The Worst Sentence William James Ever Wrote

I have just concluded, in one of my classes this semester, my teaching of William James‘ classic Pragmatisma bona fide philosophical classic, one richly repaying close reading and elaboration of its central theses. My admiration for James’ writing and thought continues to grow, even as this semester, I encountered a passage that is remarkably incongruous with all I know about James’ sensitivity and appreciation of diverse religious traditions–this is after all, the man who wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience.

In Lecture IX, ‘Pragmatism and Religion,’ James says:

Suppose that the world’s author put the case to you before creation, saying: “I am going to make a world not certain to be saved…I offer you the chance of taking part in such a world. Its safety…is unwarranted. It is a real adventure….Will you join the procession? Will you trust yourself and trust the other agents enough to face the risk?”

Should you in all seriousness, if participation in such a world were proposed to you, feel bound to reject it as not safe enough? Would you say that, rather than be part and parcel of so fundamentally pluralistic and irrational a universe, you preferred to relapse into the slumber of nonentity from which you had been momentarily aroused by the tempter’s voice?

[I]f you are normally constituted, you would do nothing of the sort. There is a healthy-minded buoyancy in most of us which such a universe would exactly fit. We would therefore accept the offer…Yet perhaps some would not; for there are morbid minds in every human collection, and to them the prospect of a universe with only a fighting chance of safety would probably make no appeal. There are moments of discouragement in us all, when we are sick of self and tired of vainly striving….We want a universe where we can just give up, fall on our father’s neck, and be absorbed into the absolute life as a drop of water melts into the river or the sea.

The peace and rest, the security desiderated at such moments is security against the bewildering accidents of so much finite experience. Nirvana means safety from this everlasting round of adventures of which the world of sense consists. The hindoo and the buddhist, for this is essentially their attitude, are simply afraid, afraid of more experience, afraid of life. [emphasis added]

The total misunderstanding on display here of these two great religious and philosophical traditions is acutely disappointing. James seems to have absorbed, uncritically, the most facile and reductive view possible of the claims they make; he reduces the diversity of Indian thought to a quick caricature. ‘Nirvana’ is not nothingness; it indicates a state of living in this world that is not afflicted by the pointless suffering that is the lot of all those who do not practice the kind of ‘ironic detachment’ the Buddha preached and practiced. The ‘hindoo’ for his part does not retreat, afraid of this world; nowhere in the diverse philosophical systems that make up ‘Hindu thought’ is retreat from the world the central prescriptive claim. At best, it might be one of the practices that lead to enlightenment, one of the stages of life that we must pass through.

James betrays here a parochialism that still infects the modern academy; the misunderstanding on display still reigns supreme.

2 comments on “The Worst Sentence William James Ever Wrote

  1. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    This reminded me that even scholars who should know better (James was wrong, but so were many of his contemporaries, a situation that did not significantly change until well after WWII), like the late A.C.Graham (1919 – 1991), the Welsh scholar and Sinologist who was Professor of Classical Chinese at the School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London), can say some rather startling things that suggest a less-than-charitable or nuanced interpretation terms of and ideas of non-Western philosophical provenance. For example, consider his general characterization of the Daodejing:

    “At the root of the thinking, pervading this book of evasions and retreats disguised by a pseudonym, is one dominant emotion, fear. In Lao-tzu we are breathing an air very different from the perfect fearlessness of Chuang-tzu…. The pressing concern is with how the small state and the small man survive in a world of murderously competing powers.”

    As Russell Kirkland has noted, Graham also proffers an odd and implausible claim about the the Nei-Yeh, stating that it is, “as usual, addressed primarily to the ruler.” (!!!)

    One could say more, but this should suffice as a taste of interpretations that strike one as wildly off target; I have yet to read anyone well acquainted with this and earlier Daoist (or Daoist-like) material that would describe the ethos of the prior text in this manner or view the Nei-Yeh in such terms.

  2. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    erratum: “of terms and ideas of …”

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