William James’s philosophy has the qualities of a lucid and deeply coherent vision that is not to be distinguished from his method. He says, “If philosophy is more a matter of passionate vision than of logic—and I believe it is, logic only finding reasons for the vision afterwards,” then a vision that is defective or thin fails as philosophy. He brings an aesthetic standard to bear on thought, discovering “a certain native poverty of mental demand” in the work of some contemporaries, admiring by comparison scholasticism and Hegel because they both “ran thick.” A great philosophy must create a conceptual world large enough for a vigorous mind to inhabit, and within which, and against which, it can exercise its powers. His “pragmatism,” his insistence that ideas are meaningful not for their internal logic or coherence but in the ways they are reflected in behavior, secures a central place for thought within phenomenal reality by underscoring its effect. For better and worse, subjectively and therefore objectively, ideas shape the world.
James argues that emotion is not prior to its expression but identical with it, and that emotion can be limited by the decision to contain its expression. In his view, this would not mean its suppression, an idea that takes an emotion to be a fixed quantity that will either be expended in some proportion to its strength, or will be put out of sight, to fester or to distort the consciousness forced to contain it. Rather, he says, composure diminishes fear, calm dissipates anger. Over time or from a little distance the nature of the emotion will change—”Refuse to express a passion, and it dies.” And, as a corollary, “if we wish to conquer undesirable emotional tendencies in ourselves, we must assiduously, and in the first instance cold-bloodedly, go through the outward motions of those contrary dispositions we prefer to cultivate,” kindliness, cheerfulness and geniality, for example. He knows he is repeating a commonplace. He says, “there is no more valuable precept in moral education than this.” So he has no doubt seen instances of cold-blooded kindliness and probably dealt in it himself.
But the assumption that in this way the will can shape not only behavior but experience too means there is nothing false in this sort of feigning, though James’s language suggests he is alive to the humor of it. Skeptics might dismiss it as hypocrisy, but this would be the consequence of an assumption very foreign to his thinking, that the true self is another fixed quantity, that it has no role in determining its own character or shaping its own moral aesthetic. Suspicions might arise because James is in fact proposing a regime of good manners, an assertion of the will relative to oneself that would involve tact and restraint, and would make one a better friend, a better citizen. If this seems at first a less thrilling notion than the will to power, also abroad in the world at the time, James’s implicit response is the power, magnanimity and embrace of individual human consciousness he enacts in his writing. He is the perceiver eager to grant the autonomy, the essential unknowability, of everything and anything.
The controversy that engrosses certain of us at present, called, however accurately, the argument between science and religion, is a good illustration of the precedence vision takes over logic in these matters. The brilliance of the physical world, the superb intricacy of the cell, the antic indeterminacy of the electron, are used by one side to prove there must be a Creator and by the other side to demonstrate that nature is sufficient unto itself and God an unnecessary hypothesis. Both theists and atheists feel their case is made, on the basis of exactly the same evidence. This is interesting in its own right. The vision that pre-exists their logic is surely determining in the great majority of cases, “logic only finding reasons for the vision afterwards.” Looked at directly, this common feature of the thinking of the two sides should yield significant insight into the workings of the mind, and should in any case alleviate the rancor that comes with so many years of mutual incomprehension. James deals with this old controversy in the essay “Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results.” The dispute, he says, is not really about “hair-splitting abstractions about matter’s inner essence, or about the metaphysical attributes of God. Materialism means simply the denial that the moral order is eternal, and the cutting off of ultimate hopes; theism means the affirmation of an eternal moral order and the letting loose of hope. Surely here is an issue genuine enough, for anyone who feels it; and, as long as men are men, it will yield matter for serious philosophic debate. Concerning this question at any rate, the positivists and pooh-pooh-ers of metaphysics are wrong.”
If human presence in the cosmos has the centrality James—and Hawking—claim for it, then “this need of an eternal moral order,” which “is one of the deepest needs of our breast,” is not to be dismissed. Such intuitions could as well reflect our incomprehensible (though struggling and error-prone) ability to comprehend the universe as physics and astronomy. Scientific materialism, says James, is “not a permanent warrant for our more ideal interests, not a fulfiller of our remotest hopes.” For scientific materialism, our ideals and hopes have nothing to do with the nature of things and will die an absolute death. In James’s understanding, it is theism that places us in the cosmos whole and wholly human. “A world with a God in it to say the last word, may indeed burn up or freeze, but we then think of him as still mindful of the old ideals and sure to bring them elsewhere to fruition; so that, where he is, tragedy is only provisional and partial, and shipwreck and dissolution not the absolutely final things.” But metaphysics is only half the conversation, so “as long as men are men,” as long as we are human, there will be voices in this vast, cold universe debating ultimate things. And this is also beautiful.
Risk the Game: On William James by Marilynne Robinson
The Nation, December 13, 2010