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.

Political Tactics, Antifa, And Punching Nazis

In response to my post ‘Punching Nazis in the Face and Anti-Antifa Critiques‘ a friend of mine offered some critical responses on Facebook; these responses have offered me an opportunity to try to express my original claims more clearly. My responses are below. (Excerpts from my original post are indented in plain text; my friend’s responses are italicized.)

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Nietzsche As Pragmatist

Nietzsche is a pragmatist with strong resonances with the American pragmatists; this is not a new claim. Renè Berthelot, for instance, termed Nietzsche “a German pragmatist” and emphasized the resemblance between Nietzsche’s perspectivism and the pragmatist theory of truth.[1][2] The resemblance between Nietzsche and the American pragmatists [3] is made especial note of in Arthur Danto‘s Nietzsche as Philosopher, which bids us examine The Gay Science. There, as Danto notes, Nietzsche claims that “we `know’…just as much as may be useful in the interest of the human herd” and that our primary epistemic concern is “how far a belief furthers and supports life, maintains and disciplines a species.” Nietzsche’s epistemological strategy has clear entailments for his ontology: what we believe exists is a function of how useful that belief is; metaphysics and epistemology are inseparable. Questions of ontology for Nietzsche are questions of human interests; they do not address the ‘ultimate nature of being,’ to anything unconditioned, to “something which would be true, absolutely and unconditionally, outside of all temporal and perspectival conditions.”

For Nietzsche, perspectives, interpretations, constitute our epistemological relationships with the world completely, rendering talk of distortions of reality unintelligible. Thus, marking the beginning point for pragmatic evaluations of theoretical formulations, our dominant perspective and its attendant ontology are the most “useful and necessary.” Morality and our moral theories too, allow a life-preserving way of living and interacting with this world. Morality becomes one of our many perspectives; but there are no moral phenomena or facts—all we have are “moralistic interpretations of phenomena.” Nietzsche thus dismisses the fact-value distinction—as a pragmatist might—because there are no facts, only interpretations guided by our interest-driven values. Such values come to constitute our sense of ourselves for “evaluation is creation.”

As Danto notes, Nietzsche claims there is “an inescapable tendency on our part to posit entities—to think in terms of things—and to regard the world as characterized by ‘unity, identity, permanence, substance, cause [and effect], thinghood and being.”[4] This positing tendency, the hallmark of theory construction, leads to perspectives which speak of, and manipulate these entities in their claims; these perspectives are sustained by their success in helping achieve our ends; utilizing these concepts ‘works for us’ in furthering our collectively determined ends.

Nietzsche’s perspectivism entails all terms are theoretical. The supposed contrast between theoretical terms and constructs and the objects of ‘common sense’ now vanishes; the solid object we bump up against is a theoretical posit within the perspective termed ‘common sense.’ We construct a world and its attendant reality—for ourselves, the theory’s proponents—by constructing a theoretical world indispensable for the forms of life we lead. The acceptance of these ‘articles of faith’ and their indispensability hints at the theoretical resilience of these entities. Nietzsche thus urges a pragmatic understanding of concepts like ‘cause’ and ‘effect’ as “conventional fictions.” Concepts are creative, ways by which we can fashion a new being, a new form of life.

Nietzsche’s perspectivism—human needs constitute the world for us—rejects metaphysical realism, preferring a view in which a dynamic always-becoming world is theorized into a form suited to our purposes.  Perspectives are interpretations; they make some statements true and not others but none is privileged–absolutely–above the others. In Nietzsche’s ontological view “the world is a mere fiction, constructed of fictitious entities” (The Will to Power, 568); these entities are invented to suit our ends. The entities Nietzsche considers ‘fictitious’ includes “substance, soul, (ego, philosophical subject), synchronic and diachronic identity, being, thing, cause and effect, duration, and materiality.”[5] Our language—a theory with its theoretical terms, its ‘fictions’—is a function of our means and ends and interests and bears the mark of our social activities and organizations, its service of particular ends and ways of life. Those forms of life determine the metaphysics the language necessitates. (For instance, the view that “the self is a substance that is identical over time and is that which acts and is the agent of moral responsibility” is ‘required’ by law and adopted in its ontology. )

For Nietzsche ‘things’ do not exist independent of perspectives; objects—the members of an ontology—exist within theories; they do not have character independent of them. Our concepts carve up the world according to our interests; they give us a lens through which we may categorize and make comprehensible the world.  Our interests dominate our theoretical presumptions; we assess explanations by their consonance with those interests and our values.

The trail of the human serpent is thus over everything.

Notes:

[1] (http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/d/dickstein-pragmatism.html

[2] Resonances with the pragmatist theory of truth may also be found in In Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense.

[3] These resonances between Nietzsche and the American pragmatists have been exhaustively explored in Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s magisterial American Nietzsche.

[4] (Danto, 86) 

[5] (Danto, 60-61)

Anticipating Another Encounter With Books And Students

This coming fall semester promises to be a cracker: I have the usual heavy teaching load of three classes (including two four-credit classes whose lectures will be one hundred minutes long, thus making for a very exhausting Monday-Wednesday sequence of teaching running from 9:05 AM to 3:30 PM, with an hour break between the second and third class meetings); and I will be trying to make some headway on a pair of manuscripts, both due next year in May and August respectively (one project examines the Bollywood war movie and the Indian popular imagination, another conducts a philosophical examination of the Indian film director Shyam Benegal’s work.)

The three classes I will be teaching this semester are: Social Philosophy, Philosophy of Law, and Landmarks in the History of Philosophy. The following are their reading lists: the first two classes below feature my favored kind of reading assignments–pick a few select texts and read them from cover to cover; this is a slightly risky move, given that my students–and  I–might find out, together, that the text is ‘not working.’ For whatever reason; some works do not bear up well under closer inspection in a classroom, some material turns out to be tougher to teach and discuss than imagined, and so on. When it works though, a detailed and sustained examination of a philosophical work pregnant with meaning can work wonders, allowing my students and I to trace the various strands of complex arguments at leisure, drawing out their many interpretations and understandings as we do so.

Social Philosophy: 

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, University of Chicago Press; 2nd ed., 1998,

Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man, Routledge Classics,

Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, W. W. Norton & Company, 1989,

Landmarks in the History of Philosophy:

William James, Pragmatism, Dover, 1995

Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Dover, 1996,

Thomas Szaz, The Myth of Mental Illness, Harper Perennial

Philosophy of Law: 

‘The Case of the Speluncean Explorers’ by Lon Fuller (to introduce my students–briefly and vividly, hopefully–to theories of natural law, positivism, and some tenets of the interpretation of legal texts.)

HLA Hart, ‘On Primary and Secondary Rules’

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, ‘The Path of the Law’

David Caudill and Jay Gold, Radical Philosophy of Law

Besides these three classes, I will also be conducting an independent study with an undergraduate student on the relationship between Nietzsche’s writings and Buddhism; this promises to be especially fascinating. The following is the list of books my student and I will work through over the course of the semester:

Nietzsche and Buddhism: A Study in Nihilism and Ironic Affinities

Nietzsche and Zen: Self Overcoming Without a Self 

Nietzsche and BuddhismProlegomenon to a Comparative Study

Nietzsche and Buddhist Philosophy

Every semester, as always, brings on that same trembling anticipation: books and students and all the promises those encounters hold–the revelations, the surprises, the discoveries, the missteps. What a great way to spend one’s waking hours; I will have ample opportunities to count my blessings in the weeks that lie ahead.

Alasdair MacIntyre On Relativism And The Immigrant

In ‘Relativism, Power, and Philosophy,’ (Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association,Vol. 59, No. 1, September 1985, pp. 5-22) Alasdair MacIntyre writes:

‘Relativism’…names one kind of conclusion to enquiry into a particular class of problems. Those questions arise in the first place for people who live in certain highly specific types of social and cultural situation…It is perhaps unsurprising that [these questions] have been overlooked by those recent philosophers who want to make a sharp dichotomy between the realm of philosophical theorizing and that of everyday belief….This attitude is perhaps a symptom of…too impoverished a view of the types of social and institutional circumstance which generate philosophical problems. What then are the social and institutional circumstances which generate the cluster of problems to which some version of relativism can be a rational response?

They are the social and institutional circumstances of those who inhabit a certain type of frontier or boundary situation. Consider the predicament of someone who lives in a time and place where he or she is a full member of two linguistic communities, speaking one language…exclusively to the older members of his or her family and village and [another language, X] to those from the world outside, who seek to engage him or her in a way of life in the exclusively [X]-speaking world. Economic and social circumstance may enforce on such a person a final choice between inhabiting the one linguistic community and inhabiting the other; and in some times and places this is much more than a choice between two languages…For a language maybe so used…that to share in its use is to presuppose one cosmology rather than another, one relationship of local law and custom to cosmic order rather than another, one justification of particular relationships of individual to community and of both to land and to landscape rather than another.

Nietzsche famously said that all philosophy is but disguised autobiography. I find such a philosophical claim plausible because, interestingly enough, it speaks to my experiences in the course of my intellectual development. I find myself sympathetic to relativistic, quasi-relativistic, perspectival (and relatedly anti-foundational) claims in many domains of philosophy because I consider myself–a bilingual immigrant, who is now a naturalized citizen in his adopted homeland–to ‘inhabit a…frontier or boundary situation.’ Philosophical theses built on such claims exercise a particular fascination for me; I find myself drawn to them. I say so because it would be dishonest to pretend that my acceptability of their arguments is purely a matter of intellectual assessment. As William James would describe it, my ‘passional nature‘ runs ahead of me here, taking me with it. As all too many immigrants and bilinguals will note, their transitions between countries and languages are not journeys through merely space-time or linguistic boundaries; rather, conceptual boundaries of considerable standing and importance are crossed. Incommensurability between worlds and ways of being seems a cosmic fact, an inescapable aspect of such a lived reality; relativism suggests itself as a ‘rational response’ to such a state of affairs.

Yertle The Turtle, Cosmological Anti-Foundationalism, And Political Change

Bertrand Russell and William James were informed, in rather arch fashion, we are told, that the solution to the age-old cosmological problem was that it was turtles all the way down. Another no less distinguished philosopher, Theodor Seuss Geisel suggested, however, that the chain of turtles, rather than extending into the deepest recesses of a cosmic infinitude, might terminate in a particular turtle, one named Mack, with a proclivity for burping at inopportune moments. Especially if you happened to be the top of the heap, and gazing fondly over the vast reaches of your empire, as Yertle, Mack’s oppressor, was. This rather simple opposition, however, does not do justice to the political and metaphysical sophistication of Geisel’s vision of this world’s orderings and the motive powers that might disturb them.

Consider that Mack does not remove himself from the bottom of the stack by shrugging, which might be considered the correct way to displace off one’s shoulders, the weight of an oppressive, individuality-destroying hierarchy (as Ayn Rand so memorably suggested in, er, Atlas Shrugged); rather, he burps. Why does Geisel chose the emission of the burp as the prime stack-toppling agent?

A burp is, as Wikipedia informs us, “the release of gas from the digestive tract (mainly esophagus and stomach) through the mouth. It is usually accompanied with a typical sound and, at times, an odor.”  As mention of “gas,” “mouth,” “digestive,” “stomach,” and “odor” suggest, a burp is a lowly, bodily thing. There is little reason in it; no premeditation, no planning, no ratiocination; it is irredeemably sordid with nary a hint of the sublime. It is all praxis and no theory. It is pure, elemental physicality, a surge of bodily power, a summoning up from the primeval depths of forces beyond our control. The murk stirs at the bottom of the pit, double bubble toil and trouble, and a gaseous charge is emitted, racing upwards for release at our oral orifice. (Modesty forbids me mention the alternate passageways that may be followed by such vaporous emissions when they race downwards instead.) The burp is the roiling forces of the Id, the dark Unconscious, made palpable and manifest. Especially to our olfactory and aural senses.

Thus does Geisel suggest that the greatest manifestations of power, the most towering reaches of human vanity, arrogance, and hubris, which seek to place themselves beyond the reaches of grubby, earthly powers, will be displaced by, not the high winds that blow at the summits, but rather by forces that reach up from below, from the deepest depths, from those most repressed, those that are the least visible. The political lesson here is clear and stark: do not expect change to come from the top, it must become from below, from those who are the most reviled, the most oppressed, the ones whose voices are all too easily ignored and shouted over. And when they do rise up, they will not do so in fancy, prettified ways; they will revel in the ugliness that was always ascribed to them. It will be their greatest weapon.

William James And The Pre-Raphaelites’ Influence

This morning, for no particular reason, or perhaps because I’ve been reading Becoming William James, Howard Feinstein’s excellent psycho-biography of William James, I posted the following on Facebook:

William James was a better, more interesting, writer than Henry James.

These are, as my friend Margaret Toth pointed out, “fighting words.” But of course, as I noted in response, “That’s why I put them in a status. To get one started.” An entertaining and edifying one so far.

One of the defenses I mounted of William James–in response to Bryce Huebner saying that “Henry may have been the better philosopher”–was that I considered that William’s better writing made him a better philosopher too. (Just because I find the distinction between form and content a spurious one.) I then went on to say that William “certainly comes across as the wiser, the one with better insights into the human condition.”

Now, one aspect of a philosopher’s wisdom may be found in their work; another may be found in what they themselves found to be influential and important in their intellectual and psychological development.

A good example of this is the influence that the Pre-Raphaelites had on James. Their “aesthetic embodied tendencies that would emerge in William’s later work as a pyschologist and philosopher.” They:

[E]mphasized a psychological element in subjects that had hitherto received symbolic, allegorical treatment. Observation of the people around them was as important as learning the painter’s craft….[their] use of color and emphasis on realistic detail gave their painting a characteristic hard edge, creating a visual world of shapes with impermeable boundaries, like so many pieces of stained glass.”

Later, William James in his psychological work  “would prefer minute, phenomenological descriptions of minds in action.” In his philosophical pluralism, “he explored the relationship of personal worlds, he, too, emphasized the hardness of edge that divides human experience as decisively as lead separates the fragments of stained glass.”

But perhaps most impressively for me, James took the most inspiration from John Ruskin‘s views on artistic creation, on “the relationship between effort and talent.” For Ruskin had written:

It is no man’s business whether he has genius or not: work he must, whatever he is, but quietly and steadily; and the natural and unforced results of such work will always be the things that God meant him to do, and will be his best. No agonies nor heart-rendings will enable him to do any better. If he be a great man, they will be great things; if a small man, small things; but always, if thus peacefully done, good and right; always, if restlessly and ambitiously done, false, hollow, and despicable. [John Ruskin, Pre-Raphaelitism, 1851, pp. 12]

There is a simple and acute wisdom here, one that might be discerned quite clearly even as we disregard the predestinatory  note, and Ruskin’s belief–expressed elsewhere–about the great men being able to do great things “without effort.” For the injunction here is clear, one we find expressed in modern homilies too: do your work as best as you can; put the hours in; be steady and steadfast in your efforts; care not for rewards or recognition; do not torment yourself with anguish about whether your work was meant to recognized or valorized. The doing of it–and the staying with it, and enjoying the time spent on it–is ample reward.

Note: All quotes other than the ones from Ruskin are taken from Becoming William James, pp. 108-110.