William James – American Philosopher

William James

William James (January 11, 1842 – August 26, 1910)

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William James is one of three American Philosophers highlighted in The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant. The other two American philosophers are George Santayana and John Dewey.  I commented on George Santayana’s philosophy in the Comment section of the essay CREATION.

This essay intoduces William James very briefly. For full introduction please refer to this Wikipedia article.

It is interesting to note that William James’ education had a cosmopolitan background. He had an early artistic bent, but, at the age of 19, he switched to scientific studies. Later he studied medicine but never practiced it.

In his early adulthood, James suffered from a variety of physical ailments. After an extended period of philosophical searching he finally resolved in 1872 what he called his “soul-sickness.” In 1873 he joined the faculty at Harvard University where he spent almost his entire academic career. He retired from Harvard in 1907. In 1882 he also joined the Theosophical Society.

He was one of the strongest proponents of the school of functionalism in psychology and of pragmatism in philosophy. He was a founder of the American Society for Psychical Research, as well as a champion of alternative approaches to healing. He challenged his professional colleagues not to let a narrow mindset prevent an honest appraisal of those beliefs.

I shall be commenting on the philosophy of William James (as summarized in the Wikipedia and in The Story of Philosophy) in the Comment section below.

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Comments

  • vinaire  On June 11, 2014 at 3:43 PM

    (The Story of Philosophy)

    The history of philosophy is to a great extent that of a certain clash of human temperaments. … Of whatever temperament a professional philosopher is, he tries, when philosophizing, to sink the fact of his temperament. Temperament is no conventionally recognized reason, so he urges impersonal reasons only for his conclusions. Yet his temperament really gives him a stronger bias than any of his more strictly objective premises.

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    A philosopher’s temperament acts as a filter. It overflows his reason. His philosophy takes the direction of what he naturally wants to know.

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  • vinaire  On June 11, 2014 at 3:49 PM

    (The Story of Philosophy)

    These temperaments which select and dictate philosophies may be divided into the tender-minded and the tough-minded. The tender-minded temperament is religious, it likes to have definite and unchanging dogmas and a priori truths; it takes naturally to free will, idealism, monism, and optimism. The tough-minded temperament is materialistic, irreligious, empiricist (going only on “facts”), sensationalistic (tracing all knowledge to sensation), fatalistic, pluralistic, pessimistic, sceptical. In each group there are gaping contradictions; and no doubt there are temperaments that select their theories partly from one group and partly from the other. There are people (William James, for example) who are “tough-minded” in their addiction to facts and in their reliance on the senses, and yet “tender-minded” in their horror of determinism and their need for religious belief. Can a philosophy be found that will harmonize these apparently contradictory demands?

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    The temperament of philosophers leads to different philosophies that are inconsistent with each other.

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  • vinaire  On June 11, 2014 at 4:20 PM

    (The Story of Philosophy)

    James believes that pluralistic theism affords us such a synthesis. He offers a finite God, not an Olympian thunderer sitting aloof on a cloud, “but one helper, primus inter pares, in the midst of all the shapers of the great world’s fate.” The cosmos is not a closed and harmonious system; it is a battle-ground of cross-currents and conflicting purposes; it shows itself, with pathetic obviousness, as not a uni- but a multi-verse. It is useless to say that this chaos in which we live and move is the result of one consistent will; it gives every sign of contradiction and division within itself. Perhaps the ancients were wiser than we, and polytheism may be truer than monotheism to the astonishing diversity of the world. Such polytheism “has always been the real religion of common people, and is so still today.” The people are right, and the philosophers are wrong. Monism is the natural disease of philosophers, who hunger and thirst not (as they think) for truth, but for unity. “‘The world is One!’ the formula may become a sort of number-worship. Three’ and ‘seven’ have, it is true, been reckoned as sacred numbers; but abstractly taken, why is ‘one’ more excellent than ‘forty-three,’ or than ‘two million and ten’?”

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    By opting for polytheism James is revealing his self-centric view. A reality-centric view shall look at the ultimate reality as simply unknowable. This will be consistent with the “truth” of philosophy, which aims at continuing discoveries.

    There is no single overpowering will, but the common denominators underlying the cosmos could be reduced to a few or even to a single factor. However that would be unknowable in advance. Whether cosmos is a uni- or multi- verse does not matter. All existence can be treated as a single system.

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    • Chris Thompson  On June 11, 2014 at 5:16 PM

      If mankind endures, then we will come to know enough more about the universe so as to make what we currently know barely recognizable. I estimate that there is many times more to know than has previously been known in total. Therefore, philosophy will remain alive and well and progressing as it should, God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world. (small rant at the end)

    • Chris Thompson  On June 11, 2014 at 5:17 PM

      “All existence can be treated as a single system.”

      This may be the more salient point that I take away from these discussions.

  • Chris Thompson  On June 11, 2014 at 4:57 PM

    Can we understand that there is something which is there which is other than the sand? For instance, if I made the analogy of an intentional radio transmission, then carefully tuning in the part of the signal that we want and tuning out the signal that we don’t want resolves the signal and coalesces into a highly focused reception and the desired abstraction. Yet all the EMR is just EMR until we manipulate it. No difference between what seems to be there and what is there.

    • vinaire  On June 11, 2014 at 7:38 PM

      Just trust mindfulness to detect inconsistencies. Track each of them down as far as you can. The more basic are the inconsistencies the more important it is to track them.

  • vinaire  On June 12, 2014 at 12:54 PM

    (The Story of Philosophy)

    The value of a multiverse, as compared with a universe, lies in this, that where there are cross-currents and warring forces our own strength and will may count and help decide the issue; it is a world where nothing is irrevocably settled, and all action matters, A monistic world is for us a dead world; in such a universe we carry out, willy-nilly, the parts assigned to us by an omnipotent deity or a primeval nebula; and not all our tears can wipe out one word of the eternal script. In a finished universe individuality is a delusion; “in reality,” the monist assures us, we are all bits of one mosaic substance. But in an unfinished world we can write some lines of the parts we play, and our choices mould in some measure the future in which we have to live. In such a world we can be free; it is a world of chance, and not of fate; everything is “not quite”; and what we are or do may alter everything. If Cleopatra’s nose, said Pascal, had been an inch longer or shorter, all history would have been changed.

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    The term “universe” simply treats all existence as a single system. The properties of this system are to be determined next.
    One should not automatically assume a universe to be monistic as James is doing here. Such assumptions then lead unnecessarily to additional terms like multi-verse.

    Conception of an omnipotent deity is just one of the hypotheses. Other scenarios, such as, a “neti-neti” conception of Brahma is an equally valid approach to understanding the core reality. I agree with James that it is not a finished universe where everything is completely determined. There is a lot of room for play as nothing in this universe is absolute.

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  • vinaire  On June 12, 2014 at 1:13 PM

    (The Story of Philosophy)

    The theoretical evidence for such free will, or such a multiverse, or such a finite God, is as lacking as for the opposite philosophies. Even the practical evidence may vary from person to person; it is conceivable that some may find better results, for their lives, from a deterministic than from a libertarian philosophy. But where the evidence is indecisive, our vital and moral interest’s should make the choice.

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    The free will versus determinism is the wrong debate. This debate assumes a self-centric viewpoint. The “self” is as yet an undefined subjective concept. One should start from the broadest viewpoint possible, which is the reality-centric viewpoint.

    One should therefore look from a viewpoint that is consistent with the overall reality. One may then try to resolve observations that appear inconsistent when looking from that viewpoint.

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    • Chris Thompson  On June 12, 2014 at 8:11 PM

      That’s how I’ve been seeing it as well. The paradox (catastrophic inconsistency) of freewill and determinism being objectively indistinguishable from one another points the way.

  • vinaire  On June 12, 2014 at 1:18 PM

    (The Story of Philosophy)

    (James) “If there be any life that it is really better that we should lead, and if there be any idea which, if believed in, would help us to lead that life, then it would be really better for us to believe in that idea, unless, indeed, belief in it incidentally clashed with other greater vital benefits.

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    (James) “The answer, of course, is that unity, or one system of laws holding throughout the universes facilitates explanation, prediction, and control.”

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  • vinaire  On June 12, 2014 at 1:43 PM

    (The Story of Philosophy)

    Now the persistence of the belief in God is the best proof of its almost universal vital and moral value. James was amazed and attracted by the endless varieties of religious experience and belief; he described them with an artist’s sympathy, even where he most disagreed with them. He saw some truth in every one of them, and demanded an open mind toward every new hope. He did not hesitate to affiliate himself with the Society for Psychical Research; why should not such phenomena, as well as others, be the object of patient examination? In the end, James was convinced of the reality of another – a spiritual – world.

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    Belief in God implies a self-centric view. It has many other untested implications. It is different from belief in one system of laws holding throughout the universes that facilitates explanation, prediction, and control.

    There is no another “spiritual world,” different and separate from this world, as James came to believe. “Spiritual” is simply another aspect of this world, and it needs to be fully explored.

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  • vinaire  On June 12, 2014 at 4:43 PM

    (The Story of Philosophy)

    (James) “I firmly disbelieve, myself, that our human experience is the highest form of experience extant in the universe. I believe rather that we stand in much the same relation to the whole of the universe as our canine and feline pets do to the whole of human life. They inhabit our drawing rooms and libraries. They take part in scenes of whose significance they have no inkling. They are merely tangent to curves of history, the beginnings and ends and forms of which pass wholly beyond their ken. So we are tangent to the wider life of things.”

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    Yes, there is a lot that we don’t know in spite of all our experience. There is a lot yet to be known and that is very exciting.

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  • vinaire  On June 12, 2014 at 9:25 PM

    (The Story of Philosophy)

    Nevertheless he did not think of philosophy as a meditation on death; no problems had value for him unless they could guide and stimulate our terrestrial career. “It was with the excellencies, not the duration, of our natures, that he occupied himself.” He did not live in his study so much as in the current of life; he was an active worker in a hundred efforts for human betterment; he was always helping somebody, lifting men up with the contagion of his courage. He believed that in every individual there were “reserve energies” which the occasional midwifery of circumstance would bring forth; and his constant sermon, to the individual and to society, was a plea that these resources should be entirely used. He was horrified at the waste of human energy in war; and he suggested that these mighty impulses of combat and mastery could find a better outlet in a “war against nature.” Why should not every man, rich or poor, give two years of his life to the state, not for the purpose of killing other people, but to conquer the plagues, and drain the marshes, and irrigate the deserts, and dig the canals, and democratically do the physical and social engineering which builds up so slowly and painfully what war so quickly destroys?

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    Alas! Not everybody thought like he did. The reason for that needs to be investigated.

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  • vinaire  On June 12, 2014 at 9:59 PM

    (The Story of Philosophy)

    He sympathized with socialism, but he disliked its deprecation of the individual and the genius. Taine’s formula, which reduced all cultural manifestations to “race, environment, and time,” was inadequate precisely because it left out the individual. But only the individual has value; everything else is a means – even philosophy. And so we need on the one hand a state which shall understand that it is the trustee and servant of the interests of individual men and women; and on the other a philosophy and a faith which shall “offer the universe as an adventure rather than a scheme,” and shall stimulate every energy by holding up the world as a place where, though there are many defeats, there are also victories waiting to be won.

    A shipwrecked sailor, buried on this coast,
    Bids you set sail.
    Full many a gallant bark, when we were lost.
    Weathered the gale.

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    An individual is a concentration of capacity that should be respected and supported. Of course, individuality has value, but individuals are part of the whole picture. They should be looked upon as part of the whole picture. That is the reality-centric view.

    However, a self-centric view looks at everything in terms of the interests of the individual. Thus, views become too many and narrow in nature. Thus, differences arise, which then give rise to conflicts. Individual sacrifices are thrown out of the equation. The survival of the individual is important, but it increasingly becomes an obsession.

    The weakness in James philosophy is an inability to overcome the narrow self-centric view and move toward a reality-centric view.

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  • vinaire  On June 13, 2014 at 6:45 PM

    (The Story of Philosophy)

    IV COMMENT
    The reader needs no guide to the new and the old elements in this philosophy. It is part of the modern war between science and religion; another effort, like Kant’s and Bergson’s, to rescue faith from the universalized mechanics of materialism. Pragmatism has its roots in Kant’s “practical reason”; in Schopenhauer’s exaltation of the will; in Darwin’s notion that the fittest (and therefore also the fittest and truest idea) is that which survives; in utilitarianism, which measured all goods in terms of use; in the empirical and inductive traditions of English philosophy; and finally in the suggestions of the American scene.

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    This is basically looking at James philosophy using existing philosophical parameters.

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  • vinaire  On June 13, 2014 at 6:51 PM

    (The Story of Philosophy)

    Certainly, as everyone has pointed out, the manner, if not the substance, of James’s thinking was specifically and uniquely American. The American lust for movement and acquisition fills the sails of his style and thought, and gives them a buoyant and almost aerial motility. Huneker calls it “a philosophy for philistines,” and indeed there is something that smacks of salesmanship in it: James talks of God as of an article to be sold to a materialistically-minded consumer by every device of optimistic advertising; and he counsels us to believe as if he were recommending long-term investments, with high dividends, in which there was nothing to lose, and all the (other) world to win. It was young America’s defense-reaction against European metaphysics and European science.

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    But I like James philosophy because it is useful.

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  • vinaire  On June 13, 2014 at 7:02 PM

    (The Story of Philosophy)

    The new test of truth was of course an ancient one; and the honest philosopher described pragmatism modestly as “a new name for old ways of thinking. If the new test means that truth is that which has been tried, by experience and experiment, the answer is, Of course. If it means that personal utility is a test of truth, the answer is, Of course not; personal utility is merely personal utility; only universal permanent utility would constitute truth. When some pragmatists speak of a belief having been true once because then useful (though now disproved), they utter nonsense learnedly; it was a useful error, not a truth. Pragmatism is correct only if it is a platitude.

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    Universal permanent utility would simply be one layer of truth. Truth has many layers and it is always relative and never absolute.

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    • Chris Thompson  On June 13, 2014 at 7:32 PM

      . . . but seems to be universally arrived at when a reality-centric view is pursued.

    • vinaire  On June 13, 2014 at 7:47 PM

      Reality would be what is perceived directly in case of mindfulness. But how direct is it? Are there unknown filters involved? Yes sireee there are.

  • vinaire  On June 13, 2014 at 7:13 PM

    (The Story of Philosophy)

    What James meant to do, however, was to dispel the cobwebs that had entangled philosophy; he wished to reiterate in a new and startling way the old English attitude towards theory and ideology. He was but carrying on the work of Bacon in turning the face of philosophy once more towards the inescapable world of things. He will be remembered for this empirical emphasis, this new realism, rather than for his theory of truth; and he will be honored perhaps more as a psychologist than as a philosopher. He knew that he had found no solution for the old questions; he frankly admitted that he had expressed only another guess, another faith. On his desk, when he died, there lay a paper on which he had written his last, and perhaps his most characteristic, sentences: “There is no conclusion. What has concluded that we might conclude in regard to it? There are no fortunes to be told and there is no advice to be given. Farewell.”

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    Yes. There is no absolute truth if that is meant by conclusion. Ultimately this reality is something that has been put together. What is most interesting is the continuing discovery of how this reality has been put together.

    By the way, I got more from the Wikipedia article than from Will Durant.

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