Sunday, March 2, 2008

William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism

Robert Richardson is the author of three books on American Thinkers. His most recent "William James" won a Bancroft Prize and follows his previous works on Emerson and Thoreau. The writing is detailed and thorough, not for the faint of literary heart. When I showed the book to an inquiring student he replied it "looked boring. Adult stuff boring." And, at times, it was. The occasional boredom is the result of an overemphasis on the mundane aspects of the subjects' life: there must be 20 pages describing his various illnesses.Fortunately, these off moments are submerged in an otherwise excellent text.

William James was an American philosopher in the mid 1800's. He is probably most famous for "The Principals of Psychology" and "The Varieties of Religious Experience". He came from a famous family and his brother Henry is a well-known author. A well-rounded man, he was known for excellent literary sensibilities, mountain hikes, and active political involvement. As I read the book it was remarkable to see how large of an impact he has had in shaping our collective perspective.

Heavily influenced by the Darwinian revolution, he championed the idea of consciousness as an active, selective process that we have as a result of natural selection. This understanding led to the undermining of the mind-body duality that was prevalent. Instead of consciousness as an entity, it is seen as an action that our mind/body engages in. According to James, our knowledge and beliefs are the result of our individual relationship to the world. What we "see" is determined by personality and enforced by habit. This is why a Liberal and a Conservative can see the same debate and both be honestly convinced their candidate won.

This idea about how we interact with the world led to a challenge of the Absolute. The standard idea of Absolutist reality is that an independent reality exists that individuals are incapable of describing or experience fully due to their limited perspective. James argued that there is no sense in talking about what "happened" without including the subjects involved. From this vantage point each event is comprised of multiple experiences, each one valid AND complete. It is perhaps from this discussion that the "If a tree fell in the woods..." question originated.

The last aspect of his thought I will address is Pragmatism. He, along with Charles Pierce, is largely credited with creating this philosophy. It is distinctly American, and can be pictured budding in our practical culture. Essentially this perspective argues that it is the "fruits and not the roots" that matter. By this I mean that what is true is what are the results and not any metaphysical matters. This philosophy was criticized for seemingly allowing anything to be true. And, while I was quick to dismiss it myself, it is worth looking at one example just to prick your curiosity. Take a placebo. Typical thinking would have it that a placebo does not "cure" anyone. It just so happens that the person thinks they are being cured and get better through other means. Well, what about saying the placebo did cure them? How can we absolutely say it doesn't if taking one can heal? The requisite of belief does not necessarily make it less true. In fact, James at times suggests that belief-or faith- might be what is required to make religion true in the same sense.

Overall, I really dug this book. For me to approach philosophy I must be in the right state of mind. Similar to poetry, if I am not in the right place I am too distanced from the text and unable to allow it to move me. The concepts of William James are interesting and I am glad I chose this book. If you want to learn specifically his philosophy, however, I would recommend reading his own writings. The biography touched on them but of course focused more on his life.

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