Tuesday, October 22, 2013

William James (Great American Thinkers) review

I was introduced to William James in a college class. Learned he is the Father of Pragmatism – a simplified philosophy that I cottoned to. So when I recently found a thin, paperback, paperback book about William James at a book sale in a church basement, I grabbed it up.

Called the first original American philosophy, pragmatism comes down to this: the action that brings about the most practical result is the right one. James called practical consequences the “cash value” of an idea. Since that mode of thinking permeates American society today, I believe James is worthy of consideration.

A slim, succinct book (unlike James’s own books) simply entitled William James, it was written in the 1960s by Edward C. Moore as part of the Great American Thinkers series of books. This series also included short bios about Jonathan Edwards, Benjamin Franklin, Thorstein Veblen and others who influenced American thought.

Primarily a summary and evaluation of James’s works, the book also provides brief biographical information about James and the time in which he lived. That is the best feature of this book -- putting James’s philosophy into the context of the 19th century New England culture he came of age in. Really, I see no way not to read the book when coming upon this sentence on the first page.

“The intellectual history of William James is almost an intellectual biography of America.”

Looking over the beliefs and mythologies that have defined American history, I can see a dichotomy that parallels the opposing poles James struggled with. The Puritans brought to the colonies a Calvinist belief in God’s omnipotence, man’s helplessness and predestination. But those settlers also pioneered the prevailing American spirit of adventure, experimentation and shaping our own destinies.

The two beliefs came to a head at the time James was coming of age. As a man of science, he could not disregard empiricism and Darwinian determinism. As a man of his culture, he could not leave God and morality out of the equation. His genius was in mediating the two extremes, finding a sensible middle ground between John Calvin and Charles Darwin. In that way, you might say he was the last 19th century man and first 20th century man.

James’s most interesting – and controversial – idea was his theory of “relative truth.” This idea is easier to accept in the science realm where even the most airtight “scientific fact” (gravity, for instance) is only a theory that can be overturned by evidence. With regard to morals, however, “relative truth” doesn’t go down so well.

I can envision some preacher on Sunday morning, saying, “The world would have you believe morals are relative and can be tossed aside when they aren’t convenient.” That would be a misinterpretation of James’s view. I think of relative truth in the context of a moral dilemma. An action that’s moral under one set of circumstances might be wrong under another.

Most people probably want to believe there are immutable moral truths. I certainly do, but I also recoil at absolutism. It’s not within human power to define with certainty what constitutes meaning in the universe.

Today, the Calvinism that caused such internal conflict for James and his contemporaries is foreign even to the most Presbyterian of us. Pragmatism, we can relate to. It’s not without imperfections and limitations -- no school of philosophy is – but it’s accessible and user-friendly. James rescued philosophy from its aloof and lofty palace in the sky and brought it down to nuts and bolts. A uniquely American approach.

It has been fun reading about William James, learning the definitions of – and chewing on the ideas of – what he termed “meliorism,”” pluriverse” and “pure experience". Now, I plan to free space in my home library by parting with this book. It will be a pragmatic move. (Later) Actually, I sold it for a quarter at a garage sale.

Gateway reading:  William James’s writings, of course, particularly his magnum opus, The Varieties of Religious ExperienceT. Then there are great biographies of James, such as William James:  In the Malestrom of American Modernism by Robert D. Richardson. A book I've always wanted to read is The Metaphysical Club is about the young James, future Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. and Charles Spencer Peirce, logician, scientist, and the founder of semiotics, and a conversational, philosophical club they had in Cambridge, Mass. in 1872.

I would also recommend reading works by writers  who were students of James's at Harvard University: W.E.B. Dubois, Theodore Roosevelt, Gertrude Stein, George Santanya, Walter Lippman

Then there are others who were influenced by James:  Bertrand Russell, John Dewey, Michael Foucalt.

I cannot not recommend 19th century essayist, lecturer and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, the biggest name in the transcendental movement. He was James's godfather

I would suggest reading biographies of and writings by John Calvin and Charles Darwin.

Lastly, I would suggest reading more slim books from the old Great American Thinkers series. You'll find them in garage sales, library and church book sales and eBay. See where they take you in your reading.