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.

Radical Empiricism

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."

Subject-Object Split

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.