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The pragmatic American: William James and our homegrown way of thought.

Discussed in this essay:

William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism, by Robert D. Richardson. Houghton Mifflin. 640 pages. $30.

In 1935, William James's pupil Ralph Barton Perry published The Thought and Character of William James, which established the main lines and pressure points of his master's life. Recent biographers have largely taken their bearings from Perry and have been content to add some corroborative or revisionist details and a larger intellectual setting. We may take it that most of the evidence is now in. Robert D. Richardson does not claim to have made any major discoveries with William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism. He presents his book as an "intellectual biography": "That is to say, it seeks to understand [James's] life through his work, not the other way around. It is primarily narrative, aiming more to present his life rather than to analyze or explain it."

Not that these distinctions are hard-and-fast. Narrative is a form of analysis; the story is itself a reading of James's thought and character. Perhaps the hubbub of Richardson's subtitle might have been stilled: he says little about Modernism or its maelstrom. The distinction of this book consists in Richardson's judicious "post of observation," the urbanity of his tone, the grace with which he negotiates any contentious parts of James's life and work. When he disagrees with a biographical colleague on a point of judgment or emphasis, we have to look closely to gauge the degree of dissent. The surface of the narrative is not ruffled. If you wonder whether James was indebted to Charles Renouvier's Essais de critique generale for his recovery from one of several depressions, you will find Richardson cordially disposed to the question. You are allowed to decide, mainly on the evidence he provides. If you wonder what the issues were between James and Thomas Huxley or between James and Herbert Spencer, you find that Richardson has expounded them clearly without disturbing the temper of the book. Richardson has evidently made up his mind on every large issue, but he is never insistent or tendentious. His book is a free country, short of being lawless.

Born in New York City on January 11, 1842, William James was the first child of Henry and Mary James. (There would be five children in six years: William himself, then Henry, Garth, Robertson, and Alice.) Henry Sr. was sufficiently well off, with inherited money, to indulge his prejudices in favor of foreign travel, private education for his children, and residence for them in European places that often turned out to be dreary. He was by disposition a philosopher, or at least a sage, who gained few readers outside his family. William consumed much time and energy finding reasons to disagree with him, a duty he laid to rest on his father's death in 1882 by editing The Literary Remains of the Late Henry James. Meanwhile and in later years, William studied--with varying degrees of application--painting, chemistry, anatomy, medicine, physiology, physiological psychology, and philosophy. He took an interest in everything, as the variety of his studies showed.

James was often disabled by ill health, suffering from nervous collapses, depression, a heart condition, back problems and eye problems, smallpox at one point, and general debility. Still, between one episode of illness and the next he gathered to himself remarkable strength and purpose. He was a man of unfailing access to experience, and from day to day he was ready for adventure. At the age of twenty-three, for instance, he joined Louis Agassiz's expedition up the Amazon to examine the distribution of fish (Agassiz was going in the hope which James did not share--of disproving Darwin's theory of the transmutation of species). On his return to Boston, James resumed his medical studies. From 1873 he taught various courses at Harvard, and in 1880 he joined the Philosophy Department there and set about furthering his career and influence. His marriage to Alice Gibbens proved to be happy, by and large. He published his major work, The Principles of Psychology, in 1890. Constantly in demand as a writer and lecturer, he turned the lectures and essays into books: The Will to Believe (1897), Human Immortality (1898), Talks to Teachers (1899), The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), and Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (1907). The Meaning of Truth and A Pluralistic Universe were published in 1909, and Essays in Radical Empiricism was published posthumously, in 1912.

After James's death, on August 26, 1910, George Santayana described how James had "kept his mind and heart wide open to all that might seem, to polite minds, odd, personal, or visionary in religion and philosophy. He gave a sincerely respectful hearing to sentimentalists, mystics, spiritualists, wizards, cranks, quacks and impostors.... He thought, with his usual modesty, that any of these might have something to teach him." Twenty years later, a medium published a book that she claimed James had written through her. Richardson presents all of this with an appropriately Jamesian open mind. "There are at least eight books claiming to have been written by James" after he died, Richardson notes. "I am far from being a dogmatic skeptic, but it must be conceded that if these are authentic, James's prose style declined after his death."

During his life, James entertained many notions and remained susceptible to any interest that came along, but he allowed them to recede as nonchalantly as they came. He was opposed to dogma, certitude, fixities, and definites, believing in nothing except Darwinian evolution and the merit of what would come to be known as pragmatism. Indeed, among his many enthusiasms, pragmatism was the one he cared about most consistently-though, as might be expected of any good pragmatist, his commitment to it seemed to relax whenever he saw fit.

The remote origin of pragmatism may be found in Kant and Emerson. The immediate source (if we don't count conversations at meetings of the Metaphysical Club) is an essay by Charles Sanders Peirce, "How to Make Our Ideas Clear," published in Popular Science Monthly in January 1878: "Consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we might conceive the object of our conception to have. Then our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object." That notion, obscure as it is, went largely ignored till James took it up in a lecture at Berkeley in 1898. His version of pragmatism, as published in 1907, is clearer than Peirce's but not clear enough; like Peirce's version, it puts more stress on the word "conception" than it can comfortably bear:
   Mr. Peirce, after pointing out that our
   beliefs are really rules for action, said
   that, to develop a thought's meaning, we
   need only determine what conduct it is
   fitted to produce: that conduct is for us
   its sole significance.... To attain perfect
   clearness in our thoughts of an object,
   then, we need only consider what conceivable
   effects of a practical kind the
   object may involve--what sensations
   we are to expect from it, and what reactions
   we must prepare. Our conception
   of these effects, whether immediate or
   remote, is then for us the whole of our
   conception of the object, so far as that
   conception has positive significance at
   all. [The italics are mine.]


The repetition of "for us" and the appeal to "we" as the sole arbiter of "perfect clearness" show how local and opportunistic James was prepared to be how resolute he was in fending off the large philosophic considerations. "Grant an idea or belief to be true," James says, "what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone's actual life?" And his answer, emphatically given, is: "TRUE IDEAS ARE THOSE THAT WE CAN ASSIMILATE, VALIDATE, CORROBORATE, AND VERIFY. FALSE IDEAS ARE THOSE THAT WE CANNOT." That was the main consideration for pragmatism.

But pragmatism was not, to begin with, a philosophy; it was what James called it: a method. It was also what he didn't quite call it: a device for getting rid of philosophy and metaphysics by removing the fundamental questions--Being, Existence, why there is something rather than nothing--from the list of problems anyone should bother with. In the Preface to The Meaning of Truth, James endorsed the postulate that "the only things that shall be debatable among philosophers shall be things definable in terms drawn from experience. (Things of an unexperienceable nature may exist ad libitum, but they form no part of the material for philosophic debate.)"

Pragmatism was taken to be a philosophy because it was the only homegrown intellectual structure in America at the time, transcendentalism having had its hour. Besides, it would prove to be a method adaptable to nearly any interest: semiotics in Peirce, the study of language and symbolism in Kenneth Burke, the practice of politics in Richard Rorty. T. S. Eliot made a telling point when he wrote that "the great weakness of Pragmatism is that it ends by being of no use to anybody," presumably because it only offers to give you reasons to do what you intended to do anyway. G. H. Mead put the matter clearly enough when he identified the force of pragmatism and noted its limitations:
   For James the act [of thinking] is a living
   physiological affair, and must be
   placed in the struggle for existence,
   which Darwinian evolution had set up
   as the background of life. Knowledge is
   an expression of the intelligence by
   which animals meet the problems with
   which life surrounds them.


If, like an animal, you can deal with the dangers that beset you, you don't need to look beyond your conduct or question your actions. James, following Peirce, maintained that restless thinking finds its repose in belief; belief, in turn, directs its energy as conduct and action--the resolution of a problem.

That sequence seems coherent. There was no need for anyone to worry his head about Platonic forms or the nature of soul or spirit. Reciting the stages by which some philosophers attenuated "the spiritual principle ... to a thoroughly ghostly condition" called "consciousness," James said he was ready to go even further:
   I believe that "consciousness," when once
   it has evaporated to this estate of pure diaphaneity,
   is on the point of disappearing
   altogether. It is the name of a nonentity,
   and has no right to a place among
   first principles. Those who still cling to
   it are clinging to a mere echo, the faint
   rumor left behind by the disappearing
   "soul" upon the air of philosophy.


In this essay, "Does 'Consciousness' Exist?" (1904), James answered his question--or seemed to---by suggesting that it doesn't. But he saves the ghost by summoning it up as a different one. He explains "that I mean only to deny that the word stands for an entity, but to insist most emphatically that it does stand for a function": "'Consciousness' is supposed necessary to explain the fact that things not only are, but get reported, are known. Whoever blots out the notion of consciousness from his list of first principles must still provide in some way for that function's being carried on."

A function of what? James's way is to invoke Experience, a concept large enough to take care of apparently endangered functions. It houses, in whatever terms you prefer, the knower and the thing known, the subject and the object of attention, the thought-of-an-object and the object-thought-of: "If you ask what any one bit of pure experience is made of, the answer is always the same: 'It is made of that, of just what appears, of space, of intensity, of flatness, brownness, heaviness, or what not.'"

Despite James's assertiveness, his essay on consciousness ends, as Jill M. Kress has noted, "with ambivalence." It is a conclusion in which nothing is concluded:
   I am as confident as I am of anything
   that, in myself, the stream of thinking
   (which I recognize emphatically as a
   phenomenon) is only a careless name for
   what, when scrutinized, reveals itself to
   consist chiefly of the stream of my
   breathing. The "I think" which Kant
   said must be able to accompany all my
   objects, is the "I breathe" which actually
   does accompany them.... [Breath] is, I
   am persuaded, the essence out of which
   philosophers have constructed the entity
   known to them as consciousness.
   That entity is fictitious, while thoughts in the
   concrete are fully real.


This is not as radical as it seems: a slightly less specific version of it appears in The Principles of Psychology, as Kress points out. James speaks of "this palpitating inward life," but he acknowledges that he can find evidence of it only in a physiological form--"some bodily process, for the most part taking place within the head." James calls this activity in the head "my breathing," and later "breath." But if you reduce the "purely spiritual element" to breathing, your opponent can easily turn round and restore it to the point at which such a word as "soul" or "consciousness" has to be reinstated, to mark its most extreme reach. If you say that consciousness is nothing but breathing, anyone can retort that one can keep on breathing while hardly being conscious. I breathe in my sleep.

"Does 'Consciousness' Exist?" is a series of cryptic footnotes to The Principles of Psychology; it isn't philosophy. When James resorts to philosophy and wants to make it accompany the method of pragmatism, he regularly raises the issue of the One and the Many--that is to say, in one light, the world seems to be all unity, whereas in another, it seems to be a plethora of heterogeneities. But James doesn't always play fair; he has his answer ready before putting forth the question. In "Pragmatism and Religion"--the last of his lectures on pragmatism--he takes up the question that he described in Some Problems of Philosophy (1911) as "the most pregnant of all the dilemmas of philosophy." Unusually for him, he chooses a poem as a test case, one of Whitman's three poems called "To You," the one that begins, "Whoever you are, I fear you are walking the walks of dreams." James says that there are two ways of taking the poem, "both useful":
   One is the monistic way, the mystical
   way of pure cosmic emotion. The glories
   and grandeurs, they are yours absolutely,
   even in the midst of your defacements.
   Whatever may happen to you,
   whatever you may appear to be, inwardly
   you are safe. Look back, lie back,
   on your true principle of being! This is
   the famous way of quietism, of indifferentism.
   Its enemies compare it to a
   spiritual opium. Yet pragmatism must
   respect this way, for it has massive historic
   vindication.


But James remarks, with more enthusiasm, that "pragmatism sees another way to be respected also, the pluralistic way of interpreting the poem":
   The you so glorified, to which the hymn
   is sung, may mean your better possibilities
   phenomenally taken, or the specific
   redemptive effects even of your failures,
   upon yourself or others. It may
   mean your loyalty to the possibilities of
   others whom you admire and love so
   that you are willing to accept your own
   poor life, for it is that glory's partner.
   You can at least appreciate, applaud,
   furnish the audience, of so brave a total
   world. Forget the low in yourself, then,
   think only of the high. Identify your life
   therewith; then, through angers, losses,
   ignorance, ennui, whatever you thus
   make yourself, whatever you thus most
   deeply are, picks its way.


The warmth and ebullience of this passage, in contrast to the frigidity of "the monistic way" as James gives it, makes his prejudice clear. He concedes that there is something to be said for the monist interpretation, but in the end--an end soon reached--he holds that "the pluralistic way agrees with the pragmatic temper best, for it immediately suggests an infinitely larger number of the details of future experience to our mind. It sets definite activities in us at work."

A reasonable comment on pragmatism would be: It can't be as simple as it looks; there must be more to it than the determination to engage the problems of philosophy by erasing the hardest of them and, having done so, taking one step at a time toward solving the next problem. G. K. Chesterton said that "pragmatism is a matter of human needs; and one of the first of human needs is to be something more than a pragmatist."

In fact, many of the most memorable passages in James are written by the by, and have no strong dependence on pragmatism: his attitude toward language, for instance, and especially his conviction in The Principles of Psychology that "language works against our perception of the truth." He explains this in Chapter IX, "The Stream of Thought," starting with the minimal assumptions that "thought goes on" and that it goes on in a particular person's mind. Unfortunately, he says, human beings have an inveterate habit of "not attending to sensations as subjective facts, but of simply using them as stepping-stones to pass over to the recognition of the realities whose presence they reveal": "We take no heed, as a rule, of the different way in which the same things look and sound and smell at different distances and under different circumstances." Even pragmatism, I assume, falls into this lazy habit.

Consciousness, unlike language, "does not appear to itself chopped up in bits." Like Lily Briscoe in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, James knew that words "broke up the thought and dismembered it." But setting aside the doubt he allowed into "Does 'Consciousness' Exist?", he was determined to save the fluidity of thought:
   Such words as "chain" or "train" do not
   describe it fitly as it presents itself in
   the first instance. It is nothing jointed;
   it flows. A "river" or a "stream" are the
   metaphors by which it is most naturally
   described.... Let us call it the stream
   of thought, of consciousness, or of subjective
   life.


The transition "between the thought of one object and the thought of another is no more a break in the thought than a joint in a bamboo is a break in the wood. It is a part of the consciousness as much as the joint is a part of the bamboo." James then considers another metaphor by which thought might be presented. It is a bird's life, "an alternation of flights and perchings":
   The rhythm of language expresses this,
   where every thought is expressed in a
   sentence, and every sentence closed by
   a period. The resting-places are usually
   occupied by sensorial imaginations of
   some sort, whose peculiarity is that they
   can be held before the mind for an indefinite
   time, and contemplated without
   changing; the places of flight are filled
   with thoughts of relations, static or dynamic,
   that for the most part obtain between
   the matters contemplated in the
   periods of comparative rest.

      Let us call the resting-places the "substantive
   parts," and the places of flight the
   "transitive parts," of the stream of thought.
   It then appears that the main end of
   our thinking is at all times the attainment
   of some other substantive part
   than the one from which we have just
   been dislodged. And we may say that the
   main use of the transitive parts is to lead
   us from one substantive conclusion
   to another.


The linguistic correlative of this fact is that language, like a concept, encourages us to pay attention to the nouns, impatient for their arrival, but not to the little words of transition by which they reach us and we receive them. James is tender to the little words, because we owe to them whatever sense we have of process, of time passing, of rich experience prior to conclusions:
   We ought to say a feeling of and, a feeling
   of if, a feeling of but, and a feeling of
   by, quite as readily as we say a feeling of
   blue or a feeling of cold. Yet we do not: so
   inveterate has our habit become of recognizing
   the existence of the substantive
   parts alone, that language almost refuses
   to lend itself to any other use.


Decrying the empiricists for privileging nouns and thereby "supposing that where there is no name no entity can exist," James holds them responsible for a tyranny of language over experience:
   All dumb or anonymous psychic states
   have, owing to this error, been coolly
   suppressed; or, if recognized at all, have
   been named after the substantive perception
   they led to, as thoughts "about"
   this object or "about" that, the stolid
   word about engulfing all their delicate
   idiosyncrasies in its monotonous sound.
   Thus the greater and greater accentuation
   and isolation of the substantive
   parts have continually gone on.


Strictly considered, "about" should be praised as one of the little transitional words, but I suppose its normal relation to the noun to which it leads is too blunt for James: by the time we come to "about," we have nearly reached the noun and its closure. The process of thinking is virtually over.

Why did pragmatism gain a hearing in America such that James could bring his lectures on it to an end by claiming that "the type of pluralistic and moralistic religion that I have offered is as good a religious synthesis as you are likely to find"? James even raised his claim: "Between the two extremes of crude naturalism on the one hand and transcendental absolutism on the other, you may find that what I take the liberty of calling the pragmatistic or melioristic type of theism is exactly what you require." But what was offered, in fact, is only a domesticated version of Mill's utilitarianism. In The Metaphysical Club, Louis Menand says that pragmatism's appeal during the years of its efflorescence, which he gives as between 1898 and 1917, "is not hard to understand": "Everything James and Dewey wrote as pragmatists boils down to a single claim: people are the agents of their own destinies."

Tell that to the soldiers at the Marne and the Somme. (Or to the shareholders of Enron, for that matter.) I don't doubt that many Americans in the first years of the twentieth century found it gratifying to be told that they were the agents of their own destinies. Some found social Darwinism appealing for the same reason. But why? It should have been hard to hold on to these felicities when soldiers were being slaughtered.

Pragmatism is a strong method when you think things are going well, onward and upward, and the thrust of evolution is in your favor. On your bad days, it seems uncaring. Menand ends by reflecting on the two main deficiencies he finds in pragmatism:
   One is that it takes interests for granted;
   it doesn't provide for a way of judging
   whether they are worth pursuing
   apart from the consequences of acting on
   them.... The second deficiency is related
   to the first. It is that wants and beliefs
   can lead people to act in ways that are
   distinctly unpragmatic. Sometimes the
   results are destructive, but sometimes
   they are not. There is a sense in which
   history is lit by the deeds of men and
   women for whom ideas were things other
   than instruments of adjustment. Pragmatism
   explains everything about ideas except why
   a person would be willing to die for one.


Menand speaks of an "idea" as if it were a notion among notions, the parlor talk of the Metaphysical Club their appropriate habitat; it is a stretch to think that anyone would die for such a thing. His conception of an idea evidently differs from mine. I don't think the suicide bombers in Iraq are dying for an idea--unless that word means a vision, the certitude of passion, an imperative sense of one's life. An Iraqi's determination to force the American Army out of Iraq isn't an idea.

Robert Richardson's book doesn't run to such unpleasant considerations. He has told the story of James's life, with the intelligence and verve we expect from the author of Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind and Emerson: The Mind on Fire. I suppose he assumes that readers will use his book opportunistically, seizing on one chapter or another to start a dispute that he has chosen not to engage in. I hope he will be pleased to find that his book has been having such consequences.

Denis Donoghue is University Professor and Henry James Professor of English and American Letters at New York University. His book On Eloquence will be published next year.
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Title Annotation:William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism
Author:Donoghue, Denis
Publication:Harper's Magazine
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2007
Words:4084
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