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Philosophy and Recipes

jrlewis's picture

What to do with William James? william james His writings on psychology formed the primary textbook for that discipline.  The school of philosophy he developed, pragmatism appeals to philosophers and scientists alike.  Jacques Barzun identifies him as an American hero.  So it would seem that the works of William James have been assimilated into American culture and intellectual life.  If this is true, then what is the point of reading his original writings?  Or why should one use “The Writings of William James: A Comprehensive Edition” for more than a doorstop?

I offer you my own personal answer to these questions.  It is based upon my own reading of James and my personal interpretation.  This is essay is admittedly a subjective account, my personal experience of James.  In order to create a counter argument, dear reader, it is advised that you present your own reading of William James.  (Even if that means finding a new doorstop!)

The philosophy William James offers to his reader is a recipe for how to live one’s life.  He presents a methodology for breaking down problems into two components, the abstract concepts and the concrete “cash value.”  This is the nature of the pragmatic test.  His works create a dialogue between abstract ideas and concrete experiences.  This is very different from the majority of philosophies, which focus on the abstract.  If philosophy is defined as a second order inquiry into first order practices, then James’ ideas might be more than traditional philosophy.  His philosophy is not a rigid set of rules to be scrupulously followed.  It does not determine the interpretation of events or objects. “Pragmatism is an account of the way people think-the way they come up with ideas, form beliefs, and reach decisions," (Menand 351)

William James offers a special sort of philosophy; it is deeply individualistic.  He is freeing people from the fear of making mistakes by arguing that mistakes help us learn.  “Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things [especially] in a world where we are so certain to incur them in spite of all our caution,” (James 727). You learn more about cooking by making and fixing mistakes than by a perfect performance or starting over!  It is pointless to call an error in cooking mistake and then toss it in the trash.  Instead, trim off the burnt edges, add a glaze, or in the most serious crisis apply loads of icing.  Therefore, “we have a right to believe at our own risk any hypothesis that is live enough to tempt our will,” (James 733).  His philosophy strongly advocates for a diversity of thought and action.  “You can’t be a [Jamesian] in a deep sense because he is not interested in followers, he is interested in who are you going to be, what are you going to do?” (Bharat Vallabha)

Life is not about exactly following the directions in the recipe it is about the results of entering into conversation with the recipe and hoping that something new emerges. Reading a recipe is about reconciling the ideals of printed text to the physical reality of one’s own kitchen.  If the chef is unable to obtain corn syrup they can make a substitution or synthesize their own…  In a large, heavy pan place 2 cup white sugar, 3/4 cup water, 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar, a dash of salt, and bring to a boil.  Then heat should be reduced to a simmer and the pan covered for 3 minutes.  Mixture should be stirred frequently and cooked until softball stage.  Once it reaches room temperature, it can be used for cooking and baking purposes. 

In a recipe, the reader is simultaneously the chef.  They are translating abstract ideas into a concrete, material experience.  This is the process by which a cake is baked.  Using a recipe to prepare food is the instantiation of the text. The text is the recipe and the cake is its own interpretation.  The baker brings together the disparate ingredients described in the recipe, makes preparations, and places them together like so many pieces of a puzzle.  The cacophony of flavors is coaxed into rich thick text for the palate.  Baking is the act of constructing a coherent sensory experience.  All five senses are engaged in the tasting of a recipe: the sight of the dish, the smell enhancing the taste, the temperature and texture on the tongue, and the sound of the mastication.  It is a multifaceted experience compared to the focus of the eyes on the page of a traditional text. 

If the recipe is the work of philosophy, then the cake is an interpretation of the work.  Baking cakes is akin to the activity of philosophic critique.  There is a one-to-many relationship between texts and interpretations.  Or to be more philosophical, there are multiple admissible interpretations of an object, either a text or a recipe.  This theory explains why a single object can lead to so many subtle varieties in what the senses experience. Cooking ability can be measured by the facility with which one translates recipes.  By translation, I mean the choices a particular chef makes in their interpretation.  There is no one right way to do this.  ‘It is precisely because of the disbelief in "objective truths" that there is a meaningful opening for "conscious positive agency," for choosing to act in particular ways "even though we know that perhaps there's no reason for it,"’ (Paul Grobstein

Recipes are not deterministic; they can offer surprises upon a second attempt. “[Cooks] live ... by the practical faith that we must go on experiencing and thinking over our experience, for only thus can our opinions grow more true; but to hold any one of them ... as if it never could be reinterpretable or corrigible, I believe to be a tremendously mistaken attitude,” (James).  His philosophy makes no claims to universal truth.  In James’ philosophy the value of a theory is measured by its practical value.  James emphasizes process over product, which makes sense because he is giving his reader a recipe and not a cake.  His philosophical teachings affirm intellectual diversity.  This dovetails with his requirement of an open as opposed to closed system.  An open system is subject to any number of changes in its environment over time, much as a human brain is.  A closed system is subject only to internal influences. 

William James’ philosophical texts are recipes for experiences; they have an effect in the world by means of materialization.  They are open systems.  Such a thesis could be construed to imply a variety of ways to interpret philosophical texts.  It might be possible to work our way from the text, back to the author’s experience.  Certainly, something we have tried to do in our course on the James family.  We have considered childhood, family relationship, and education of Alice, Henry, and William James this semester.  Conversely, we have tried to move forward from the text to the reader’s experience.  A particularly good example is MissArcher2’s blog about breaking a habit.  We have expanded the work of interpretation in two opposite directions.  This course has consisted of “blazes made by the axe of the human intellect on the trees of the otherwise trackless forest of human experience. They give you somewhere to go from. They give you a direction and a place to reach. They do not give you the integral forest ... but ... a sort of ownership. We can now use the forest.”  Our course has embodied William James philosophy. 


The Will to Believe

Serves: all of humanity

Preparation time: rate of thought and reflection for the specific brain being used

Ingredients- “The state of things is evidently far from simple; and pure insight and logic, whatever they might do ideally, are not the only things that really do produce our creeds,” (James, 723)

•    free will

•    a logical and rational intellect

•    Concept of truth

•    willingness to give up theories killed by experience

•    a collection of dead hypotheses

•    Prestigious opinions

•    Facts and theories that are useful to us

•    Arguments justifying our faith satisfactorily to others

•    A live hypothesis

•    An option that is forced living and momentous

•    passional nature


Obtain a contemplative state of mind.  In this container mix well together free will, logic, and rationality.  Set up a distillation apparatus and reduce the desire for truth until only trace amounts of absolutism remain.  Add the purified desire for empirical truth concept to the mixture.  A small amount of heat may be evolved, allow mixture to stand and cool. 

Add to the room temperature mixture, the willingness for theories to be killed by, or disregarded after contrary experience.  Then place a collection of dead hypotheses killed by past experience: “belief, fear, hope, prejudice, passion, imitation, partisanship, the circumpressure of our caste and set” in the container, (James 721).  To this mixture, stir in prestigious opinions, relevant facts and theories, and arguments useful for justifying faith to others satisfaction.  The brain will warm, wait for it to cool before adding any other ingredients. 

Meanwhile, add a living hypothesis to a separate vessel.  Be certain that the hypothesis is really appealing as a possibility to the mind being used.  Then place a forced, living, and momentous option in the vessel and mix in a passional nature.  Add this mixture to the brain and stir gently until heat begins to radiate outwards.  If there is heat when the contents of this vessel are added to the brain, then the option was not momentous.  It did not require significant consideration by the mind to resolve, because it was a trivial matter.  If only a small amount of heat was emitted from the brain, then the option was not forced.  A brief period of rumination revealed this fact to the brain.  The mixture will emit heat for an indefinite period of time.  Beware of over-boiling or damage to adjacent objects.  The contents of the mind can only be successfully sampled upon reaching room temperature. 

Please enjoy the will to believe…


Works Cited

Menand, Louis, “The Man of Two Minds,” “Brazil,” “Pragmatisms” and “Epilogue.” The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001.  73-95, 140-148, 351-375, 435-442

The Writings of William James: A Comprehensive Edition. Ed. John J. McDermott. Chicago: the University of Chicago Press, 1977


Anne Dalke's picture

"The brain will warm, wait for it to cool"!

I have to say that I'm just amazed, this morning, to see the varieties of forms that James's philosophy has taken in the hands of you and your classmates: y'all have generated cartoons and images and poems and habit-breaking blogs and, of course, your recipe, which distills his argument into pragmatic form.

So I'd also say, first off, that you really don't need that opening caveat, that "this is essay is a subjective account." If William James has taught us anything, it's to value each of our individual, idiosyncratic subjectivities (as you yourself say later on in your essay, James's philosophy is "deeply individualistic"). I'd push back, too, on your second claim, that "the majority of philosophies focus on the abstract," by evoking the 19th-20th-and 21st centuries' exploration of analytic philosophy, w/ its attention to concrete particularities and context: think feminist philosophy, Marxist philosophy, existentialism....

So, to get down to the concrete particularities here. Given the (so called) cake-baking "tragedy" of the past week, I am delighted to hear you say now that "you learn more about cooking by making mistakes than by a perfect performance"; perhaps you're willing to revise the genre of what happened, from tragedy to useful learning experiment/experience? You know that I was fretting @ the beginning of the semester about the wisdom of your taking two courses w/ me, but this essay suggests the real pay-off of that sort of cross-fertilization, for us both. You've figured out, from your experiential work in the other class, that using a recipe means "translating abstract ideas into a concrete, material experience"; more, that there is a "one-to-many relationship between texts and interpretations," that because "recipes are not deterministic; they can offer surprises" and "multiple admissible interpretations." Now here you're linking those insights to James's advice that we "must go on experiencing and thinking over our experience," inviting us to consider his philosophical texts as "recipes for experiences." James saw the connections between philosophy and poetry; he needed you, though, to make the connection to cooking. What a nice extension of his metaphorizing inclination!

P.S. Be sure not to miss MissArcher2's more fully realized "pringle project"!