Works Reviewed: William James The Heart of William James. Edited by Robert Richardson. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2012. 334 pages.
Pragmatism. Conceived as a political option it could suggest a callous cynicism. In the spiritual register an agnosticism. An agnosticism, in fact, of many kinds that weds the uncertainties of experience to a thoughtless optimism. The latter is certainly one of the legacies of pragmatism, whose capitalization, in the form of the self-help industry, is well-known. The former consists in the deployment of a vague and nebulous hope whose paradoxical achievement is the perpetuity of an unchanging horizon. Hope, as Francis Bacon said, is a good breakfast but a poor supper. If we live now in the twilight of the world what can be said for hope as a bedtime snack? To pragmatically strive towards an indifferent or disappearing future seems a right fool’s errand.
Why publish a collection of William James’ essays now? And why read it? The Heart of William James whose very title smells of emotionalism, commemorates the hundredth anniversary of James’ death. A hundred years of being dead is no lively cause for celebration unless, of course, the dead can speak to us. Not necromancy, but an enlivening communion of ideas and voices. James can still speak, quite powerfully, and reveal to us that spirited acquiescence, lacking in practice and thoughtfulness if not effort, is not pragmatism at all. At the very least it is not the best face of pragmatism. Despair is an ugly mug, but false hope is a thin mask. We can see right through it if we are looking. What James can teach us, today, is how to look.
We live in an age of dangerous sentimentality. The fact that a word like hope can be used to feed spurious nationalist dreams or the vacuous fantasy of an achieved globality is a testament to that. A good question for us is “What is an Emotion?” The book begins with James’ essay of that name. Our preparedness to act in the world demands a certain level of understanding. If are actions are fuelled by our emotions, or arise out of them, we should be clear about what that means. James’ novel suggestion is that the body is itself emotional. Our bodies respond to perceived changes in our environment, and our feelings respond to those changes. James here draws heavily on the language of Darwinism and neurology to make an ancient point about emotion as mental state integrally connected to the discipline of the body. Standard emotional responses can be challenged, not from an abstract set of categories, but through a mindful practice of disciplining our responses to external stimuli.
This, of course, raises the possibility of determinism, of a genetic, neurological, or some other order. James’ counter to this in “The Dilemma of Determinism” is to champion chance, as liberty, and, as Richardson suggests in his introduction to the chapter, as a gift more like grace than anything else. A pragmatists’s answer this affirmation of freedom even if it might not be so. Unsatisfying, perhaps, and altogether too cheerful. James makes much of the willed perception of reality. Belief is what holds our attention. We attend to those things we believe in, and because we attend to them we believe in them. “Belief and attention are the same fact”, writes James. Thus belief is tied to feeling, though it is important to note that James does some serious work on emotional life that does prevent sentimentalism. Though James does make reference to belief as the emotion of conviction we could still argue that rather more is going on than simple enthusiasm. How much more, of course, is questionable. At the end of the day the focus on the individual will seems rather overplayed. Perhaps this effortfullness is the true legacy of pragmatism.
Yet, just at the point where we might be inclined to think of James as a self-help guru we are served up with a delicious side of proto-Freudian thought. In “The Hidden Self” James explores dissociative personality disorder and makes it abundantly clear that the self is a rather larger reality than the “ordinary” experience of consciousness suggests. In “Habit” we are brought back to a line of psychosomatic argumentation present in the first essay, this time with a more practical aim. Habit is, for James, the basic structural unit of mental life. However madly our consciousness may extend there are physical linkages to our daily practices. Habit is the “great fly-wheel of society” and the aim, for education, is to make the nervous system an ally instead of an enemy.
To do this requires the assistance of “The Will.” In this essay James provides a pedagogical framework for the disciplining of the will without the breaking of the spirit. The will is a delicate instrument and force cannot harness it productively. Focussing on the positive is the reductionist version of the insight here, but James was dealing with a society wherein many where the connoisseurs of guilt. Not so different, perhaps, from our own day. In “The Gospel of Relaxation” James calls to attention the work of the monk Brother Lawrence who, though he had a strong aversion to kitchen work, came to love it through a steady practice of mindfulness.
“On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings” and “What Makes a Life Significant” turn our attention towards more existential questions. The former urges a practice of reserve in pronouncing judgement, forbidding us to pronounce on “the meaninglessness of forms of existence other than our own” while the latter provides a general rubric for the meaning of life. “The solid meaning of life is always the same eternal thing – the marriage, namely, of some unhabitual ideal, however o live with some fidelity, courage, and endurance; with some man’s or woman’s pains.”(164) Here, in the phrase unhabitual ideal, we find a saving grace. The possibility to live for an idea makes of James a philosopher and not a peddler of stale ethics. This philosophical bent is further expounded in “Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results” where James outlines pragmatism as a philosophy of action. The political lessons of this philosophy are driven home in “The Phillipine Tangle”, an anti-imperialist letter that appeared in the Boston Evening News on March 1,1899, and in the final essay “The Moral Equivalent of War.” This last takes James lessons on habit to their extreme, arguing that the warlike spirit is best undone not through repression but through a redirection of its aim. In between these essays James in “The Sick Soul” speaks of religion as a cry for help. Here James acknowledges the darker, more tortured side of human psychology and the need for confession and deliverance. In “The Ph.D. Octopus” he bemoans the academic isolation in America in which honorifics are valued above learning. We are then brought to several ruminations on the nature of Consciousness.
Throughout the work we are led through discussions occurring at once in the speculative and practical registers. There is a playfulness and openness in James’ thought that holds great promise. Philosophy is to be useful, not so as to be harnessed to certain material ends, but in order to live a fuller life. To live, however, is not merely to exist, but to reflect in a way that changes us and contributes to our well-being. We can see, in James’ writings, a trajectory that leads towards a narrow individualism, for example, in the focus he places on individual will and practice. It is important, however, that James was still engaged in a practice of at least a somewhat egalitarian education, and that the fact that emotion degenerated into sentiment can hardly be attributed to his practice of philosophy. Written at a time when hope still seemed real James offers real lessons in perspicuity and the practice of emotional thinking.