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Is life worth living?
A review of A Stroll with William James by Jacques Barzun.
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Jacques Barzun A Stroll with William James.
Readers who accompany Jacques Barzun on his stroll with William James will find much to admire. The pace is leisurely—this is a stroll, not a scholarly expedition—but the route, if predictable, is well-planned and full of interesting stops. Barzun is an eloquent companion, and his intimate knowledge of the terrain makes him a capable guide for those less than familiar with its contours. He leads one through the landmarks of James’s career (appropriately, The Principles of Psychology and James’s work in pragmatism get top billing), pausing frequently to recall some pertinent influence or anecdote, or to point out the rich legacy that James’s ideas have bequeathed.
Describing the book as “the record of an intellectual debt,” Barzun hails James as “the most inclusive mind I can listen to,” and it soon becomes clear that in paying tribute to James he is at the same time detailing what was evidently the single most formative influence on his own intellectual development. For those less smitten with James, Barzun’s enthusiasm for him may at times seem extravagant, as when he places James alongside Einstein or Beethoven as a genius of the first rank, or notes, in his appreciation of James’s merits as a stylist, that “it comes as no surprise that Graham Wallas thought James could have been a great poet.” Barzun’s James emerges as a kind of American Goethe, endowed with all manner of virtues. Still, at a time when it is de rigueur to be anxious about influence and obsessed with originality, it is refreshing to find such frank acknowledgment of one’s teachers and to see influence regarded, as it traditionally has been, as an enabling rather than a crippling force.
In part an intellectual biography, in part a commentary on James’s major writings, A Stroll with William James is perhaps best described as a portrait of a sensibility. In proper Jamesian fashion, Barzun never loses sight of the man behind the work. He introduces us to The Principles of Psychology, Pragmatism, “The Will to Believe,” and The Varieties of Religious Experience, but throughout he seems more interested in revealing the style or animating habits of James’s thought than in subjecting it to detailed analysis.
The book opens in 1890 with the forty-eight-year-old James ensconced at Harvard, teaching, making friendly visits to sick students, awaiting publication of The Principles of Psychology. Barzun gives a brief overview of James’s development, paying due attention to the importance of his unusual family and upbringing, and rightly underscores James’s “phenomenological” cast of mind, his instinct for the particular. “No one,” the young James writes in a letter, “sees farther into a generalization than his own knowledge of details extends.”
For James, this instinct was to become a methodological imperative. If traditionally philosophy had denigrated feeling and the sensible as “mere appearance,” James, like Nietzsche, attempted to restore them to a place of philosophic respectability. By championing the richness and particularity of experience against the encroachments of abstraction, he hoped to provide an antidote to unanchored theory. No longer was “the real” first and foremost what cognition or logic mandates but what we feel, what impinges on us. Barzun celebrates “the Jamesian truth that reality overflows all attempts to capture and bottle it.” One might object that, as expressed here, this truth is no more peculiar to James than to Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, or many other thinkers. But the point is well taken. After all, asks Barzun, “who could define and measure a degree of hate, a sphere of influence, a volt of sexual attraction? The things are patently real, but they shift, mingle, vanish, and return in a way we can understand but not compute.” It follows that mood, temperament, and one’s pre-reflective convictions about what matters are not philosophically irrelevant accidents of one’s situation or personality but, on the contrary, the basic constituents of philosophic exchange.
This commitment to experience as experienced marks one of the most telling and attractive features of James’s thought. It stands behind his suspicion of rationalism and philosophical system-building, and, by emphasizing the textured complexity of experience, it encourages intellectual modesty. “I am no lover of disorder,” lames wrote in The Varieties of Religious Experience, “but fear to lose truth by the pretension to possess it wholly.” It also helps explain his fascination with spiritualism, psychic phenomena, and altered states of consciousness. For who could say what truths they might reveal? James remained wary, but his dogmatically anti-dogmatic approach made him reluctant to brand any mode of experience inherently spurious. As Barzun notes, James’s radical openness to experience deliberately blurs the distinction between appearance and reality and thus “puts ideas, feelings, sensations, perceptions, concepts, art, science, faith, conscious, unconscious, objects, and so-called illusions on a footing of equality as regards being real.” It is this side of James’s thought that gives weight to Elizabeth Hardwick’s description of James as “a sort of Californian.” His sympathy for the exotic restrained him from making “value judgments” even where he suspected fraudulence.
James’s sensitivity to the particulars of experience is inseparable from the decidedly existential character of his work. This finds expression in his emphasis on the importance of risk and choice in essays like “The Will to Believe” and “Is Life Worth Living?” and, more generally, in his view of philosophy as essentially a non-technical, practical matter that addresses the question, “How should I live my life?” For James, traditional philosophy, obsessed with epistemology and speculative metaphysics, has lost its way. “The whole function of philosophy,” he declares in Pragmatism, “ought to be to find out what definite difference it will make to you and me, at definite instants of our life, if this world-formula or that world-formula be the true one.” Thus, according to James, the great virtue of pragmatism is that it dissolves metaphysical stalemates (“Is the world one or many?—fated or free?—material or spiritual?”) by concentrating on the practical instead of the speculative consequences of our ideas. “The pragmatic method,” he writes,
is primarily a method of settling metaphysical disputes that might otherwise be interminable .... What difference would it practically make to any one if this notion rather than that notion were true? If no practical difference whatever can be traced, then the alternatives mean practically the same thing, and all dispute is idle.
In this sense, pragmatism’s chief attraction is that it “‘unstiffens’ our theories.” It is more a method than a doctrine, and as such, James tells us, it “has in fact no prejudices whatever, no obstructive dogmas, no rigid canon of what shall count as truth.”
Be that as it may, even pragmatism must provide some account of truth. It is not surprising that James proposes a practical rather than an intellectual account. For him, truth is first of all not the correspondence of knowledge with its object, as Kant would have it, but what works. “Our account of truth is an account of truths in the plural. . . having only this quality in common, that they pay.” Hence, James does not worry about segregating the true from the good or the useful. “‘The true,’” he writes in an oft-quoted passage from Pragmatism, “is only the expedient in our way of thinking, just as 'the right' is the expedient in our way of acting.”
Here again James reminds us of Nietzsche. “Truth is the kind of error without which a certain species could not live,” Nietzsche wrote in The Will to Power. “The value for life is ultimately decisive.” But James is more radical than Nietzsche in the sense that his conception of truth does not play off the traditional notion of truth as correspondence. Only this provides the contrast that justifies Nietzsche’s frequent description of truth as a species of “lie” or as “error.” James would question such talk precisely because his conception of truth does not imply the foil of an ideal standard against which our truths can be measured and found wanting.
On this point, James has not lacked critics. Thinkers as different as Russell and Dewey (who himself advocated a pragmatic conception of truth) have charged that his identification of truth with what works is unworkable. Exactly what, Dewey wondered, does pragmatism mean by “practical”? “For myself,” he wrote in his review of Pragmatism, “I have no hesitation in saying that it seems unpragmatic for pragmatism to content itself with finding out the value of a conception whose own inherent significance pragmatism has not first determined.”
“Inherent significance” is just what James denies. This means that he cannot in principle distinguish between statements of the form “It is true that. . .” and “It is useful that. . .” But it is clearly one thing to say “It is true that the guerrilla activity in El Salvador is part of a Soviet conspiracy” and quite another to say “It is useful to believe that the guerrilla activity in El Salvador is part of a Soviet conspiracy.” Further, it may well be the case that in making expediency the measure of truth, James has created more problems than he has solved. In what sense expedient? Expedient for whom? How do we tell if a given conception “works,” if it “pays,” if it has “cash value”? The answer to these questions is not as simple or straightforward as Barzun—or James—suggests.
In general, I think it must be said that in his efforts to return philosophy to experience, James overshot the mark. For example, we may want to agree that “purely objective truth, truth in whose establishment the function of giving human satisfaction in marrying previous parts of experience with newer parts played no role whatever, is nowhere to be found.” Yet this is not to say, with James, that such purely objective truth cannot become a regulative ideal that guides inquiry. Indeed, without such an ideal it is impossible to do justice to what we ordinarily mean by truth. Or again, we may want to applaud James’s insistence on the importance of temperament and mood in philosophy. Such things undoubtedly color the way we see the world. But this does not mean that philosophy is imprisoned by temperament or disposition. At times, James implies this, as when (in “The Sentiment of Rationality”) he identifies rationality with “certain subjective marks” and concludes that when one “has got the marks” one “has got the rationality.” Here, as elsewhere in James, psychology threatens to triumph over philosophy. In denying the transpersonal character of truth, James does not liberate truth, he elides it.
Still, in one or another of its versions pragmatism has proven a powerful ally in contemporary philosophy’s search for new points of departure. Because of its critique of rationalist epistemology and emphasis on lived experience, pragmatism offers an alternative to traditional philosophy’s overly intellectualistic conception of man. Thus, in his recently translated study of Charles Peirce (who, incidentally, coined the term “pragmatism” but later repudiated it because he felt that James had emptied it of critical content), Karl-Otto Apel enlists pragmatism in the attempt to overcome “the ‘methodological solipsism’ that begins by assuming the autarchy of the knowing subject.” Apel’s book is especially interesting because it champions a pragmatic conception of truth without falling prey to psychologism or losing critical intensity.
More radical are Richard Rorty’s recent excursions in pragmatism in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature and Consequences of Pragmatism, Dreaming of a “philosophy without epistemology,” Rorty distinguishes between Philosophy with a capital “P,” which continues to labor under the shadow of the Platonic inheritance, and “an edifying philosophy that aims at continuing a conversation rather than at discovering a truth.” Pragmatism, having cheerfully abandoned traditional epistemological aspirations, is well-equipped to realize this triumph of philosophy over Philosophy and inaugurate “a post-Philosophical culture ... in which men and women [would feel] themselves alone, finite, with no links to something Beyond.”
Like James, Rorty wants to dispense with the cumbersome distinction between appearance and reality in order to short-circuit any attempt to formulate a distinction between “mere opinion and genuine knowledge.” From this it follows that there cannot in principle be any essential distinction among orders of discourse: physics is no more objective than poetry, philosophy no less fanciful than literature. “The pragmatist,” Rorty explains, “drops the notion of truth as correspondence with reality altogether, and says modern science does not enable us to cope because it corresponds, it just plain enables us to cope.” Hence “the question of what ‘X’ refers to is a sociological matter.”
The crucial issue, as Rorty recognizes, is whether we can make sense of any extra-linguistic access to reality, whether the limits of our language mark the limits of our world. “Here we hit a bedrock metaphilosophical issue,” Rorty says in Consequences of Pragmatism. “Can one ever appeal to nonlinguistic knowledge in philosophical argument?” With some notable exceptions, traditional philosophy has tended to answer “yes.” It was to such nonlinguistic knowledge that Plato, for example, appealed with his doctrine of recollection. But if we insist on “the ubiquity of language,” then we remain trapped in our various language games and Rorty’s version of pragmatism has the last word. If language has no “outside,” in Derrida’s phrase, then it is pointless to seek to go beyond it. In this sense, however, Barzun’s James would seem to be a very poor pragmatist. For him, pragmatism, far from reinforcing our bondage to language, endeavored to dissolve it. It may be that neither Barzun nor James realized the radical implications of some of James’s pronouncements on truth. Rorty has done much to bring them to our attention. Yet Barzun’s James and Rorty’s James, though they use the same words, speak very different languages. The one looks to pragmatism for the fulfillment of philosophy, the other for its supersession. But both, perhaps, illustrate the dangers that attend pragmatism’s success.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 2 October 1983, on page 70
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