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The Most Entertaining Philosopher

Certainty is the root of despair. The inevitable stales, while doubt and hope are sisters. Not unfortunately the universe is wild—game flavored as a hawk’s wing. Nature is miracle all. She knows no laws; the same returns not, save to bring the different. The slow round of the engraver’s lathe gains but the breadth of a hair, but the difference is distributed back over the whole curve, never an instant true—ever not quite.

The phrase “ever not quite” James took over from Blood as motto and talisman—“Ever not quite is fit to be pluralism’s heraldic device,”13 he declared, and pluralism, as we know, is at the foundation of pragmatism.

Pragmatism is the American philosophy, and a more original and far-reaching contribution to social thinking than those other two most influential strains of twentieth-century thought, logical positivism and linguistic philosophy,14 if only the rest of the world, and Europe in particular, would realize the fact. One of the things that makes pragmatism hard to accept among the older schools is its apparent fuzziness, a quality that Richard Rorty cheerfully accepted, indeed celebrated. It is far easier to act in the spirit of pragmatism than to describe what it is, but perhaps the most concise and elegant definition is given by the founder of conceptual pragmatism, C.I. Lewis:

Pragmatism could be characterized as the doctrine that all problems are at bottom problems of conduct, that all judgments are, implicitly, judgments of value, and that, as there can be ultimately no valid distinction of theoretical and practical, so there can be no final separation of questions of truth of any kind from questions of the justifiable ends of action.15

James would have put great store by the notion of the “justifiable ends of action.” Indeed, pragmatism is primarily a philosophy of action rather than speculation. We may, with Louis Menand, gently deplore James’s worldliness, his accountant’s way of totting up intellectual loose change, but he never let go of the conviction that a philosophy confined exclusively to the academy is a philosophy not worth pursuing. Practical results were his constant and prime concern. Some philosophers philosophize to philosophize, others philosophize to live. William James was firmly among the latter category.

Yet for a philosopher he was remarkably insistent on the questionable nature of so many of the concepts that European philosophy since Socrates had taken as fundamental and enduring. “Our whole cubic capacity is sensibly alive,” he wrote, “and each morsel of it contributes its pulsations of feeling, dim or sharp, pleasant, painful, or dubious, to that sense of personality that every one of us unfailingly carries with him.” However, in a later essay, “Does ‘Consciousness’ Exist?,” he seems to question the very concept of individual personality. Following on from Hume, he here declares that in his opinion “consciousness” is “the name of a nonentity, and has no right to a place among first principles,” and “those who cling to it are clinging to a mere echo, the faint rumor left behind by the disappearing ‘soul’ upon the air of philosophy.” Thus for James consciousness is, as Richardson puts it, “not a thing or a place, but a process.” There is, James writes,

no aboriginal stuff or quality of being, contrasted with that of which material objects are made, out of which our thoughts of them are made; but there is a function in experience [italics added] which thoughts perform, and for the performance of which this quality of being is invoked. That function is knowing.

At the close of the essay, dealing with the foreseen objection that since we feel consciousness operating within us it must surely exist, he puts forward the wonderful assertion that Kant’s “I think,” which situates objects, should actually be “I breathe”:

Breath, which was ever the original of “spirit,” breath moving outwards, between the glottis and the nostrils, is, I am persuaded, the essence out of which philosophers have constructed the entity known to them as consciousness. That entity is fictitious, while thoughts in the concrete are fully real. But thoughts in the concrete are made of the same stuff as things are.

It would be a mistake to see all this as a negative assault upon our most treasured beliefs about ourselves and our place in the world. One of the most extraordinary things that James ever wrote is the chapter “Concerning Fechner” in what Richardson considers his “boldest book,” A Pluralistic Universe. Gustav Theodor Fechner (1801–1887) was a German pyschologist with, as Richardson remarks, “a playful streak” similar to James’s. The aspect of Fechner’s thinking that James is concerned with is his contention, as James wrote, “that the whole universe in its different spans and wave-lengths, exclusions and envelopments, is everywhere alive and conscious.” This notion of the “alive and conscious” harks back to Plato’s Timaeus in which the world is conceived as a living thing, a kind of divinely fashioned animal; it reflects the pantheism of Spinoza and Wordsworth, and anticipates the Gaia hypothesis of James Lovelock in the 1970s.

The special thought of Fechner’s with which James tells us he is most concerned “is his belief that the more inclusive forms of consciousness are in part constituted by the more limited forms.” “We rise upon the earth,” James beautifully writes, “as wavelets rise upon the ocean,” and Fechner “likens our individual persons on the earth unto so many sense-organs of the earth’s soul…. When one of us dies, it is as if an eye of the world were closed, for all perceptive contributions from that particular quarter cease.” James sets out for us the essence of Fechner’s thought:

We must suppose that my consciousness of myself and yours of yourself, altho in their immediacy they keep separate and know nothing of each other, are yet known and used together in a higher consciousness, that of the human race, say, into which they enter as constituent parts. Similarly, the whole human and animal kingdoms come together as conditions of a consciousness of still wider scope. This combines in the soul of the earth with the consciousness of the vegetable kingdom, which in turn contributes its share of experience to that of the whole solar system; and so on from synthesis to synthesis and from height to height, till an absolutely universal consciousness is reached.

James follows Fechner’s lead in insisting that “there is a continuum of cosmic consciousness, against which our individuality builds but accidental fences, and into which our several minds plunge as into a mother-sea or reservoir.” This may seem woolly-minded to a latter-day, “scientific” taste, and certainly it reveals the Victorian William James at his most feelingly rhapsodic.

Yet James is a philosopher—practical and romantic, down-to-earth and ecstatic, accommodating and specific—whom we need ever more urgently in our own times. In Robert Richardson, whose biography of James is, along with his lives of Thoreau and Emerson, one of the glories of contemporary American literature, the philosopher has found a tireless champion and a perceptive editor. Richardson is that increasingly rare phenomenon among academics, an enthusiast, even a lover, of his subjects. In this book, no less than in the biography, he brings to life this great thinker and rare human being. As he observes of James, with rueful wit, “Even his own children were fond of the man Alfred North Whitehead once called ‘that adorable genius.’”

  1. 13

    Robert D. Richardson, William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), p. 517. 

  2. 14

    Wittgenstein revered William James, whose Varieties of Religious Experience was one of the few philosophical works the great Austrian kept on his bookshelf. 

  3. 15

    Quoted in Cornel West, The American Evasion of Philosophy (University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), p. 42. 

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