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Notes Towards Day 21: "Various Optics"

Anne Dalke's picture


kjmason as notetaker

I. Processing betwixt visitors ... what have we learned
about William James, and about ourselves as learners)
from the assistance we got, over the past two weeks,
from a philosopher and an intellectual historian

what was the "cash-value" of their different optics?


for me, from PJ on William James the Man --
"WJ is in love with rare, irreducible, individual subjectivities,"
"is a people connoisseur"; "had people-dar";
"proliferate plural points of view";
"you are such modern thinkers: you are not
blown away by how noble is this thinking posture"

-- to BV on "the work of being a person":
ask what difference it makes for my life:
on learning how not to get stuck @ abstraction;
what does radical acceptance look like?

aseidman: I do see that James is encouraging us to accept individual, subjective truths for ourselves, based on what is practical and valuable for our own purposes and in our own lives. The place where James and I lose touch with one another is when he starts to try to articulate the idea that we are able to choose for ourselves, based on what we prefer to believe. I take umbrage at the idea that we can accept a belief as true, and that we should be allowed to accept a belief as true, simply because it is what is best for us. There are such things as concrete truths. There are things that happen in life, and things that exist in life that do not improve our lives or effectively fit into them, and not accepting them as legitimate truths does not solve any problems....

The key, perhaps, to coming to terms with James is perhaps Professor Vallabha's idea that James speaks a great deal in abstract terms. Justice, Truth, even Belief are not conrete terms, and trying to make something concrete out of them, as I have tried to do, is a foolish venture.

Bharath's e-observation:  It was interesting that some students resisted James for being too wishy-washy and not taking a stand, and others resisted him for being authoritarian and for prescribing how everyone should think .... it would have been fun to pursue some more the thought of why James' openness to interpretation seems disturbing, while the openness of a work of fiction is not disturbing. I take it behind it is the thought: "things we make up like stories and poems can have openness, but the world itself as it is in itself can't have that openness." Ironic that this is something both scientists and humanists seem to share. What I find challenging about James' pluralism is its questioning this assumption about the nature of reality.

Fabelhaft: James is telling us that pragmatism can solve most, if not all, of our problems because it will help us identify the best course of action ... if we take an objective look at the choices, if we think rationally about the consequences of our actions .... But then a comment from class ... pops into my head. Wasn't there some discussion about spontaneity and William James?

One more (hopefully clarifying)
visit yet to come! from Paul
another William James
lover and Bryn Mawr "neurobiologist
with a life-long interest in understanding
why people behave the way they do."



Wednesday's revised
reading assignment:

3 very early diary entries by
William James on pp. 6-7, C.E.
(from Feb and April 1870) and

Paths to Storytelling as Life:
Fellow-Traveling with Richard Rorty

James--> Dewey --> Rorty --> Grobstein
(or "biological evolution may well
be the archetype..of pragmatism")

What you will miss most, in not reading the *last* James' essay I'd originally selected--"The World of Pure Experience" (1912)--is this single striking passage:

"if you should liken the universe of absolute idealism to an aquarium, a crystal globe in which goldfish are swimming, you would have to compare the empiricist universe to something more like one of those dried human heads ... the skull forms a solid nucleus; but innumerable feathers, leaves, strings, beads, and loose appendices of every description float and dangle from it, and save that they terminate in it, seem to have nothing to do with one another. Even so my experiences and yours float and dangle, terminating ... in a nucleus of common perception, but for the most part out of sight and irrelevant and unimaginable to one another .... Radical empiricism ... is fair to both the unity and the disconnection.

...a philosophy of pure experience...I call...a mosaic philosophy. In actual mosaics the pieces are held together by their bedding .... In radical empiricism there is no bedding; it is as if the pieces clung together by their edges, the transitions experienced between them forming their cement...such a metaphor is misleading, for...there is in general no separateness needing to be overcome by an external cement; and whatever separateness is actually experienced...stays and counts as separateness to the end. But the metaphor serves to symbolize the fact that Experience can grow by its edges....Life is in the transitions....These relations of continuous transition...make our experiences cognitive...of one another....The world is...a pluralism of which the unity is not fully experienced.

II. For today, however, your final essay by William James,
"Hegel and his Method" (1909),
p. 512f.

Two on-line responses so far--
one taking pleasure in his style, one correcting his ideas:

fabelhaft: I really enjoyed Willam's rant about Hegel; it made him (William) seem more human. Also, this essay just seemed more humorous to me ... "passion for slipshod in the way of sentences" just made me laugh. I'm actually inclined to agree with good old William in terms of his view on Hegel. The notion of interacting with reality by being conscious of what it is not seems like a lot of effort .... My favorite line: "divine oracles are notoriously hard to interpret" (520). You made me laugh out loud, William, something I never thought would happen while reading your essays.

jrlewis: "The absolute is defined as the ideally perfect whole, yet most of its parts, if not all, are admittedly imperfect” (526) ....  James makes the implicit assumption that the whole is simply the sum of its parts.  He does not consider that the whole might be an emergent system, something more that the sum of its parts .... not predicted by studying the behavior of its smaller components ... It is an act of reductionism to assume that in order for the whole to be perfect, all its smaller components must be perfect.  For example, an excellent fruit cobbler can result from a package of not quite ripe raspberries ...

Let's back up a bit:
Who was Hegel? 
(German idealist philosopher, 1770-1831)
What was his method?
What did James admire about it?
What did he dislike?
In light of all we've learned about James:
Why is Hegel important? (What's his "cash-value"?)
What's the difference between the absolutist and the pragmatist?
How would you characterize your own philosophic method?

Reading Notes
[abominable habits of speech: grotesque pretension,
disobedient to rules of sound communication!]

equilibriums are but provisional
ultimate cruelty of the universe; history's ravenous appetite for destruction
hegelian intuition of the essential provisionality...
of everything empirical and finite

any concrete finite thing...held arbitrary extract or abstract
any partial view tears the part out of its relations
the full truth about anything involves more than that thing
nothing less than the whole of everything can be the truth of anything

in ignoring each other, concepts exclude, deny, and so introduce each other--
most original stroke: negation relates things!
not static, self-contained but germinative,
passing into each other by immanent dialectic
immanent self-contradictoriness of all finite concepts 
becomes the propulsive logical force that moves the world

really living world, not chopped-up intellectualist picture of it...
but had old rationalist contempt for immediately given world of sense;
couldn't tolerate notion of philosophy as empirical only;
pretended to work by logic, a priori, eternal reason

human institutions end by becoming obstacles to the
very purposes which their founders had in view

dogmatic ideal: may be--> must be the rationalistic aspiration
vicious, illegitimate  intellectualism: turn away from sensation to conception

feeling of rationality of the universe: all is well w/ the cosmos:
"We are but syllables in the mouth of the Lord"
absolute introduces irrationalities (like evil) into the universe:
perfection introduces imperfection
hypothesis of the absolute performs rationalizing function
but is decidedly irrational:
ideally perfect whole made of imperfect parts

creates speculative puzzle, mystery of evil and error
cf. pluralistic metaphysic: asks only how to lessen evil

the absolute is useless for deductive purposes
the strung-along unfinished world in time is its rival:
reality MAY exist in distributive form in the shape of a set of eaches
seek reality among the finite and immediately given