Durant 1926: Pluralism (William James)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter XI Section 2.3 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The  contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.

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II. WILLIAM JAMES

3. Pluralism

Let us apply this method to the oldest problem in philosophy—the existence and nature of God. The Scholastic philosophers described the deity as “Ens a se extra et supra omne genus, necessarium, unum, infinite, perfectum, simplex, immutabile, immensum, eternum, intelligens.” (Being from itself outside and above every genus, necessary, one, infinite, perfect, simple, unchangeable, immense, eternal, intelligent.) This is magnificent; what deity would not be proud of such a definition? But what does it mean?—what are its consequences for mankind? If God is omniscient and omnIpotent, we are puppets; there is nothing that we can do to change the course of destiny which His will has from the beginning delineated and decreed; Calvinism and fatalism are the logical corollaries of such a definition. The same test applied to mechanistic determinism issues in the same results: if we really believed in determinism we would become Hindu mystics and abandon ourselves at once to the immense fatality which uses us as marionettes. Of course we do not accept these sombre philosophies; the human intellect repeatedly proposes them because of their logical simplicity and symmetry, but life ignores and overflows them, and passes on.

A philosophy may be unimpeachable in other respects, but either of two defects will be fatal to its universal adoption. First, its ultimate principle must not be one that essentially baffles and disappoints our dearest desires and most cherished hopes. … But a second and worse defect in a philosophy than contradicting our active propensities is to give them no object whatever to press against. A philosophy whose principle is so incommensurate with our most intimate powers as to deny them all relevancy in universal affairs, as to annihilate their motives at one blow, will be even more unpopular than pessimism. …That is why materialism will always fail of universal adoption.

God is the earliest generalization of the fact of this universe. But if you assign to it an ultimate cause, its effect is to turn man into a puppet, subject to a predetermined destiny. The same test applied to mechanistic determinism issues in the same results. This universe is not entirely mechanical.

Men accept or reject philosophies, then, according to their needs and their temperaments, not according to “objective truth”; they do not ask, Is this logical?—they ask, What will the actual practice or this philosophy mean for our lives and our interests? Arguments for and against may serve to illuminate, but they never prove.

Logic and sermons never convince;
The damp of the night drives deeper into my soul. …
Now I re-examine philosophies and religions.
They may prove well in lecture rooms, yet not prove at
all under the spacious clouds, and along the landscape and
flowing currents.

The “objective truth” of philosophy arrived at by logic is trumped over by what the actual practice of that philosophy mean for the lives and interests of men.

We know that arguments are dictated by our needs, and that our needs cannot be dictated to by arguments.

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.

We know that arguments are dictated by our needs, and that our needs cannot be dictated to by arguments.

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?

There is demand to have religious beliefs, and yet there is also a demand to be skeptical. Can a philosophy be found that will harmonize these apparently contradictory demands?

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 (first among equals), 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’?” *

* Pragmatism, p. 812. The answer, of course, is that unity, or one system of laws holding throughout the universe, facilitates explanation, predictIon, and control.

These apparently contradictory demands cannot be the result of one consistent will.  It gives every sign of contradiction and division within itself. Harmonization may be accomplished by accepting the pluralistic universe of the polytheist.

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.

This is an unfinished world where 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.

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 interests should make the choice.

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.

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 interests should make the choice.

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 from them. He saw some truth in everyone 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.

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.

There are endless varieties of religious experience and belief. There is some truth in everyone of them. They all should be an object of patient examination. There is much more to this universe than what we understand.

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?

James did not live in his study so much as in the current of life. He believed that in every individual there were “reserve energies” which the occasional midwifery of circumstance would bring forth. Such energies must be put to productive use.

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. *

* Quoted by James (Pragmatism, p. 297) from the Greek Anthology.

We need a state which shall understand that it is the trustee and servant of the interests of individual men and women. But we also need a philosophy and a faith which shall offer the universe as an adventure rather than a scheme.

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