Monday, August 30th, 2010
Robert D. Richardson is an award-winning biographer whose books include Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, Emerson: The Mind on Fire, and William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism. He edited The Heart of William James, being published this week by Harvard University Press.
William James, the greatest American philosopher and a founding figure of both modern psychology and modern religious studies, died 100 years ago last week. It is also just a century since the publication of James’ landmark manifesto, “The Moral Equivalent of War,” one of the last things published before his death. James was anti-imperialist, and he opposed, as did a few other Americans, the Spanish-American war, especially its extension to the Philippines.
By 1910, James was against war itself. His notion of a “war against war,” as he puts it, had been building for at least a decade. His position, unusual still today among peace advocates, recognizes that war is a deeply attractive thing for many of us, and that we do not in fact want peace—at least not entirely. He wrote before D.H. Lawrence observed that “the essential American is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.” And long before Simone Weil’s “The Iliad, or, the Poem of Force,” James noted that “the Iliad is one long recital of how Diomedes, and Ajax, Sarpedon and Hector killed.” It is the greatest strength of James’ argument that he seriously recognizes the grip war has on us and will continue to have. Rather than say we all love peace, let’s not fight, James instead tries to harness the war-spirit and turn it against itself. We will have to kill war. (continues after the jump)
Friday, August 27th, 2010
A Selection (The Blog)
From “The Sick Soul” by William James, part of The Varieties of Religious Experience:
Recent psychology has found great use for the word ‘threshold’ as a symbolic designation for the point at which one state of mind passes into another. Thus we speak of the threshold of a man’s consciousness in general, to indicate the amount of noise, pressure, or other outer stimulus which it takes to arouse his attention at all. One with a high threshold will doze through an amount of racket by which one with a low threshold would be immediately waked. Similarly, when one is sensitive to small differences in any order of sensation we say he has a low ‘difference-threshold’- his mind easily steps over it into the consciousness of the differences in question. And just so we might speak of a ‘pain-threshold,’ a ‘fear-threshold,’ a ‘misery-threshold,’ and find it quickly overpassed by the consciousness of some individuals, but lying too high in others to be often reached by their consciousness. The sanguine and healthy-minded live habitually on the sunny side of their misery-line, the depressed and melancholy live beyond it, in darkness and apprehension. There are men who seem to have started in life with a bottle or two of champagne inscribed to their credit; whilst others seem to have been born close to the pain-threshold, which the slightest irritants fatally send them over. (continues after the jump)
Thursday, August 26th, 2010
William James Week Giveaway #2 (The Blog)
The Heart of William James includes 17 essays, including “What Is an Emotion?,” “The Moral Equivalent of War,” and “The Sick Soul,” perhaps my favorite example of James’ work. The publisher says, “Richardson’s introductions site the works in the larger scheme of James’ thought, making this book ideal for the reader new to James, or for anyone looking for a portable James. The pieces are presented in chronological order, and each is complete, enabling the reader to follow James’ arguments as he intended.”
So, who would like a copy? E-mail me at john[at]thesecondpass[dot]com with “Heart” in the title. I’ll accept entries for this one until 11:59 p.m. on Tuesday, August 31. Otherwise, rules for this giveaway are the same as for the previous one. If you enter both and happen to win both, you will have to choose one and a re-drawing will be held for the other book.
Thursday, August 26th, 2010
Levi Asher is a writer and website developer. His blog Literary Kicks has been online since 1994.
Psychology is often concerned with origins, but the origin of modern psychology itself is murky. The field was born not from a great idea but from the lack of one. Philosophers had always studied the mind while scientists studied the physical universe, but the scientific revolution that followed the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species in 1859 seemed to call for a newly rigorous, evidence-based approach to the mysteries of the human mind. The word psychology already existed by then (in its Greek, Latin, French, German, Russian, and English equivalents), but it took a few brave souls to step forward and try to define an actual discipline worthy of the name.
In the U.S., William James was the first brave soul. In 1875, as a 33-year-old teacher of anatomy and physiology at Harvard, filled with broad and exciting ideas but mostly unknown to the world, James sent a letter to Harvard president Charles W. Eliot proposing a new course in psychology. Eliot approved the idea and James began teaching it, the first psychology course anywhere in the world, in 1876. He also began writing a textbook, The Principles of Psychology, which also would have been the world’s first if James had finished it quickly—but he did the opposite, working on it until 1890, by which time many other textbooks had been produced.
Not long after Principles was published, James began to reach a larger audience with his speeches and writings on philosophy, religion, and the nature of truth. And the field of psychology found its own Darwin—an electrifying presence with a revolutionary theory to prove—in Sigmund Freud, whose Interpretation of Dreams was published in 1900.
Freud and James met once, in 1909, at a gathering of psychologists at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. (continues after the jump)
Wednesday, August 25th, 2010
As someone who has never felt even the slightest stirrings of religious feeling, I find the most compelling part of William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience to be a portion of the third lecture (“The Reality of the Unseen”) called “Examples of ‘sense of presence.’ ” James opens that section with the proposition—set out, as is his tendency in his philosophical writing, as of course agreed rather than needing to be proved—that the
whole array of our instances leads to a conclusion something like this: It is as if there were in the human consciousness a sense of reality, a feeling of objective presence, a perception of what we may call “something there,” more deep and more general than any of the special and particular “senses” by which the current psychology supposes existent realities to be originally revealed.
From there, he proceeds to relate a number of firsthand accounts of spooky visitations, of instances where reliable people were certain, despite improbabilities, that they were being visited by some indefinable presence. Here is one testimonial:
It was about September, 1884, when I had the first experience. On the previous night I had had, after getting into bed at my rooms in College, a vivid tactile hallucination of being grasped by the arm, which made me get up and search the room for an intruder; but the sense of presence properly so called came on the next night. After I had got into bed and blown out the candle, I lay awake awhile thinking on the previous night’s experience, when suddenly I felt something come into the room and stay close to my bed. (continues after the jump)
Wednesday, August 25th, 2010
William James Week Giveaway #1 (The Blog)
As part of the William James festivities around here, I’m giving away a copy of what is probably my favorite book, The Varieties of Religious Experience. Based on a series of lectures that James delivered at the University of Edinburgh in 1901 and 1902, Varieties combines fascinating firsthand accounts of people’s experiences with James’ brilliant and timeless insights about the psychology, needs, frailty, and resilience of human beings. James was famously kind to (and drawn to) religion and the supernatural for someone as scientifically inclined as he was, but he still felt the need to acknowledge that some of the most devout might find his techniques off-putting:
It is true that we instinctively recoil from seeing an object to which our emotions and affections are committed handled by the intellect as any other object is handled. The first thing the intellect does with an object is to class it along with something else. But any object that is infinitely important to us and awakens our devotion feels to us also as if it must be sui generis and unique. Probably a crab would be filled with a sense of personal outrage if it could hear us class it without ado or apology as a crustacean, and thus dispose of it. “I am no such thing,” it would say; “I am MYSELF, MYSELF alone.”
To enter to win a copy of the book, please send an e-mail to john[at]thesecondpass[dot]com with “varieties” in the subject line. If you’d like to include a note in the body of the e-mail saying hello, or telling me the best movie you’ve attended or rented recently, feel free—I mostly hear from spambots, which can be depressing. Some important notes: (continues after the jump)
Wednesday, August 25th, 2010
“You will be discouraged, I remain happy!” (The Blog)
On April 18, 1874, William James wrote a letter to his brother Henry (“Dear Harry”). William was 32; Henry had recently turned 31, and was in Europe—he would eventually settle in England for the last four decades of his life. Much is made of the fact that William remained in America for his adulthood while Henry chose England, and I imagine even more could be made of it, if a full-length treatment of the subject hasn’t already been written. The excerpt below from the April 18th correspondence is taken from The Selected Letters of William James, which includes a terrific introduction by Elizabeth Hardwick, who also edited the compilation.)
My short stay abroad has given me quite a new sense of what you used to call the provinciality of Boston, but that is no harm. What displeases me is the want of stoutness and squareness in the people, their ultra quietness, prudence, slyness, intellectualness of gait. Not that their intellects amount to anything, either. You will be discouraged, I remain happy!
But this brings me to the subject of your return, of which I have
thought much. It is evident that you will have to eat your bread in
sorrow for a time here; it is equally evident that time . . . will
provide a remedy for a great deal of the trouble, and you will attune your at present coarse senses to snatch a fearful joy from wooden fences and commercial faces, a joy the more thrilling for being so subtly extracted. Are you ready to make the heroic effort? . . . This is your dilemma: The congeniality of Europe, on the one hand, plus the difficulty of making an entire living out of original writing, and its abnormality as a matter of mental hygiene . . . on the other hand, the dreariness of American conditions of life plus a mechanical, routine occupation possibly to be obtained, which from day to day is done when ‘t is done, mixed up with the writing into which you distill your essence. . . . In short, don’t come unless with a resolute intention. If you come, your worst years will be the first. If you stay, the bad years may be the later ones, when, moreover, you can’t change. And I have a suspicion that if you come, too, and can get once acclimated, the quality of what you write will be higher than it would be in Europe. . . . It seems to me a very critical moment in your history. But you have several months to decide. Good-bye.
Monday, August 23rd, 2010
J. C. Hallman is the author of several books, including The Devil Is a Gentleman: Exploring America’s Religious Fringe, a work that prominently features the life and thought of William James. Hallman’s new book is In Utopia: Six Kinds of Eden and the Search for a Better Paradise.
In 1997, Mark Edmundson offered an interesting take on Freud and the Gothic in modern culture in Nightmare on Main Street: Angels, Sadomasochism, and the Culture of Gothic. Edmundson’s view is that the resurgence of the Gothic in the 1990s proves that Freud was “mostly right.” Now I, like William James, harbor a little skepticism when it comes to Freud—but no worries: my interest in Edmundson (in regard to James) has less to do with his message than his method.
Late in Nightmare on Main Street, Edmundson takes on the nature of S & M culture (what now is more frequently called BDSM culture). He assesses some of the literature and some of the extant philosophy on the subject, and then holds forth:
Then too, it is not clear for how long S&M remains a game, stays ironic. At what point does role-playing disappear and obsession take over? For very few is an urbane irony compatible with sexual ardor. I expect that often what begins in sophisticated farce ends in an intensity and maybe too a passion that is closer to the tragic.
What’s worth considering here is the source of Edmundson’s authority. Surely, he’s incredibly well-read on his subject, but what permits him to declare that “very few” retain the ability to mesh passion and punning? Even he seems to doubt himself with equivocal language—from there, he is willing only to guess at what he “expects” is “maybe” the case.
Edmundson seems to think that this is his job. Once he’s gone on to state the thing as he sees it, a possible solution to the Gothic dilemma lies not with himself: “I would like to go further in describing such works of art and intellectual imagination, but it is at this point that the critic is compelled to step aside and the artist to take over.”
Thud! (That was William James rolling over in his grave.)
“One can never fathom an emotion or divine its dictates by standing outside of it,” James wrote, in The Varieties of Religious Experience. (continues after the jump)