Posts Tagged ‘free will’

The sufficient moment

May 17, 2013

In 1870 a young and previously-irresolute William James confided to his diary,

“I think that yesterday was a crisis in my life. I finished the first part of Renouvier’s second Essais and see no reason why his definition of free will — ‘the sustaining of a thought because I choose to when I might have other thoughts’ — need be the definition of an illusion. At any rate, I will assume for the present — until next year — that it is no illusion. My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.”

Within the decade, the vacillating, self-doubting, despairing young man had given way to the confident philosopher who would vigorously defend “the sentiment of rationality,” a diverting phrase that was really his own masked synonym for happiness.

When enjoying plenary freedom either in the way of motion or of thought, we are in a sort of anaesthetic state in which we might say with Walt Whitman, if we cared to say anything about ourselves at such times, “I am sufficient as I am.” This feeling of the sufficiency of the present moment, of its absoluteness,–this absence of all need to explain it, account for it, or justify it,–is what I call the Sentiment of Rationality.

Just as I am, sufficient unto the moment: it’s a condition and a state of mind an honest and ambitious person can’t reasonably hope to sustain indefinitely, but James learned and taught that it can be recaptured frequently and regularly throughout a lifetime. Different strategies serve different people. One of mine, like James, is to walk.

Ironies abounding freely

November 2, 2012

I shoulda stood in bed, with the girls being out of school today and Younger Daughter sleeping over at a friend’s. That was the plan, until her alarm sounded. So here I am. Post, or grade? Not a hard call.

But I was all set to jump right in to my grading pile, so I don’t really have any particular line of reflection bubbling just beneath the surface of semi-wakefulness, don’t have anything much in mind.

Well, though… It was interesting yesterday to pick up a news item in which I was quoted urging my fellow campus citizens to go ride a bike. Ironic, too, since this was the first week in months when I didn’t ride my own. It was just a bit too cold, by my standards, to ride into a self-inflicted breeze. It’s never too cold to walk, of course, nor was it even too cold to hold office hours out by Saturn.

It was also interesting to take a phone call from someone who said my office number was listed as the contact for a campus organization I’d not heard of, the Students for Environmental Action. Sure enough. And here I am, teaching a course this semester called “Environmental Ethics and Activism.” Irony compounded.

I continue to reflect on, and chuckle at, the amusingly ironic spectacle of my old grad school pal’s upcoming annual appearance at the Tennessee Philosophical Association. His latest technical paper on the Regress Problem (which he’s produced a near-infinite series of papers on, through the years) found no one “stupid enough,” as he put it (in all humility, I’m sure), to volunteer as commentator. So he’s doing it himself. Solipsism never stopped an epistemologist. Or  the epistemologist. Anyway, I might have volunteered (or appeared to) if Older Daughter didn’t require a ride to Memphis next Saturday. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.

And then there were our final two report presentations in CoPhi yesterday. Natalie’s on St. Augustine, and Edrell’s on managing money. Was there anything ironic about either of them? Probably. Auggie said time is subjective, but also God’s gift to save us from the chaotic confusion of everything’s seeming to happen at once. From His perspective it does, though. He’s timelessly omniscient. So I still don’t get how we can be as “free” as religiously-imbued students keep telling me we are. Have you ever thought there might be a logical contradiction?

Nor, as I said in class, do I yet understand Original Sin. But I’ll keep asking, every time I’m told I’ve inherited it.

If time is subjective, I guess we might as well say that time is money too. I’d never had a student conclude a report presentation by passing out his business card to everyone in the class, though I’m sure it happens all the time in biz school.

Anyway, it’s probably ironic that Edrell changed his report topic to something less controversial than religion, his original intent. The old folk wisdom was that politics, money, and religion should never be discussed in polite company.

“Ironic” may just be the word for those who say they expect politeness of philosophers.

Determined freedom

October 26, 2012

I was all set to comment on a paper at the upcoming annual Tennessee Philosophical Association meeting, but had to withdraw in favor of one more college-search roadtrip.  Maybe we’ll finally get over to Graceland too, this time.

I’m still thinking about Blake McBride’s pseudo-compatibilist conclusion, though, that we’re all both “determined” and, if you hold the mirror just right, sorta free (if you want to call it that) too. Not sure I’m buying it, but I’m choosing to consider it:

There is no real freedom in the sense that anything could be different than it is. There is also no metaphysical freedom. All action, will, thought can be entirely explained by prior causes. On the other hand, at a given moment in time we do exercise and experience freedom in the sense that our internal states sometimes determine our future states rather than being controlled by causes. In this way, we perceive freedom, and this freedom operates totally within a deterministic framework clearly and without conflict.

Sounds a bit like pulling your own strings, doesn’t it?

Does any of this touch the claims of the French Existentialists that we’re all condemned to freedom, like it or not? Not really. They’ll still say we have to bear the weight of our choices, we’re still without excuse and without a blueprint to specify our essential human and personal natures in advance of choosing. “Existence precedes essence,” not to choose is still a choice, treating yourself like an object without free possibilities is in bad faith [wiki], and existentialism is a humanism.  Life will still often feel like a heavy boulder we must forever shove up a steep hill, until or unless we choose not to.

My main kick against the existentialists, aside from the fact that many of their statements are literally false (which, as I was saying the other day in class about Nietzsche’s atheism and James’s truth, is not always a criticism), is that they tend to wallow in the specter of nothingness while neglecting the bright side: with freedom comes responsibility, sure, but also opportunity. We’re free to make our choices, bad and good; free to learn from our mistakes, to ameliorate our condition, to pursue our happiness. Camus imagining Sisyphus happy is a nice touch, but it lacks credibility.

William James, on the other hand, faces the Dilemma of Determinism straight up and with a smile.

The great point is that the possibilities are really here. Whether it be we who solve them, or [God] working through us, at those soul-trying moments when fate’s scales seem to quiver, and good snatches the victory from evil or shrinks nerveless from the fight, is of small account, so long as we admit that the issue is decided nowhere else than here and now. That is what gives the palpitating reality to our moral life and makes it tingle… This reality, this excitement, are what the determinisms, hard and soft alike, suppress by their denial that anything is decided here and now, and their dogma that all things were foredoomed and settled long ago.

Determinists, compatibilists, and existentialists all fall short when they suppress our excitement at being alive and a-tingle with reality’s possibilities. I choose, then, to believe with James that when things should be different, we should err on the ameliorists’ side of supposing that maybe they they can be. So mark me down as one of those waffling free will fatalists, straddling the tough and tender divide. No need to foreclose possibilities in advance.

PostscriptThe program says my old pal from Huntsville is co-commenting on his own paper, “A Minimal Schema for Endless Regress Paradoxes.” I thought it must be a misprint, but no: turns out his daunting epistemological subject scared everybody off, so he volunteered to do it himself. What a nice new twist on the regress problem!

Grace, courage & wisdom

September 14, 2012

As I was saying: freedom to think what you want to think, when you want to think it – an inner life, in other words – is one of our very most prizable possessions.  Pulling your own strings from the inside, as it were, no matter what else may be going on out there beyond your reach: that’s stoic freedom.

And that’s the Stoics’ fundamental presumption, mirrored in William James’s attentive version of free will. More on that later in CoPhi, when we pick up John Lachs’ Stoic Pragmatism.

Inner freedom so expressed is a variant on a familiar prayer for serenity as something reasonable to pray, work, and strive for.

May we have grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things we can and should, and wisdom to know the difference.

There are different versions of Reinhold Niebuhr’s prayer, but the core of it is a stoically steely resolve to focus one’s energies on what might actually be responsive to them. Instead, we too frequently squander time and tranquility trying to move immovable objects and then go crazy when they resist our wills.

I don’t pray, myself, except in a quasi-Emersonian way.

Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view. It is the soliloquy of a beholding and jubilant soul… But prayer as a means to effect a private end is meanness and theft. It supposes dualism and not unity in nature and consciousness.

Quasi, I say, because unlike Emerson I don’t toss the term “god” around lightly, and wouldn’t presume to channel His or It’s spirit in my own soliloquies. I think (and feel) those to be my own self-reliant affair. The sort of prayer that takes to bended knee and beseeches god(s) for favor, on the other hand, feels servile and phony to me. I’m not very churchable.

But I do endorse The Sage’s refusal to beg for cheap and selfish ends. All worthy actions are prayerful in a nobler sense, for a truly free and natural earthly spirit. “The prayer of the farmer kneeling in his field to weed it, the prayer of the rower kneeling with the stroke of his oar…”

Or how about the prayer of the cyclist arched over his bike? I “prayed” before class yesterday, all the way from Percy Priest Dam to the Shelby Bottoms Bridge. I felt free, and full of grace.

And then at 3 am I felt cramps below the knees. Too late to hope or pray I die before I get old, though that was never my preference anyway.

So today it’s back on the bike, continuing to pedal-pray for courage and wisdom. And luck. And a foot massage would be nice. I’m not begging, just puttin’ it out there.


Postscript, 8:30 a.m., Percy Warner Park, “Inspiration Point”-

From a seed, fields of dreams


Tlumak on free will

March 16, 2012

What a treat to hear another of my old Vandy profs in vintage form last night, in the 3d Berry Lecture. Jeffrey Tlumak was as smart, systematic, and comprehensive as ever, in tackling the perennially elusive questions “Do we have free will?” And “Why does it matter?” (Watch this space for the video, coming soon.)

He was as smartly self-distracted as ever, too. I lost count of the always-fascinating “by the way” detours that peppered his semi-scripted talk, and forced him to abandon the bulk of it in favor of hurried synopsis at the end. But everyone in the house was gifted with the voluminous printed text he would have  voiced, were there world enough and time, and three lengthy appendices.

One of those appendices became important during Q-&-A, when Jeffrey’s colleague David Wood wondered if the whole show wasn’t “performatively self-contradictory.”  Doesn’t the very attempt at public persuasion and argumentative analysis presuppose the free will of its audience, presumably malleable enough to choose his view when dazzled by the irresistible force of his logic and language?

Well, Jeffrey replied, if you look at my 3d appendix (that brought an audience chuckle or two, for its characteristically Tlumakian attention to systematic detail) you’ll note that I don’t claim free will to be impossible.

And in fact he’d acknowledged Wood’s worry at the very beginning, in his second paragraph. Both are so elegantly clear and concise, and so cognizant of their context, they’re worth reproducing here:

In Milton’s Paradise Lost, the angels debate how some of them could have sinned of their own free wills given that God had made them intelligent and happy. Why would they have done it? And why were they responsible for their sins rather than God, since God had made them the way they were and had complete foreknowledge of what they would do? Milton describes them as “in Endless Mazes lost.” If this is the plight of angels, with what confidence can we approach such questions?

Three weeks ago John Lachs tried to persuade you that good enough is good enough. Then a week later, Rob Talisse tried to persuade you that no life is good enough, that life is tragic. I will now wonder out loud whether you or I have a free choice as to which alternative, if either, to embrace — more generally, whether you have free will in anything you have ever done or will do, or whether you even have a stable conception of what you are affirming or denying. I say “wonder out loud” rather than “try to persuade,” since to be consistent, I equally doubt whether you have a free choice whether to embrace what I say.

What then follows is a clear but complex and “spine-stiffening” disquisition on the varieties of pivotal philosophical issues implicated in the free will debate. In sum, and especially for a rationalist like Jeffrey, they basically all are. He cites Spinoza’s example of a conscious plummeting rock: it might contemplate its trajectory and philosophize about its freedom, but would be incapable of altering it, or softening its termination. Just like Douglas Adams’ whale.

Tlumak praised the new book Power of Habit, which is suggestive: if indeed we do have the power of habit, we must also have something akin to what some will insist on calling free will and others will relabel. But if it directs intelligent choice and action they can call it what they will. That’s Julian Baggini’s line in his review of Sam Harris’s and Michael Gazzaniga’s new books on the topic.

…as a “biological puppet” aware of your lack of free will you can, paradoxically, “grab hold of one of your strings” and “steer a more intelligent course through our lives”. That’s what matters, and if you don’t want to call it free will, feel free to call it what you will.

There was much about Hobbesian mechanism here, and the “thin notion of ‘could have done otherwise,'” and Locke’s distinction between the voluntary and the free,  and Spinoza’s between free will and freedom. Jeffrey’s ultimately a Kantian, on this and most issues. Freedom’s a postulate of reason, but nothing you can prove. “It is practically rational for us to believe that we are transcendentally free and practically irrational not to.” Well, that’s just about good enough for pragmatists like me, too.

But what I liked most, last night, was Jeffrey’s curtain-closing scripted statement, in which he thanked his chair

for scheduling my public doubts about free will on the Ides of March, the day Julius Caesar was stabbed to death in the Roman Senate by a group of conspirators, as foreseen (according to Plutarch) by a soothsayer. Perhaps now I can escape intellectual blame by invoking fate.

Perhaps we all can. Then again, perhaps not.

WJ 4.1

February 12, 2010

Happy Darwin Day!

Charles Renouvier is not remembered as a giant of western philosophy, but for William James he was a life-saver.  WJ 4

We’ve talked about ego and self-hood, especially in the light of Buddhist critiques that trace much human suffering to the stubborn insistence on preserving its centrality. But the James survival strategy– that’s not an overstatement– turned on his embrace of the self-governing resistance of the ego to the world that Renouvier’s definition of free will inspired young James to act on. The strategy seems to have been vindicated, for James, pragmatically speaking.

An insightful observation by James that would turn up two decades later in the ground-breaking Principles of Psychology dates to this period: by working our stint day by day on the one line we have chosen, without looking ahead or thinking much of the final result, we are sure of waking some fine morning, experts in our particular branch… Could this be the full fruit and flower of what it means to live in the present?

This is also the period in which James and a small coterie of friends including Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Charles Sanders Peirce, and Chauncey Wright, formed an informal discussion group, thoroughly chronicled by Louis Menand, called “The Metaphysical Club.” It would have been an extraordinary group in any age, by any standard… The era and the place were charged to the muzzle with new beginnings, not least the startling new ideas of (now bi-centenarian) Charles Darwin. (Menand enlists John Dewey, author of “The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy,” as an honorary member of the club.)

Darwin said “there were enough brilliant minds at the American Cambridge in the 1860s to furnish all the universities of England. He wouldn’t probably have known of James, then, but he definitely knew Wright, the intellectual-boxing master of Peirce, Holmes, and James, and William’s most influential teacher.  When Wright visited Darwin in England in 1872, Darwin asked him to give some thought to the problem of will. The result was “The Evolution of Self-Consciousness” in 1873.

C.S. Peirce was the other world-class philosopher of James’s generation whose ideas the “club” would incubate. James later tried to give his flagging career a boost by crediting him with the original idea of contemporary pragmatism (in “Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results“). Peirce, displaying characteristic prickliness and ingratitude, refused the honor and re-named his own thought “pragmaticism”– a name he hoped would be too ugly to “steal.” But he deserves lasting credit for insisting that we not pretend to doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts. His pragmatic maxim reflects this insistence: “Consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we might conceive the object of our conception to have. That’s what we will and should understand the object to be, Peirce proposed. Our ideas won’t be clear if we don’t know how to apply them. The very first lesson that we have a right to demand that logic shall teach us is, how to make our ideas clear; and a most important one it is, depreciated only by minds who stand in need of it. To know what we think, to be masters of our own meaning, will make a solid foundation for great and weighty thought…

Peirce concluded “Fixation of Belief” with a clarion “ethics of belief” statement of principle: what is more wholesome than any particular belief is integrity of belief… to avoid looking into the support of any belief from a fear that it may turn out rotten is quite as immoral as it is disadvantageous. [Arisbe PhilDic]

Peirce, like James and all classic American philosophers, was hugely influenced by Darwin. He identified three fundamental forms of evolution, tychistic (evolution by fortuitous variation), arancastic (evolution by mechanical necessity), and agapastic (evolution by creative love). For a hard-headed, practical-minded realist, Peirce’s metaphysics is exceptionally romantic. And just in time for Valentine’s Day.

According to Peirce, the most fundamental engine of the evolutionary process is not struggle, strife, greed, or competition. Rather it is nurturing love, in which an entity is prepared to sacrifice its own perfection for the sake of the wellbeing of its neighbor… SEP

In later years Peirce fell on hard times. James saved him, financially and emotionally. After James’s death Peirce called himself “a mere table of contents, so abstract,”  compared to James, “so concrete, so living.”

As this week’s installment closes, William James has begun to settle into his vocation. He’s teaching anatomy and physiology, and getting some things published.

One of my favorite James essays, on the importance of vacations, appears at about this time. In it he contrasts our busy-ness with the artful approach to life practiced elsewhere, inviting us to consider “the shopkeeper in Germany, who for five or six months of the year spends a good part of every Sunday in the open air, sitting with his family for hours under green trees over coffee or beer and Pumpernickel, and who breaks into Achs and Wunderschons all the week as he recalls it.” His “contentment in the fine weather, and the leaves, and the air, and himself as a part of it all” is a springboard of renewal that propels him cheerfully back to work, back, as we say, to “reality.” But he knows that his recreation is at least as real as his work (which would suffer as surely as he would without his springboard). We could learn from that shopkeeper. This was the germ of James’s thinking about what he would eventually dub “moral holidays.” (For more on this, see Jimmy Buffett and Philosophy. Seriously.)

Another of James’s lifelong quirks surfaces now:  he’s beginning to mess around with “spiritualism,” looking for “a force of some sort not dreamed of in our philosophy.” He never found it, but he never stopped looking. He’s already a radical empiricist.

divine command

December 15, 2009

Exam day turned into one last lively class session, yesterday morning. Before the exam there were two report presentations on morality, one on power, and one on free will. The many points of interesting overlap were too numerous to trace, in the short time that remained to us.

Shenae began, wondering what power really means. I had some fun with her Barney Fife spelling of “Frued,” and his “penis envy,” and “SuperEgo” safe sex. But her Nietzschean point was fundamentally correct: the most impressive demonstration of power is self-directed.

Nick gave us a nice report on free will and determinism, featuring John Searle talking about the problem of squaring consciousness and free will with the idea of universal causation. (“Brain Story,” BBC)

Then Yasser defended the “divine command” theory of morality, and Brian insisted– notwithstanding his own brush with armed robbery this very week-end–  that morality is subjective.

All of these topics deserve a lot of critical attention. But I have papers to grade, so I’m going to turn it over J & M. The implicit view supported by their little colloquy here: even if you think the correct values and morals are objective, you have to use your “subjective” reason to make the case. Read Plato’s Euthyphro for elaboration.


October 24, 2009

Yesterday’s Holocaust panel discussion, with so many stories of survival against acts of the most inconceivably vicious inhumanity, was an inspiration and testament to the indomitable, resourceful, naturally-resilient human spirit. I’m afraid I found considerably less inspiring, though, the attempt of some panelists to extract religious succor and supernatural salvation in the horrific events they witnessed and experienced.

Both of the liberators, Mr. Gentry and Mr. Dorris, spoke of the shock and awe of finding themselves at death’s door, in hell, at Dachau. Both prayed to be delivered from the stench, literal and moral, of the evil inferno their fellow humans had devised to torture other fellow humans.

“Take care of me,” Mr. Gentry says he implored his God. “And he did.” And then his buddy, three feet away, was blown to kingdom come.

During Q-&-A Mr. Gentry said he gradually came to understand that a soldier can’t count on anyone to save him, not even a blustering, profane, street-wise Chicagoan named Mike. He can only trust in his God.

Mr. Dorris told a more uplifting story of praying for deliverance from hell on earth, and having his human faith reaffirmed by  an act of simple human kindness and gratitude when a prisoner attempted to repay his participation in their rescue with what must have been his last pitiable treasure on earth, the remnant of a cigarette butt he’d been hoarding in an old rusty can.

And then Mr. Lesser related his sickening, heartbreaking account of the Nazi “monster” who mauled and murdered an infant as her parents and siblings begged for a merciful decency that was not to be. He grabbed the baby by the ankles and smashed her savagely against the door-post.

Pressed by a questioner later to say whether religion was any kind of solace for him in attempting to make sense of such senseless barbarism, Mr. Lesser played the inevitable “free will” card. As usual, it was insufficient.

As Mrs. Hahn simply observed, this– the Holocaust– was not God’s work. Humans did it, freely or not.

What would be more monstrous: humans behaving brutally, hatefully, and maliciously when they might, theoretically, have chosen otherwise? Or, an omniscient, all-knowing Immortal freely creating humans with a capacity for brutality, hatred, and malice, and with a will to express it? (Notice, please: an omniscient creator would have to have known in advance that his brutal Nazi, all his brutal Nazis, and Klansmen, and Janjaweeds et al,  would in fact not chose otherwise.)

It’s a rhetorical question, each of us will answer it for ourselves. If a different answer than mine is what carried those brave survivors and liberators through the dark days and nights of their travail in those unspeakably obscene death camps, I will not begrudge them a moment’s comfort.

blowing cloverBut for myself, Emerson’s words in the Divinity School Address, illustrating the free human capacity for intolerant oppression (“This was Jehovah come down out of heaven. I will kill you, if you say he was a man,” etc.) come back  with renewed force and fresh application:

“[Jesus] spoke of miracles; for he felt that man’s life was a miracle, and all that man doth, and hefalling rain knew that this daily miracle shines, as the character ascends. But the word Miracle, as pronounced by Christian churches, gives a false impression; it is Monster. It is not one with the blowing clover and the falling rain.”

“The blowing clover and the falling rain”: much less monstrous, much more miraculous and inspiring, to me.

James bio – 6

October 16, 2009

jameslThe story continues. It’s the late ’70s, James is about to become a family man (Henry III was born in May ’79), his philosophical future is resolving into sharper focus, his brilliant but troubled sister Alice has begun a steep, inexplicable decline (diagnosed as “neurasthenic”), and his parents are nearing their respective ends.

William is now articulating some of his most distinctive positions. For instance,

On habit: “The great thing is to form habits which then leave the hemispheres free for higher flights…” 

On emotion: “No conscious event can occur without some parallel event occurring in the nervous system on which the conscious event depends… the bodily event is the condition, the mental event the consequence. What we esteem the highest is at the mercy of the lowest…”

On consciousness and human evolution: It “means the end of the reign of chance and the beginning of the reign of intelligence.”

On human “powers” and free will: We may profess a “natural faith that our delights and sorrows, loves and hates, aspirations and efforts are real combatants in life’s arena, and not impotent, paralytic spectators of the game.” And: “The trouble with determinism, fatalism, pessimism, the unconscious, and materialism is that in our better hours we feel such limited and limiting forces… to deny our most intimate powers all relevancy…” And: “the inmost nature of the reality is congenial to powers which you possess.”

On attention: “Emotional interests are the great guides to selective attention.”

On life as an adventure, without guarantees: “All that the human heart wants is its chance.”

On effort and free will: “What makes it easy to raise the finger, hard to get out of bed on a cold morning, harder to keep our attention on the insipid image of  a procession of sheep… It is a question of getting to the point where we want to will something or other…”

In January 1879 James publishes “Are We Automata?” No, he insists, and would insist to Dan Dennett today with his neuroscientific idea that our minds are assemblages of billions of miniscule cellular robots. But T.H. Huxley’s argument in the affirmative had sounded some characteristsic Jamesian themes too. For example: “In men as in brutes, there is no proof that any state of consciousness is the cause of change in the motion of the matter of the organism.” Remember, on James’s early psychological view we are sad because we cry, not the other way ’round.

But in “Are We Automata?” James is mainly concerned to keep free will in the game, and this seems to require a big role for the emotions as selective, attentive, and integral to the possibility of real human choices and acts. In the process, he says things that might remind you of Cartesian homunculi. The point of consciousness is to allow us to choose, just as a ship’s passenger may choose to seize the helm and “raise, lower, or reef the sail, and so, in small but meaningful ways, direct the voyage. Such a person, taking such actions, cannot be called an automaton.”

No. But neither is it clear that such an understanding of the role emotion plays in our lives is quite consistent with the James-Lange theory. When concept-laden theory confounds our actual experience, James will always opt for the preservation of experience. The details may need working out, but he’s typically happy to go back to the theoretical drawing board rather than deliberately distort perceptual reality in the name of a tidy but misleading picture.

(BTW: James would be fascinated by a story that appeared in the Times science section this week, suggesting the possibility that the Hadron Super-collider might actually interfere with time itself. Perhaps what we do really does alter the space-time causal landscape in tangible ways… does wiggle our dominoes, to return to a strange metaphor that came up in the course of one classroom discussion this week.)

It was during this time that James began experimenting with various psycho-active substances to see what effect they might have in expanding his consciousness and recognition of reality. Hilariously, he read Hegel under the influence of nitrous oxide with predictable results.

1882 was a year of loss. Darwin died, Emerson died. His mother died at age 71. Before the year was out, his father followed suit. James was abroad when his Dad began his final descent, and quickly drafted a letter that preceded him back to Boston. But it did not arrive in time for Henry Sr. to read.

It is a remarkable letter, one which I found it fitting to read to my own father* when his remaining days were few. William was still aboard ship on Dec. 21, continuing his Atlantic transit,  when his brother Henry stood at their father’s graveside  and  read aloud from that letter that began: “Darling Old Father…”

“The letter concludes: “As for us… we will stand by each other and  by Alice, try to transmit the torch in our offspring as you did in us… And it comes strangely over me in bidding you goodby how a life is but a day and expresses mainly but a single note, it is so much like the act of bidding an ordinary goodnight. Good night my sacred old Father. If I don’t see you again– Farewell! A blessed Farewell! -Your William”

Richardson rightly observes: “Letters, even undelivered, outlast life. It was a scene a novelist would be hard-pressed to improve.” *It sure was.

James bio – 3

September 25, 2009

“The moral business.” On February 1, 1870, twenty-eight year old William James– a brilliant, charismatic young man possessed of tremendous (if diffuse) creative energies  and an evident aptitude for the arts and sciences alike, but who nonetheless felt guilty and adrift in life because (or so he imagined) he could not commit himself to a definite vocational path– recorded this entry in his personal diary:

James1869“Today I about touched bottom, and perceive plainly that I must face the choice with open eyes: shall I frankly throw the moral business overboard… or shall I follow it, and it alone, making everything else merely stuff for it?”

“The moral business” for James meant the possibility of genuine personal volition and free choice, expressed in the form of a definite life-plan which he could embrace as his own freely chosen path. He had come to doubt himself so severely, after abandoning earlier careers plans centering on art, medicine, and scientific field exploration, that he was now wholly without confidence in the efficacy of his own will. He questioned his ability to identify any preference compelling enough to awaken even a modest passion, and was now on the verge of wondering whether life would even be worth living.

So his choice was very stark: act as if his will was free, and sufficient to motivate real action; or give it up, and surrender to apathy and drift. Existential shipwreck loomed.

“Stuff” for the moral business would be the hard challenge of staying the course and sticking with a plan, through thick and thin. Was he ready to face and fight adversity, and persevere to accomplish important goals? He frankly didn’t know.

The James who would later declare his implacable hostility to evil, and his zest for the fight, had not yet materialized into clear view, in 1870. The young man had indeed arrived at a crisis-point in his life (and this is now widely recognized by James scholars as a “crisis text” in his biography).

One of the precipitants of this crisis was the death of a dear friend, possibly a romantic interest, and (btw) his first cousin,minnie temple Minnie Temple,* at age 23.

Minnie and Willy “were in some ways similar spirits, restless, yearning, hungry for life, ambitious, scornful of second best, sensitive, ironic, and outgoing… Minnie Temple was the first woman William had ever been able to accept as a complete equal, and the first person he could talk with about his deepest religious and spiritual concerns.”

But William’s depression blocked the union of souls and merger of lives they might have pursued, cousin-hood notwithstanding. “Nature and life have unfitted me for any affectionate relations with other individuals.” Yet at this time, incidentally, he was preparing an ambitious reading list that included Schopenhauer: probably not the best choice, at this low ebb in his life.

James received a letter from Minnie in February declaring: “the question will always remain, what is one’s true life,– and we must each try and solve it for ourselves.” Less than a month later, Minnie passed away.

James wrote to her, posthumously. “By that big part of me that’s in the tomb with you, may I realize and believe in the immediacy of death. Minnie, your death makes me feel the nothingness of all our egotistical fury… Use your death (or your life, it’s all one meaning) tat tvam asi (lit., that you are).

And so young Willy took another giant step towards becoming himself, the pragmatist philosopher William James. “The closing days of Minnie Temple’s life mark the first time in James’s life that he was able to accept the active religious struggle of another person as a valid religious experience… his first glimpse of a view of life as larger than our individual lives.”


* Minnie Temple was the real-life prototype for Henry James‘s most interesting American girls, for Daisy Miller, Isabel Archer, and Milly Theale, and it was this provocative and irresistible Minnie – charged to the lips with life – who broke in upon William James’s turbulent, unfixed, unsatisfied existence when he returned home from Germany. “Everyone was supposed, I believe, to be more or less in love with her… but it was William that Minnie had her eye on, and it was William who was in love with her….”