Posts Tagged ‘William James’

An awful wonderful trade

January 16, 2013

Classes are finally about to resume. So maybe it’s perverse of me to revisit my favorite chilled observations on the teaching (as distinct from the learning) life, from William James and Richard Ford. But if so it’s at least a timely perversion, and a helpful reminder of why I ditched the old conventional monologic lecture-style of professing some time ago and have turned instead in my classes to a “philosophy of co“.

“What an awful trade that of professor is,” James complained at term’s end in 1892, “paid to talk, talk, talk! It would be an awful universe if everything could be converted into words, words, words.”

But philosophizing in public necessarily requires more words than the extant evidence will bear. It would be presumptuous to think mine were the only words worth hearing, or that engaging those of younger others might not also help us sift through the morass of collective experience and give voice to a few more truths. We must all live our lives, as Ford’s Frank Bascombe said. Every age has its experience and its insights to share. Some of us just have had more of it, and have forgotten or tinted more.

In my view all teachers should be required to stop teaching at age thirty-two and not allowed to resume until they’re sixty-five, so that they can live their lives, not teach them away—live lives full of ambiguity and transience and regret and wonder, be asked to explain nothing in public until very near the end when they can’t do anything else. Explaining is where we all get into trouble…

Well, I missed the exit back at thirty-two, and with two college careers still to fund and about to begin we really can’t afford for me to take off ’til sixty-five even if I wanted to. Fortunately I don’t.

But on Day 1 of Week 1, I’m going to do my best to explain nothing serious or profound in public. This is a time for Introductions, not explanations.

And just for the record, all perversity aside: most days, these days, I find professing a pretty wonderful way to make a living.

Postscript. WordPress acknowledges my 1,071st dawn post this morning with an appropriate correction from Anne Rice: “I loved words. I love to sing them and speak them and even now, I must admit, I have fallen into the joy of writing them.” Same here.

“Common sense, dancing”

January 11, 2013

It’s my wife’s birthday, hence the first day of the short annual interregnum when I get to be the younger half. But the younger’s not the better, I’d better add.

She shares her nativity with my philosophical muse.

It’s the birthday of the psychologist and philosopher William James (books by this author), born in New York City (1842). He was the older brother of the novelist Henry James and one of the most prominent thinkers of his era. He was a man who started out studying medicine, went on to become one of the founders of modern psychology, and finished his life as a prominent philosopher.

He was a professor of physiology at Harvard when he was hired to write a textbook about the new field of psychology, which was challenging the idea that the body and the mind were separate. The book was called The Principles of Psychology (1890). It was used as a textbook in college classrooms, but it was also translated into a dozen different languages, and people read it all over the world.

One of the ideas he developed in the book was a theory of the human mind that he called “a stream of consciousness.” Before him, the common view was that a person’s thoughts have a clear beginning and end, and that the thinker is in control of his or her thoughts. But William James wrote: “Consciousness […] does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. Such words as ‘chain’ or ‘train’ do not describe it fitly as it presents itself in the first instance. It is nothing jointed; it flows.”

James’s ideas about consciousness were especially influential on writers, and novelists from James Joyce to William Faulkner began to portray streams of consciousness in their work, through language, letting characters think at length and at random on the page. Consciousness itself became one of the most important subjects of modern literature.

He also helped invent the technique of automatic writing, in which a person writes as quickly as possible whatever comes into one’s head. He encouraged audiences to take the practice up as a form of self-analysis, and one person who took his advice was a student named Gertrude Stein, who went on to use it as the basis of her writing style.

William James wrote: “Common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humor is just common sense, dancing.” WA

Nice blurb, Mr. Keillor.  WJ clearly has influenced generations of world-historical intellectuals. Every educated person ought to have heard of him, wouldn’t you think?

Every college freshman, in fact. College freshmen in Greece and Germany and France have generally heard of their seminal philosophers, their Platos and Hegels and Descartes et al.

But next week I’ll confirm again that this isn’t so, as yesterday I once again confirmed that America’s greatest philosopher is generally unknown in Carlin Romano’s so-called “America the Philosophical.”

Younger Daughter and I paid yet another call on her physical therapist at Vandy, who’s helping rehab her busted pinky. The PT is well-practiced in the art of small talk, a vocational asset I’m sure, but when the subject turned to my work it was clear that she’d never heard of WJ. To her credit, she had apparently heard of his little brother. “Didn’t he write novels?”

Well, I tried to boil down the gist of WJ’s importance in quick summary style. Suddenly our voluble therapist was without words. “That’s interesting.” Turning back to Younger Daughter for rescue: “What kind of cell phone do you have?”

It’s a cultural literacy deficit we have in America, at least as troubling as the budget deficit.

As for Mr. Keillor, our modern Mark Twain, our “national treasure” who’s been bringing the weekly news from Lake Wobegon for decades: my stepsister’s new boyfriend, with whom we visited during the holidays in Missouri, is from Anoka, Minnesota, the real Lake Wobegon, “the little town that time forget and the decades could not improve.” Are Anokans proud of their fictional alter ego?

“Never heard of it. Or him.”

If he were from Hannibal I guess he’d not have heard of Twain either. Sis has found herself a real American, a common man. Like the therapist, he’s nice and polite as can be. They both deserve their fanfare too. God bless the U.S.A.

And thank goodness for a sense of humor. May I have this dance?

“How Proust can change your life”

December 21, 2012

That was Alain de Botton’s breakout book, back in ’97, followed by the British docudrama with Ralph Fiennes I enjoyed last night.

(Happy Mayapocalyse, btw. We’re fortunate indeed, to have lives to change.)

So, how can he change my life? By reminding me to do what William James and others had already encouraged: pay attention, day in and day out, to the personal perceptual details of life.

Great advice, especially if we then turn our attention to acting in healthy ways that reflect what we’ve attended to. Great, if we’re then encouraged to write À la Recherche Du Temps Perdu. Greater still, if it propels us to act in ways that address not only our own perceptions and compulsions but also the interest and well-being of our fellow humans.

If I decide to spend more time with Monsieur Proust, these will be my working questions: was he ultimately concerned to turn his attention to humanity and its destiny, to what life might make of itself in the great unfolding of time still to come? Or was he mainly preoccupied with time past and lost? Is he an enduring voice and a reliable guide in the salutary search to transcend narrow egoism? Or was he just another self-indulgent parlor aesthete, albeit the one who wrote those magnificent books?

Whatever the answer, I’m pleased with the way the story ended last night, Proust declaring that books and words will carry us only so far. “Reading is at the threshold of the spiritual life; it can introduce us to it. It does not constitute it.” Don’t throw away your books, but also don’t join them on the shelf.

Another of his lines I like, although I still prefer *Goober’s way of putting it:

One cannot change, become a different person, while continuing to acquiesce to the feeling of the person one has ceased to be. [*”If a man’s hisself, how can he change?”]

But the out-of-context, probably out-of-character (for MP) quote I like the most is:

May you always see a blue sky overhead, my young friend; and then, even when the time comes, as it has come for me now, when the woods are black, when night is fast falling, you will be able to console yourself, as I do, by looking up at the sky.

I suppose he meant a figurative blue sky, since you can’t see much of the real sky from a cork-lined sarcophagus. I prefer the sky that lights our walks, myself.

Proust and James, in or out

December 20, 2012

William James’s sister Alice described his  temperament as the “delightful” mirror of his New Hampshire summer retreat in Chocorua, dubbed Stonewall, with its “14 doors all opening out.” He used to spill out of one or the other of those doors to cross the street and climb the mountain or circle the lake. He was (at his best) the epitome of nature-loving, expansive vigor and vitality, curious, questioning and questing, and engaged with the world.


When I think of Marcel Proust, on the other hand, the image that springs immediately to mind (right after the cookie bar) is his infamous cramped cork-lined bedroom and its suggestion of an insulated, involuted mind, a closed-off character.


I strolled into the stacks of Vandy library yesterday and picked up the Cambridge Companion to Proust. Its editor says he’s gotten a bum rap over that sealed chamber, that he was just trying to cut out some of the construction noise next door.

Well, we’ll see.

We’ll also see if I can take seriously the project of offering my own modest summary of Proust.


November 20, 2012

The meaning of life? There’s a Jamesian answer, of course:

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.—And, whatever or wherever life may be, there will always be the chance for that marriage to take place. “What Makes a Life Significant

And a  Deweyan answer too:

“The things in civilization we most prize are not of ourselves. They exist by grace of the doings and sufferings of the continuous human community in which we are a link. Ours is the responsibility of conserving, transmitting, rectifying and expanding the heritage of values we have received, that those who come after us may receive it more solid and secure, more widely accessible and more generously shared than we have received it.”

James and Dewey were both profoundly impressed by the Darwinian-evolutionary account, then still fresh and exciting in its reconstructive possibilities, of life as an unfolding saga whose ultimate meanings hang in the balance of events to which we are privileged to contribute. They were confident that our “doings and sufferings” on behalf of voluntary ideals are meaningful. Their focus was not on our lowly progenitors, but on the prospective progeny who will come after us and be grateful or not for our contributions to the great story of life.

Some say the story’s too big, the scientific and cosmic vistas too vast to accommodate meaningful lives on the human scale. Carl Sagan, who said so many fine things, disagreed.

“In this perspective the idea that our planet is at the center of the universe much less that human purpose is central to the existence of the universe is pathetic. Does life thereby lose all meaning, I think not. I think we make our lives meaningful by the courage of our questions, by the depth of our answers, by how widespread our understanding is of the essential tools for managing our future, for how skeptical we are of those in authority and of our obligation to care for one another.”

Our epic story is a strong candidate for the great unifying meaning of life, drawing together all the separate narratives of our plurality. As Richard Dawkins says: we’re among the lucky few, of all the possible beings  who might have drawn breath in our place but never will, who get a chance to write a few lines of the story.

Our gratitude should know no bounds.

The great thing in education

September 29, 2012

It was Parent-Teacher Conference Day in Middle School  already yesterday, and Younger Daughter made us proud again. Her advisory teacher, an ebullient and charming woman called Dr. McCoy (she actually has a framed photo of “Bones” of the Enterprise on her wall) reassured us that because of her great work and study habits, our girl’s got the 8th grade licked.

Habit, habit… it’s just not possible to overstate the value for living of mastering habit. My habit of mentioning that at every opportunity, thanks to my long professional immersion in the thought of William James, is thankfully set for life.

But the most gratifying thing we heard from teacher, again, is the testimony of a relatively-disinterested adult observer that our student is not only an academic success but is a genuinely Good Person, of sweet and generous disposition. Not a Mean Girl, not a whiner or complainer. A habitual helper. A steady friend.  A Doer.

So all there really was to say to her, yesterday, was: keep it up.

But if she wants to hear more, I’ll remind her again:

Habit is the enormous fly-wheel of society… It alone is what keeps us all within bounds and saves the children of fortune… The great thing, then, in all education, is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy…

Or, as she habitually translates my Jamesian disquisitions: Blah blah blah.

But that’s ok. Deeds, not words, solidify our habitual characters. She’s doing well, and doing good. She can read all about it later.



Philosophy, trivial and sublime

August 31, 2012

I feel like Peter Falk’s Lieutenant Columbo, trying to move beyond our opening “What is Philosophy?” query in CoPhi. “One more thing…” Or two.

The one thing I awoke this morning wanting to be sure to have said to my philosophy neophytes, especially all those who told me during this first week that they don’t think they have a personal philosophy or even a rudimentary grasp of what it would mean to have one, is: Yes, you have. You just haven’t tried to say it yet. Or think it. So you’ve come to the right place, we’re all about throwing new seeds into the discussion in my classes.

We’re also all about acknowledging that not every seed will sprout. Not every word is helpful. Frequently we “solve” our problems in philosophy by moving beyond them and framing others.

That said, here are some helpful words from James’s first seminal lecture introducing his philosophy of Pragmatism – A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (1906):

I know that you, ladies and gentlemen, have a philosophy, each and all of you, and that the most interesting and important thing about you is the way in which it determines the perspective in your several worlds. You know the same of me. And yet I confess to a certain tremor at the audacity of the enterprise which I am about to begin. For the philosophy which is so important in each of us is not a technical matter; it is our more or less dumb sense of what life honestly and deeply means. It is only partly got from books; it is our individual way of just seeing and feeling the total push and pressure of the cosmos…

Believing in philosophy myself devoutly, and believing also that a kind of new dawn is breaking upon us philosophers…

Philosophy is at once the most sublime and the most trivial of human pursuits. It works in the minutest crannies and it opens out the widest vistas. It ‘bakes no bread,’ as has been said, but it can inspire our souls with courage; and repugnant as its manners, its doubting and challenging, its quibbling and dialectics, often are to common people, no one of us can get along without the far-flashing beams of light it sends over the world’s perspectives…

The history of philosophy is to a great extent that of a certain clash of human temperaments…

So one thing we can anticipate on our CoPhi expedition is temperamental weather, the unpredictable play of personality and preference in setting and sharing our respective agendas of interest and advocacy. Won’t always be easy, but should often be illuminating. Some of us will be surprised to learn that we’d already begun the journey before we ever arrived at school. Others will echo Mr. Twain: “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.”

And so a new dawn breaks upon us CoPhilosophers.

“One more word”… no, never mind. It’ll keep. Happy Labor Day.

What philosophy really is

August 30, 2012

“It is a Weltanschauung, an intellectualized attitude towards life. ”

There. Clears it right up. Why couldn’t all those confused and laughing philosophers simply have said that?

Oh yeah: every time I’ve ever asked students about their weltanschauungs, they either giggled or recoiled or looked nonplussed… as though I’d mentioned something not suitable for discussion in polite company.

So let me clarify.

The quote is from William James, trying in the first chapter of his last published (posthumous) work (Some Problems of Philosophy, 1911) to answer the Philosophy Bites stumper question “What is philosophy?”

And here to clarify the Jamesian clarification is Herr Doktor Professor Freud, writing two decades later:

By Weltanschauung, then, I mean an intellectual construction which gives a unified solution of all the problems of our existence in virtue of a comprehensive hypothesis, a construction, therefore, in which no question is left open and in which everything in which we are interested finds a place. It is easy to see that the possession of such a Weltanschauung is one of the ideal wishes of mankind. When one believes in such a thing, one feels secure in life, one knows what one ought to strive after, and how one ought to organise one’s emotions and interests to the best purpose.

Oh. “No question is left open” by a good weltanschauung? In that case, I ain’t got one and I really don’t want one. The open questions are the ones that get me out of bed in the morning and give me something to talk about at work.

And James felt the same way. He was always ambivalent about philosophy, and his dying words were: “What has concluded, that we may conclude with regard to it?”

Nothing, is of course the implicitly correct reply. (BTW: Freud and James met once, in 1909, and reportedly had a fairly spirited conversation. But you know what was really on Freud’s mind, right?)

So philosophy is an open-ended, never-ending quest for clarity that gives you an “intellectual attitude” and feeds your curiosity. It is intellectually unifying, to that extent, but should never be stultifying. As James’s thorny friend Charley Peirce insisted: “Do not block the road of inquiry.”

One more thing: good philosophy is interesting.

 Philosophy, indeed, in one sense of the term is only a compendious name for the spirit in education which the word ‘college’ stands for in America. Things can be taught in dry dogmatic ways or in a philosophic way.

So there’s the gauntlet I’ll be picking up, as chief facilitator of three sections of CoPhilosophy at MTSU: don’t be dry, don’t kill curiosity or the cats who have it, don’t dogmatize. And don’t block the road.

Or as DNA pioneer James Watson put it: avoid boring people.

Mystic, dreamer, tramp, loaferer

July 14, 2012

And still it drizzles, here at Seattle on the Cumberland. I miss the pool.

No sooner had I filed my “loafing” post yesterday than Rick Bragg popped up on the radio talking about the Alabama version he calls “loafering” – not to be confused with Atlanta’s Creative Loafing, presumably. He elaborated in the pages of Southern Living recently.

Bragg usefully distinguishes loafering, which occurs when you’re idly in motion, from stationary “piddling.” He says he can do both, though he actually tends more frequently to put in 18-hour work days – “because I’m an idiot.”

Well, it all reminds me of James on Whitman:

Yet so blind and dead does the clamor of our own practical interests make us to all other things, that it seems almost as if it were necessary to become worthless as a practical being, if one is to hope to attain to any breadth of insight into the impersonal world of worths as such, to have any perception of life’s meaning on a large objective scale. Only your mystic, your dreamer, or your insolvent tramp or loafer, can afford so sympathetic an occupation, an occupation which will change the usual standards of human value in the twinkling of an eye, giving to foolishness a place ahead of power, and laying low in a minute the distinctions which it takes a hard-working conventional man a lifetime to build up. You may be a prophet, at this rate; but you cannot be a worldly success.

Walt Whitman, for instance, is accounted by many of us a contemporary prophet. He abolishes the usual human distinctions, brings all conventionalisms into solution, and loves and celebrates hardly any human attributes save those elementary ones common to all members of the race. For this he becomes a sort of ideal tramp, a rider on omnibus-tops and ferry-boats, and, considered either practically or academically, a worthless, unproductive being…

But he sure could write. Cue the poet, on Crossing Brooklyn Ferry and then hopping the omnibus. The philosopher concludes:

Truly a futile way of passing the time, some of you may say, and not altogether creditable to a grown-up man. And yet, from the deepest point of view, who knows the more of truth, and who knows the less,—Whitman on his omnibus-top, full of the inner joy with which the spectacle inspires him, or you, full of the disdain which the futility of his occupation excites?

Right. Life’s still too short to be busy, and getting shorter every minute. Hail the ferry, board the bus. Go fish.

The art of being wise

June 21, 2012

The summer reading list continues to grow, as it tends in June to do. Time still seems long. That’s an illusion, of course, but for now a nurturing one. So I’m going to add a couple more titles that came to me just yesterday.

First, to allay my guilt at spending more time browsing cheap old McKay’s than Ann Patchett’s rich new Parnassus, her State of Wonder. There’s a practical point to this one, for me, aside from its blurbed promise to be “perfect from first page to last.” It also addresses issues in bioethics, as I’ll be doing in the coming Spring semester. So this one’s class prep.

Second, speaking of the Amazon (and again, offending Independent Booksellers everywhere): all of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books have now been made available for free, for Amazon Prime members. Older Daughter’s long been pestering me to read them, so Sorcerer’s Stone [Philosopher’s Stone, it should be] now awaits my selective attention on the Kindle.

Plate’s full, I must stop visiting the buffet. James’s analogy in Principles of Psychology may be helpful:

As the art of reading (after a certain stage in one’s education) is the art of skipping, so the art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook. (Volume 2, “Reasoning”)

That applies to personal foibles as much as to books and reading, of course. We all have much to overlook.