The Frontal Cortex

William James and Biography

There was an excellent review this past Sunday of the new William James biography, by Robert Richardson. The review was written by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. I heartily agree with this passage:

James’s own philosophical positions were fused with his reactions to the experiences of his life. A deeply divided man who squandered years just trying to decide which profession to pursue, he not only defined “the divided self” as a technical term in psychology, but also wrought out of his own divisions a host of philosophical positions that had as their dominant theme the importance of the individual will in stepping into one’s life and making it one’s life.

This, in the end, was James’s great contribution to psychology and philosophy. He realized that we could only see the world through the subjective prism of the self. Each of us is trapped inside our own experience, our view dictated by the strange folds and fissures of the brain. James dismantled realism because he realized that reality is itself a product of psychology.

Once James arrived at this stunning conclusion – his anti-realist tendencies were apparent in his first philosophy article, “The Will to Believe”* – it was only a matter of time before he came up with Pragmatism, the great American school of philosophy. What is pragmatism? It’s a simply idea. James thought that we should stop thinking of scientific theories as mirrors of nature, what he called “the copy version of truth”. Instead, we should see its facts as tools, which “help us get into a satisfactory relation with experience.” The truth of an idea, James wrote, is the use of an idea, its “cash-value.” Thus, according to the pragmatists, a practical poet could be just as truthful as an accurate experiment. All that mattered was the “concrete difference” an idea produced in our actual lives.

But Goldstein is absolutely right to point out that all these lofty epistemological ideas are actually rooted in James’s insistence that we cannot escape ourselves, that everything we know is colored by who we are:

Richardson credits James with the modern dethronement of Plato — in particular the Platonic assertion that concepts are real, in fact more real than anything else. But this makes too much of James’s place in the Western canon, while at the same time diminishing his radicalism. Others (for example, Aristotle) had long before wrangled with conceptual realism, and this is hardly the aspect that places James “in the maelstrom of American modernism,” as Richardson puts it in his subtitle. Rather, what made James new was his insistence on the ineradicable personal element in philosophy, opening up the possibility of biography’s relevance to the history of philosophy. So it is all the more ironic that this particular biography — in many ways so admirable — fails to grasp James’s truly maverick perspective on philosophy, his psychologically shaped claim that it is psychology that shapes philosophy.

PS. For those interested in James and Pragmatism, the masterpiece remains Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club, which is certainly one of my desert island books.

*From “The Will to Believe”: “These feelings of our duty about either truth or error are in any case only expressions of our passional life…Objective evidence and certitude are doubtless very fine ideals to play with, but where on this moonlit and dream-visited planet are they found?”

Comments

  1. #1 bob koepp
    December 18, 2006

    Jonah -
    Just my opinion… Menand’s book provides some useful contextualization of “the rise of pragmatism,” but as a guide to the philosophical ideas it’s not very informative.

  2. #2 Gyan
    December 18, 2006

    Wow.

    Just a few threads back (“Visions of God”), you disparaged some guy who insisted that such experiences represented something concrete and weren’t ‘hallucinations’ or ‘delusions’.

    Contrast that attitude with what you write in this post:

    James thought that we should stop thinking of scientific theories as mirrors of nature, what he called “the copy version of truth”. Instead, we should see its facts as tools, which “help us get into a satisfactory relation with experience.” The truth of an idea, James wrote, is the use of an idea, its “cash-value.” Thus, according to the pragmatists, a practical poet could be just as truthful as an accurate experiment. All that mattered was the “concrete difference” an idea produced in our actual lives.

    If, for someone, the “vision of God” has cash-value, then it is as real as gravity or the table in front of me.

  3. #3 Jonah
    December 18, 2006

    I don’t think I was being inconsistent at all. Here is what I wrote in Visions of God:
    “Douthat claims that our perception of God might be no more imaginary than our perception of light, or space, or chocolate; it’s “possible” that both are just neural responses to “realities”. What Douthat fails to consider is that all of our perceptions require an awful lot of hallucination and imagination. If God is as real as our conscious sense of vision, then he isn’t very real. The brain invents “realities” all the time. As every neuroscientist knows, our perception is as much in here as out there.”

    What I resisted was Douthat’s conjecture that, because somebody experiences God, God must exist. In other words, he was adopting a very un-Jamesian position, since he was trying to map our subjective experience onto some objective reality. I was just trying to point out, ala James, that such a mapping isn’t possible.

    But I never disparaged the utility, or pragmatic value, of religion. Something can be useful without being true. For example, neuroscience is pretty sure that the unified self – my sense of being an individual – is really just a vivid hallucination, much like having a vision of God. That said, it’s a very useful hallucination, and clearly has some sort of adaptive value (or “cash-value,” to borrow from James).

    By inventing pragmatism, James (and his acolytes like Dewey) were trying to get rid of discussions about what was real or what wasn’t real. For them, there was only experience. Everything else was idle commentary. So when James’s wrote the “Varieties of Religious Experience,” he wasn’t interested in whether or not there was actually a God. He doesn’t infer, as Douthat does, that, because somebody experiences God, God must be real.

    While James believed that a belief in God might be useful (and thus true in a pragmatic sense), you have to remember that he subscribed to a very radical notion of truth. He thought the idea of God could be true, even if there was no God. So if you want to defend the belief in God from a pragmatist standpoint (and that’s a perfectly worthy endeavor) then you can’t engage in the sort of naive realist argument that Douthat tries to do.

  4. #4 Gyan
    December 19, 2006

    What I resisted was Douthat’s conjecture that, because somebody experiences God, God must exist. In other words, he was adopting a very un-Jamesian position, since he was trying to map our subjective experience onto some objective reality. I was just trying to point out, ala James, that such a mapping isn’t possible.
    Bu
    But James’ point is that such mapping is not possible for anything, including the objects in front of you. So if you are ready to say that a table is real because you see it, then the same goes for God. The ultimate point is that phenomenally, God and tables aren’t different. Now whether you wish to treat the status of God as “real existence” or the status of tables as “yet another perception with cash-value” depends on your philosophical sympathies. But if you are willing to call one “real”, then the same goes for the other (provided you experience what you believe to be God).

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