A Jamesian Reason for Loving the Philosophy of William James
There are a few philosophers whose work I find myself rereading every year or so. John Stuart Mill is on that list. Friedrich Hayek is on that list. But William James, the American pragmatist, is at the very top of that list. More than any other philosopher, I think that William James really got and conveyed the complexities of life and human experience. At the heart of his pragmatic thought is the idea that humans struggle with tasks like ascertaining truth and navigating the external world without the ability to access the outside world independently of our subjective experience of it. We can imagine what the world is objectively like, and we can find out new things about that world, but we can never quite get beyond subjective experience.
Because that is roughly James’s starting point, James also puts a lot of weight on the idea that when we see the world, we are doing more than seeing the data – we are interpreting the data almost while we see it. When I see my office, I don’t just experience sense data, but interpret that data such that I see it as my office (an interpretation) with my computer (an interpretation), the chair I sit in while using the computer (an interpretation), etc. Interpretation and subjective experience is a part of the way reality is presented to me; I can’t see the world “as it is” because subjective experience is always part of, well, my experience.
What does this have to do with anything? Last night, I was reading a beautiful essay by William James called The Sentiment of Rationality. Here, he explores the emotional side of philosophy. Yes, we may accept a philosophy more or less because we think it explains what it seeks to explain well, but there seems an unavoidably emotional side to why we gravitate toward one philosophy over others.
James suggests that there are two simultaneous urges we have that may compel us to do (or accept a) philosophy: the urge toward simplicity (“our pleasure at finding that a chaos of facts is the expression of a single underlying fact”) and the urge toward appreciating distinctions (” the impulse to be acquainted with the parts rather than to comprehend the whole”). Everyone who thinks about philosophy probably has both of these, but may have a stronger urge one way or the other. Some think about philosophy (or science, etc) because they really want to make the complex a bit simpler, a bit more organized and predictable. Others think about philosophy more because they seek to understand features of the world as richly as possible, even if that means making the simple more complex.
James’s big point in this essay is that:
A man’s philosophic attitude is determined by the balance in him of these two cravings. No system of philosophy can hope to be universally accepted among men which grossly violates either need, or entirely subordinates the one to the other.
We all want to think that we adopt the positions we adopt because we find them to be more accurate or true than the idea’s competitors. What James is saying, and I think he is correct, is that at least some of what attracts us to certain philosophies over others is an emotional or sentimental response to its view of things. This seems supported by Jonathan Haidt’s research on emotion’s role in human reasoning, what he calls the Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail. He has found that people often have an emotional reaction to an argument first and seek to justify that reaction post hoc using reason. Not that reason is always a lackey to emotion, but at very least, there is generally (maybe always?) an emotional component to what positions our reason is most concerned to defend.
This brings me to one of the reasons I so love the philosophy of William James’s philosphy: because it really does speak to me emotionally as well as rationally. James paints a picture of a world I find highly exciting and awe-inspiring. James paints a world where human powers are at once quite limited and surprisingly powerful. Wee can only, reminds James, access the world through our own subjective experience, which always goes beyond seeing the world solely “as it really is.” But given these limitations, we can still get along in the world and have developed intersubjective institutions like science that are designed to progress our reliable knowledge of the world further and further. There seems to be no subjectivity-independent code of morality (that we can truly know, at least), yet we can still get on with each other, creating and recreating moral systems.
Maybe the part of James’s philosophy I find the most attractive is his unrelenting respect for the plurality of human experience, the acknowledgement that as different folks with different experiences (and maybe different biologies), we will almost certainly see and think about the world differently. That is, if our experience is always subjective, and that subjective experience is always colored by our interpretations of it (that always go beyond the facts), there may be as many ways to see the world as there are people to see the world.
To me, this is a profoundly beautiful depiction of the world and the human condition. I don’t gravitate to it solely because I find it beautiful; I also believe that this really does describe the situation humans find ourselves in. We can see it both by looking at how many philosophic perspectives there can be from people who exist in the same world, but how rarely disputes about which philosophy offers the correct interpretation are resolved, and how hard it is to prove one over the other.
But it is also quite beautiful. In some way, it means that the world that humans inhabit will never be uninteresting, and depicts that world as one where we actively make sense of the world (using reason, intuition, and sometimes, even a little creative interpretation). I guess in Jamesian terms, I tend to prefer philosophies which are pluralistic understanding that emphasizes distinctions more than philosophies that try and understand some ultimate foundations that seek to make the apparently complex world more simple-looking.
Lastly, as I teach courses on human diversity, I use William James’s essay On a Certain Moral Blindness in Human Beings in some of my classes, sort of as a framework for talking about diversity. There, James extends the quoted passage above (about how there may be many ways to experience and interpret the world) and goes a bit beyond; he adds that while this is true, we naturally tend to privilege our own understanding, and in our less thoughtful moments, mistake it for the way things really are. When we encounter others who live differently than we do or have different value sets than we do, the obvious thing is to imagine that our way of life or values are correct and they must be mistaken in theirs. That may be, but it also may be that we experience the world a certain way (for a particular reason) and they experience it their way (for another reason), and that’s that. We can try to convince them that our way is better, but the best thing to do first is to look for what it might be that we are missing – to become aware of our “moral blindness” and try to account for it.
Is James a relativist, then? Some say he is. I think the truth is more intricate. James doesn’t deny that there is a way the world really is. He just seems to say that we can’t possibly know what that is because we are always firmly within our own subjective experience. We can use science to come to more reliable (he is hesitant to say “true”) understandings of the world intersubjectively, and dialogue with those who have different moral systems or intuitions than we do. But what we can’t do is to say that we have ever gotten to descriptions of reality as it really is.
And this is the world I love dwelling in.