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William James: Getting Here from There

Paul Grobstein's picture

Thinking about "A Will to Believe": Where it comes from, what is good for
Notes for a conversation in English 271
Bryn Mawr College
14 April 2009


A starting place

And another

"James's first unthinking reaction to the [San Francisco] earthquake, he tells us, was one of 'glee,' 'admiration,' 'delight,' and 'welcome' ... It was for James a moment of contact with elemental reality" ... William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism, Robert D. Richardson, 2006

Some language clarifications

James' words Translation
true (Peirces's "fixed beliefs", James "cash value") the current best available story for current purposes
habit action without thinking about it/needing complete justification
will the ability to act in ways other than one might otherwise have acted...
believe something needed to act in terms that cannot be fully justified
the will to believe acknowledging, valuing, learning to risk acting out of an inner potential to create by action new things/alternatives


How it comes into existence (in James, in others)

need to become conscious of "the pit of insecurity beneath the surface of life"

David Hume: "I could think of no other way of pushing my fortune in the world, but that of a scholar and philosopher. I was infinitely happy in this course of life for some months; till at last, about the beginning of September, 1729, all my ardour seemed in a moment to be extinguished, and I could no longer raise my mind to that pitch, which formerly gave me such excessive pleasure ...  It is a weakness rather than a lowness of spirits which troubles me, and there seems to be as great a difference betwixt my distemper and common vapours, as betwixt vapours and madness. I have noticed in the writings of the French mystics, and in those of our fanatics here, that when they give a history of the situation of their souls, they mention a coldness and desertion of the spirit, which frequently returns and some of them, at the beginning, have been tormented with it many years. As this kind of devotion depends entirely on the force of passion, and consequently of the animal spirits, I have often thought that their case and mine were pretty parallel, and that their rapturous admirations might discompose the fabric of the nerves and brain, as much as profound reflections, and that warmth or enthusiasm which is inseparable from them.

Albert Camus: "a blind man eager to see who knows that the night has no end"

Richard Rorty: "history and anthropology are enough to show that there are no unwobbling pivots"

Deconstruction (see also Chance: its meaning and significance)

need a way of being in which uncertainty/finitude is seen and felt as an affordance rather than as a problem/threat to security

  • life as process
  • action as important as thinking
  • future potential as important as present situation
  • individual reality as important as other realities

William James: "After the first of January, my callow skin being somewhat fledged, I may perhaps return to metaphysical study and skepticism without danger to my powers of action.  For the present then remember: care little for speculation ... recollect that only when habits of order are formed can we advance to really interesting fields of action ... Not in maxims, not in Anschauuggen, but in accumulated acts of thought lies salvation.

Hitherto when, when I have felt like taking a free initiative, like daring to act originally, without carefully waiting for contemplation of the eternal world to determine all for me, suicide seemed the most manly form to put my daring into; now, I will go a step further with my will, not only act with it, but believe as well, believe in my individuality and creative power .... Life shall be built on doing and suffering and creating.

David Hume: I was continually fortifying myself with reflections against death, and poverty, and shame, and pain, and all the other calamities of life. These no doubt are exceeding useful, when joined with an active life, because the occasion being presented along with the reflection, works it into the soul, and makes it take a deep impression; but in solitude they serve to little other purpose, than to waste the spirits, the force of the mind meeting with no resistance, but wasting itself in the air, like our arm when it misses its aim.

Richard Rorty: Singlemindedness ... is the quest for purity of heart - the attempt to will one thing - gone rancid. It is the attempt to see yourself as an incarnation of something larger than yourself ... rather than accepting your finitude.

Fyodor Dostoevsky: science itself will teach man... that he himself is something of the nature of a piano-key or the stop of an organ... so that everything he does is not done by his willing it, but is done of itself, by the laws of nature....even if this were proved to him by natural science and mathematics, even then he would not become reasonable, but would purposely do something perverse out of simple ingratitude, simply to gain his point.... the whole work of man really seems to consist in nothing but proving to himself every minute that he is a man and not a piano-key!


Albert Camus: All Sisyphus' silent joy in contained therein ... Thus, convinced of the wholly human origin of all that is human ... he is still on the go. The rock is still rolling.

"My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will" extended

Paul Grobstein: Maybe at this point in human history we've finished cataloguing all the possible things that one MIGHT have used as a solid starting point for continuing inquiry and we can conclude (for the moment at least?) that NONE of them are in fact a solid starting point, in the sense that none can be taken as a given not subject to further skepticism and exploration. Maybe its time to seriously entertain the possibility that looking for a single solid starting point just isn't the right way to go, that one has to find another, different way to proceed ...

One doesn't for all time abandon skepticism for some particular thing. Instead one temporarily abandons skepticism for all things in order to act. Having done so, however, one then returns to a complete skepticism. To put it differently, one acts, observes the consequences of action, and then uses those observations as part of one's on-going inquiry into anything and everything for which they may have relevance ...

by fully and completely following through on a posture of profound skepticism one very much expands the space for exploration and inquiry. While it may be a little uncomfortable to give up the security not only of authority and logic and sense data and thinking but also the "self", one achieves along this path the freedom to become, and, in becoming, to be oneself the agent of new territory to explore and inquire into.


Paul Grobstein's picture

more talking about/with James

"Hofstadter's discovery" ... Calamity's cartoon
Conversations about with ... exsoloadsolem
When is a habit a habit? and experimenting with the will to believe

Paul Grobstein's picture

James, life, and authority

"you didn't loop back to your starting point - that of "irreducible subjectivities" (Anne Dalke)

Yes I, didn't get explicitly back to "irreducible subjectivities", is there but would be worth making it more concrete.  James doesn't himself "trivialize" any one's life nor, I think, suggest any "script."  His position is, I think, more like my Writing Descartes essay: start where you are, use whatever you have (including as relevant the experiences of other people), and go from there.  James position is that there is no "authority," outside or inside, himself included. And that it is this complete absence of authority that makes possible the belief in/exercise of "free will."  Reading James as "how you should" is, I think, a reader response matter, more in the inclination of a reader to look for (and react to) assertions of authority than in what James wished to convey. 

Paul Grobstein's picture

more James conversation

See aseidman's comment on "the light as I've seen it" and my thoughts in response.

And fabelhaft's 13 April "I like the idea of each moment as its own, as belonging to a tradition, but not owned by that tradition."

Anne Dalke's picture

"frobish" and other new ideas

Many thanks, Paul, for making not only the "pit of insecurity available to us all"--but also for tracing a way out. My notes of each laborious step detailed @ Class Notes.

Paul Grobstein's picture

following a conversation on James

Thanks all for interesting conversation.  Among the things I will be thinking more about is issue of the extent to which one can/cannot change how one thinks about things.  Yes, the unconscious in particular has a lot of inertia and certainly can't be changed by thought alone.  But I would argue (as I did) that once one understands its existence/character, one can acquire methods that do in fact change over time unconscious feelings/preferences/etc.  "I am, and I can think, therefore I can change who I am." For more along these lines, see Randomness, free will, and "human nature".  I will also be thinking more about what is involved in going from consciousness of the "pit of insecurity" to affirming that as a empowering way of being as opposed to feeling it to be something needing correction.  Happy to have other thoughts on the conversation, on these or other issues.