Monday, January 26, 2009


William James in 1858, age 16
From William James Page
On April 29, 1870 William James, after reading an essay by French philosopher Charles Renouvier, decided that "My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will." This brought an end to a personal crisis of depression and marked the beginning of James's own brand of psychology. Some Problems of Philosophy, is his start on a systematic treatise for metaphysics which offered his own unique philosophical perspectives.
Horace M. Kallen, a student of James and another young philosopher, Ralph Barton Perry edited this last work of James.

Henry James, age 20-21,
app. 1863
From William James Page

James begins, "The progress of society is due to the fact that individuals vary from the human average in all sorts of directions, and that the originality is often so attractive or useful that they are recognized by their tribes as leaders, and become objects of envy or admiration, and setters of new ideals.
Philosophy is dogmatic, and pretends to settle things by pure reason, whereas the only fruitful mode of getting at truth is to appeal to concrete experience. Science collects, classes, and analyzes facts, and thereby far outstrips philosophy.
The problem convenient to take up next in order will be that of the difference between thoughts and things. 'Things' are known to us by our senses, and are called 'presentations' by some authors, to distinguish them from the ideas or 'representations' which we may have when our senses are closed. We have grown accustomed to the words, 'percept' and 'concept' in treating of the contrast, but concepts flow out of percepts and into them again, they are so interlaced, and our life rests on them so interchangeably and undiscriminatingly, that it is often difficult to impart quickly to beginners a clear notion of the difference meant. Sensation and thought in man are mingled, but they vary independently. In our quadrupedal relatives thought proper is at a minimum, but we have no reason to suppose that their immediate life of feeling is either less or more copious than ours.

William James, mid-1890s
From William James Page

The great difference between percepts and concepts is that percepts are continuous and concepts are discrete. Not discrete in their being, for conception as an act is part of the flux of feeling, but discrete from each other in their several meanings.
So many disputes in philosophy hinge upon ill-defined words and ideas, each side claiming its own word or idea to be true, that any accepted method of making meanings clear must be of great utility. No method can be handier of application than our pragmatic rule. If you claim that any idea is true, assign at the same time some difference that its being true will make in some possible person's history, and we shall know not only just what you are really claiming but also how important an issue it is, and how to go to work to verify the claim. In obeying this rule we neglect the substantive content of the concept, and follow its function only. This neglect might seem at first sight to need excuse, for the content often has a value of its own which might conceivably add luster to reality, if it existed, apart from any modification wrought by it in the other parts of reality.
We harness perceptual reality in our concepts in order to drive it better to our ends. ...the better we understand anything the more we are able to tell about it. Judged by this test, concepts do make us understand our percepts better...
...An ancient philosophical opinion, inherited from Aristotle, is that we do not understand a thing until we know it by its causes.
We thus see clearly what is gained and what is lost when percepts are translated into concepts. Perception is solely of the here and now; conception is of the like and unlike, of the future, of the past, and of the far away. Who can decide offhand which is absolutely better to live or to understand life? We must do both alternately, and a man can no more limit himself to either than a pair of scissors can cut with single one of its blades."

William James,
photograph taken by Mrs. Montgomery Sears,
circa 1894-95
From William James Page

James quoted Malebranche, Nicholas (1638-1715), Cartesian Philosopher, Platonic Idealist, "Your sensational modalities, writes one of these, are but darkness, remember that. Mount higher, up to reason, and you will see light. Impose silence on your senses, your imagination, and your passions, and you will then hear the pure voice of interior truth, the clear and evident replies of our common mistress [reason]. Never confound that evidence which results from the comparison of ideas with the vivacity of those feelings which move and touch you.... We must follow reason despite the caresses, the threats and the insults of the body to which we are conjoined, despite the action of the objects that surround us.... I exhort you to recognize the difference there is between knowing and feeling, between our clear ideas, and our sensations always obscure and confused."
James goes on to say, "No real thing can be in two relations at once; the same moon, for example, cannot be seen both by you and by me. For the concept 'seen by you' is not the concept 'seen by me'; and if, taking the moon as a grammatical subject and, predicating one of these concepts of it, you then predicate the other also, you become guilty of the logical sin of saying that a thing can both be A and not-A at once. Learned trifling again; for clear though the conceptual contradictions be, nobody sincerely disbelieves that two men see the same thing.
Black in the coat and black in the shoe are the same in so far forth as both shoe and coat are called black — the fact that on this view the name can never twice be the 'same' being quite overlooked. What now does the concept 'same' signify? Applying, as usual, the pragmatic rule, we find that when we call two objects the same we mean either (a) that no difference can be found between them when compared, or (b) that we can substitute the one for the other in certain operations without changing the result. If we are to discuss sameness profitably we must bear these pragmatic meanings in mind.
Do then the snow and the paper show no difference in color? And can we use them indifferently in operations? They may certainly replace each other for reflecting light, or be used indifferently as backgrounds to set off anything dark, or serve as equally good samples of what the word 'white' signifies. But the snow may be dirty, and the paper pinkish or yellowish without ceasing to be called 'white'; or both snow and paper in one light may differ from their own selves in another and still be 'white,' — so the no-difference criterion seems to be at fault. This physical difficulty (which all house painters know) of matching two tints so exactly as to show no difference seems to be the sort of fact that nominalists have in mind when they say that our ideal meanings are never twice the same. Must we therefore admit that such a concept as 'white' can never keep exactly the same meaning?
According to James, 'evidently it is got in our own personal activity-situations. In all of these what we feel is that a previous field of 'consciousness' containing (in the midst of its complexity) the idea of a result, develops gradually into another field in which that result either appears as accomplished, or else is prevented by obstacles against which we still feel ourselves to press.
To some such vague vision are we brought by taking our perceptual experience of action at its face-value, and following the analogies which it suggests.
Even if our desires be an unconditional causal factor in the only part of the universe where we are intimately acquainted with the way creative work is done, desire is anything but a close factor, even there. The part of the world to which our desires lie closest is, by the consent of physiologists, the cortex of the brain. If they act causally, their first effect is there, and only through innumerable neural, muscular, and instrumental intermediaries is that last effect which they consciously aimed at brought to birth. Our trust in the face-value of perception was apparently misleading."
(Some Problems of Philosophy, 1911, with review by Doug Renselle at Quantonics, Inc.)

James letter to Carl, from Cambridge
From William James Page

William James in 1907
Photo taken for Harvard University
m '69 denotes that he received his medical degree in 1869
From William James Page

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