Monday, December 05, 2005

William James on the Present Dilemma in Philosophy.

William James, "The Present Dilemma in Philosophy," in Pragmatism (New York: Prometheus, 1991), pp. 3-22.

I am in the midst of reading F.H. Bradley and a biography of G.W.F. Hegel, so I thought that it would be a useful corrective, simultaneously, to consult the critics of rationalism and idealism, from the pragmatist and analytical side first, then later from the existentialist side. This was a welcome excuse to re-read some essays by William James.

"Ah, yes ... the James brothers," George Santayana said, "one is a novelist who thinks he is a philosopher; the other is a philosopher who thinks he is a novelist."

There is much to be said for the view that Henry was far wiser and even more philosophical about human emotion and behavior than William.

My focus is on some public lectures offered in 1906 by William James. A target of these lectures is British Idealism (I will capitalize the word when referring to the specific school flourishing in Victorian and Edwardian Britain), associated with philosophers like Edward Caird of Cambridge, T.H. Green, and especially F.H. Bradley of Oxford. In my opinion, Bradley destroyed James in their debate in the pages of Mind. British Idealism was then dominant in philosophy, just as the British empire was economically and politically dominant in the world. As Margaret Thatcher liked to say, "those were the good old days."

Since I disagree with most of what William James says, I think it is only fair to begin by recognizing what I admire and celebrate about James. For example, I appreciate the superb quality of his writing. James always writes to be understood and to persuade, with clarity, vividness and "concreteness" (a favorite word and value for James). The same must be said for Bradley. One great virtue of English language philosophy is the concern to be clear and write well. It would be nice if one could say something similar about lawyers. However, legal writing has become progressively worse over the years.

For philosophy to matter, as I think that it should, philosophers must write to communicate with ordinary, intelligent readers. James was the product of a generation of public intellectuals in the United States who recognized that responsibility and did not write only for one another. The situation today is quite different. There is too much jargon and, often, a clubhouse feel to academic discussions -- especially in the humanities -- where such stylistic difficulties are least desirable. It is also true that the media climate in which those discussions take place today requires scholars to guard against trivialization in a manner that is unprecedented. The jargon may be defensive. Maybe this also accounts for a great deal of legal mumbo-jumbo. James begins with a quotation from the writings of G.K. Chesterton:

"There are some people -- and I am one of them -- who think that the most practical and important thing about a man is still his view of the universe. We think that for a landlady considering a lodger it is important to know his income, but still more important to know his philosophy. We think that for a general about to fight an enemy it is important to know the enemy's numbers, but still more important to know the enemy's philosophy. We think the question is not whether the theory of the cosmos affects matters, but whether in the long run anything else affects them."

For James to quote English Thomist G.K. Chesterton in opening an attack on Absolute Idealism in Britain amounts to the Protestant equivalent of chutzpah. By the way, Michael Frayn's use of the word "chutzpah" in a television interview is one of the funniest things ever on the New York airwaves.

James wishes to reduce all philosophical divisions not to their sources in rival arguments, but only to a matter of temperament; then to suggest that the temperament associated with Idealism is not his own, nor conducive to the scientific world-view (neither claim is established by argument), while pointing to examples of "reality" in the form of a man whose poverty and misery lead him to commit suicide, so as to conclude that all forms of self-sacrifice or altruism ("ideals") may be a form of "unreality" in a harsh world. Accordingly, James advocates focusing on "facts" and avoiding "abstractions," yet he is still concerned with the values of religion, even as religious sensibility is relegated to a secondary status in contemporary life:

Never were as many men of a decidedly empiricist proclivity in existence as there are at the present day. Our children, one may say, are almost born scientific. [Oh, joy!] But our esteem for facts has not neutralized in us all religiousness. It is itself almost religious. [Exactly.] Our scientific temper is devout. ...

Furthermore ...

"Refinement has its place in things, true enough. But a philosophy that breathes nothing but refinement will never satisfy the empiricist temper of mind. It will seem rather a monument of artificiality. ... So we find men of science preferring to turn their backs on metaphysics as on something altogether cloistered and spectral, and practical men shaking philosophy's dust off their feet and following the call of the wild."

My response is to challenge the claim that philosophy is reducible to the temperaments of the various adherents of the respective philosophical positions. Such reductivism is a form of what I will call "psychologism," which is a subcategory of the ad hominem fallacy. It is to reduce substantive or doctrinal positions in philosophy to the psychological character traits (or personality dispositions) of their proponents, rather than to examine them on the merits. Those psychological arguments and insights may help to classify philosophical arguments, but not to adjudicate between them.

The very same type of criticism was offered to James and American pragmatism by Oswald Spengler, for example, who described the United States as a "nation of dollar trappers" with "no past, no culture, and no philosophy." Heidegger was even more unkind in his later criticisms. Hence, pragmatism may be disregarded (according to Spengler) without close examination, as the mere rationalization of a "salesman's" view of life. I disagree.

I think that it is always wise to actually examine the arguments offered for the various positions in philosophy.

Science has now come to appreciate that, contrary to Jamesian assumptions, even more important than facts are the theories that make facts meaningful by interpreting them and fitting them into a picture (or a story?) of reality. Hey, that sounds like Idealism. Theories are, of course, abstract -- like idealist philosophies -- they are measured by their: 1) explanatory power; and 2) predictive capacity. Also, it is not altogether clear exactly what we mean by "facts" and how facts differ from interpretations or values in the first place. A recent book by Hilary Putnam deals with these issues at length. The need for explanatory theory has led to the quest for a "theory of everything" by scientists, like David Deutsch in The Fabric of Reality.

As for the example of grim "reality" provided by James, in the form of an unfortunate man committing suicide in New York because he was deprived of employment, there are many counter-examples of heroism and selflessness in accordance with the virtues extolled by the British Idealist philosophers. F.H. Bradley mentions, with approval, a case of self-sacrifice:

... an imprisoned Italian who, knowing that he was being drugged to disorder his intellect and cause him to betray his comrades, opened a vein, is a good instance. ...

This is an argument for adopting a philosophy that will lead not to suicide, but to courage and self-sacrifice, which is more likely to be Bradley's kind of philosophy than pragmatist "debunking."

The most famous section of this essay by James is the division of philosophers into "tender-minded" (warm-hearted) as opposed to "tough-minded" (cold-hearted) temperaments. The "tough-minded" philosopher displays the "manly" virtues of science, that is, empiricism, materialism, skepticism and so on; the "tender-minded" philosopher may be associated with the womanly distractions of rationalism, intellectualism, all forms of idealism, and so on. This sort of distinction or division of the conceptual map is now seen as both inadequate and sexist. To make use of a technical term from game theory and the new logic: it's "bullshit."

James does reveal, however, the assumptions that remained prevalent in American thinking up through the mid-century and that are still highly influential in American law schools (what is the practical solution?). All too often, "practical solutions" are all that is sought in government policies, since the preferred course of action is usually "tough" and "cynical." In the immortal words of Richard M. Nixon, "let's give 'em a kick in the ass." Alas, the "kick-in-the-ass" view of politics is not always effective, since people are likely to kick you back.

Theories are not luxuries, they are interpretations of facts that make for meaningful world-views. Science can only progress on the basis of new theories and not more facts, or greater accumulations of facts alone.

It is the new "holism" that has reinforced the potential importance in science of theorizing. From the work of physicists to some of the latest developments in biology, the goal is greater inclusiveness and explanatory power, not necessarily more specific or narrow research, which comes later. In addition to analysis, science (like philosophy) is in desperate need of synthezising intellects, though very few are to be found these days. Yet the greatest scientists -- like the best philosophers -- tend to be intuitive as well as as rigorous synthezising thinkers, making use of what James would describe as both "manly" and "feminine" qualities of mind.

In direct opposition to James, and as a partial vindication of rationalism, I will quote Brand Blanshard:

... start anywhere in experience, develop what is implicit in what is before you, and you will find yourself committed, on the principle of the flower in the crannied wall [think of the poem by Tennyson] or of the widening circles in a pool, to an all-comprehensive system in which everything is bound by necessity to everything else. To judge that this is a flower is to use a universal. But the universal, when you attend to it, burgeons. It is necessarily connected through genus and species with a hierarchy above it. Its appearance at this spot and moment is connected spatially, temporally, and causally with every other event in the universe. And these relations, if we saw clearly enough, would turn out to be necessary also. We cannot now prove this in detail, but as philosophers we must make it our working assumption till nature flouts us, and there is no reason to expect that she will. The business of philosophy is to understand; to understand is to explain; and to explain is to place things in a context that reveals them as necessary. Such explanation is genuine discovery; the necessities thought discerns in things are not made by us [.] What from our point of view is increasing understanding of the world is thus from another point of view an increasing self-revelation of the Absolute in finite minds.

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