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Risk the Game: On William James | The Nation

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Risk the Game: On William James

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William James was born in 1842 and died in 1910. His contemporary, the philosopher George Santayana, said James "represented the true America, and represented in a measure the whole ultramodern, radical world." He continues to be strikingly radical, and modern as well, though the richness of his vision creates a modernity that is as sunlight to moonlight, to borrow a phrase of his, compared with the wised-up and rather disheartened worldview we associate with this term.

The Heart of William James
Edited by Robert Richardson.
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Marilynne Robinson
Marilynne Robinson is a novelist and essayist. Among her books are Gilead, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for...

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Punitive yet salvific, austerity is the ideology of a country that has turned against its own culture.

Through the whole of his work, James elaborates, without repetition, a philosophic method that never becomes a system or an ideology. This is a conscious and highly meaningful act of restraint, one that paradoxically opens and enlarges the conceptual universe of philosophy. In his Principles of Psychology he says, "The only real truth about the world, apart from particular purposes, is the total truth." This standard, though impossible in itself, permits and requires crucial inclusions that have not been characteristic of dominant schools of modern thought. He says, "The world contains consciousness as well as atoms—and the one must be written down as just as essential as the other, in the absence of any declared purpose regarding them on the creator's part, or in the absence of any creator.... Atoms alone, or consciousness alone, are precisely equal mutilations of the truth." James insists that reality, philosophically understood, must include humankind and all it entails, notably thought itself, on equal terms with all other phenomena. The great ages in history, he says, "have said to the human being, 'the inmost nature of the reality is congenial to powers which you possess.'" This may sound to us like an optimism the culture has outlived. But he may only be describing an exceptionalism we dread to acknowledge.

James's philosophy has the qualities of a lucid and deeply coherent vision that is not to be distinguished from his method. He says, "If philosophy is more a matter of passionate vision than of logic—and I believe it is, logic only finding reasons for the vision afterwards," then a vision that is defective or thin fails as philosophy. He brings an aesthetic standard to bear on thought, discovering "a certain native poverty of mental demand" in the work of some contemporaries, admiring by comparison scholasticism and Hegel because they both "ran thick." A great philosophy must create a conceptual world large enough for a vigorous mind to inhabit, and within which, and against which, it can exercise its powers. His "pragmatism," his insistence that ideas are meaningful not for their internal logic or coherence but in the ways they are reflected in behavior, secures a central place for thought within phenomenal reality by underscoring its effect. For better and worse, subjectively and therefore objectively, ideas shape the world.

On no grounds whatever, our chastened worldview is taken to require the exclusion from philosophic thought of the human self as experience. Now, when our mingled nature is overwhelmingly an issue in determining the future of the planet, we fold ourselves into the natural order that only we can threaten, as if it were realism rather than evasion to minimize our singular gifts and propensities and to pass ourselves off as nothing more than the cleverest of the apes. Like old Adam hiding in the Edenic underbrush, trying to deny that his presence has added any new element to the world's being, we minimize the fact that we, alone in nature, can and do make choices whose consequences are profound, endless, unfathomable. Refusing our exceptionalism we deny its essence and mystery—the mind in time and through time, the ponderings of aged civilizations as surely as the sudden lonely insight. The openness of James's method to the reality of everything human is sound and empirical. In this and in much else he represents choices we would do well to return to, options we would still find of use.

It is difficult for any selection to do justice to the thought of William James, and difficult as well for a reviewer to do justice to the seventeen fine essays collected in The Heart of William James. He is fortunate to have Robert Richardson as his biographer, editor and interpreter, a kindred spirit whose admiration for James is thoroughly compounded with his enjoyment of him. He makes the great man accessible as if he were presenting an honored friend, ready to step out of the way and allow a wonderful conversation to begin. And James is indeed a remarkable acquaintance, full of the pleasures of fine prose and humorous insight, and demanding all the same.

Thought, the continuous interior weather called thinking, was vitally important to James, for a number of years perhaps a matter of life and death. As a young man he passed through a profound and prolonged crisis, mental or emotional or spiritual, insofar as such distinctions can be thought of as meaningful to him. In retrospect he laid his despair to his loss of belief in freedom of the will. His depression was disabling to him physically, and the cures he sought out in Europe did nothing to relieve it. He struggled with thoughts of suicide. Then he read a book by the French philosopher Charles Bernard Renouvier, who argued that one was made free by acting as if he were free. So began his convalescence, and after it an extraordinary career that made him internationally famous in his lifetime and a figure of continuing influence in American and world culture.

It seems reasonable to speculate that these dark years moved James to immerse himself in the study of the new science of psychology and also to develop a philosophy that emphatically foregrounds the mind. His experience of an idea as an entrapment may have moved him to develop his spacious, pluralist, open philosophy, which never subordinates the reports of consciousness to a system, and neither precludes new insight nor denies the authority of the context of individual consciousness that so largely determines issues of ambivalence or belief/disbelief. (For James these latter form one category, one settled state of mind.)

From our perspective, James's account of his depression might itself seem questionable, since it does fall far outside the range of our understanding of such things, even calling up that ungenerous but respectable critical method rightly named suspicion. To chalk it up to genetics or chemical imbalance or to lay it to the complexities of his childhood and family might seem more plausible to the general educated reader. We tend to undervalue the importance of thinking and of books in one part of our cultural mind, even while we live among great libraries and universities. One need only mention Newton or Darwin to make the point that ideas and books participate very deeply in reality—in Jamesian terms, they do indeed inform behavior—and therefore it seems fair to believe that James's sufferings were as he described them and ended as he said they did, with his reading of Charles Renouvier.

* * *

"Will" was a potent concept in the thought of the time, and it is crucial to James's thinking. In the first of these essays, "What Is an Emotion?," though he makes no allusion to it, James is writing from a perspective rather like that he describes in The Varieties of Religious Experience, of one looking back from the far side of a life-altering and wholly subjective event, in his case an overwhelming depression, and considering the understanding with which he emerged from it. He makes references in his treatment of emotion to the science of the moment, unsettled on the subject then as it is now. What he proposes might finally seem to the modern reader to reflect critical thought less than it does a stoical nineteenth-century upbringing, perhaps reflecting class and gender. And this in turn might create a presumption against him that would diminish the pleasure of reading on. He is, however, entirely deserving of the reader's trust.

James argues that emotion is not prior to its expression but identical with it, and that emotion can be limited by the decision to contain its expression. In his view, this would not mean its suppression, an idea that takes an emotion to be a fixed quantity that will either be expended in some proportion to its strength, or will be put out of sight, to fester or to distort the consciousness forced to contain it. Rather, he says, composure diminishes fear, calm dissipates anger. Over time or from a little distance the nature of the emotion will change—"Refuse to express a passion, and it dies." And, as a corollary, "if we wish to conquer undesirable emotional tendencies in ourselves, we must assiduously, and in the first instance cold-bloodedly, go through the outward motions of those contrary dispositions we prefer to cultivate," kindliness, cheerfulness and geniality, for example. He knows he is repeating a commonplace. He says, "there is no more valuable precept in moral education than this." So he has no doubt seen instances of cold-blooded kindliness and probably dealt in it himself.

But the assumption that in this way the will can shape not only behavior but experience too means there is nothing false in this sort of feigning, though James's language suggests he is alive to the humor of it. Skeptics might dismiss it as hypocrisy, but this would be the consequence of an assumption very foreign to his thinking, that the true self is another fixed quantity, that it has no role in determining its own character or shaping its own moral aesthetic. Suspicions might arise because James is in fact proposing a regime of good manners, an assertion of the will relative to oneself that would involve tact and restraint, and would make one a better friend, a better citizen. If this seems at first a less thrilling notion than the will to power, also abroad in the world at the time, James's implicit response is the power, magnanimity and embrace of individual human consciousness he enacts in his writing. He is the perceiver eager to grant the autonomy, the essential unknowability, of everything and anything.

The James persona, an affable presence, a voice thinking, always draws attention to itself as one perceiver, always speaking its mind, as they say, sometimes prying apart conventional associations to consider their workings, sometimes mildly and ironically overturning the world of great opinion, Kant, Hegel, Spencer, by appeal to an audience as fellow perceivers. The voice is personal and impersonal, singular and universal, like the voice of Walt Whitman, whom James sometimes quotes at length and whom he calls "a contemporary prophet."

Freedom for James has a civil and moderated form, or a complex contextuality, for which America as an idea provides him with terms. Everything central to James's work is a consequence of his refusal to countenance the idea that there is an ontological hierarchy that grants a greater degree of reality to any system or abstraction or anything objectively known or knowable than it does to thought and perception. Completion or conclusion are no more appropriate to philosophy than they are characteristic of the universe of phenomena. On one hand he grants that the world exists for us only as we know it, and on the other hand he sees the individual consciousness as efficacious, active in the creation of a reality that is also objective, available to our knowledge in a degree that permits efficacy. In his words, the mind has a vote.

And he proposes a deeper liberty of conception in this new world. In the second essay, "The Dilemma of Determinism," he says, "The principle of causality, for example—what is it but a postulate, an empty name covering simply a demand that the sequence of events shall some day manifest a deeper kind of belonging of one thing with another than the mere arbitrary juxtaposition which now phenomenally appears? It is as much an altar to an unknown god as the one that Saint Paul found at Athens." The Apostle saw, among the many shrines to the many gods of Athens, one dedicated to a deity whose name and attributes were unknown to the Athenians. Their intent in raising it may have been no more than prudent. But Paul makes the plausible suggestion that this is in fact the God behind all things, the god in whom "we live and move and have our being," he says, quoting a Greek poet. Causality, in which we also live and move, is unexplained now, just as it was in 1884 when James delivered this essay as an address to the Harvard Divinity School, though all our certitudes depend on the pretense that there are no such radical mysteries underlying them.

Here James is making an argument for what he calls "chance," his name for a proposed ontological basis for human freedom. But his argument figuratively extends emancipation to being itself, and literally asserts that being is aloof from forms of comprehension that yield determinism. Indeterminism "admits that possibilities may be in excess of actualities, and that things not revealed to our knowledge may really in themselves be ambiguous. Of two alternative futures which we conceive, both may now be really possible; and the one become 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." Whoever uses his word "chance" "squarely and resolutely gives up all pretence to control the things he says are free.... It is a word of impotence, and is therefore the only sincere word we can use, if, in granting freedom to certain things, we grant it honestly, and really risk the game."

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