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William James Finds His Vocation
One of America s truly great men—scientist, philosopher, and literary genius—forged his character in the throes of adversity
February/march 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 2
But apart from his existential need to come to terms with life, how did James conceive the task of philosophy at large? He tells us in a book review of 1875: “All philosophic reflection is essentially skeptical at the start. To common sense, and in fact to all living thought, matters actually thought of are held to be absolutely and objectively as we think them. Every representation becomes relative, flickering, insecure, only when reduced, only in the light of further consideration which we may confront it with. This may be called its reductive . Now the reductive of most of our confident beliefs is that they are our beliefs; that we are turbid media; and that a form of being may exist uncontaminated by the touch of the fallacious knowing subject. The motive of most philosophies has been to find a position from which one could exorcise the reductive , and remain securely in possession of a secure belief.”
It is perhaps worth noting about these words that James, when he wrote them, had just begun teaching his first course in psychology; it must have brought home to him more strongly than ever that the relation of the mind to objects is not a simple one and that any contribution of psychology to philosophy must be made as definite as possible by experiment. Now, of the current “reductives,” scientific materialism was favored by James’s closest friends; to James it was not good enough. As he had told Wendell Holmes more than once: “I’m blest if I’m a Materialist: the materialist posits an X for his ultimate principle. Were he satisfied to inhabit this vacuous X, I should not at present try to disturb him. But that atmosphere is too rare; so he spends all his time on the road between it and sensible realities, engaged in the laudable pursuit of degrading every (sensibly) higher thing into a (sensibly) lower. … It availeth little that he should at the end put in his little caveat that, after all, the low denomination is as unreal as the unreduced higher ones were. … What balm is it, when instead of my High you have given me a Low, to tell me that the Low is good for nothing?”
His diverse studies merged into an encyclopedic experience of the kind that forms great artists and epoch-making thinkers.
This allusive critique of reductionism needs a word of explanation, and deserves it, for it is central to James’s thought: reality is not found by replacing some full experience with a list of its smaller components. The reduction distorts. In other words, James affirmed the main insight of Gestalt psychology and philosophy long before its birth.
But what is X and what are the “sensible realities” that Holmes or Wright kept pushing one grade lower, “laudably” says James with irony? X is matter, which no one has ever seen, heard, or touched, for it is an assumption made by the materialist as a backstop for his actual sensations—what is seen, heard, touched, and so on—the “sensible” (sensed) elements of all experience, behind which no one can go. The unsatisfactoriness of “matter” as the ultimate reality is Berkeley’s great demonstration, which cannot be got around. Dr. Johnson missed the point when he kicked a large stone, as Boswell relates, and thought he had refuted Berkeley. No one has ever denied that a stone is hard and real. But the question remains, is there behind or below the hardness an “invisible pincushion” that holds together all the sensible “pins” (hard, rough, round, grayish, brown, etc.) of ordinary experience? If so, what is it? Matter, answers the materialist. Mind (or God’s mind), says the idealist, each a man of faith unable to bring his hypothesis to the proof. In the Psychology and later, we shall see James at war with both those hitherto prevalent views of the century he was born in.
Meanwhile he is unwilling to see any part of experience “lowered” by any kind of analysis, as if it thereby became “more real” or “ultimate.” This Jamesian resistance to reductionism, like the role of psychology in his thought, is the mark of his contribution to the intellectual revolution of the 1880s and ’90s.