William James

From Professor Zero (see the comments thread there):

Books I ought to read for recreational purposes include, but are not limited to: Bataille, Eroticism, which discusses the continuity and discontinuity of beings; Foucault, History of Sexuality, because I never have and because it might create an interesting combination with Bataille, and Kaysen, Girl, Interrupted, because if I am going to read some new-to-me Foucault, I might as well read about a contemporary mental institution.

However, the book I would really like to read for recreation is The Progress of Winsford Devine – A Collection of Caribbean Lyrics, on the classic Calypsonian. The book I need to read for research – and which will reveal more than any postmodern theory – is Robert D. Richardson’s William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism (Houghton Mifflin, 2007). This will elucidate for me the thoughts of certain early twentieth century beings in which I have an interest. Jackson Lears’ review hints at some of the reasons for this. Here they are, in Lears’ words:

1. For educated Americans who came of age during or soon after the Civil War, positivistic science blew like a frigid wind across the intellectual landscape, dispelling the comforting warmth of inherited faith, reducing reality to the precisely observable and measurable, challenging familiar ideas of morality and freedom. The specter of determinism threatened to turn the most exalted human strivings into the twitchings of automatons. No wonder “reflecting men”–and women–fell into a tedium vitae from time to time.

2. The most important context, as Richardson realizes, is the transatlantic ferment of Modernism. For decades, James’s allegedly “American” traits have been used to justify his appropriation by cultural chauvinists keen to juxtapose Yankee practicality against “European” ideology. Richardson says goodbye to all that. He reveals how thoroughly James was involved in the redefinition of mind–and the reconnection of mind to body–that was occurring on both sides of the Atlantic in the decades leading up to World War I.

3. What was no longer possible was the old dogmatic certitude–but that was less a loss than a gain, an opening to the enchanting world of “maybe.” It was a world where almost anything was possible, even a heterodox God–a finite, unfinished deity-in-process who needed human beings as much as the other way around. Uncertainty was the key to the ethic of maybe; “not a victory is gained, not a deed of faithfulness or courage is done, except upon a maybe,” James said. Risk was the essence of life.

4. James’s originality [is] the melding of modern and antimodern sensibilities in his Modernist worldview, the profound differences between him and the other thinkers who took to calling themselves “pragmatists.” In the suppleness of his thought, James was sui generis, then as now. He despised the intellectual hubris of reductionist explanation–how deftly he would have skewered the lumps of pop-evolutionary argument served up by the likes of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, and how effectively the inquisitive title of his essay “Does Consciousness Exist?” counters the pomposity of Dennett’s Consciousness Explained.

5. James fell into a pattern of crash, resolution, partial recovery, followed by another crash. The most memorable crash came in the spring of 1870; years later James recounted it (attributing it to a correspondent) in Varieties: “I went one evening into a dressing room in the twilight to procure some article that was there; when suddenly there fell upon me without any warning, just as if it came out of the darkness, a horrible fear of my own existence.” The fear merged with the image of a hopeless epileptic patient he had seen in an asylum, who “sat there like a sort of sculptured Egyptian cat or Peruvian mummy, moving nothing but his black eyes and looking absolutely non-human.” This vision of an Absolute Other (complete with exotic, imperial connotations) provoked a terrifying sense of kinship in James. “That shape am I, I felt, potentially,” he remembered. “Nothing that I possess can defend me against that fate, if the hour for it should strike for me as it struck for him.” Seldom has the fear of non-being, of the loss of the self, been put so palpably. James had looked into the abyss, and the abyss had looked (blankly) back. What would now be characterized as a panic attack was for him an encounter with nothingness.

6. Harvard [was] “a small and stagnant place.”

7. Like other Modernist thinkers, James replaced subject-object dualism with an emphasis on the mind in constant dialogue with the world. The origins of Modernist “process philosophy” can be traced to the brilliant chapter in the Principles, “The Stream of Thought.” As James wrote, our mental life, “like a bird’s life, seems to be made of an alternation of flights and perchings.” Previously philosophers had paid attention only to the perchings. James’s great transatlantic ally was the vitalist Henri Bergson, whose ideas were very close to what James was cooking up himself at about this time: “a philosophy of pure experience.” Like the late novels of Henry James, the late philosophy of William James turned “on grammatical particles. ‘With, near, next, like, from, towards, against, because, for, through, my,’ – these words designate types of conjunctive relations arranged in a roughly ascending order of intimacy and inclusiveness.” Life was in the transitions as much as in the terms connected.


This entry was posted in Postmodernism, Subject Theory. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s