THE PRAGMATISM OF WILLIAM JAMES
by Paul Elmer More
[** Pragmatism - A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. By
William James. New York: Longmans, Green & Co., 1907.
[** A Pluralistic Universe: Hibbert Lectures at Manchester College on the Present Situation in Philosophy. By William James. New York: Longmans, Green & Co., 1909.]
There is something like the hilarity of sport in dragging out the inconsistencies, if not insincerities, of a philosopher who has tried to defend rationally a system which is professedly an attack on rationalism. For just that, and nothing more, is Pragmatism. It is easy to show that such a philosopher ought, so far as the correspondence of logic and reality goes, to be a complete skeptic. Well and good. But what will you do if, before the ink is fairly dry on your book, this Proteus of the lecture hall is before the world with a recantation of his errors and a frank retreat to just such logical skepticism as you denounced him for not confessing. In one sense, Professor James's Hibbert Lectures are consistent with his past; they are in the right line of development from that temperamental impetus which by his own theory is the source of every philosophy, however he may have sloughed off various inconsistencies to attain this position. As a matter of fact, the word Pragmatism scarcely occurs in these lectures, and the attempt at their end to tack on a theory of creating, or even discovering, truth by the "practical reason" is purely perfunctory. Their central point, their crisis, so to speak, is the magnificent repudiation of the whole process of metaphysics:
I saw [he says] that philosophy had been on a false scent ever since the days of Socrates and Plato, that an intellectual answer to the intellectualist's difficulties will never come, and that the real way out of them, far from consisting in the discovery of such an answer, consists in simply closing one's ears to the question. When conceptualism summons life to justify itself in conceptual terms, it is like a challenge addressed in a foreign language to some one who is absorbed in his own business; it is irrelevant to him altogether - he may let it lie unnoticed. I went thus through the "inner catastrophe"; . . . I had literally come to the end of my conceptual stock-in-trade, I was bankrupt intellectualistically, and had to change my base.To such an inner catastrophe, not unlike one of the conversions he has described so luminously in his Varieties of Religious Experience, he was brought after long struggling with the problem of reason and after covering hundreds of sheets of paper with memoranda of his self-questioning. As the worldling under the stroke of heaven forswears the world, so now he is "compelled to give up logic, fairly, squarely, and irrevocably." The apostle to him in this agony was the young sage of Paris, Henri Bergson, to whom many others, indeed, in these times of perplexity are turning inquisitive eyes, and to whom Mr. James devotes one of the most brilliant of his lectures. To that lecture itself, or to G. H. Luquet's Idees generales de psychologie, the questioner must be referred who hesitates to plunge into M. Bergson's own uncoordinated works.* Mr. James centres his exposition about the hoary and awful paradox which sets Achilles forever approaching and never overtaking a tortoise, since by the time he reaches the tortoise's first starting-point, the tortoise has already got beyond that startingpoint to another, and so on ad infinitum, the interval between the two being endlessly subdivided but never obliterated - just as 1/2 plus 1/4 plus 1/8 may be prolonged into an infinite series without equalling unity. The solution, which Mr. James reports from M. Bergson, is a statement of the absolute divorce between reason and sensuous experience; the former is discrete, the latter is concrete and continuous. To analyse actual experience into the terms of the intellect is simply to use words without meaning:
You cannot explain [by abstract concepts] what makes any single phenomenon be or go - you merely dot out the path of appearances which it traverses. For you cannot make continuous being out of discontinuities, and your concepts are discontinuous. The stages into which you analyse a change are states, the change itself goes on between them. It lies along their intervals, inhabits what your definition fails to gather up, and thus eludes conceptual explanation altogether.[* One may question, nevertheless, whether Mr. James has actually found in M. Bergson's writings just what he reports. It is a trait of Mr. James's generosity to attribute to others his own spontaneous ideas.]
With this sling of metaphysical negation he attacks Mr. Bradley, the champion of monism, or abstract idealism, or pantheism, or whatever you choose to call it; and, believe me, he makes good sport with the doughty Goliath of Oxford.
I confess that to me monism has always been merely another word for monomania, and I have followed Mr. James's sallies into the madhouse with a kind of gay amusement. The attempt to catch and hold the universe in a syllogism, denying thereby all our concrete experience, all our sense of multiplicity and change, all our knowledge of evil, denying life itself for an abstract unity of the reason, has been one of the tyrannous obsessions of metaphysics. Common-sense might protest against monism as a madness, but common-sense is apt to shrivel away under the frown of a supercilious Reason, and Reason declares there shall be no contradiction in the sum of our experiences. The only escape is to deny the validity of reason itself as the sole criterion of reality. To this liberation Mr. James has been guided, or has at least been confirmed therein, by the new luminary of Paris, and now proclaims his gratitude. His protest against the whole school of German intellectualism will find an exultant echo in many labouring breasts. It is in a very literal sense the "psychological moment" for such an authoritative utterance as this:
The English mind, thank heaven, and the French mind, are still kept, by their aversion to crude technique and barbarism, closer to truth's natural probabilities. Their literatures show fewer obvious falsities and monstrosities than that of Germany. Think of the German literature of aesthetics, with the preposterousness of such an unesthetic personage as Immanuel Kant enthroned in its centre! Think of German books on Religionsphilosophie, with the heart's battles translated into conceptual jargon and made dialectic.Macte virtute! we cry, and toss hats into the air. There is no hope in Kant, neither in his followers nor in his metaphysical enemies; for, as Mr. James rightly asserts, both wings of modem philosophy rest on intellectualist logic, "the absolutists smashing the world of sense by its means, the empiricists smashing the absolute - for the absolute, they say, is the quintessence of all logical contradictions.... Neither impugns in principle its general theoretic authority." I, for one, am ready to follow any leader out of the Egypt of Kantian metaphysics, and I would not belittle the honour due to M. Bergson and to Mr. James as the Moses and the Aaron of this exodus. Yet a word of demur must be entered against so extreme a statement as that "rationalism has never [before] been seriously questioned,... and Bergson alone has been radical." Such an avowal rouses the suspicion that Mr. James himself has not really looked beyond the circle drawn by the wizard of Koenigsberg: that he too stands entranced in the illusion of the present. Sometimes as I consider with myself how this illusion daily more and more enthralls and impoverishes our mental life by cutting off from it all the rich experience of the past, it is as though we were at sea in a vessel, while a fog was settling upon the water, gradually, as it thickened, closing in upon our vision with ever narrower circle, blotting out the far-flashing lights of the horizon and the depths of the sky, throwing a pall upon the very waves about us, until we move forward through a sullen obscurity, unaware of any other traveller upon that sea, save when through the fog the sound of a threatening alarm beats upon the ear. Mr. James, who has pondered so well Bergson's analysis of the individual consciousness as a summing up of all the past, should have seen the application of the same definition to the general consciousness of mankind. He should have seen that Bergson's rejection of reason as the arbiter of reality was no new thing, but the old insight re-defined in the terms of modern psychology. Had he been more completely freed from the vicious circle of the present, he would have known that in denouncing Platonism as the type and source of rationalistic metaphysics, he had in mind not the Greek Plato, but a Plato viewed through Teutonic spectacles. The doctrine of reminiscence, and indeed of ideas themselves if properly understood, should have taught him that Plato's instrument of truth was an intuition far closer to the facts of experience than is any canon of discrete logic, and at one with the faculty of religious insight wherever and whenever this is found. The Neo-Platonists developed this method--while denuding it of vitality, making it "thin," as Mr. James would say--in their distinction between intelligence (nous) and the non-intelligible One or the First Good. Henry More, in his tantalising obscure rhymes, sought to unite this higher skepticism with Christian theology, as, for instance, in his Life of the Soul (ii., 98):
How then, said Graco, is the spirit knownAnd Pascal meant the same thing when he declared that "there is nothing so conformable to reason as this disavowal of reason," and that "the heart has its reasons, which the reason does not know." To this extent the insight of faith is in agreement with the common-sense of the street, in so far as to both the meaning of the world is given by immediate experience rather than by any metaphysical system; and they are both in agreement with the complete skeptic in so far as they all hold their judgment in a state of suspension (epoche)* toward the pretensions of reason to act as the final arbiter of reality: "The truth is Pyrrhonism," said Pascal. In this contrast to rationalism, saint and man of the world and skeptic are at one; they diverge on other lines. It has seemed worth while to point, in passing, to this kinship of Bergson's negative superrationalism with the constant attitude of faith,** because the aspect of Mr. James's work which most deserves censure is the encouragement afforded therein to the particular vanity of our age - a smart contemporaneity. He should have pondered the scope of his own pregnant sentence: "If we do not feel both past and present in one field of feeling, we feel them not at all."
[* It shall well befit our Christian modesty," says the ever memorable Mr. John Hales in one of his sermons, "to participate somewhat of the Skepti, and to use their epechein till the usterema and remainder of our knowledge be supplied by Christ." It would perhaps introduce more of philosophical modesty into the language of our modern metaphysicians if they reflected oftener on the hoary antiquity of their debates.]
[** It should be added that in the positive side of his philosophy M. Bergson, if I understand him, is as far removed as is Mr. James from the constant attitude of faith. For intellectualism they would both substitute the lower infra-rational instincts, whereas faith depends upon the super-rational instincts.]
With this reserve, we may regard the call from metaphysics to a philosophy of immediate experience as altogether wholesome. Abstract reason is not in its own field a false thing, nor is it without indispensable usefulness in the application of experience to life; nevertheless, not through it shall we come into intimate touch with reality, but through life itself; the truth for us is not what we have defined logically, but what we actually feel and will. It does not follow, however, that in accepting heartily this method we must equally accept Mr. James's statement of the relative values of what he reports as obtained by the method; we may even suspect that in his evaluation he is still imprisoned in the very error from which he is so eager to save us. Consciousness, he says, is not discrete, or divided into discontinuous moments, as it is presented to us by the reason, but is continuous; nor has it any conformity with the static void of monism. Time and change are of its essence, and if we wish to know reality we must "dive back into the flux itself." His cry is like the command of Faust to leave the musty cell and throw one's self into the stream of the world - Hinaus ins Freie! There is grave irony as well as stirring exhortation in Mr. James's personal appeal to his audience:
If Oxford men could be ignorant of anything, it might almost seem that they had remained ignorant of the great empirical movement towards a pluralistic panpsychic view of the universe, into which our own generation has been drawn, and which threatens to short-circuit their methods [of monistic dogmatism] entirely and become their religious rival unless they are willing to make themselves its allies. Yet wedded as they seem to be to the logical machinery and technical apparatus of absolutism, I cannot but believe that their fidelity to the religious ideal in general is deeper still.... Let empiricism once become associated with religion, as hitherto, through some strange misunderstanding, it has been associated with irreligion, and I believe that a new era of religion as well as of philosophy will be ready to begin. That great awakening of a new popular interest in philosophy, which is so striking a phenomenon at the present day in all countries, is undoubtedly due in part to religious demands.A pluralistic panpsychic view of the universe - that is to say: as our only knowledge is experience and our experience is an inner consciousness flowing with ceaseless change about endlessly differing sensations presented to it from without, so the truth of the world for us is not monism, but pluralism. We are du reel dans le reel; but this reality is an infinite group of interacting interpenetrating forces, over which no absolute law can be found to govern. And as these forces, like our states of consciousness, are in a constant mutation, so, like ourselves, they may very well be, in part at least, other streams of consciousness, meeting and embracing and repelling one another. How else, indeed, can they have any meaning or reality to us? The universe may thus be panpsychic, and one of the most interesting of Mr. James's lectures is a revival of Fechner's animism, with his vision of the world-soul enveloping and nourishing the souls of men. For the proof of such a theory Mr. James goes to what he deems the facts of experience:
In a word, the believer is continuous, to his own consciousness, at any rate, with a wider self from which saving experiences flow in. Those who have such experiences distinctly enough and often enough to live in the light of them remain quite unmoved by criticism, from whatever quarter it may come, be it academic or scientific, or be it merely the voice of logical common-sense. They have had their vision and they know - that is enough - that we inhabit an invisible spiritual environment from which help comes, our soul being mysteriously one with a larger soul whose instruments we are.By such steps the pragmatist, now rather choosing to be called the radical empiricist, arrives at the belief in a deity, who is by no means the static timeless absolute of the monist, with its foreignness from all things human, but a mighty God above other gods, "having an environment, being in time, and working out a history just like ourselves."
It is a seductive theory and has at least that quality of "thickness" which Mr. James, with his genius for phrase-making, contrasts with the "thinness" of idealism. It is charming, but then the dog that trails always at the heels of the pragmatist will have his bark: Is it true? This "pluralistic panpsychic view of the universe," we are told, belongs to a "great empirical movement." We remember then that Mr. James himself has condemned the empiricists for "smashing the absolute" by means of a conceptualist logic, and we begin to wonder whether he is quite as free as he would have us believe from the rationalistic net. Somehow one cannot be quite at ease in this new pluralistic panpsychic Zion, and, reading M. Luquet's analysis of Bergsonism, I seem to divine where the trouble lies. When we enter upon the study of psychology, says that expositor, we must begin by discarding the logic which we used in the sciences. In this field contradictories no longer exclude each other. Every state of consciousness is at once an existence and a knowledge, the thing known and the knower, a part and the whole, unity and multiplicity. Here identity and change, past and present, are simultaneous attributes of the same subject. And he continues:
Hence we explain at once the existence and the falseness, at least relative, of the two opposed psychological doctrines called phenomenalism and spiritism. The latter sees in the ego an immutable substance which looks on with indifference at the unrolling states of consciousness; the former sees in the ego only a succession, a collection of isolated states of consciousness, of which the first has ceased when the second is produced.This truth explains, I surmise, sometking more than the two present modes of psychology. Is not this irreconcilable dualism of consciousness the source of the two opposing schools of philosophy, which, ever since Parmenides and Heraclitus set forth the paradox of absolute rest and absolute motion, unity and multiplicity, identity and change, have been at each other's throats? Logic demands the rejection of a contradictory; and as the temperament of a man leads him to dwell on one or the other phase of his inner experience, so, if he is a metaphysician, he forthwith sets out to build a rational theory of the universe on that phase to the exclusion of the other. What, at bottom, is this Pluralism of Mr. James, but the same ancient presumption of the reason which he has himself so shrewdly denounced. His feeling for flux and change and multiplicity as an undeniable part of our conscious experience is a reality, a great and desirable reality, set over against the monist's exclusive sense of unity; but is it the whole of reality? How can one recall the innumerable witnesses of religion, or hearken to the self-revelation of the poets, how can one look into the mirror of one's own life, and not perceive that the sense of something immutable and unmoved exists in some way side by side with the sense of everlasting flux, that there is within us some
central peace subsisting at the heartMr. James does, indeed, throw out hints that he has caught the meaning of this dualistic reality of experience, but, like other philosophers, he soon cowers at the imperious command of reason, and tries to hide the nature of his own submission to one horn of the dilemma by merriment over the writhing of Mr. Bradley on the other; meanwhile common-sense stands like das Weltkind in der Mitte. We deceive ourselves if we believe that in Mr. James at last a mediator has been found "between the spirit and its environment, . . . between fate and faith, between the march of things and the impulsion of ideas, between the will of nature and the will of man, between science and religion." In attempting that mediation he has sought to supplant reason by immediate experience; in fact, he has been borne along by "the march of things," and, accepting these lower intuitions of change as the whole of experience, has straightway proceeded to build thereon his rationalistic theory of a universe which is altogether subject to mutability.
And if the Pluralism of Mr. James is no true substitute for dualism, but a rejection of the one for the many, so his Panpsychism commits the other error of metaphysics in translating a fact of inner experience into a theory of the universe at large. The comfortable belief in these world-souls and commingled spirits and finite Jehovahs is even a projection of our consciousness of personal change into the void, just as the monist's absolute abstraction is born of his consciousness of personal identity. No doubt we are not alone in the universe. Forces beat upon us from every side and are as really existent to us as ourselves: their influence upon ourselves we know, but their own secret name and nature we have not yet heard--not from Mr. James, or Mr. Bradley, or another. Until that prophet has appeared, I do not see what better thing we can do than to hold our judgment in a state of complete skepticism, or suspension, in regard to the correspondence of our inner experience with the world at large, neither affirming nor denying; while we accept honestly the dualism of consciousness as the irrational fact. Or, if any assumption is to be made, why not assnme that the universe is, like our own inner experience, an illogical self-contradiction? Reason, I should suppose, may be our guide in determining the relative values to us of our opposed phases of consciousness. The will may be no Will to Believe - for we know the truth so far as it concerns us--but a power to make of this choice of values the motive of contemplative and practical life. And, if I have read correctly the lesson of the past and of the present, faith, I dare avow, is something that strikes deeper than the mythologies of religion, or the imaginings of a fevered Pragmatism; it is the voice from our own centre of calm, asserting through all the noise of contradiction: "I am the better self and the higher value, the stronger life and the finer joy." To many who have looked steadfastly into the meaning of their inner life, that "wider self from which saving experiences flow in" will seem to be indeed a wider self rather than any environment of ghosts; and they will feel that in this belief they have a firmer assurance of reality than is offered to them by the new mythology of Pragmatism or Panpsychic Pluralism. They will think that John Woolman uttered the truth of dualism and of religion when he said: "The necessity of an inward stillness hath appeared clear to my mind; in true silence strength is renewed."
While this essay is going through the press, Mr. James has himself passed away beyond our troublesome debates of the one and the many, leaving his doctrine to be developed and promulgated by his disciples. This is no place to pay tribute to his memory as a man. He had the rare good fortune to be as much beloved personally by his enemies in philosophy as by his friends.
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