Monday, June 28, 2010

William James

Jonathan Ree has an excellent appreciation of William James at New Humanist, on the centenary of his death. James is one of my favorite intellectuals, a brilliant man never infatuated by his own brilliance, with a tentative, open-minded attitude toward all important questions. Even when I disagree with him I always feel that it would have been fascinating to discuss the question with him. James and Sigmund Freud both believed that instead of one unitary self our minds contain several different principles, but compared to Freud's dogmatism James is refreshingly candid about our ignorance:
Principles of Psychology, published in 1890, was one of the first works to take up and generalise the idea of a secondary or “sub-conscious” self, first proposed by the French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot. Apart from his early advocacy of a notion later appropriated by Sigmund Freud, James’s principal objective was to discredit what he called “psychological atomism” – the idea that experience consists of a succession of distinct ideas and that perception, intellect, emotion and will are separate mental faculties, complete and entire in themselves. For James, there could be no such thing as a permanent, substantial anchor for our personal identity – no “self,” but only the changing kaleidoscope of “what we back ourselves to be and do”, and the mind as a whole was simply a “theatre of simultaneous possibilities” or a “field” of fluid forces animated by our bodily engagement with the world.
His most famous book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, is a classic that I heartily recommend for leisure reading, a view of religion that is both rigorously scientific and movingly open hearted:

The feeling most fundamental to religion was a sense of reverent wonder in the midst of the world as we find it, and its defining characteristic was, James said, “a willingness to close our mouths and be as nothing.” The opposite of religion was not so much atheism as the adoption of a “trifling, sneering attitude” towards everything, after the manner of the 18th-century French cynic and tedious, tinder-dry chatterbox Voltaire. Religion meant being able to turn your back both on ironic frivolity and on ponderous complaint: “it favors gravity, not pertness,” James wrote, and “says ‘hush’ to all vain chatter and smart wit.”

From a purely psychological point of view it was obvious that religion – with or without a belief in God – did people good: it made them less self-centred, more willing to forgo personal advantage, and better able to live a simple life and find satisfaction in friendship, devotion, trust, bravery and patience. But it also gave life a fresh charm – “an enchantment which is not rationally or logically deducible from anything else.”

William and his brothers were raised by wealthy parents who "gave them more culture than education" dragging them around Europe from hotel to hotel and museum to museum instead of sending them to school. The result was two men generally acknowledged as geniuses, William and the novelist Henry James, and two men who accomplished nothing of note and saw themselves as failures. It is sometimes said that the other two brothers, who bought fought in the Civil War, were scarred by their wartime experiences, but other observers thought they were poisoned by jealousy of their successful siblings. However it was, family stories like this one remind us that no sort of parenting works for everyone.

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