Risk the Game: On William James

Risk the Game: On William James

For William James, all our certitudes depend on the pretense that there are no radical mysteries underlying them.


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.

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."

The centrality of the observer in a universe of indeterminacy is a concept with a very modern sound. James describes "a pluralistic, restless universe, in which no single point of view can ever take in the whole scene." The physicist Stephen Hawking says, "Quantum physics tells us that no matter how thorough our observation of the present, the (unobserved) past, like the future, is indefinite and exists only as a spectrum of possibilities. The universe, according to quantum physics, has no single past, or history." And he says, "We create history by our observation, rather than history creating us." This would seem to enhance the efficacy of the observer, since James’s "impotent" human perceiver concedes and in some sense apprehends that a million unencountered potentialities inhere in any experience. James’s discipline of tact would not allow him to endorse Hawking’s interpretation of our circumstance that it "makes us in a sense the lords of creation." But James’s model of reality asserts an equally essential role for the observer. Unlike Hawking, James proceeds from profound attention to the actual workings of consciousness. He is the mind’s observer as he is the observer of other reality, in order to engage the epistemological problem to which consciousness is central. In this James is not modern at all, though his approach seems eminently sensible. Hawking takes what is now the conventional view, that intelligence is an artifact of the complexity of physical reality, and free will an illusion. He seems not to find it strange that the lord creator of the glorious cosmos should itself be of marginal interest to the study of the reality it makes and has made.

James does not exclude categories of thought or feeling from among the data that are of interest to the perceiver, and therefore from the fact of the given world. He says, "If a certain formula for expressing the nature of the world violates my moral demand, I shall feel as free to throw it overboard, or at least to doubt it, as if it disappointed my demand for uniformity of sequence, for example; the one demand being, so far as I can see, quite as subjective and emotional as the other is." Subjectivity is for him profoundly human, honorable, distractible, fallible—indeed indistinguishable from a thinking self. In his acknowledging its centrality he assumes that what matters in human and subjective terms matters in fact. That is to say, the phenomena of perceived meaning are for him a fully legitimate part of the universe of things. He says, "To be rapt with satisfied attention, like Whitman, to the mere spectacle of the world’s presence, is one way, and the most fundamental way, of confessing one’s sense of its unfathomable significance and importance." This is quoted from the essay titled "On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings." The blindness he describes is precisely the failure to perceive and value the interior universe that is the reality of any other life, any other mind. Awareness of it, he says, "absolutely forbids us to be forward in pronouncing on the meaninglessness of forms of existence other than our own; and it commands us to tolerate, respect, and indulge those whom we see harmlessly interested and happy in their own ways, however unintelligible these may be to us. Hands off: neither the whole of truth, nor the whole of good, is revealed to any single observer, although each observer gains a partial superiority of insight from the peculiar position in which he stands." His epistemology yields a social and political ethic because he takes seriously the observer as a phenomenon within the phenomenal world.

Even if one grants the harmony of this ethic with democracy and with the consciously American identity James chose for himself, nevertheless his keeping the reality of the observer, and its human character, active as a factor in his thinking is entirely warranted, not only from the perspective of philosophy and psychology but also from the perspective of the science that follows him in positing its centrality. Physicists use the term "observer" in ways that are special to the discipline and defined by context. A molecule can be said to "observe." But however the term is used it clearly describes something continuous with human awareness or attention—of an experimenter, for example—and Hawking uses it only in this sense. Yet his observer is a disembodied potency, collectively lord of creation, free of the tedious burden of mortal limits. This vision has much in common with mysticism, and might be seen as a vindication of mysticism, of Solomon’s "Wisdom, the fashioner of all things" who is "more beautiful than the sun, and excels every constellation of the stars." James, on the other hand, gives the observer flesh and particularity, phenomenal this-worldliness, complicating every problem Hawking’s abstraction passes over. Words like "beautiful" and "excellent" inevitably become subjective and elusive precisely because they are factors in any actual humanly embodied construction of reality.

* * *

The controversy that engrosses certain of us at present, called, however accurately, the argument between science and religion, is a good illustration of the precedence vision takes over logic in these matters. The brilliance of the physical world, the superb intricacy of the cell, the antic indeterminacy of the electron, are used by one side to prove there must be a Creator and by the other side to demonstrate that nature is sufficient unto itself and God an unnecessary hypothesis. Both theists and atheists feel their case is made, on the basis of exactly the same evidence. This is interesting in its own right. The vision that pre-exists their logic is surely determining in the great majority of cases, "logic only finding reasons for the vision afterwards." Looked at directly, this common feature of the thinking of the two sides should yield significant insight into the workings of the mind, and should in any case alleviate the rancor that comes with so many years of mutual incomprehension. James deals with this old controversy in the essay "Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results." The dispute, he says, is not really about "hair-splitting abstractions about matter’s inner essence, or about the metaphysical attributes of God. Materialism means simply the denial that the moral order is eternal, and the cutting off of ultimate hopes; theism means the affirmation of an eternal moral order and the letting loose of hope. Surely here is an issue genuine enough, for anyone who feels it; and, as long as men are men, it will yield matter for serious philosophic debate. Concerning this question at any rate, the positivists and pooh-pooh-ers of metaphysics are wrong."

If human presence in the cosmos has the centrality James—and Hawking—claim for it, then "this need of an eternal moral order," which "is one of the deepest needs of our breast," is not to be dismissed. Such intuitions could as well reflect our incomprehensible (though struggling and error-prone) ability to comprehend the universe as physics and astronomy. Scientific materialism, says James, is "not a permanent warrant for our more ideal interests, not a fulfiller of our remotest hopes." For scientific materialism, our ideals and hopes have nothing to do with the nature of things and will die an absolute death. In James’s understanding, it is theism that places us in the cosmos whole and wholly human. "A world with a God in it to say the last word, may indeed burn up or freeze, but we then think of him as still mindful of the old ideals and sure to bring them elsewhere to fruition; so that, where he is, tragedy is only provisional and partial, and shipwreck and dissolution not the absolutely final things." But metaphysics is only half the conversation, so "as long as men are men," as long as we are human, there will be voices in this vast, cold universe debating ultimate things. And this is also beautiful.

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