|These notes are summaries of important points from some of the James selections from John Stuhr's anthology of Classical American Philosophy, first edition, that we used in our Phi 381 class, fall 1999. The notes were created as a handout to facilitate students' review of the materials. Page references are to Stuhr, first edition.|
Review of James Selections
The Stream of Consciousness
The starting point for psychology is this: thinking goes on.
This is in contrast to psychological theory that begin with simple sensations or simple ideas as the elements with which it works.
Thinking apparently takes the form of a personal consciousness.
Consciousness is always changing, and it has no repeatable "simples" in it.
a single self or personal consciousness, there are no absolute gaps
(no absolute time-gaps, and no absolute gaps in the object-field of that consciousness). I.e., personal consciousness is continuous.
Psychology makes the assumption that the objects of a personal consciousness have some sort of independence of that consciousness.
Consciousness is selective.
World of Pure Experience
"Stream of Consciousness" tells us that continuous transition is experienced, felt. It says also that relations, including relations of conjunction, are experienced, felt. For example, we have a feeling of withness, a feeling of "and," a feeling of "near," and so forth.
important conjunctive relation is the relation
of "co-conscious transition," the experience of one
moment in personal consciousness transitioning into
another moment in that same consciousness.
conjunctive relation is the cognitive relation,
that is, the relation of Knower to Known in the knowing
relation, i.e., in knowledge.
To say that the cognitive relation is conjunctive is to say that there is continuity between knower and known. James distinguishes two basic sorts of cognitive relation:
(i) perceptual knowledge, or "knowledge by acquaintance": here the knower-known relation takes the form of percept-object, that is, percept-of-object.
(ii) conceptual knowledge: here the knower-known relation takes the form concept-object, that is, concept-of-object. But according to pragmatism (cf. Peirce’s pragmatic maxim), a concept of an object ultimately amounts to a would-be percept of the object. In other words, to say of a state of conceptual consciousness that it is a state of knowing its object is to say it is a state which would-unfold, would-transition, into a state of perceptual consciousness, i.e. of knowing by direct acquaintance. A concept, if it constitutes genuine knowledge, would be able to be "cashed in" for percepts.
can think of conceptual experience as knowing-in-transitu, and
of perceptual experience as knowing-verified.
Conceptual experience feels substitutional; it feels as though it is a substitute for perceptual experience. (We have a sense that the world of thought represents a world of things.)
Hence, most of the time we move directly from concept to concept, in the faith that we could always cash in the concepts for percepts.
The starting point for the psychologist’s inquiry should not be an already-analytically-separated
knower and know, or subject and object. Rather the starting
point is simple:
taken in context of a personal ||||||||| taken in context of the surrounding
history is/was ||||||||| objects or of an object’s history is/was
a mind, ||||||||| an objective reality.
or mental, subjective reality. |||||||||
James’s radical empiricism takes the position that relations, including conjunctive relations, including cognitive relations, are experienced; they are felt. He also says his radical empiricism is a "mosaic philosophy." Question: What are the parts of the mosaic?
parts of the mosaic of experience are the individual personal
consciousnesses that are my experience, your experience, etc., and
that (taken in appropriate contexts). We ordinarily believe,
furthermore, that all of our consciousnesses, our minds, terminate
in one, same field of objective reality. The mosaic in question is
the field called experience, which can be thought of either as a
field of separate, individual consciousnesses/selves and, at the
same time, as a field of objects in which those separate
consciousnesses are co-terminous.
[ Analogy from dr.moen: suppose you are at an orchestral concert,
watching and listening. You see each of the string players with their
bow arms raised, elbows poised, separately begin to bear down and
this sight transitions right into your hearing the sound of the downbeat
they play, all together. The simultaneous elbows-bearing-down are to
the single, resounding downbeat as our separate consciousnesses are
to the objective space in which they coterminate.... Please remember,
of course, that any analogy is limited; it breaks down at some point. ]
We believe, or at least we must believe if we are to undertake scientific inquiry, that our minds are coterminously experiencing one objective reality. That belief is a practical precondition of attempting to find out truths (science) about the world. It is belief, but:
logical scrutiny of the belief encounters no formal objections;
we do have evidence for the belief (since we move about in the world,
coordinating our movements quite successfully); and
the belief is consistent with the pragmatic principle (cf. Peirce’s
"How to Make Ideas Clear") that, in James’s words (133) "we predicate
sameness wherever we can predicate no assignable difference.
What Pragmatism Means
is empiricism, but more radically so than traditional
It turns from abstractions to concreteness, from absolutes to
adequacy, from origins to actions, etc.
[Note: from "A World of Pure Experience" we know already that
radical empiricism takes all and only experience as the starting
point for inquiry.]
formulated, pragmatism is a method only; it stands for no special results.
It is the method of insisting
that we bring out the "cash value"
of words, and not be content with verbal solutions. It is the method of regarding
theories as instruments,
not answers. [Words and theories are instruments for getting to the "cash."]
It is the method which takes the attitude of
turning to "last things"
rather than "first things," to fruits rather than principles, to
facts rather than a priori categories, to consequences rather than supposed necessities.
Later, however, "pragmatism" came to stand for a theory of truth. This is the theory of truth called "instrumentalism" in Chicago. It holds (138) that "any idea on which we can ride...is, so far forth, true instrumentally" (cf. also the material on the cognitive relation in "World of Pure Experience").
New truth is a smoother-over of transitions: it "marries" old opinion to new fact with a minimum of jolt, a maximum of continuity.
We take as truth [provisionally, of course] the theory that satisfies us more —and even among scientists, individuals will vary somewhat on which theory does so. So this business of determining what is true is all somewhat plastic.
However, in determining what shall be true—in attempting to marry old opinion with new fact—we should allow that "loyalty to old truths is the controlling factor here" (139). What we are admitting is that "the trail of the human serpent is over all" (140). For pragmatism, then, truth is no longer a function of "static correspondance" [between thought and thing, concept and object]. Rather, it is a function of a "rich and active commerce between my individual thoughts and the great universe of others’ experience" (141).
As a harmonizer of old and new, perhaps pragmatism will be able to harmonize older religious views with newer empiricist outlooks.
Pragmatism has no materialist bias, and no prejudice against theology. The pragmatist grants belief depending on the practical value of an idea for concrete life—when that idea is taken in relation to other truths. In other words, s/he makes belief depend upon "vital benefits." Example:
One good/truth of belief in the Absolute is
it would allow us to take a moral holiday [i.e., to take a respite from despair
world’s ills, once we have done our best to alleviate them]. However, in the
concrete, and when put in the
context of other truths, belief in the Absolute could lead to terrible self-indulgence.
Hence, James, personally, gives up belief in
The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life
Ethical philosophy must wait upon (be determined by) the moral life— "the moral life of the [human] race, to which we all contribute."
The aim of the ethical philosopher, as such, is
"to weave a stable system, a moral universe" out of the many and varied
sometimes conflicting) aims that human beings, collectively, have.
Ethical philosophy poses three types of question: the psychological question, the metaphysical question, and the casuistic question. The first asks what factors motivate our choices. The second asks what we mean by "good," "bad," "obligation," etc. The third seeks some principle for use in deciding which claims should override others (which values are more important than others).
I. The psychological question: what is the source of our aims and desires? Specifically, does "utility" (as in "Utilitarianism," which says the ultimate aim is always happiness) explain all our desires? In other words, are all our ideals solely the product of our natural history?—solely what we have learned, over the years, is most conducive to happiness?
James answers, "No." The lessons of natural
and the search for happiness surely explain many of our desires, he says —but
by no means all of them. In fact, some of our ideals seem to be, not products
of past experience, but rather, "probable causes of future experience" (145).
They seem to be generated, sui generis
, in and by some human consciousness; and they may then be used
to guide that person’s actions (and may be accepted as ideals by others, in time).
II. The metaphysical question: what do we mean
by "good," "obligation," and other moral terms?
Goodness must be "realized" in some consciousness in order to exist. Goodness does not exist in some abstract order of being; in a universe utterly devoid of consciousness, "good" would have no meaning.
Just as "good" must be realized in consciousness, the same is true for "better" and therefore for "obligation." "Obligation," after all, has no meaning except in a universe where there is more than one aim, more than one ideal, so that the question arises, "which of these two ideals is better? which am I obligated to rank
as more important than the other?"
Claim and obligation are, therefore, coextensive. "Good" means "is an object of desire." That is, any desire is valid. The only "better" desire is the more inclusive desire. Cf. p. 148: "good" means an object of choice; a purely human universe is already an ethical universe.
III. The casuistic question: how shall we decide among ideals,
when they conflict, without just imposing our personal standards
No abstract principle can tell us!
Theoretically, the answer is easy (satisfy all desires); practically, it is not! (150): the best answer we can give is this: satisfy as much demand as we can. Inclusiveness is the principle which must guide us. Doing out best to satisfy both ourselves and others is "the only path of peace."
Meanwhile, when this principle is not sufficient to let us reach a clear decision, then normally we should presume, James says, in favor of conservativism.
And yet, anyone is free to break away from the conservative view, if s/he is willing to suffer the consequences.
These experiments—breaking away from the norm and trying a new way of living—can never be judged a priori—only after they have been seriously tried.
No philosophy of ethics in the old (a priori) sense is possible—
the ethical philosopher must wait on facts, and must always be
ready to revise his/her theories (152).
(153) Moral life’s deepest difference is between the easy-going
and the strenuous moods.
For the strenuous mood to be sustained, James thinks we need to feel the "pull" of infinite demands, and this idea (infinite demand) he figures as God
Hence, he postulates God, as a postulate needed in order
to secure the strenuous mood. However:
(a) we have no intellectual certainty of God’s existence, and
(b) even if we were certain of his existence, we wouldn’t know
his thought. Thus, we can never consult God’s thought as a way
of making moral decisions; the answers always lie in our own
thoughts and hearts.
Dilemma of Determinism
Determinism, in effect, pictures a "block universe," one where part decrees part. This is a universe of necessity and impossibility —everything is either necessary or impossible. There is no real possibility.
Indeterminism takes the view, instead, that
the actualities—that there are real possibilities.
The decision between determinism and indeterminism cannot be made on the basis of fact. It’s not an issue of fact. [That is, neither can be proved in any scientific way.] In making the decision, we are depending on what feels most rational to us, after careful consideration—that is, we are depending on "the sentiment [i.e. feeling] of rationality."
To some people, indeterminism feels irrational, but James says this is because they have not thought through carefully enough what indeterminism really involves. Those people think of "chance," the indeterminate, as being irrational, and that feels negative. But James takes the attitude that chance is something positive, that to say "X occurs by chance" is to say "X occurs as a gift."
Of course, some people may be afraid to admit
to the reality of chance,
because what chance comes down to is this: there is no total control over
James begins with a fact: Some events happen which we feel are bad, even atrocious, horrible, and we react with feelings of "regret." For example, a grisly murder fills us with feelings of sadness, horror, pity— all of which James would include in the term "regret."
Suppose that murder was determined—i.e. that it happened necessarily;
there’s no way it could have not happened. This is likely to lead to pessimism,
as we ask "why must the world be a world that includes murder and cruelty?"
. . . Or course "Candide" may come along and claim that this is really the "best of all possible worlds," and that the things we had been regretting are really for the best in the end, so we should not regret them any longer. Pessimism would, if we accept this, turn to blithe optimism—and we would regret having regretted the existence of murder and such. . . . But, oops! Since we did in fact regret them, we must have been determined to regret them. And now we plunge back into pessimism: "why must the world be a world in after all, they are ultimately for the best?"
In this way, determinism leads to a waffling between pessimism, which saps the will and keeps us from acting, and optimism, which confounds thought by leading directly back into the contradiction outlined above (the idea that I should regret having regretted the murder, and yet I was determined to regret the murder and I
shouldn’t regret regretting something I couldn’t help doing).
James now considers whether "gnosticism" or "subjectivism" might be the path to take. Perhaps it is like this: the evil deed (e.g., the murder) is not good, after all (rejecting Candide’s argument), and yet it is good that we know good and evil. That is, the murder itself is not good; but knowledge of evil things, deepening our theoretical consciousness of good and evil, is good.
James says subjectivism has an advantage over pessimism in that it does make moral judgments the main thing (murder is bad, but it is good that I have knowledge of it because I need that knowledge in order to make moral judgments). Nonetheless, he rejects subjectivism, on practical grounds (162):
James says subjectivism leads to "nerveless sentimentalism" ("Let me sin like David that I may repent like David"), or to sensualism—as in the French romanticists (and romanticism generally, with its tendency to want to experience everything for the sake of experiencing it—even debauchery, e.g.). James
chooses, instead, to follow Carlyle, who reacted to the romantic movement by saying: Act! Action, objective conduct is the thing —not the self-indulgence of going out to experience every possible feeling a human being can have.
But again, what’s essential here, in deciding between determinism and chance? If determinism leads either to pessimism or to subjectivism, and if we reject both of those, what is our alternative? It’s indeterminism, of course—but what does indeterminism (belief in chance) lead to?
Again James repeats: the essential difference between determinism and indeterminism is that determinism says we know that all is determined, while indeterminism admits limits to our understanding. That is to say:
Indeterminism sees the universe as a plurality of semi-independent forces,
each of which may help or hinder the rest. That is what indeterminism amounts to.
This view—the universe as a plurality of semi-independent forces, each of
which may help or hinder the rest—is, James says, the only one he has found
that can make sense out of the fact of regret, by admitting that there are real,
Granted, to choose indeterminism over determinism because belief in chance
is the only way to make sense out of the fact that we feel regret when things like
cruelty occur, is not to choose on the basis of a scientifically coercive argument.
But James never pretended he could give such an argument—in fact, he has been saying all along that he cannot, that belief in chance rather than determinism (or vice versa) cannot be treated as a factual matter.
Repeating again the indeterminist picture: a universe inclusive of chance is "a pluralistic, restless universe in which no single point of view can take in the whole scene."
Now James reviews again what objections can be raised to the
- Objection to indeterminism: it violates the absolutism of my intellect
- Objection to determinism: it violates my sense of moral reality
- Objection to romanticism: it "falsifies the simple objectivity of my
moral reactions"; it corrupts our "moral sense"
Reviewing the three cases, James opts for indeterminism. Again, what is chance?
The only sort of chance we have motive for supposing to exist is
"the chance of a better future."
Why not speak of belief in "freedom" rather than belief in "chance," then? Because ‘chance" is better able to convey to sense that we are giving up total control; we are admitting there is no total control anywhere.
But then, is indeterminism incompatible with the idea of a divine Providence controlling everything in the universe? Not really, James says. To explain, he uses the analogy between an indeterminate (chance) universe and a chess game between an expert and a novice. We can imagine a situation in which the expert sees all possibilities from the start, and also where he determines some rigorously from the start. Others he might determine contingently ("this is the move I’ll make if the other player makes move X"). And still others he might leave absolutely open, at the start—whether he leaves them open to be decided later by himself or to be decided later by the other player (the point is they are genuinely open now, at the start of the game).
Will to Believe
It is simply false that we can
rid ourselves of
will and sentimental
preference and have intellectual insight left (169).
Even belief in truth itself is a passional affirmation of a desire— it’s just that this is a desire (the desire for truth) that society usually backs up. In other words, we can’t reach truth by excluding will or volition or desire, since the belief that there’s a truth to be reached is already held largely on the basis of desire.
James’s thesis, then, is this (170): Our passional nature must be the deciding factor, and must made a decision, whenever (1) we are facing a "genuine option" (live, forced, and momentous) and (2) it is an option which intellect alone cannot decide.
In saying volition must decide, James is rejecting skepticism (the idea that there is no truth, that we definitely cannot know truth). James will (i.e. wills to) believe in truth. But there are two attitudes we can take in our belief that there are truths:
(a) the absolutist says it is possible for us to know truths—and to know when we know it.
(b) the empiricist says it is possible for us to know truths—but not that we know when we know it [in other words, we never have absolute certainty]
Our "natural instinct" as human beings is toward
absolutism. However, James says we must fight that tendency
and become empiricists
as best we can.
The truth-hypothesis that James is accepting, in his rejection of skepticism,
is this: whatever an idea’s origin, if the "total drift of experience" confirms it,
then he recommends accepting it as true.
Reminder: scientific questions, for the most part, are not genuine options— so the right to believe on volitional grounds does not apply in those cases. In those cases we should suspend judgment until further evidence is in and intellect can decide.
So, where do we come across genuine options? In moral questions we often
do. And then we may make a decision, a judgment, on volitional grounds. The
preceding argument (the whole of the article) justifies our doing so. And now
James introduces a further consideration:
In all social endeavors, "precursive faith" is a factor in the success of the endeavor. That is, for a team to succeed, it is important that the members have "faith" in one another’s abilities and good intentions. This is all the more reason to go ahead and exercise volitionally-based belief.
James casts "the religious hypothesis" this way: The best things are the
eternal things; and we are better off even now if we believe the first half of
this sentence. He then says:
If this hypothesis is a genuine, live option for you, then you are justified
in believing it. Why? Because it can’t be settled on purely intellectual
grounds. So the choice is this:
I can say "I don’t believe," fearing that I might accepting a falsehood. Otherwise, I can say "I believe," hoping that I may be accepting a truth.
But, James says, it’s surely no worse to be duped by hope than
to be duped by fear! It would be illogical to think one is worse than the other.
Therefore why not choose hope?—especially when we may well have here
one of those situations where a "precursive faith" in the hypothesis could be
a factor necessary to make verification accessible.