Posts Tagged ‘IFTTT’

WJ 13 — “a mystery of rightness”

July 9, 2020
“There is a mystery of rightness about the Parthenon that I cannot understand,” James muses in Athens in 1905. Then, serendipitously (or perhaps predictably, philosophers flocking to Athens is not exactly like Pentecostals in Vegas) he runs into George Santayana, “that gifted fish, the oddest spectator of life,” whose rightness is also  hard for a Pragmatist to understand, and yet somehow he is inescapably ours. Maybe it’s the naturalism, the “animal faith,” I don’t know. Good subject for another post.
But James clearly perceives a natural ally in Santayana, against the “dessicating and pedantifying” tendencies of all those “baldheaded and baldhearted” young scholars of erkentnisstheorie being churned out by the new “Ph.D.  Octopus” we noted in the last installment.
For the record: some of my best friends are erkentnisstheorists (we call them epistemologists), a few are bald through no fault of their own, and none are quite heartless.
I do know what James means about the Parthenon, I took classes to our local version when I taught down the street at Vanderbilt… just to sample the atmosphere and soak up the aura. Athena really is something to behold. (A few blocks away, another Alan LeQuire production called “Musica” stops traffic at the head of Music Row. Also a  subject for another post.)
Besides his professional brother Santayana, James had some difficulty understanding his real sibling Henry, “younger and shallower and  vainer” and much less direct in his writing.
(More on this, and other highlights from the present section– including the great 1906 San Francisco earthquake, which was  just about to rumble– as soon as I can regain control of the letter “P” on my keyboard. A liquid mishap, curiously, has disabled only that key and I cannot seem to finish a sentence without it… This is now being pounded out on an alternative machine which, I now discover, cannot handle apostrophes… so I can’t do possessives and contractions, and that proves to be  a much bigger crimp in my style than I’d have guessed. Really, not making this up. Our dependence on the mechanics of symbolic expression, normally ignored, is just too absurdly fragile. How funny.) — Orig. published 12.11.09
WJ 13.1

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, panpsychismpluralism, 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.
Orig. published 4.21.10

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On first looking into Chapman’s Dayton*

July 8, 2020
We’re into Week Two of our July mini-mester study of Evolution in America. Some thoughts, prompted by the class’s reaction so far to Edward Larson’s Summer for the Gods and Matthew Chapman’s Trials of the Monkey…

I’m a bit surprised at the vehemence of some students’ negative response to Chapman. His book is 20-plus years old now, which in 2020 definitely dates it in some respects — especially when it comes to those sensitivities in reference to whic lately we talk about being “woke”. I really don’t think anything I’ve read in his pages marks him as an inveterate racist, and if he was sexist it was a form of sexism not at all uncommon among men late in the last century. That’s no excuse of course, ultimately, but it’s still useful to remind ourselves that attitudes many now recoil from were widely and un-circumspectly shared not so long ago. I don’t mean to let him off the hook, I just don’t think we ought to leave him out to dry as though he were the only one ever (for instance) to call attention to morbidly-obese Greyhound passengers. May we just note his serial insensitivities, class, and turn our attention in a different and potentially more constructive and instructiver  direction?

My hope is that we can release our author from the amateur psychoanalyst’s couch, stop speculating about his possible childhood traumas (beyond those he himself reveals), and concede that while his confessions do sometimes place him in an unflattering light they also show him to possess a degree of self-effacing humility and self-critique that I for one find honest and even refreshing. As one of us has commented,

Chapman has not offended me in the way he has some others in the class. His is disrespectful, irreverent and brutally honest but I also find him self-effacing, most often kind to others (at least to their face) and certainly a passionate observer to the people and places he encounters not to mention having a very humorous turn of the phrase. My thoughts keep going back to the fact that he is Hollywood screenwriter and in this role he has learned what arouses an audience, what placates an audience and what entertains an audience. I think he has his well developed “writing tools” on full display in this book. There are time when I wonder what the people he encountered and profiled in the book thought if they ever read the book and if is still welcome in Dayton but I enjoy his writing-crassness, foibles and all. He certainly makes no secret to who and what he is and the elements of his psychological make-up.

Quite so.

In any event, what I’d like to urge is that we view ourselves not as Chapman’s character judges and jury but simply as fellow visitors (virtually this semester, alas, in this time of COVID) to a small Tennessee town with a big history of aggressive resistance to Chapman’s famous ancestor’s evolutionary hypothesis. Let’s peer over his shoulder as he encounters people very different from himself culturally, linguistically, ideologically etc., and eavesdrop on his conversations. Let’s see if he and they can make any headway in understanding where each other are coming from.

Not to spoil the story, but I’ve already indicated that I do find Chapman’s willingness to reach across those chasms of difference and his progress in coming to understand and even respect his new friends — all while maintaining a different point of view — quite rare by comparison to the way people in our day typically regard those of a different party, faith, culture, etc. etc.

So to sum up: to me the point of reading Chapman is not to analyze and it’s definitely not to obsess over his personal character flaws. The point is to see how very strange American anti-evolutionism can look from a British pro-evolutionist perspective… and then to see if that gap can be narrowed, if mutual respect can emerge from civil conversation and awakened curiosity about the circumstances, values, aspirations and so forth that created the gap in the first place.

And, we also and simultaneously want to be reading Larson’s historical account of the events in Dayton in 1925 with at least as much active engagement. It’s a fascinating tale, and it really happened in our Tennessee back yard.
* Don’t know if you saw what I did there, just a little poetic humor. Very little, perhaps. But let’s keep having fun with our subject-matter.

On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer Poem by John Keats - Poem ...

“On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” is a sonnet written by English poet John Keats when he was just 20 years old. Essentially, it is a poem about poetry itself, describing a reading experience so profound that an entire world seems to come to life. The poem talks specifically about a translation of Homer, the Classical Greek poet, by George Chapman, an Elizabethan poet whose translations were more concerned with the reader’s experience of the text than loyalty to the original form. The poem was published in the newspaper The Examiner soon after it was written in 1816. LitCharts

John Keats by David Levine | Dessin, Caricatures, Portraits

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WJ 12 — penultimate

July 8, 2020
We rejoin James in his early sixties, in 1903: a time of rapid (by the standards of the day) mechanization. “A Packard accomplished the first automobile trip across the United States,” San Francisco to New York, in the astonishing time of just fifty-two days. The Wright Brothers have just gone aerial. And Henry Adams is yearning for the thirteeth century’s cult of the Virgin of Chartres.

To get slightly ahead of our story: James exchanged letters with Adams not long before his death, responding to the latter’s dark musings about the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the inevitable “heat death of the universe” and so on, this way:

“Though the ULTIMATE state of the universe may be its… extinction, there is nothing in physics to interfere with the hypothesis that the PENULTIMATE state might be a happy and virtuous consciousness… In short, the last expiring pulsation of the universe’s life might be, “I am so happy and perfect that I can stand it no longer.”

That’s looking on the bright side.*

James’s great intellectual excitement at this time is his discovery of the “process” philosophy of Henri Bergson, his elan vital and his perception of time’s inexorable forward momentum. “It is like the breath of the morning and the song of birds. And to me it tells of reality itself and not merely of what previous dusty-minded professors have thought about reality.”

(Note that it’s always other professors’ dusty-minded ideas one must shake off.)
This is when James wrestles, somewhat ineffectually, with “the Ph.D. Octopus.” If exclusionary formal credentialing was already out of hand then, how much worse is it now? Short answer: lots.

This is also when he really first appreciates his fundamental consanguinity with John Dewey, who “makes biology and psychology continuous” and whose “favorite word is situation.” (His second-favorite was “reconstruction”).

And this is the time of the Emerson centenary, when James orates in memory of New England’s great Socratic Transcendentalist:

“The deep today which all men scorn” receives thus from Emerson superb revindication. Other world! there is no other world.” All God’s life opens into the individual particular, and here and now, or nowhere, is reality. “The present hour is the decisive hour, and every day is doomsday.” Such a conviction that Divinity is everywhere may easily make of one an optimist of the sentimental type that refuses to speak ill of anything. Emerson’s drastic perception of differences kept him at the opposite pole from this weakness. After you have seen men a few times, he could say, you find most of them as alike as their barns and pantries, and soon as musty and dreary. Never was such a fastidious lover of significance and distinction, and never an eye so keen for their discovery. His optimism had nothing in common with that indiscriminate hurrahing for the Universe with which Walt Whitman has made us familiar…

1904 brings the nominal birth of  James’s “radical empiricism,” made radical by its refusal to concede the reality of “any element that is not directly experienced nor exclude any element that is directly experienced.” Bertrand Russell, famously disapproving of James’s “Will to Believe“– make-believe, Russell had sneered— said James “was right on this matter, and would on this ground alone deserve a high place among philosophers.” (More Russell quotes)

*Russell also agreed with James’s rejection of cosmic pessimism, even supposing our sun and galaxy and universe must someday expand and collapse and disappear:

I am told that that sort of view is depressing, and people will sometimes tell you that if they believed that, they would not be able to go on living. Do not believe it; it is all nonsense. Nobody really worries about what is going to happen millions of years hence. Even if they think they are worrying much about that, they are really deceiving themselves. They are worried about something much more mundane, or it may merely be a bad digestion; but nobody is really seriously rendered unhappy by the thought of something that is going to happen to this world millions and millions of years hence.

Long-term thinking is good, wondering what life will make of itself is vital… but let’s not get carried away! The end of the universe is (almost) unimaginably remote, much moreso than the potential end of a humanity victimized by its own self-destructiveness. This would have been Russell’s answer to young “Alvy Singer”… it was in fact the essence of what “Dr. Flicker” advised:

Orig.published 12.4.09

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WJ 11 — “headfirst”

July 7, 2020

It’s the turn of the (19th to the 20th) century, James is cultivating his friendly philosophical antagonism and personal friendship with Josiah Royce
who said: “I teach at Harvard that the world and the heavens, and the stars are all real, but not so damned real, you see.”

In this photo James has just goaded Royce with the taunt: “Look out, Royce. Damn the Absolute, I say!” (The Absolute was Royce’s and the other Idealists’ name for, for lack of a better name, God.)
…and he ‘s still hiking too much. He’s working on, and fretting about, the impending Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh, Scotland that will eventually become Varieties of Religious Experience. But a collapse in December ’99 necessitates their postponement.
“The problem I have set myself is a hard one; 1st to defend against all the prejudices of my [profession], ‘experience’ against ‘philosophy’ as being the real backbone of the world’s religious life… and second, to make the hearer or reader believe what I myself invincibly do believe, that although all the special manifestations of religion may have been absurd (I mean its creeds and theories) yet the life of it as a whole is mankind’s most important function.”
We’ve already noted that, for James, the religious impulse is less motivated by questions about God than by the universal urge for better, richer, more meaningful life. Experience, including religious experience, is to be taken seriously whenever it aspires to serve that purpose. Much philosophical discourse about religion is logically and technically correct, but fails to grasp the life-affirming motivation that made James a friend (if not a practitioner) of religious faith.  (And then there’s the Nietzschean critique, according to which religion is intrinsically life-negating. James was more cognizant of religion’s naturalistic roots and fruits.)
James really means what he says.  Religious creeds and theories are absurd, and he has no interest in “your ordinary religious believer, who follows the conventional observances of his country, whether it be  Buddhist, Christian, or Mohammedan. His religion has been made for him by others, communicated to him by tradition…”
James’s interest was more in what we might call ” spirituality,” with a lot of qualification. There remains much confusion about this term, with some assuming that it excludes a naturalistic orientation– it does not– or that it’s simply an alternative, non-sectarian name for “religious”— which it defiantly is not.  “We must make search for the original experiences which were [and are] the pattern-setters,” rather than sinking back into comfortable religious conformism. “Life” demands it.
John Dewey made a similar point, when in A Common Faith he called for the reclamation and emancipation of “religious” as a term of description applicable to generic, non-denominational experience. He didn’t want to surrender the word, but whatever you call it– spiritual, transcendental, “consummatory” etc.– the experience is very much of this world. It’s natural for human beings to seek and find meaningful patterns in life as it is lived, and not to postpone it for an after-life that for all we can possibly know may never arrive.
The so-called religion of healthy-mindedness, or mind-cure, or (more broadly) positive thinking, had James’s strong endorsement. Richardson: “When a person feels better because he thinks he has been given a cure, we call it, with complacent condescension, the placebo effect. For James, however, the same effect is simply a cure.”
Religion never had a more sympathetic defender among philosophers than William James, but as the Edinburgh lectures drew to a close he wrote to a Christian friend: “I believe myself to be (probably) permanently incapable of believing the Christian system of vicarious salvation, and wedded to a more continuously evolutionary mode of thought.” But he’d not have had much sympathy for Richard Dawkins’ atheistic version of evolutionism. He’s too supportive of the life impulse to deny its religious manifestations in just about any form, but he’s also too drawn to the evolutionary hypothesis to exclude religionists from its tent.
Richardson reports a scene that may surprise Jamesians like me who were  aware that he’d rebuffed former student Morris Cohen’s proposal to regard baseball as a “moral equivalent of war,” which James had said “we now need to discover in the social realm… something heroic that will speak to men as universally as war does, and yet will be as compatible with their spiritual selves as war has proved incompatible” :
Friends of son Francis (“Aleck”), who managed the baseball team at his Cambridge school,  “remembered seeing William James sitting by himself in the stands in raw weather, watching his son’s team and taking a lively interest in the new idea of sliding into base headfirst.”
A headfirst slide is a good metaphor for William James’s view of life in general, at age 60. As he said in his last Edinburgh lecture in 1902: “No fact in human nature is more characteristic than its willingness to live on a chance.” And to take serious risk of personal and professional injury doing it, evidently.

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WJ 10 — “the deepest thing in our nature”

July 6, 2020

wj 1899

Robert Louis Stevenson, James’s favorite author, dies as this week’s installment begins. Stevenson is only 44. And, it so happens, today is Stevenson’s birthday.
It’s the mid-’90s, James is lending financial and moral support to the brilliant but erratic philosopher “Charley” Peirce, who would later bite the hand that fed him by refusing James’s noblesse in crediting him with inventing pragmatism.
He’s also reflecting on the allegedly-false happiness of alcoholic intoxication, which ravaged his brother. Better to “replace the ideal of drinking with the ideal of having a constitution in perfect health,” an example of Spinozistic positive psychology. Stick to the nitrous, when you want to experiment with an expanded yea-saying consciousness.
“Alcoholics Anonymous” makes extensive practical use of Jamesian aids to learning and personal reform. “When AA invokes a ‘higher power,’ it does not mean Jehovah; it means a power higher than oneself.  A small community of two or three will do nicely.” No need to bring in supernatural forces. We’ll all get by with a little help from our friends.
The naturalistic bent of James’s curiosity is reflected in his slight shift, around this time, away from studies of abnormal psych and the paranormal and towards varieties of religious experience. Richardson makes more of this, though, than he should. Religious experiences may be natural for human beings, but some of the case studies of conversion and “sick souls” James presents in Varieties are as “abnormal” as anything he’d encountered as a student of clinical psychology, and are not prime examples of what Spinoza must have meant when he advised us to re-frame our aversions in terms of positive goods.
James still insists that we not ignore the negative side of life. We must address ourselves to the unpleasant task of hearing what the sick souls, as we may call them in contrast to the healthy-minded, have to say of the secrets of their prison-house, their own peculiar form of consciousness. Let us then resolutely turn our backs on the once-born and their sky-blue optimistic gospel; let us not simply cry out, in spite of all appearances, “Hurrah for the Universe!—God’s in his Heaven, all’s right with the world.” Let us see rather whether pity, pain, and fear, and the sentiment of human helplessness may not open a profounder view…
For himself, though, life is good. “As William James turned fifty-three, in January 1895, his life was rich and full… He was happily, solidly married– though he contracted a mad crush on every other woman he met.” Mid-life can be treacherous. “I have been happy, happy HAPPY!” he wrote Mrs. James, after meeting one of his crushes.
In April ’95 James delivered a talk to the Harvard YMCA called “Is Life Worth Living?” It included this distinctively-Jamesian statement about personal subjectivity:

The deepest thing in our nature in this binnenleben, this dumb region of the heart in which we dwell alone with our willingnesses and unwillingnesses, our faiths and fears. As through the cracks and crannies of subterranean caverns the earth’s bosom exudes its waters, which then form the fountain-heads of springs, so in these crepuscular depths of personality the sources of all our outer deeds and decisions take their rise. Here is our deepest organ of communication with the nature of things.

Another noteworthy publication from this period: “The Gospel of Relaxation,” in which James issues the best pedagogical advice I’ve ever received:  The advice I should give to most teachers would be in the words of one who is herself an admirable teacher. Prepare yourself in the subject so well that it shall be always on tap: then in the class-room trust your spontaneity and fling away all further care.

And there’s good advice here for students, too: If you want really to do your best in an examination, fling away the book the day before, say to yourself, “I won’t waste another minute on this miserable thing, and I don’t care an iota whether I succeed or not.” Say this sincerely, and feel it; and go out and play, or go to bed and sleep, and I am sure the results next day will encourage you to use the method permanently.

Will to Believe,” maybe James’s most famous essay, comes in 1896. Here he tackles that delicious enfant terrible [William Kingdon] Clifford, who wrote“Belief is desecrated when given to unproved and unquestioned statements for the solace and private pleasure of the believer…. It is wrong always, everywhere, and for every one, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”

James: Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things. In a world where we are so certain to incur them in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than this excessive nervousness on their behalf. At any rate, it seems the fittest thing for the empiricist philosopher.

No one of us ought to issue vetoes to the other, nor should we bandy words of abuse. We ought, on the contrary, delicately and profoundly to respect one another’s mental freedom: then only shall we bring about the intellectual republic; then only shall we have that spirit of inner tolerance without which all our outer tolerance is soulless, and which is empiricism’s glory; then only shall we live and let live, in speculative as well as in practical things.

“William James at fifty-five seemed a man of unlimited energy.”  But, he wrote a friend, there’s just too much for an academic to read. “One lives on an inclined plane of hopes as regards reading, on which like the snail of mental arithmetic one slips back more in 24 hours than one gains.” Tell me about it.
James finally has an experience of the sort he’d always hungered for, one that  he would characterize as vaguely mystical though not entirely instructive. He called it his Walpurgisnacht, an extraordinary experience of “spiritual alertness” on a magnificent starry night after days of strenuous hiking. Of course it was an experience that, by the very terms of its mystical ineffability, he literally could not speak of in any detail. But, he cryptically said, “I now know what a poet is.”
On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings” (discussed in last week‘s post) is published in 1898. “The truth is too great for any one actual mind… The facts and worths of life need many cognizers to take them in. There is no point of view absolutely public and universal. The practical consequence of such a philosophy is the well-known democratic respect for the sacredness of individuality.”
Democracy, as we know, does not always evince so great a respect for the individuality of other peoples and nations. The Phillippines crisis of 1899 provoked James’s ire. he saw American policy as naked imperialism, “crushing out the sacredest thing in this great human world– the attempt of a people long enslaved to attain to the possession of itself… to be free.” He complains bitterly:  “The stars and stripes are now a lying rag.” Sound familiar?
As the fin de siecle approaches there are troubling signs of health challenges ahead. Ever since his Walpurgisnacht he’s noticed “queer cardiac symptoms,” a “valvular insufficiency”… the sort of thing Daniel Dennett recently had occasion to “thank goodness” for rescuing him from. But James was born too soon to enjoy the opportunity of that particular form of rescue.
Orig. published 11.13.09

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WJ 9 — relax

July 3, 2020

In WJ 9 we encounter some of James’s most enduring and inspiring work, in the form of essays addressed explicitly to teachers and students concerning applied psychology and “some of life’s ideals.” He was very clear: we all have it in us to stand up and be heroes. Consider, for instance, the so-called Little Rock Nine. Their ideal was simply to get an education in the previously-segregated public schools of Little Rock, Arkansas, and to establish that precedent as the new norm. The personal courage and perseverance they had to summon, to achieve that, was impressive. Human beings have an impressive capacity to rise up and do great, good things. For James, that capacity is what makes a life significant. “The solid meaning of life is always the same eternal thing,— the marriage, namely, of some unhabitual ideal, however special, with some fidelity, courage, and endurance; with some man’s or woman ‘s pains.”

A few new important and telling points about our philosopher and his work:

Jacques Barzun, author of A Stroll With William James, said Principles of Psychology (1890), like Moby Dick, ought to be read from beginning to end at least once by every person professing to be educated.

“Principles” jolted John Dewey out of his neo-Kantian slumber…

Novelist Rebecca West said one of the James brothers grew up to write fiction as though it were philosophy [psychology?] and the other to write philosphy as though it were fiction.

William had a gift for memorable phrases: the bitch-goddess success, stream of consciousness, blooming buzzing confusion, moral equivalent of war, healthy-minded, live option…

“Will you or won’t you have it so?” is the most probing question we are ever asked… We answer by consents or non-consents and not by words…

One of his great enthusiasms arises now: “The Gospel of Relaxation“*… capped by the best practical teaching advice I’ve ever heard: “The advice I should give to most teachers would be to prepare yourself in the subject so well that it shall be always on tap: then in the class-room trust your spontaneity and fling away all further care.”

*”If you never wholly give yourself up to the chair you sit in, but always keep your leg- and body-muscles half contracted for a rise; if you breathe eighteen or nineteen instead of sixteen times a minute, and never quite breathe out at that,—what mental mood can you be in but one of inner panting and expectancy, and how can the future and its worries possibly forsake your mind… The American over-tension and jerkiness and breathlessness and intensity and agony of expression are primarily social, and only secondarily physiological, phenomena. They are bad habits, nothing more or less, bred of custom and example, born of the imitation of bad models and the cultivation of false personal ideals… We, here in America, through following a succession of pattern-setters whom it is now impossible to trace, and through influencing each other in a bad direction, have at last settled down collectively into what, for better or worse, is our own characteristic national type…”

I don’t know if this is still a pervasive problem in America, as apparently it was a century ago. I do notice plenty of tense, constricted, contorted faces on my ambles across campus and in town and behind the wheel. I preach my own gospel of relaxation by urging folks to take a hike or a bike-ride, as I did yesterday on my way to school. My reward: the discovery of a wonderful new bike path from Edwin Warner Park that snakes behind the Ensworth High School campus near the Harpeth River, under Hwy 100, all the way to the playing fields where Younger Daughter played in the Babe Ruth League with her team the Dixie Chicks a few seasons ago. That was relaxing.

Originally published __.__.09

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WJ 8

July 2, 2020


It’s the autumn of ’86, the Statue of Liberty’s just been dedicated in New York Harbor, and James is immersed in the writing of his seminal Principles of Psychology.

But he’s also doing and thinking about many other things. He’s exploring hypnosis and other “exceptional mental states” (again, check out his incredible free-form channeling of Hegel under the intoxicating influence of nitrous oxide).
He and Alice are building a home at 95 Irving Street in Cambridge, near Harvard, and renovating their Chocorua,  New Hampshire getaway (reducing to just eleven “doors opening out”).
He’s exploring the evolutionary implications of human instinct and will.
He’s getting better acquainted with colleague George Santayana, beginning to turn Harvard’s philosophy program into something very special, and becoming a legendary teacher.
And he’s about to reunite in Europe with his beloved, mysteriously troubled sister Alice. Busy days.
james study“Actively involved with both family and students, redesigning and rebuilding one home and designing and building another from scratch– all while finishing a book almost three thousand pages long in manuscript– Williamchocorua James was constructing his life with all the energy he had.” A time of career achievement, and a time of  warm and cozy domesticity. (That’s his Irving Street study on the left, and Chocorua on the right.) James seems comfortably at home in his universe.
And at last, on the eve of the Gay ’90s, Principles is finished. James is much too hard on himself and his book, “a loathsome, distended, tumefied, bloated, dropsial mass.” In fact, most psychology experts continue to regard it as a classic and a work of genius. But he was ready for something completely different.
(Note: in August 2010 the William James Society will commemorated the centenary of James’s death in the Chocorua house in 1910. But  in our narrative, of course, he’s not dead yet.)
Originally published 10.30.09

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WJ 7-“talk,talk, talk, words, words, words”

July 1, 2020


Can’t resist that tag-line, on our first designated class-date (we’ll be Zooming tonight) of the July mini-semester. “What an awful trade…”* But no, not really, not at all. I love talking with students, and I couldn’t do it without all those words.

But it is always crucial for all of us in the verbalities-and-verbosities trade to remind ourselves that everything cannot be converted to them. So, with that proviso, let’s talk.


It’s 1883, James  is 41 and a success in his chosen vocation (about to be promoted to full professor). Like many who marry relatively late, it’s taken him awhile to settle comfortably into the group dynamic of family life and the checks it inevitably places on a bachelor’s accustomed unconditioned freedom. But settle he has, and the stability and safe haven of  home are reflected in the growing confidence of his philosophic voice.

Death has not taken a holiday. His mother and father are recently departed. Younger brother Wilky will soon join them. Then, William and Alice will lose a child (18-month old Herman). We forget how precarious  life was, day to day, not so long ago.
The shocking death of his little son coalesced with the lingering grief James continued to feel for his parents. Years later he would attest: “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 for ever after… That beloved incarnation was among matter’s possibilities.”
James had no insuperable problem with metaphysical materialism. Determinism, however, was another matter.BLoggers Dilemma graphic “The Dilemma of Determinism” began as a Harvard lecture in 1884, and it would remain one of James’s clearest statements of objection to the denial of free will. Like I.B. Singer’s, his position was unequivocal (if also a bit ironic and self-deprecating). Did he believe in free will? “Do I have a choice?”

Citing the example of a brutal spousal murder, James again challenges the reader to feel the preposterous implausibility of hard determinism. “For the deterministic philosophy, the murder [was] necessary from eternity.” Can we believe it? No, “something else would really have been better in its place.”
James sees the dispute between determinism and freedom as decisive, as requiring definite decision. One must choose between these incompatible visions:

“Of two alternative futures which we conceive, both may now be really possible; and the one becomes impossible only at the very moment when the other excludes it by becoming real itself. Indeterminism thus denies the world to be one unbending unit of fact. It says there is a certain ultimate pluralism in it… To that view, actualities seem to float in a wider sea of possibilities from out of which they are chosen… Determinism, on the contrary, says they exist nowhere, and that necessity on the one hand and impossibility on the other are the sole categories of the real. Possibilities that fail to get realized are, for determinism, pure illusions: they never were possibilities at all. There is nothing inchoate, it says, about this universe of ours, all that was or is or shall be actual in it having been from eternity virtually there… The issue, it will be seen, is a perfectly sharp one, which no eulogistic terminology can smear over or wipe out. The truth must lie with one side or the other, and its lying with one side makes the other false.”

James has also now begun serious work on what will eventually be published as Principles of Psychologyand he’s named the “wonderful stream of consciousness” for which he is still largely remembered. His delightfully pictorial imagination likens consciousness to avian flights and perchings (the transitive and substantive forms of experience), flights and perchingsand he refuses to accept the notion that whatever is real is always conceptually and nominally precise. Language is limited. It dulls our powers of discernment and discrimination. Non-verbal experience is rich, but difficult to contain and identify. It acquaints us, for instance, with vague feelings of relation (like the feeling of “if,” “and,” or “but”) that are no less real  than more substantive things. It is evanescent, impressionistic, fluid, streamy.
*One of my favorite James quotes come from this middle period. “What an awful trade that of professor is– paid to talk, talk, talk. What an awful universe it would be if everything could be converted to words, words, words.”
Being open and hospitable to the non-verbal dimensions of life, and being conscientious in his devotion to building the fledgling field of psychology into an inclusive science, James at this time got seriously into the world of the paranormal. He attended countless psychic seances  conducted by “spirit mediums,” alert to possibilities no longer taken seriously by scientists in our time but still wildly popular with the devotees of contemporary media stars like James van Praagh and John Edward.
It  bothered  James that there was “a mass of (alleged) testimony about such things, at which the only men capable of a critical judgment– men of scientific education– will not even look.”
Is such testimony fraudulent? You won’t know if you don’t check it out. If you don’t, you’re as guilty of self-deception as the worst “spiritualist” showman. “There is no source of deception in the investigation of nature which can compare with a fixed belief that certain kinds of phenomenon are impossible.”
Originally published 10.23.09

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The Book That Changed America

June 30, 2020

30152012If our Evolution in America course were a couple weeks longer, I’d assign Randall Fuller’s The Book That Changed America: How Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Ignited America as our third text.

It reveals that the New England Transcendentalists were deeply affected by the evolutionary hypothesis as delivered by Darwin in 1859, and that Thoreau went to his grave in 1862 having substantially absorbed its message. Fuller explicates Thoreau’s appreciation:

For one thing, [Darwinian natural selection] no longer relies upon divinity to explain the natural world… Emerson had prodded Thoreau to look through nature — not at it — in order to perceive the godhead. To a degree, Thoreau had always resisted this approach; he loved the hard surface of things too much. But now, within the short span of a year, Darwin had propelled him toward a radically different vision of creation… a natural world sufficient unto itself — without the facade of heaven. There was no force or intelligence behind Nature, directing  its course in a predetermined and purposeful manner. Nature just was.

Darwin himself pulled up short, in public at least, of such a  sweeping about-face when he told a correspondent “I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God.— I think that generally (& more and more so as I grow older) but not always, that an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.”

Thoreau was discrete in public as well, famously returning his aunt’s question “Have you made your peace with God?”  with “We never quarreled.”

But when asked if he was ready for the next world he answered as an unambivalent naturalist. “One world at a time.”

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WJ 6

June 30, 2020


The 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.
Originally published 10.16.09

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