Steven H Propp
- Published on Amazon.com
William James (1842-1910) was an American philosopher (noted for his influence on Pragmatism) and psychologist (the first educator to offer a psychology course in the U.S.; see his Principles of Psychology); he was also the brother of the novelist Henry James. He wrote many other books, such as Pragmatism and The Meaning of Truth, The Will to Believe, Essays in Radical Empiricism, The Varieties Of Religious Experience, etc. [NOTE: page numbers correspond to a 283-page hardcover edition.]
The Editor's Preface states, "The present volume is an attempt to carry out a plan which William James is known to have formed several years before his death. In 1907 he collected reprints in an envelope which he inscribed with the title `Essays in Radical Empiricism'; and he also had duplicate sets of these reprints bound, under the same title, and deposited for use of students in the general Harvard Library... Whether he would have nevertheless have carried out his original plan, had he lived, cannot be certainly known... In preparing the present volume, the editor has therefore been governed by two motives. On the one hand, he has sought to preserve and make accessible certain important articles not to be found in Professor James's other books... On the other hand, he has sought to bring together in one volume a set of essays treating systematically of one independent, coherent, and fundamental doctrine."
In his famous article, "Does `Consciousness' Exist?" he cites another philosopher who says, "The existence of consciousness, although it is the fundamental fact of psychology, can indeed be laid down as certain, can be brought out by analysis, but can neither be defined nor deduced from anything but itself.' ... This supposes that the consciousness is one element, moment, factor... of an experience of essentially dualistic inner constitution, from which... the consciousness will remain revealed to its own eye... the usual view is, that by mental subtraction we can separate the two factors of experience in an analogous way---not isolating them entirely, but distinguishing them enough to know that they are two.... Now my contention is exactly the reverse of this. Experience, I believe, has no such inner duplicity; and the separation of it into consciousness and content comes, not by way of subtracting, but by way of addition... Just so, I maintain, does a given undivided portion of experience, taken in one context of associates, play the part of a knower, of a state of mind, of `consciousness'; while in a different context the same undivided bit of experience plays the part of a thing known, of an objective `content.' In a word, in one group it figures as a thought, in another group it figures as a thing. And, since it can figure in both groups simultaneously we have every right to speak of it as subjective and objective both at once." (Pg. 9-10) He presents his thesis: "Consciousness connotes a kind of external relation, and does not denote a special stuff or way of being. The peculiarity of our experiences, that they not only are, but are known, which their `conscious' quality is invoked to explain, is better explained by their relations---these relations themselves being experiences---to one another." (Pg. 25)
In another essay, he states, "Now the immensely greater part of all our knowing never gets beyond this virtual stage. It never is completed or nailed down... To continue thinking unchallenged is, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, our practical substitute for knowing in a completed sense. As each experience runs by cognitive transition into the next one, and we nowhere feel a collision with what we elsewhere count as truth or fact, we commit ourselves to the current as if the port were sure... Our experience, inter alia, is of variations of rate and direction, and lives in these transitions more than in the journey's end." (Pg. 68-69)
He observes, "Now if we must de-realize our immediately felt activity-situations for the benefit of either of these types of substitute, we ought to know what the substation practically involves. What practical difference ought it to make if, instead of saying naively that `I' am active now in delivering this address, I say that a wider thinker is active, or that certain ideas are active, or that certain nerve-cells are active, in producing the result? This would be the pragmatic meaning of the three hypotheses." (Pg. 176)
He argues, "I conclude, then, that real effectual causation as an ultimate nature, as a `category,' if you like, of reality, is just what we feel it to be, just that kind of conjunction which our own activity-series reveal. We have the whole butt and being of it in our hands; and the healthy thing for philosophy is to leave off grubbing underground for what effects effectuation, or what makes action act, and to try to solve the concrete questions of where effectuation in this world is located, of which things are the true causal agents there, and of what the more remote effects consist. From this point of view the greater sublimity traditionally attributed to the metaphysical inquiry, the grubbing inquiry, entirely disappears. If we could know what causation really and transcendentally is in itself, the only USE of this knowledge would be to help us to recognize an actual cause when we had one, and so to track the future course of operations more intelligently out. The mere abstract inquiry into causation's hidden nature is not more sublime than any other inquiry equally abstract." (Pg. 186)
James is associated most closely with Pragmatism, and religious philosophy, of course; but this collection reminds us that he also did "pure" philosophy of a pathbreaking sort, at times.