- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 14, 2007

The author of an acclaimed book on Ralph Waldo Emerson, Robert D. Richardson, now offers us an account of the life and works of one of Emerson’s principal successors, William James (1842-1910). Along with Emerson, James is among our best known and most celebrated philosophers. He is also our most famous psychologist; still, he has often been misunderstood and underestimated.

As for many others of his generation, the publication of Darwin’s “The Origin of Species” in 1859, when James was 17, was probably the key event in his intellectual life. In a letter from 1875, 15 years before the publication of his monumental, two-volume “Principles of Psychology,” he wrote that “a real science of man … is being built up out of the theory of evolution.”

Of course, at the time, there were many thinkers and artists appalled by Darwin’s view of things, which according to Alfred Tennyson abandoned us to a savage nature, “red in tooth and claw.” Unlike Tennyson, Matthew Arnold and others, James was invigorated by the message that we were intimately and continuously involved, along with other creatures, in a struggle for existence amid a world developed principally via endless “random fortuitous variation,” as Mr. Richardson puts it.

Even before Darwin, Arnold wrote that “Man must begin, know this, where Nature ends; / Nature and man can never be fast friends.” But James affirmed the new connections between man and nature that Darwin drew. He exulted in the Darwinian news that “we are tangent to the wider life of things.”

He endorsed his friend Charles Sanders Peirce’s idea, derived not only from Darwin but also, Peirce thought, from findings in physics and social science in the 1840s, that “chance was no enemy of science but its tool” and that “chance begets order.”

James was religious, but Darwin led him to abandon the idea that God must be the “Moral and Intelligent Contriver of the World.” He concluded that the traditional proofs of God’s moral and metaphysical attributes “never have converted anyone who has found in the moral complexion of the world, as he experienced it, reasons for doubting that a good God can have framed it.”

James’ God resembles humans in having porous edges (“weak ego-boundaries”) that leave one having to respond to and depend on the goings-on of others and other things. Hence, God needs our actions, and we may exult that He does.

James was also willing to give up on the equally ancient quest to mentally grasp the whole world, through and through and down to its very deepest depths. As Mr. Richardson says, James rejected the idea of “a fixed world built on a solid foundation.” Rather, the world “was pure flux, having nothing stable, permanent or fixed in it.”

Like any reasonably well-read person of his time, James learned from the post-Kantian romantics that knowing is constructive, not just a passive or photographic registry of things. As William Wordsworth put it, the known world is comprised of what our very human eyes and ears “half create” as well as “perceive.”

In part inspired by Darwin, James added to this notion a belief in our agency as producers of tangible results in the world as well as within ourselves: “it is far too little recognized how entirely the intellect is built up of practical interests … Cognition is incomplete until discharged in action.” From this belief comes Jamesean pragmatism, according to which the mind’s proper function is not to mirror or correspond to anything outside itself, but rather to bring about desired changes in our lives.

This emphasis on the practical is but one instance of how James’ thought, like that of Emerson before him, reflects instead of rebukes the assumptions of many of his (American) readers and listeners. Hence — and again this is also true of Emerson — we have been reluctant to give James his due, perhaps because, as American intellectuals afflicted with a collective inferiority complex, we have trouble admiring anyone who resembles ourselves.

It may be held against both these thinkers that he was fantastically articulate, good at getting across his points memorably. For both, yet another boundary became suspect: that between the philosopher and the artist.

And yet the end result of James’ thought is truly revolutionary in philosophy and undertaken with a typically American insouciance. Like many other Americans, he had little interest in what used to be.

With this insistence on the mind’s practical agency, James was able to reject the view of some of the harder-nosed Darwinians like Huxley and Herbert Spencer that “the only meaning of mental life is ‘correspondence with the environment.’” As we’ve seen, passive “correspondence” with what lies outside the mind is never the goal of thought, according to James.

The belief in an indissoluble tie of thought and action also enabled James to handle those anti-Darwinists who would carve out for thought a place of retreat from all the “blooming, buzzing confusion” that is going on outside of thought.

From James’ point of view, both camps, the materialists and the mentalists, wrongly condemn the mind to inertness, “uninfluential, a simple passenger in the voyage of life … allowed to remain on board, but not to touch the helm or handle the rigging.”

Mr. Richardson’s subtitle implicitly broaches the subject of James’ legacy. James got John Dewey and George Herbert Mead going and, I’d guess, strongly influenced Henri Bergson, who won the Nobel prize in 1929.

In addition to these philosophers, he also had a strong impact on Gertrude Stein, who was his student in 1895, and on the American poets Edwin Arlington Robinson, Robert Frost (whose recently published notebooks are full of well-digested Jamesean ideas), Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams.

The title of one Stevens poem, “Connoisseur of Chaos,” names something important about James’ character. And Frost’s famous saying that a poem properly “ends in a momentary stay against confusion” well designates what, for James, is the most any thought can “end in.” Frost’s notebooks include the following unpunctuated comment: “James common sense trial and error in the highest is most us.”

But soon after James’ death in 1910, into American intellectual history came Freud and artistic modernism (not the “modernism” that Mr. Richardson was referring to). Both these “isms” were antithetical to some of James’ deepest beliefs and values, most notably in their (from James’ point of view) overestimation of the importance of conscious intelligence, as if its figments were interesting just in themselves, and their exaggerated fear of what lies outside or below the conscious mind’s range.

As Mr. Richardson puts it, unlike Freud, “James tended to look on the subconscious as something not pathological but normal,” and on the will — that which enables us to act — as far more benign than it was for Schopenhauer or Freud, whom James got to know briefly in 1909.

As we’ve seen, he saw consciousness as deeply and often beneficially affected by events in the world around it, including events going on in the body. Like Oliver Sacks and others in our own time but unlike Freud, James insisted from the outset of his career on the connections between psychology and physiology.

In the sardonic and self-absorbed — if also brilliant, well-remembered and celebrated — 1920s, James’ thought went out of style. Nevertheless, beginning in 1927 with Heidegger’s Being and Time and continuing on with Sartre’s Being and Nothingness in 1943 and more especially with Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations in 1953, another sea-change occurred in intellectual history and the philosophy of the act returned to prominence.

It is said that at one time, “James’ Principles of Psychology was the only philosophical work visible on … [Wittgenstein’s] shelves.” Wittgenstein picked up on pragmatism’s belief that every element involved in understanding — including our language — is a tool and that every tool alters what it is applied to.

See Richard Rorty’s “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature” for an account of the revival of pragmatism’s central goal, to attain, as the title of Rorty’s last chapter has it, “a philosophy without mirrors.” Instead of erecting a mirror for nature, the pragmatist assembles a set of tools and studies how to use them. Mr. Rorty may well be our most prominent current philosopher, and he is a self-proclaimed pragmatist.

If any of the foregoing seems like welcome news, there is much more in Mr. Richardson’s careful and detailed study of the texture of James’ thought.

Robert Ganz is a Professor of English at George Washington University.


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