Lessons From an Adorable Genius
Faithe and utopias are the noblest exercise of human reason, and no one with a spark of reason in him will sit down fatalistically before the croaker's picture.
It is the amount of life which a man feels that makes you value his mind. --William James
Alfred North Whitehead--himself an adorable genius--applies that term to James in Science and the Modern World. The aptness of the adjective is beyond question; the the truth of the noun, nearly so. For, though James lacked the light-shattering ingenuity of Newton and the monumental style of Kant, his gifts were nonetheless striking. His writings abound in magnificent arrays of quotable passages. His works teem with provocative insights--too many, perhaps, ever to be fully systematized. But, most of all, James radiates moral greatness. His openness of mind and eagerness to defend underdogs, his freedom from vanity and from paltry ambitions, all betoken what his father would have called "largeness of soul."
Yet none of this has saved James from becoming for many readers simply an exquisite specimen of nineteenth century intellectual history. He wore a beard when beards were fashionable--an unfashionable capitulation for a Harvard man. And his massive work on psychology contains only one tiny paragraph on sexuality--an equally unfashionable oversight today. Sex leads to Vienna, however, and few writers complement each other as well as Freud and James.
Toward the end of his life James propounded the doctrine of "radical empiricism." He regarded it as independent of pragmatism--that is, one may completely reject it and remain a pragmatist. But he came to consider this doctrine more fundamental and more significant than the pragmatic principle. James states the basic claim of his radical empiricism as follows:
"The parts of experience hold together from next to next by relations that are themselves part of experience. The directly apprehended universe needs, in short, no extraneous trans-empirical connective support, but possesses in its own right a concatenated or continuous structure." Presented most briefly, the doctrine asserts that reality is an "experience-continuum." Rigorous application of this notion impels James to such bizarre conclusions as a paradoxical denial that consciousness exists.
When James denies that consciousness exists, he is deploring the word as an empty construct intended to justify belief in the ultimate duality of experience. He denies that the word "consciousness" denotes an entity, and he protests against viewing experience as dual in any absolute sense.
"There is, I mean, no aboriginal stuff or quality of being, contrasted with that of which material objects are made, out of which our thoughts of them are made; but there is a function in experience which thoughts perform, and for the performance of which this quality of being is invoked. That function is knowing. . . . My thesis is that if we start with the supposition that there is only one primal stuff or material in the world, a stuff of which everything is composed, and if we call that stuff 'pure experience,' then knowing can easily be explained as a particular sort of relation towards one another into which portions of pure experience may enter. The relation itself is a part of pure experience; one of its 'terms' becomes the subject or bearer of the knowledge, the knower, the other becomes the object known."
Thus James rejects the primacy of the subject-object split. Distinctions between subject and object, inner and outer, self and not-self do not impress him as constituting a priori givens. Rather, he views them as "results of a later classification performed by us for particular needs." The classification or categorization is made for its utility, for its survival value; this should recall the influence of Darwin. Animals do not have a sense of self--they live in a state prior to Cogito ergo sum. So do infants. And this leads at last to Freud and his developmental scheme. "The id," Freud writes, "contains everything that is inherited, that is fixed in the constitution--above all, therefore, the instincts, which originate in the somatic organization and which find their first mental expression in the id in forms unknown to us."
As was said earlier, Freud's work highlights the contemporary relevance of James. Though this is so, James has more to offer Freudians than they can ever hope to convey to him in return. "The power of the id," according to Freud, "expresses the true purpose of the individual organism's life. This consists in the satisfaction of its innate needs." In an analogous statement James remarks, "Only in so far as they lead us, successfully or unsuccessfully, back into sensible experience again, are our abstracts and universals true or false at all."
For both men fulfilment appears to lie in pre-rational experience. Yet the differences are marked. The id is often negatively valued by Freud, and he tends to regard id-gratification as a matter of tension-reduction. James, however, regards pure experience as neither inherently good nor bad. Furthermore, he allows for more expansive modes of gratification than mere tension-reduction.
Three in One
To use religious metaphor, it was given to Freud to discover a new and provocative trinity. Yet he proclaimed, "Where id is, there shall ego be." And he could well have added, "Where superego is, there shall ego be." In short, Freud points to the trinity, and then urges us to become Unitarians. James on the other hand, found the One God--pure experience--and yet he exhorts his readers to be Trinitarians. Pure experience, principles of conduct, and mediating reason--this is the Jamesian trinity. And the greatest of these, ultimately, is pure experience.
James does not denigrate any of the three aspects--all are considered indispensable to human life. He would most likely endorse psychoanalysis as a method of "consciousness-expansion," but he would never construe the elimination of either principles or pure experience as the aim of such self-examination. Pure experience without principles is blind. Principles without pure experience are empty. Reason of course, should mediate between the two, modifying each.
Several of the most engaging passages in the psychological works of James describe what he imagines to be the experience of animals. "To the broody hen the notion would probably seem monstrous that there should be a creature in the world to whom a nestful of eggs was not the utterly fascinating and precious and never-to-be-too-much-sat-upon object which it is to her."
Or, to take an even more remarkable feat of "identification," "What voluptuous thrill may not shake a fly, when she at last discovers the one particular leaf, or carrion, or bit of dung, that out of all the world can stimulate her ovipositor? Does not the discharge then seem to her the only fitting thing?"
Critics have often remarked on the compassionate, unmitigatingly democratic attitude of James toward his fellow men. With justice we might extrapolate to his fellow animals. And in Human Immortality (his Ingersoll Lectures) he carries his sympathies a step further: "I am willing that every leaf that ever grew in this world's forests and rusted in the breeze should become immortal."
Perhaps laughter or weeping is the only suitable response to such statements. But there may be an important implication. The table of triads presented above is intended to convey a sense of the struggle for satisfaction and fulfilment on numerous levels. James, one can argue, did not wish to restrict his notion of mediation to philosophy alone but visualized it as the very essence of life. Animal, vegetable, human--all must play the game. Indeed, for a man with his background in the life sciences such an extension was quite natural.
Once one understands the nature of the Jamesian trinity and its analogues in Freudianism, Platonism, Christianity, physiology, art, and other realms, its great significance becomes clear. Consider existentialism. In one essay Sartre states the chief tenet of his philosophy as "existence precedes essence." Though this is a crude rendition, it has come to be the popular slogan for the movement. James would surely agree with Sartre's slogan, but a glance at the triadic table indicates that he goes beyond existentialism. Existence precedes essence, indeed, yet being (pure experience) precedes existence.
"Before there can be any truth, whatever," Sartre writes, "there must be an absolute truth, aud there is such a truth which is simple, easily attained and within the reach of everybody; it consists in one's immediate sense of one's self."
No wonder the existentialist suffers from irremediable anguish, James might say. He exalts the self and existence at the expense of instinct, sensation, and being. Life is absurd for the existentialist; it is not for the female fly on the bit of dung. The existentialist moans, "I am." The fly simply shakes with a "voluptuous thrill," as her ovipositor discharges.
This is not to say that the female fly possesses greater wisdom than the existentialist. Assuredly she has little capacity for refining and broadening her faculties of appreciation. And he, on the other hand, can alter many of the organic and social rules that control his behavior. Nonetheless, the fly attains fulfilment--she achieves the "only fitting thing." Would we not condemn the fly as the victim of a perverse obsession if she never discharged her ovipositor, but instead fretted continuously about her existential plight? No doubt we would be forced to conclude that her life was absurd.
At times James seems so close to the existentialists that it may be misleading to stress the differences. Yet he never extols the virtues of existential dread. For the sensitive human being, he knew, anxiety of this sort is unavoidable. But it is something to recover from, not a state in which to remain--except for the purpose of writing existentialist manifestos. In short, the plight of man is his sense of existence; his salvation, the concomitant power to mediate and refine. The sense of individual existence is not the "absolute truth" for James. Indeed, the realm that confers meaning upon life precedes the self-other dichotomy of which Sarte speaks.
James's notion of pure experience and its priority bears an important relationship to many other movements and systems besides existentialism. The elimination of the self-other split suggests various Oriental philosophies. In conjunction with James's discussion of mystical states, in fact, radical empiricism provides a good model for describing satori, the goal of Zen Buddhists. Partakers of mescaline, psilocybin, and other psychedelic drugs would do well to consult James. His trinitarian scheme reserves a prime position for pre-rational, "transcendental" experiences, yet he refrains from casting away either principles or reason.
The inhalation of nitrous oxide made Hegelian philosophy some-what comprehensible--wonder of wonders!--to James. "What reader of Hegel," he writes, "can doubt that the sense of a perfected Being with all its otherness soaked up into itself, which dominates his whole philosophy, must have come from the prominence in his consciousness of mystical moods. . .? The notion is thoroughly characteristic of the mystical level, and the Aufgabe of making it articulate was surely set to Hegel's intellect by mystical feeling." The bizarre consequences of the Hegelian system when applied to brute Anglo-American "facts" tend to vanish in the realm of pure sensation. Hegel really "makes sense" in this pre-rational area; his work appears expressly designed for dealing with pure experience.
Thus, that most un-Hegelian of philosophers, William James, affords even a place in his trinity for the great German idealist. Nothing could attest more profoundly to the extraordinary eclectic potentialities of the Jamesian scheme or to its capacity to effect cultural rapprochement. But in a society where not knowing what to do or believe seems a much graver problem than not knowing how to do it, the triadic model has further importance. For James the test of a belief is its consequences for action and the test of an action, its consequences for pure experience. He starts with pure, experienced values and proceeds from there.
One can cavalierly dismiss James as naive and rambling. One can grimace at pragmatism as aesthetically grubby. But one does so only at peril of missing a most valuable set of lessons. The trinitarianism of James offers real hope for re-weaving the tangled threads of Western culture into a coherent fabric. And the emphasis on pure experience assures one that such a fabric would remain bright unfaded, vital. It is these two aspects of the thought of James that demand our closest attention. And it is these two aspects that compel us to recognize him as Harvard's greatest intellectual son.
(This is the sixth and concluding article in a series on William James.)