Posts Tagged ‘Richardson’s James’

last stand

April 23, 2010

Let’s wrap things up for Richardson’s James bio, and for our semester’s required reading list in Intro. (But as I always tell students at semester’s end: don’t stop now. Check out this excellent James site, for starters, and keep on learning. Education only begins in college. don’t let your schooling interfere with it.)

William, like his hero Bergson, was wary of mental snapshots. But the image of him atop a ladder, peering into the English garden adjoining his brother’s home for a peek at G.K. Chesterton, does indeed give off “a sense of everlasting youth.” I want some of that.

Near the end he was reading Plutarch’s Lives, struck by those noble Greeks and Romans so rammed with life. That’s what poor Henry Adams was missing, with his “heat death” pessimism. We’ve already noted William’s response, the charged anticipation of an expiring pulse too happy to continue.

The laws of thermodynamics may not be “wholly irrelevant” but they do fail to find the real hot-spot of human energies. William James’s life and career were always hot on their trail. Richardson is right: his last stand for the spirit of man is indeed another picture worthy to be hung on the wall alongside “Death of Socrates.”

On August 26, 1910 [in Chocorua, N.H.] at two-thirty in the afternoon, with Alice holding his head, William James died. At the end there had been, Alice noted, “no pain and no consciousness.”

But, Mr. Blood, remind us again:

There is no conclusion. What has been concluded, that we might conclude in regard to it? There are no fortunes to be told, and there is no advice to be given. — Farewell!

A century later, William James’s death was not his end. He remains vitally related to the wider life of the ages.

And there will be a party in his honor in Chocorua this August. He– his “wider self”– will be there. His brother was correct: William James “is a possession,” and not a few of us are “still living upon him.”

WJ 13.1

April 21, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of Pragmatism‘s more intriguing analogies:

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

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

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

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

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


NOTE TO STUDENTS: What courses would you like to see offered by our department next year? Please respond to this survey.

AND: Final report presentations begin today. All hands on deck, please.

WJ 12.1

April 19, 2010

We’re in our final laps now in Intro, with just Richardson’s James bio— usually a Friday affair– to finish.

The triumphant, prestigious, standard-setting Gifford Lectures in Scotland behind him, James is now over 60 and the country is literally on the move. Planes and automobiles are poised to join trains as popular people-movers: a good mirror of James’s insatiable craving for change, the most imperative of human needs. Unlike Henry Adams, James feels at home in the restless age of the “dynamo.” Henri Bergson‘s “creative evolution” and “life force,” and John Dewey‘s experimentalism, are also in step with the times, and with James’s radical empiricism. James pauses in 1903 to gaze back at Emerson, and to warn us all about the ravening tentacles of the “Ph.D. Octopus.”   WJ 12

Also in this installment:

Change is one undeniable paradigm of the age and of James, man and philosopher alike. Chance is another.  He invokes C.S. Peirce’s tychism to make the point that chance gives rise to order and hard-won unity.

Peirce called his doctrine that chance has an objective status in the universe “tychism,” a word taken from the Greek word for “chance” or “luck” or “what the gods choose to lay on one.” Tychism is a fundamental doctrinal part of Peirce’s view, and reference to his tychism provides an added reason for Peirce’s insisting on the irreducible fallibilism of inquiry. For nature is not a static world of unswerving law but rather a dynamic and dicey world of evolved and continually evolving habits that directly exhibit considerable spontaneity.

He wishes his brother the successful novelist would take more chances with his fiction and actually dare to tell a livelier, more spontaneous story not so meandering and parenthetical and “psychological.”

He might have wished Dewey would improve his style too, lacking as he was in “newspaporial virtues” (though I recall John McDermott once saying that Dewey’s prose was to him, as a young New Yorker, as solidly reliable as the good gray Times) but doesn’t press the point with the same fraternal familiarity. He does like Dewey’s emphasis on situations, environments, and reconstruction.

Emerson, he’s reminded while prepping for the Sage’s big centenerary celebration, was also a champion of change:

Life only avails, not the having lived. Power ceases in the instant of repose: it resides in the moment of transition  from a past to a new state, in the shooting of the gulf, in the darting to an aim.

Jonathan Levin smartly discusses this famous passage in Poetics of Transition. What would it mean to “reside” in a such moment, really? We’re all just passing through.

James is still trying to “settle the Universe’s hash” at this time, plotting a book to impress his peers as much as he’s already impressed popular audiences. He’s also self-deprecating about this ambition, knowing it courts hubris and pretense. He thinks much the same of newly-emboldened academic institutional ambitions, agreeing with Emerson’s old critique of schools that churn out “more educated cleverness in the service of popular idols and vulgar ends,”  a “more instructed fool.” He prefers a “truer” tolerance of  exceptionality and eccentricity. What would he say about academia in our time? I’m pretty sure he’d begin with a “Bah!”

He’s beginning to try and construct the world out of pure experiences, but it’s proving an especially slippery concept. Is experience ever “pure,” untouched by human predispositions and conceptual inheritances?

The instant field of the present is always experienced in its ‘pure’ state. Plain unqualified actuality, a simple that, as yet undifferentiated into thing and thought, and only virtually classifiable as objective fact or as some one’s opinion about fact. This is as true when the field is conceptual as when it is perceptual. ‘Memorial Hall’ is ‘there’ in my idea as much as when I stand before it. I proceed to act on its account in either case. Only in the later experience that supersedes the present one is this naïf immediacy retrospectively split into two parts, a ‘consciousness’ and its ‘content,’ and the content corrected or confirmed. While still pure, or present, any experience –mine, for example, of what I write about in these very lines — passes for ‘truth.’ The morrow may reduce it to ‘opinion.’ A World of Pure Experience (1904)

And something much sillier: brother Henry shares his enthusiasm for the “Fletcherizing” craze. We’re still looking for short-cuts to health and happiness, aren’t we? And amusing ourselves with the spectacle of those who’ve chewed too much and now seek absolution through public humiliation. (I can’t look at “Biggest Loser” myself.)

William, in another moment of exasperation with his profession, declares to Sarah Whitman “that the desire to formulate truths is a virulent disease.” Better the life of immediacy, of enjoying life rather than endlessly analyzing it. But then reflection invariably breaks in, and the inveterate desire recurs. But if we’re going to formulate anything, hadn’t it better be truth?

Then his friend Sarah dies, italicizing his own mortality.

Does Consciousness Exist?” wins Bertrand Russell’s favor with its denial that consciousness names an entity rather than a process and function of activity.

And James tries to rein in the youthful exuberance of his young ally Schiller, who embarrasses James with the personal nastiness of his attacks on pragmatism’s “enemies.” James never had enemies, just friendly opponents.

This section ends with the perfect non-ending, a rhetorical query from Mr. Blood that we’ll want to re-invoke again at book’s and course’s end: “What is concluded that we should conclude…?”

not tucked under yet

April 18, 2010

It was Spring clean-up and planting day at Granny’s yesterday, and I have the aches and shovel-calluses to prove it. Grandpa used to do all the yard work and gardening, so this was for him as much as her. It was sacred work.

I get pressed into some yard work at home too, of course, every Spring. I admit I don’t always have the best attitude about it. I’d rather be walking the dogs or watching the ballgame (I managed to miss all 20 innings of the Cards-Mets yesterday) or hangin’ in the hammock or you name it.

But it’s good for a person to spend time scratching the ground, digging Mother Earth, laying mulch, sowing seeds, wheeling the barrow, planting the beds etc. As Annie Dillard* says so bluntly in For the Time Being, we’re really preparing our own beds.  “We spend forever on the globe, most of it tucked under.” It’s a healthy exercise, the literal version of which my wife has been trying since Day One to instill in me without result: to make your bed before you lay down in it.

That’s not the main point, though. Our time above ground, a day like yesterday reminds me, is all about preparing the Earth to support new life. It’s about vitality, and it’s about the season ahead.

(*BTW, readers of Richardson’s James bio: did you know she’s the Annie he dedicated it to?)

WJ 11.1

April 16, 2010

James is about to deliver the Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh, Scotland that will become Varieties of Religious Experience. This is probably the professional highlight of his life, and arguably the book most expressive of his pluralistic and humane openness to experiences not his own.  WJ 11

The most recent Gifford lecturer was neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga, wondering “What We Are.”  Coming in May: Patricia Churchland on “Morality and the Mammalian Brain”. The series clearly is trending away from the subjective approach James favored. But the pendulum will doubtless swing back in the next century.

An interesting observation and approach in Edinburgh (“the noblest city ever built by man,” “the Athens of the North“):

Churches live at second-hand upon tradition; but the founders of every church owed their power originally to the fact of their direct personal communion with the divine.  Now in these lectures I propose to ignore the institutional branch entirely… and to confine myself to personal religion pure and simple.

It’s a Kierkegaardian approach, and it’s overly generous: do we really want to credit every founder with “direct personal communion with the divine?” Even L. Ron Hubbard? And Joe Smith? It’s a slippery slope, isn’t it? If we’re going to challenge founders’ credentials, where will it end? But Hubbard was clearly on record declaring his interest in the fiduciary potential of the religion biz. Not all visionaries were driven by greed, but personal ambition can take many forms. We should be skeptical. James, ever the collector of “varieties,” trades his skepticism in this arena for plurality. Generous, indeed.

As noted last week, James’s discussion in Varieties of  “conversion experiences” inspired AA founder Bill Wilson.

And his discussion of “saintliness” stands to inspire earnestly religious people everywhere. What James means by saintliness is how religious experience affects practical everyday life… he proposes that we judge religious experiences by their fruits, by their value for living. Religion is not about God, not about immortality… it’s about life. Once again: “More life, a larger, richer, more satisfying life, is the end of religion.”

And here’s something you might not have guessed about William James: he was in some ways Peter Singer‘s  precursor, and even Gandhi‘s, offering encouragement and praise for those who “spurn dignities and honors, privileges and advantages,” and who “refuse to enjoy anything that others do not share… a man for whom poverty has no terrors becomes a freeman.” He believed in voluntary poverty, especially others’ voluntary poverty.

James was not waiting for validation in an afterlife. Quoting his quirky pluralist friend B.P. Blood:  “The kingdom is within. All days are judgment days.”

NOTE TO STUDENTS: Speaking of judgment days: we’re doing course evaluations today. Come to class and have your say. Or be counted absent, and be still.

PUBLIC LECTURE: The MTSU Philosophy Department’s annual Spring lecture series, the Lyceum, continues this afternoon with a pluralist-themed presentation by Scott Pratt of the University of Oregon: “Creation and Liberation: The Ontology of American Indian Origins.” It’s at 3:30 pm in James Union Building room 304, on the MTSU campus. A reception will follow.

WJ 10.1

April 9, 2010

We’ve missed a couple of Fridays in Intro, to the baseball conference and to illness, so I’ll be brief with this James bio installment & give us a chance to get caught up.

There’s lots to ponder in WJ 10, including the death of our subject’s favorite author (always an arresting reminder of one’s own ticking clock), the Jamesian roots of AA, James’s repudiation of overly-sunny optimism, his mid-life eye for ladies other than Mrs. James (by all accounts he did not technically stray), his striking claim that what makes life worth living, the deepest thing in our nature, is a dumb region of the heart… , some solid advice to students (If you want really to do your best in an examination…) and empiricist philosophers:

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.

And there’s more, including a memorable (though inevitably, ineffably elusive) pseudo-mystical night on witch mountain that he called his “Walpurgisnacht.”

Don’t forget, too, to check out last week’s installment. It includes James’s answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything. You won’t want to miss it.

WJ 9.1

April 2, 2010

Last time we were with James in Chocorua and Paris, now we’re back on native ground.

In WJ 9 we encountered 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.

NOTE TO STUDENTS: No class today. We’ll stay on track with the syllabus: for Monday finish Passion for Wisdom.

WJ 8.1

March 19, 2010

As noted in WJ 8, the mid-to-late ’80s for James as for the young nation was a time to celebrate and to exercise freedom. His  opus Principles of Psychology was feeling like an imposition on his liberty, but he pushed through and finished it.

In the Fall of ’86 the Jameses purchased a 75-acre farm overlooking Mount Chocorua on the southeastern edge of the White Mountains of New Hampshire, for $750.  The main farmhouse still stands and is well-known by the locals who directed me straight to it on my own little pilgrimage a few years ago, when I had a little free time during a conference in Portland, Maine and decided to put my rental car to good use. It looks much as it must have when William and family spent their most valued leisure hours there all those years ago.

The place filled a hole in William’s life. He loved these mountains as he loved the Adirondacks. He was an avid hiker, and felt a real craving, a hunger for nature, a physical need to spend several months a year in the country. He was delighted by its fourteen outside doors, [&] drawn to the freedom of its open spaces. It was sister Alice who so perceptively noted the parallel between the redundantly-outward-opening domicile and the receptive, novelty-seeking temperament of its new owner.

August 13-16 this coming summer, there will be a special James symposium in Chocorua (and Cambridge) honoring William James and exploring the application of his ideas in our time, on the occasion of the centenary of his death in August 1910.

James loved hiking so much because he loved “The Feeling of Effort,” and attempted to articulate why in an eponymous essay that he presented in Paris at the First International Congress of Physiological Psychology in the late summer of ’89– “one of the pleasantest ten-day periods of my life”. Picture James and colleagues from around the young psychological world banqueting at the Eiffel Tower and toasting “anti-chauvinism in science” as they gazed down on “the wonderfully illuminated landscape of exhibition grounds, palaces and fountains spread out below, with all the lights and shadows of nocturnal Paris framing it in.” Ah, freedom.

But more than the urbane sophistication of Paris, James loved “wild facts,” irregular phenomena, strange experiences, facts that fit no stall or pigeonhole.” As he told his brother the novelist, philosophers have it harder than writers of fiction. “You haven’t to forge every sentence in the teeth of irreducible and stubborn facts as I do. It is like walking through the densest brush wood.” And how he loved that walk!

As he’d written to (wife) Alice, of nature and “dirt” in another sense, “It is not for the dirt but for the whole sense of reality of which the dirt is part…” The sense of reality is what James was always scouting for.  That’s why he re-named a crucial chapter in the Psychology “The Perception of Reality,” and it’s why he emphasized action over brooding and armchair ruminating.  It’s not enough merely to believe, one must act. Acts create realities, beliefs comes later. He’d said this to his brother Bob years before, trying to shake him (and himself?) out of depression:

“When the mind is morbid only the gloomy images have any vividness… be faithful ‘in the outward act’ (as a philosopher says)… do… the belief will come in its time.” (145)

“How can we believe at will? We cannot control our emotions.” But there is a method.  “We need only in cold blood act as if… it will become real.” (289)

And so, the cultivated charms of Paris notwithstanding, he can’t wait to get back to wild Chocorua and slightly-less-wild Cambridge as the gay ’90s are about to begin. It’s time to act.


NOTE TO STUDENTS: the big annual Baseball in Literature & Culture conference is coming to our fair campus next Friday, I’m in it, so we’ll not be meeting for class on the 26th.

WJ 7.1

March 5, 2010

In WJ  7 it was noted that this is the time-frame, early-to-mid ’80s, when James gets clearer on the philosophical implications of his commitment to free will and gets busy on his landmark Principles of Psychology (with its famous “stream of consciousness” reflections).

And, the Jameses lost their 18-month old baby Herman to whooping cough and pneumonia. It was the heart-rending loss that prompted reflections on the sacred form of humanly-instantiated matter (“To anyone who has ever looked on the face of a dead child or parent…”)

It’s a time of considerable further maturation, as he comes to terms with the reciprocal compromises and mutual respect required by the institution of marriage, and when he “sloughed off the morbid personality of the latter sixties and early seventies,” as his son would later observe. He also makes peace with what he calls his late father’s “intellectual remains,” acknowledging Henry Sr.’s simple conviction that religion, however false or absurd its particular manifestations may be,  is “real.”

This sheds a bit more light on James’s cryptic notion that religion may be our most important “function”–   “absurd” details notwithstanding. “How petty were all my criticisms of inessential details, like ‘Pantheism, ‘Idealism,’ ‘self-consciousness,’ etc. even when I was right!”

That’s not the sort of thing I’m accustomed to hearing from my professional peers, but it is a direct illustration of the Jamesian insistence on taking the firsthand experience of particular persons seriously. Experience always trumps theory, for him, making his brand of empiricism genuinely  “radical.” (A term of high praise, as when he lauded his protege-friend-colleague (and metaphysical arch-enemy) Royce: “Everything in Dr. Royce is radical.”)

No adequate account of mind can exist that does not take full cognizance of subjective and nonrational states of mind and feeling.

Speaking of nonrational states: James at this time is devoting increasing attention to psychical research, “spiritualism,” attending seances etc. He was interested professionally, still trying to build the fledgling discipline of psychology and establish it as open to whatever data there might be. But at least part of the time he found it a “loathsome occupation” pocked by fraud and charlatanism. He must have gone about it fairly enough, though, since he managed to alienate both the spiritualists (they thought he unreasonably demanded concrete evidence for everything) and the scientists (who thought him “gullible” for giving the matter any attention at all). It can be lonely in the open-minded middle.

Finally: last week some of us objected to William’s frrequent habit of dashing off somewhere without his family. Richardson reminds us: we know about many of these trips only because he wrote frequent, sometimes daily, letters to Alice. Read them: they’re a lot more intimate, more crafted and literary, than emails or text messages.

They were a committed couple, the Jameses, “almost inseparable” even at a distance. And there can be no doubt: William James must have been very difficult to live with. Through it all, though, William and Alice resolved to trust the future.

A good note to launch Spring Break on!

WJ 6.1

February 26, 2010

There are other things to talk about, in our next James installment. But all else for James is overshadowed by loss, in 1882. This week in particular, I can relate:

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.