Posts Tagged ‘James’

Where to, humanity?

October 3, 2011

Cards & Phils are all tied up, 4-4, in the 6th inning of Game #2 (we’ll not talk about Game #1), as I sit down on Sunday night to think about Monday’s class. Mill, Darwin, Nietzsche, Emerson, Thoreau, Peirce, Dewey, James… they were all evolutionists, but were any of them baseball fans? Well, Mill was a cricketer, Nietzsche a “footballer.” Dewey praised the “tense grace of the outfielder.” One of James’s students tried to interest him in the game once, without success:

Morris Rafael Cohen records, “When my revered friend and teacher William James wrote ‘The Moral Equivalent of War‘ I suggested to him that baseball already embodied all the moral value of war, so far as war had any moral value. He listened sympathetically and was amused, but did not take me seriously enough. All great men have their limitations.”

And that’s a good segue to Mill, Darwin, and Nietzsche. All were concerned, in one way or another, with the prospective greatness of humanity. A common misunderstanding of Darwin’s evolutionary hypothesis had him defending the “survival of the fittest” ethos as social policy. But Darwin was no Social Darwinist, preferring instead the cooperative liberal vision of his countryman Mill.

And then there’s Nietzsche, heralding the Ubermensch (“I teach you the Overman. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?”), aspiring to a personal future “beyond good and evil,” heaping scorn and abuse on comfortable “couch potato” English values (like democracy and “utility”), and insisting that hardship is the cost of greatness.

Nietzsche liked Emerson, and his “self-reliance.” The “Divinity School Address” must have pleased him too, with its repudiation of Judeo-Christian(-Islamic) supernaturalism and “monstrous distortion” of Jesus’ message that our life is a natural miracle, “one with the blowing clover and the falling rain.”

Nietzsche read German translations of Emerson’s essays, copied passages from “History” and “Self-Reliance” in his journals, and wrote of the Essays: that he had never “felt so much at home in a book.” Emerson’s ideas about “strong, overflowing” heroes, friendship as a battle, education, and relinquishing control in order to gain it, can be traced in Nietzsche’s writings. Other Emersonian ideas-about transition, the ideal in the commonplace, and the power of human will permeate the writings of such classical American pragmatists as William James and John Dewey. SEP [affinity]

Thoreau reputedly lived a lot like Nietzsche, in (relative) hermetic isolation. But did you know that during his sojourn at Walden pond, on property owned by Emerson, he made regular town-rounds and dropped his laundry off at Mom’s? [pics]

Peirce imagined the ideal end of intellectual history, defining truth as the view destined to be agreed upon. “Agreement” is not a term often associated with Nietzsche.

And what did James think of Nietzsche? Lumped him with Schopenhauer as a pair of rats, and pitied “poor Nietzsche’s antipathies.”

(5-4 Cards in the  7th…)

Are We Still Evolving?… Darwin & friendsEvolution & cooperationbest idea evermeanings evolvebest way to begin each day (Nietzsche?!)… nothing Nietzsche couldn’t teach yainto thin air (Nietzsche on hardship)…recurrence (“When N. Wept”)… “I am dynamite

NOTE TO STUDENTS: We’ll finish PW this week. On Monday & Tuesday,

M 3 PW 104-113. Mill & Darwin, Nietzsche, Emerson & Thoreau, Peirce & Dewey, James.

And note: next week it’s time to declare your report intentions: solo or collaborative, presentation or essay, and what’s your topic? Signups on the 10th & 11th.

See you all in class.

PostscriptCards win!

I wonder: does an interest in spectator sports help or hinder the evolution of our species? This morning my feeling is, if the future has no MLB postseason I don’t want to go. “If heaven ain’t a lot like Dixie…”


Introducing classic American philosophy

April 12, 2011

Time for American philosophy, which is something other and more than philosophy produced by Americans or in America… “classic” American philosophy, we sometimes call it. These are my people. They’re not saps, just SAAPs.

American philosophy generally, as previously noted,  has been very friendly to the evolutionary hypothesis, in many ways a direct and favorable response to it. Pragmatism is America’s indigenous philosophy – unless we’re talking about the thought of its indigenous peoples, of course.

Charles Sanders Peirce (our text misspells his name, and you’ll mispronounce it if you don’t rhyme it with “purse”) was the eccentric and bumptious genius William James tried to credit with the original idea of Pragmatism as a distinctively American approach to philosophy. Peirce shunned the praise, though, and said he’d rename his position “pragmaticism” to keep it safe from kidnappers. What an ingrate.

Peirce said: “The irritation of doubt causes a struggle to attain a state of belief. I shall term this struggle inquiry… When doubt ceases, mental action on the subject comes to an end; and, if it did go on, it would be without a purpose.” (Fixation of Belief)

That’s very different from Descartes’ method of hyperbolic doubt, which he despised. “Inquiry” as he defines it proceeds by steps, is self-correcting and non-dogmatic (without “tenacity”), and does not rely on unquestioned authorities. It’s tools are experience and honest observation. “Do not block the road of inquiry,” he challenged, lest you compromise the integrity of your belief.

Peirce was also big on something he called “evolutionary love,” but despite its seeming squishiness he really was pretty hard-nosed, in a positivistic sort of way. Our cartoonish text puts a few words in CSP’s mouth, depicting him as a philosophic gunslinger out of the wild west (he was actually the son of a Harvard mathematician)  but they’re pretty much in the spirit of his thought, and of his particular variety of pragmat(ici)ism:

If words mean anything, we should be able to test them… if they relate to qualities about which we can discover no practical effects, then they are meaningless.

It is astonishing to see how many philosophical disputes collapse into insignificance the moment you subject them to this simple test of tracing a concrete consequence… almost every proposition of ontological metaphysics is either meaningless gibberish or else downright absurd…

Excepting “evolutionary love” maybe, Chuck? But CSP’s greatest love was for truth pursued scientifically, for

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. The person who confesses that there is such a thing as truth, which is distinguished from falsehood simply by this, that if acted on it should, on full consideration, carry us to the point we aim at and not astray, and then, though convinced of this, dares not know the truth and seeks to avoid it, is in a sorry state of mind indeed.

Peirce’s friend and frequent rescuer William James did not think there was any insuperable incompatibility between religion and the new Darwinian science. But for himself, he said,

I believe myself to be (probably) permanently incapable of believing the Christian scheme of vicarious salvation, and wedded to a more continuously evolutionary mode of thought.

But James was more receptive than Peirce to the possibility, at least, that one person’s “meaningless gibberish” might be another’s raison d’etre. “Concrete consequences” for him were tied more to persons and their experience, than to the meanings of their words. Others might find the “Christian scheme of vicarious salvation” more believable, i.e., more actionable and more productive of positive consequences.

Here’s a terrific James site… and a pretty good book about his philosophy… and Richardson’s bio… and some of his letters (IIIIImore & more), which are what drew me to his thought in the first place. And here’s Louis Menand’s Metaphysical Club, of which James and Peirce were real members (along with Oliver Wendell Holmes and others) and John Dewey an honorary/retrospective one.

For lots more about WJ, just enter his name in this site’s search box (and in Delight Springs‘).

John Dewey called his version of pragmatism “instrumentalism,” and set up an experimental school to try it out. He wrote The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy (and other essays on this theme).

If all organic adaptations are due simply to constant variation and the elimination of those variations which are harmful in the struggle for existence that is brought about by excessive reproduction, there is no call for a prior intelligent causal force to plan and preordain them…

Philosophy forswears inquiry after absolute origins and absolute finalities in order to explore specific values and the specific conditions that generate them…

a philosophy that humbles its pretensions to the work of projecting hypotheses for the education and conduct of mind, individual and social, is thereby subjected to test by the way in which the ideas it propounds work out in practice. In having modesty forced upon it, philosophy also acquires responsibility.

What I like most about Dewey is his insistence that philosophers ought to devote themselves less to the intellectual problems posed by other philosophers and more to the practical problems of ordinary men and women.

The very best, of course, do both. A.C. Grayling is trying… but he’s no John Dewey.

Harvard’s turn-of-the-century philosophy department was a hotbed of pragmatism, but also included the metaphysical idealist Josiah Royce (who was James’s office-mate and next-door neighbor in Cambridge, MA) and the Spanish ex-pat George (“those who do not remember the past”) Santayana. Lately, Richard Rorty (of Princeton and UVA, among other places) wore the mantle of neo-pragmatist.

Another recent Harvard philosopher, John Rawls, wrote A Theory of Justice. His colleague Bob Nozick came up with the Experience Machine.  Their colleague W.V.O. Quine (who I met in one of my professors’ kitchen in 1978, btw) said experience is a “web of belief.”

James’s favorite contemporary philosopher Henri Bergson, a “vitalist,” said there’s a mysterious “life force” behind everything…

But that’s enough for now. “Whereof one cannot speak, one must pass over in silence.” So we’ll get to Wittgenstein et al next class.

catching up

March 31, 2010

Emerson is the first dead American philosopher to grab Simon Critchley‘s attention. We got a late start, but I’m confident we’ll catch up.

For what it’s worth, Nietzsche liked him. Not everyone does. But John Updike was a fan, so was James, and so am I. Lately I find myself echoing The Sage’s self-exhortation (“up again, old heart!”) a lot. I can’t imagine how a father rouses himself after the loss of a child, and I can’t believe Emerson when he says his son’s death “does not touch me.” That has to be a rhetorical stage of grieving (stuck somewhere between denial and anger, short of full acceptance) and a way of raging impotently against what must feel like an irredeemable cosmic injustice– not to mention a soul-crushing slug to the gut.

I hope he didn’t just see it as a salutary expression of his vaunted “self-reliance.”  In any case, he knew it was “a luxury to draw the breath of life” (Div.School Address]– a bitter luxury perhaps, in the shadow of heart-wrenching loss.

He was our first “secular humanist,” though it might be more accurate to call him “spiritual, not religious” (though not exactly in the AA sense). He was also a skeptic and a stoic, much impressed by the interior and “trying” style of Montaigne. [E’s Intro to M’s Essays]

Pneumonia, with which I’ve gone a couple of rounds myself, got Emerson. Thankfully there are drugs for that now.

Thoreau, dead American #2 (at just 44!): asked if he had made his peace with God, he replied, “I did not know we had ever quarreled.” His God, with whom he communed daily on his saunters in and around Concord, MA, appears to have had much in common with Spinoza’s and Einstein’s.  He is an inspiration, to me and my kids and to lovers of bears everywhere.

James. Freud said “I have always wished that I might be as fearless as he was in the face of approaching death.” But there’s lots of life left in Richardson’s bio, so let’s move on. As we read in Passion for Wisdom on Monday, his overriding interest was always in the problems of everyday living.

Dewey. He was still doing important work into his nineties. No one has had more insight into the importance for democracy of education, or the influence on philosophy of Darwin. He had no use for a mere “spectator’s” perspective… Education is experience, participatory and engaged.(PW)

Freud. His wish seems to have been fulfilled. All those cigars took a bite out of him but he showed no sign of complaint or irritability with his painful condition, he accepted it and was resigned to his fate. Much closer to Epicurus or Montaigne than Schopenhauer.

Nietzsche. Was his seeming megalomania(or madness) really a joke, as Critchley speculates? It might be nice to think so, if not wholly persuasive.  “The most serious Christians have always been well-disposed towards me.” That definitely sounds like a joke.

Mill. A 15-mile walk atage 67 did him in. There are worse exit scenarios, and worse motivational statements than “Work while it is called Today; for the Night cometh, wherein no man can work.”

Darwin. He’s buried in Westminster Abbey,  enjoying (as it were) a state hero’s repose.  When he grew tired of studying life’s specific origins he knew his own wasnearing its terminus.

KierkegaardDespite his tireless tirades against the degraded Christianity of the Danish pastors, Kierkegaard was buried with a full religious service. Was that gracious, mocking, or just… absurd?

Marx. Critchley is so good at bringing obscure but telling detail to the fore– like poor Marx’s carbuncles. The  material conditions of existence are no abstraction when they consume one’s “whole cadaver.”

Bergson. It’s so tempting to make light of the passing of the philosopher who championed the elan vital or life force, I’m surprised Critchley doesn’t. But he deserves a respectful remembrance, as one who stood in solidarity with his people when he might have walked away. He may have been James’s favorite philosopher.