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4/14/10: Class Notes on William James: Getting Here from There
Paul Grobstein joined us today to talk about the conversations he's been having with his "old friend," William James. He brought in "some other friends," too, to help us understand "what he was about and what he's good for," since he's "pretty old now." How did James get to where he did, and what does it make possible? Why is he of interest to us, years later? What was he up to, where did he get to, and why do we continue to read him?

The outline of Paul's talk is available in his notes (find there also his afterthoughts); what isn't recorded there are these bon mots:

  • James used words in a way that made it hard to understand what he was saying; by trying to use current words--to talk in contemporary parlance--he created a number of misunderstandings;
  • William James knew that a problem inherent in the human psyche was why  people come to believe in things as true;
  • but instead of "truth" (which in casual understanding means something eternal and fixed) he should used "frobish," to indicate his particular meaning of "pragmatic truth"="cash value"="truthiness"
  • neither habit ("any action taken without thinking about it") or will ("the ability to act otherwise") are better than the other; taken together they form a simple observation, that a process is available to us that allows an alternative way of acting than the one in which we are engaged
  • "if you are thinking about it, it is no longer a habit" (good for MissArcher2 to know, re: the Pringles)
  • belief means the same thing as faith; like habit, and will, this doesn't have to be fixed or changed; it's what everyone uses in order to act, while knowing that it's not fully justified
  • "the will to believe" means "learning to risk acting, in order to create new things"; we use will (the ability to act) to entertain belief (unjustifiable starting points for action)
  • James got to these claims through, first, a personal experience of the "pit of insecurity beneath the surface of life" (his deep depressions, certainly; perhaps also his family life and the Civil War)
  • lacking such experiences, we were given "another way to get there": via Hofstadter's road sign, which could be seen may ways, and was intended to provoke in us all an awareness that "we can't trust anything"
  • "the pit of insecurity is available to us all"
  • James spent his whole life trying to deal with a set of terrifying experiences: "if you accept the pit of insecurity, what do you do about it?"
  • "if you don't start there, where James did, the rest of his work makes no sense"
  • he needed a way of being in which uncertainty and finitude were seen and felt as "affordances "(that is, as providing opportunity)
  • "to get myself out of this mess, I have to stop thinking so much"; "thinking by itself gets you nowhere"; you need to act
  • "the point of acting is not to become secure, but rather to bring new things into existence"
  • "don't aspire to the eternal, or the always true, or the complete; settle for -- indeed, be excited by -- what can happen, the new possibilities that might emerge"
  • "insecurity creates the possibility of free will"
  • "was James wishy-washy? yes, in so far that he said nothing was certain; but no, because he took a very demanding position: 'you are the master of your soul'"
  • "was he authoritarian? he might seem so, if you don't start--as he did--in 'the pit of insecurity'; but if you do start there, he offers you an interesting, usable account of how to work in the world"
  • he did this work in the late 19th/early 20th century, when it was quite novel: like many others @ the time, he argued that we should not depend on religious authority; but unlike many others, he did not replace it with scientific authority: "nothing should be an authority"
  • he did this work prior to better understandings of biology, of evolution, and of the human brain; he thus had to take a "bigger leap of faith" than we now have to make; his work anticipated evolutionary biology and current brain research
  • "evolution doesn't start any place and isn't going anywhere"; it doesn't take a fixed set of principles as its starting point, but constitutes a continual exploration of possibilities for the present and future
  • James didn't divide the brain into two parts, but doing so helps make sense of his ideas: for example, overlaying Paul's rectangular diagram of the brain with James'  terms, we got habits=unconscious processes; will=conscious processes;
    and belief=the interaction between them
  • "That's the story. That's what James was about, in my conversations with him. What do you think?"
  • exsoloadsolem thought it was hard ("muddled, but not unpleasantly so") to transcend the mainstream use of the terms James employed to different ends
  • aseidman said that "he was wrong: we don't have the power to decide 'I will believe this because I need to'"
  • Paul said that "unfixing truth is hard": we do much out of habit--from the organization of the unconscious--which is, however changeable, if not easily so, with enough time and effort
  • Anne offered, as a concrete example of this process, yesterday's NYTimes article about how you can alter your dislike for the taste of cilantro.

4/13/10: On "various optics"
It was so interesting (and instructive) for me to have the comparative experience, last week, of being guided through the work of William James, first by Paul Jefferson, an intellectual historian; and then by Bharath Vallabha, a philosopher of mind, action and religion. The optic offered by the first was insistently historical and contextual: helping us to understand "William James the man" by placing him in relationship to what was happening, philosophically and socially, @ the time he was writing (by contrast, our class focus on the biographical context seemed quite limited--and perhaps less broadly useful?). The optic of the second visitor was much more local, contemporary, and pragmatic in a very particular Jamesian sense: asking what difference it might make for how we live our own lives, that William James lived and thought in the way he did.

Scanted by both was the optic of the literary critic who attends to the WAY James wrote--and was received by us: how his philosophical language may fail to "invite us in," may actually, in its sonorousness, induce us to believe that it really is a singular, ideal vision--rather than human variety--which most interests him. So now I'm very much looking forward to our third and final visitor in this sequence: how will James look to us when read anew through the optic of Paul Grobstein, a neurobiologist who begins from the perspective not of philosophical idealism, but rather that of biological empiricism? Stay tuned...

3/21/10: On trees, axes and saws...
One of the aspects of William James's writing that most delights me is his astute-and-acute use of metaphor. Particularly striking to me (and I see also to exsoloadsolem) is the image he evokes, in his essay on "Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results," of philosophers and poets as "pathfinders": "blazes made by the axe of the human intellect on the trees of the otherwise trackless forest of human experience," who recognize the "accidentality" of their trails, and acknowledge that though they don't give us the forest itself, their "marking and fixing" nonetheless grants us a "sort of ownership" that enables us to use the world.

This seems to me wonderfully prescient for the work of modern critics of culture and media, such as Robert Scholes, who infamously said that "The world resists language as the grain of a tree resists the saw, and saws take the form they do partly because wood is what it is. We sense the presence of things through this resistance....."

What I revel in, in the metaphors of both the ax and the saw, in their encounters w/ the tree, is this sense of a world that resists, that cannot be captured, by our various markings .... Praise be that which is beyond language!

3/15/10: Reading William James on "Habit"
So, I'm reading, and free associating (following that "stream of thought" we talked about in class today): "habit" calls up, first of all, a set of clothing, a kind of dress. I'm now remembering Isabel Archer, haughtily insisting in Chapter 19 of The Portrait of a Lady that her clothes did not express herself, and Mrs. Merle replying, sharply, "Should you prefer to go without them?"

I'm expecting an interesting conversation, in class, about the role of the habitual--of "habitude" and "habitas"--in our lives (how are they related to "performativity," for instance?) Are these old-fashioned words for my students, or current, useful ones?

3/1/10: On the importance of forms
The juxtaposition of these two passages from The Portrait of a Lady jumps out @ me. DECADES after I first read this novel, they are still as strong as they were then.

Cf. p. 54: "Of course the danger of a high spirit was the danger of inconsistency -- the danger of keeping up the flag after the place has surrendered; a sort of behaviour so crooked as to be almost a dishonour to the flag."

with p. 439: "His last words ... constituted a kind of appeal; and...they represented something transcendent and absolute, like the sign of the cross or the flag of one's country. He spoke in the name of something sacred and precious--the observance of a magnificent form .... in his wish to preserve appearances he was after all sincere, and ... this, as far as it went, was a merit."

Am reminded, by my strong reaction here, how much of a Quaker I really in. Preserving outward forms that are not expressive of inward realities...well: why bother?!

2/16/10: The Portrait of a Lady (Chapters 1-14):

At the beginning of January, looking @ Alice in Bed, I wrote (and I quote!), "one thing this play makes clear to me is that this course is going to invite us to be aware of, and reflective about, what our minds are like. In Scene 6, Alice says, "I'm in my mind....which is like ...a rope bridge."

So of course what I'm noticing, on this re-reading of The Portrait of a  Lady, is the sort of mind Isabel's got: "her mind was a good deal of a vagabond" (p. 33); "Her imagination was by habit ridiculously active" (39); "it seemed to her often that her mind moved more quickly" than others' (53); "I don't like to have everything settled beforehand," said the girl. "I like more unexpectedness" (59).

Along with a quick mind, Isabel seems to have very high moral standards--which are going (I predict!) to get her into big trouble: "She had an infinite hope that she should never do anything wrong .... Of course the danger of a high spirit was the danger of inconsistency -- the danger of keeping up the flag after the place has surrendered; a sort of behaviour so crooked as to be almost a dishonour to the flag" (pp. 53-54).

2/12/10: The Real Thing
To compliment James's short story of that title, I'm bringing to class
Tom Stoppard's 1982 play of the same title:
it begins w/ a play within a play (turns out the couple
having a fight about adultery in scene I are not married,
just performing; but in the next scene,  with their real partners,
they also perform (so as to conceal an affair).

This play is a tease about the difference between semblance and reality....
it's about the relativity of perception, the difficulty of deciding
what 'the real thing' actually is in art, life and politics.
It raises the question of whether there is such a thing.

It's also a great introduction to The Portrait of a Lady.
In scene 7, the playwright/jilted husband has a conversation w/ his daughter
which highlights the generational difference in perception re: "what's real":

Henry: Didn't you like the last one?
Debbie: What, House of Cards? Well, it wasn't about anything, except did she have it off or didn't she? What a crisis. Infidelity among the architect class. Again.
Henry: It was about self-knowledge through pain.
Debbie: No, it was about did she have it off or didn't she. As if having it off is infidelity.
Henry: Most people think it is.
Debbie: Most people thing not having it off is fidelity. They think all relationships hinge in the middle. Sex or no sex. What a fantastic range of possibilities. Like an on/of switch. Did she or didn't she. By Henry Ibsen. Why would you want to make it such a crisis?.... It's what comes of making such a mystery of it....
Henry: Yes. Well, I remember, the first time I succumbed to the sensation that the universe was dispensable minus one lady--
Debbie: Don't write it, Fa. Just say it. The first time you fell in love. What?
Henry: It's to do with knowing and being known .... what lovers trust each other with. Knowledge of each other .... we give ourselves to each other .... What else is there that hasn't been dealt out like a deck of cards? A sort of knowledge. Personal, final, uncompromised....
 Exclusive rights isn't love, it's colonization.

2/10/10: On revising the DSM
Today's NYTimes article about Revising Book on Disorders of the Mind seemed to me curiously akin to--and extending of--some of our in-class conversations about the various diagnoses given to Alice James -- which kkazan's essay, applying "the all-amazing WebMD" to her symptoms, highlights) . This is in-the-real world testimony to the constructedness of categories, and to the consequences of the constructions we choose. The article discusses the ongoing debate about updating the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-MD) for the first time in a decade: "it has huge implications for stigma .... the more disorders you put in, the more people get labels." Critics say many diagnoses in the manual --including a new one called "temper dysregulation disorder"--will "lack a rigorous scientific basis": "the scientific status of the main diseases in previous editions of the D.S.M. — the keystones of the vault of psychiatry — is fragile.”

2/7/10: "The Turn of the Screw"
Preparing for class, I've found myself exploring contemporary versions of this creepy story, including a particularly creepy 1992 version by Joyce Carol Oates-- "The Accursed Inhabitants of the House of Bly"-- which reimagines the story from the ghosts' point of view. It occurs to me that such re-imaginings are infinite, that we can never get the story complete: any version will provoke more edges, more aspects untold. I also think that James's maddening prose--all his "as it were's and as we may say's" are likewise gestures in this  direction: our inability to "get it all down."

1/31/10: Kristin Boudreau's 1993 essay, "'A Barnum
Monstrosity: Alice James and the Spectacle of Sympathy"

So interesting to me that Boudreau also picks up on that quote from Chuang Tsiu, which I flagged below. But I'm deeply confused about what's going on in her article. On the one hand, she highlights the way in which James denied sympathy/made fun of all sympathetic gestures by others, felt them to be threatening to her own subjectivity/original experience of suffering. On the other hand, she argues that no subjectivity is self-sufficient, that "one can never exist without an audience," that we are always constructed by the presence of others.

Isn't That  A Deep Contradiction? Conflict? On James' part, or on Boudreau's??

1/28/10: The Mentalist: @ Penn, 8 p.m. on Feb. 14
This certainly suggests some possibilities for staging a modern version of The Diary of Alice James/Alice in Bed.

1/25/10: The Diary of Alice James
Re-reading this text now for the third time, I note two new-to-me passages. The first is from Leon Edel's introduction, which opines that James's "expatriation aided her ... she needed something alien on which to discharge her anger." This seems to me a peculiar observation, one I'd like to plumb a bit....

The other passage is a quotation that James recorded on Feb. 12, 1890: What expresses more perfectly the folly of the philanthropic mush of this age than this contempt of the sympathetic man felt 2,000 yrs ago by the adorable Chuang Tsiu? -- "the sympathetic man being simply a man who is trying to be someone else all the time and so misses the only possible excuse for his own existence." Also a deep one, I think: sympathy for others as a way to get out of knowing (doing for) oneself? Hmm....

1/25/10: after class
Well, that was a pleasing experiment! Turns out that -- alongside my "jump rope"-- our class includes minds that resemble

  • a spider web
  • spilled color candies, rolling around on a polished wooden floor
  • the roots of a tree, increasingly entrenched as it ages, and yet ambling
  • a messy closet, filled with all sorts of things, including  forgotten ones
  • a popcorn machine: all coming from the same source, sometimes burned
  • a clay ball which, can (with difficulty) be peeled away to reveal a gem
    (alert! beware self-destruction that can occur when bored!)
  • a spider web, in which the center is not obviously connected to the outer edges,
    but where the connections are traceable
  • a cat's cradle (with a limited # of patterns)
  • a storybook, and
  • a wild toad (powerfully leaping, with beautiful arches that form no pattern).

1/8/10: Alice in Bed
We're beginning this class on the James family by reading this play by Susan Sontag. I like this idea of starting in contemporary times, working backwards to the woman--Alice James--who inspired Sontag's work.

And one thing this play makes clear to me is that this course is going to invite us to be aware of, and reflective about, what our minds are like. In Scene 6, Alice says, "I'm in my mind....which is like a boat or a chair or a bed or a tree. Or a rope bridge. And in my mind I can be high up, too. There are vantage points in my mind...I can have an overview...held in the beak of a bird, I'm flying over Rome...there is a whole world underneath, subterranean chambers, lost mind has its own swellings and diminishings...My mind doesn't have a size" (pp. 83-85).

So: I'm thinking I'd like to ask everyone in the class to come up with a metaphor for her own mind: how does it work? What is it like? (Mine's sort of...jumpy. It gets bored easily, so it keeps moving around quickly, looking for something new...)



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