artifacts that demanded more intense physical labor than ever before…”


But the pretense and the novelty of the new immobile machine eventually wore off. I learned that I prefer pedaling my non-stationary bikes through middle Tennessee’s generally-mild winters. And now there’s talk in our household of consigning the stationary bike to my Little House, cut off from the cable umbilicus.

When Elon Musk’s Dragon launched recently I found myself briefly hooked on the NASA channel, during the morning stretch. The live feed from ISS was, as documented here, calming accompaniment. But that too has acquired a measure of tedium. Round and round and round we go, but are we getting anywhere?

So now I’ve started catching up on the gazillion (and growing) TED Talks I missed the first time. Really liked Jill Tarter’s SETI talk, and Wendy Suzuki’s “Brain-changing benefits of exercise” .

So what would Aristotle say about my stretching habit? Or James? Or Charles Duhigg and
James Clear? A few things…

One thing for sure: they’d all say not to miss your dogwalk on this beautiful crisp morning.

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