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. (more…)