Understanding Forwards

Michael Wood

  • William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism by Robert Richardson
    Mariner, 622 pp, £15.00, September 2007, ISBN 978 0 618 43325 4

‘He was always around the corner and out of sight,’ Henry James wrote of his older brother William as a child. ‘He was clear out before I got well in.’ The philosopher C.S. Peirce said something similar about the grown man. ‘He so concrete, so living, I a mere table of contents.’ Josiah Royce, a life-long friend and Harvard colleague of William James, with whom he agreed philosophically scarcely ever, offered a fine parody of the pragmatism so closely associated with his companion’s name. The pragmatist takes the witness stand and says: ‘I promise to tell whatever is expedient and nothing but what is expedient, so help me future experience.’ No swearing, no truth, and a firm bet on what hasn’t happened yet. Many of the virtues as well as the limitations of James’s philosophical practice are caught in this swift picture.

I take these quotations from Robert Richardson’s William James, the most recent in a long run of biographies. Its predecessors were by Ralph Barton Perry (1935), Gay Wilson Allen (1967) and Linda Simon (1998). There are also fine portraits in Jean Strouse’s biography of Alice James (1980) and in Louis Menand’s Metaphysical Club (2001). No lack of attention, then, but Richardson’s book is very welcome, in part because of his refusal to stop worrying about his subject, and his ability finally to let his enthusiasm overcome his worry.

Richardson’s tone slips at times. If James was the emotional philanderer Richardson insists on portraying, and a man always keen to tell his wife how much he liked other women, it doesn’t seem quite enough, indeed it seems positively old-boyish, to say: ‘William James must have been quite a handful.’ And it may be that James’s justification of vivisection on the grounds that ‘a heroic dog’ would gladly make the sacrifice if he understood the excellence of the cause does a little more than make ‘a modern reader . . . uncomfortable’. To me it seems grotesquely hypocritical, devoted to self-delusion. And for Richardson to start the next paragraph with ‘James was, in fact, enormously fond of dogs’ almost comically compounds the problem. Richardson’s gestures towards a wider history are brisk and potted, and also often verge on surrealist comedy. ‘Life kept throwing him challenges large and small,’ Richardson writes of James in 1897-98. ‘There was a new puppy; should they keep it or give it away? Zola’s “J’accuse” roused the consciences of intellectuals everywhere.’

But Richardson’s patience and his unwillingness to be rattled by the trouble he runs into pay off handsomely. James earns Richardson’s devotion – something I suspect Richardson’s earlier subjects, Thoreau and Emerson, didn’t have to work quite so hard at – and we come close to James, precisely because Richardson gives our doubts a chance, gets us wondering how great the great man is. James’s health was always shaky, for example (bad eyes, bad back, poor digestion, insomnia), but he kept climbing mountains and was, Richardson nicely says, ‘an accomplished complainer’. He made the most of things in both senses: went on about them and turned them into insight and success. Richardson can rise to real eloquence, asserting that James ‘had a strange and ultimately unfathomable ability to bring bits and pieces of order and achievement – trophies dripping from the deep – out of disorder and chaos’. And there are appealing moments when he simply gives in to James’s charm and energy. Two months before his death James was firmly refuting the elegant gloom of his friend Henry Adams; and Richardson, after quoting a long, fine passage, says: ‘What can one say about the philosophical bravado, the cosmic effrontery, the sheer panache of this ailing philosopher with one foot in the grave talking down the second law of thermodynamics? . . . The matchless incandescent spirit of the man!’

Walter Benjamin thought a philosophy that couldn’t account for fortune-telling by means of coffee grounds couldn’t be a real philosophy. Many have thought just the reverse, of course. One mention of coffee grounds and the like, and we are no longer talking about philosophy. But then these are just the people Benjamin was out to provoke, and William James works in much the same vein. The suggestion is not that any old thing is philosophy; only that we shouldn’t be too dogmatic about what it’s not. James says psychical research is ‘a field in which the sources of deception are extremely numerous’. No one will argue with that, but then he adds, bravely: ‘But I believe there is no source of deception in the investigation of nature which can compare with a fixed belief that certain kinds of phenomenon are impossible.’ It seems altogether likely that plenty of sources of deception, in many areas, are more powerful and more disastrous than the denial of possibility, but these are just the odds James wants to bet against. ‘No fact in human nature,’ he says, ‘is more characteristic than its willingness to live on a chance.’ Certainly nothing was more characteristic of him.

Born in New York in 1842, James graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1869. A few years after that he was telling himself he had decided ‘to stick to biology for a profession in case I am not called to a chair of philosophy’; and when he did get a job in philosophy he spent much of his time on psychology – partly because the two disciplines ran together for so long (Ribot’s Revue philosophique was the most important psychology journal for many years), and partly because he couldn’t think of one without the other. He believed in experiments, but he believed in experience even more, and although he told the Edinburgh audience at the lectures that were to become The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) that ‘psychology is the only branch of learning in which I am particularly versed,’ his psychology was philosophical through and through. He wanted to ‘catch real fact in the making’, but catching meant understanding, not merely recording. ‘We are thinking beings, and we cannot exclude the intellect from participating in any of our functions.’ And this in spite of the fact that ‘instinct leads, intelligence does but follow’ – a line of thought that reappears almost verbatim in Bergson and Proust. Even mystical experiences, James says, borrowing a metaphor from Middlemarch, ‘must be interpreted congruously with the kind of scenery which our thinking mind inhabits’. His work was often speculative and anecdotal, certainly, and always attentive to the chance that superstition might contain its portion of truth. George Santayana, James’s student and colleague, said ‘he gave a sincerely respectful hearing to sentimentalists, mystics, spiritualists, wizards, cranks, quacks, and imposters . . . Thus William James became the friend and helper of those groping, nervous, half-educated, spiritually disinherited, passionately hungry individuals of which America is full.’ His first book was the vast Principles of Psychology (1890), and in his later years he published The Will to Believe (1897), Pragmatism (1907) and A Pluralistic Universe (1909). He died in 1910.

James himself said his philosophy, which he came to call radical empiricism, was ‘crass’, meaning not refined, and not hostile to popular thought. He could sound really crass, insisting on what thoughts are ‘worth’, on the ‘cash-value’ of ideas, ‘speculative investments’, ‘prospects’, ‘credit’ and the poverty of a philosophy cut off ‘without even a shilling’. You don’t have to be squeamish about the mention of money to feel American capital is talking here, even through the mouth of a staunch anti-imperialist. And James could sound pretty brutal without the money metaphors. ‘The true is what works well, even though the qualification “on the whole” may always have to be added.’ The qualification opens up the very can of worms it is meant to close, not least because it won’t be the first or most important qualification that occurs to many of us. How about the question of context (working where and for whom) and the many realms where the notion of ‘working’ can’t even come up, let alone the bizarre judgment implied in the use of ‘well’ – how badly could an action or an instrument work and still mount a claim to truth?

But of course James knows all this. He is not crass, he is adventurous. The point of pragmatism is that it is local and essayistic, you can always have another go. James is not laying down the law, he is trying to unsettle the levelling law we keep thinking we need. ‘Dogmatic philosophies,’ he says, ‘have sought for tests for truth which might dispense us from appealing to the future. Some direct mark, by noting which we can be protected immediately and absolutely, now and for ever, against all mistake.’ He cites Kierkegaard’s maxim that we live forwards but understand backwards and offers radical empiricism as a new turn, a philosophy that ‘insists on understanding forwards’. ‘The true is what works’ doesn’t mean success breeds success or might is right, it means truth is in transit, can’t be taken out of time, and waits for us only in an as yet unsettled future.

This is what James’s talk of ‘effects’ is about. We don’t have to believe in fortune-telling by means of coffee grounds, but when the fortune-teller gets a prediction right, as all fortune-tellers must now and then, we can’t declare the result void because of the method. We would have to say the method worked this once, even if we have no confidence in its working again. As James dryly says about the unlikely but undisputed success of certain ‘mind-cures’ in 19th-century America (sprained ankles and flu symptoms vanishing at the mere thought of God’s help), ‘it would surely be pedantic and over-scrupulous for those who can get their savage and primitive philosophy of mental healing verified in such experimental ways as this, to give them up at a word of command for more scientific therapeutics.’ The point is not that wizardry always helps, only that what helps is not to be sneered at.

Some years ago, Hilary Putnam, seeking to interest analytic philosophers in the pragmatism they have no great regard for, drew their attention to the importance of being ‘both fallibilistic and antisceptical’. By ‘fallibilism’ he means the claim that ‘there is never a metaphysical guarantee . . . that such-and-such a belief will never need revision,’ and by antiscepticism the assertion that ‘doubt requires justification just as much as belief.’ To put this in terms closer to James’s own: the future will always require revisions of us, or – better – may always require revisions of us; and doubts about possibilities have no automatic privilege over beliefs in those same possibilities.

There is something very American, in an old-fashioned sense, about these stances, not unlike the mood of William’s brother responding to the criticism that real life did not provide instances of the ‘supersubtle’ artists and writers who populate his short stories. Henry James didn’t think this criticism was negligible but in the end he decided it sold the imagination short. ‘If the life about us for the last thirty years refuses warrant for these examples,’ he said ‘then so much the worse for that life.’ This aspect of William James’s thought becomes clearest in his provisional, prospective accounts of belief, which he wants to associate both with faith and with scientific theory, allowing for a range of estimates and acts of trust in between. The effect is to demystify faith quite a bit, and to make science, or at least the undogmatic science that ultimately interests James, into a set of wagers. Martin Marty, in an introduction to The Varieties of Religious Experience, suggests James ‘seems at times to be someone who has come to believe in believing’, and indeed James often does say something like this. But the formulation, even when it is James’s own, misses the hazards he is actively courting, the strange temptations of the tightrope on which he is launched.

Faith, James says, is ‘belief in something concerning which doubt is still theoretically possible . . . the readiness to act in a cause the prosperous issue of which is not certified to us in advance . . . Faith is synonymous with working hypothesis.’ Think of all the differences being elided here: the moment when faith is passive and helpless, blind as we say, the precise reverse of active belief; when we have to trust someone we can’t believe; when faith subsists on, consists of the very impossibility of anything resembling a hypothesis. But the writing is urgent, and James is not being careless. What is happening? There is a good answer in the argument James conducted with W.K. Clifford, brilliantly explored by David Hollinger in an essay in The Cambridge Companion to William James. Clifford had said that it is wrong in all cases to believe on insufficient evidence, a claim James thought ‘thoroughly fantastic’ because it excluded most human action most of the time. But Clifford, as Hollinger shows, had in fact allowed for the very situation James thought so important, except that Clifford had spoken of probabilities rather than belief. To put it crudely, James was saying we can’t act if we can’t get ourselves to believe, even at the cost of believing a lie. Clifford was saying there is all the difference in the world between acting on what we’ve got and believing that what we’ve got is enough. ‘Better go without belief for ever than believe a lie,’ Clifford says. Here’s how Hollinger puts the difference: ‘The socially complacent American worried about the damage a strict scientific conscience could do to the peace of mind of individuals, while the politically engaged Englishman of a generation before had worried about the damage religious authority could exact on a credulous population learning only gradually the liberating potential of a critical mind.’

‘Socially complacent’ is a little harsh, and so is ‘peace of mind’, particularly given James’s eloquent opposition to America’s imperial rampage in the Philippines. But the point is a fine one, a location of distinct and equally worthwhile worries. Americans in the 19th century were often credulous, but they were not submissive, and generally they knew the powers of the critical mind in a way the more dutiful English did not. What the English didn’t know, and perhaps didn’t want to know, was the force of what James called the American people’s ‘only decidedly original contribution to the systematic philosophy of life’: namely, all the versions of self-help and mental and moral rebirth that James brought together under the heading ‘mind-cures’.

James could be as sceptical as anyone about these ventures (‘Complaints of the weather are getting to be forbidden in many households’), but he understood that reason could only weaken them. Belief just might work and a cool contemplation of probabilities almost certainly wouldn’t. The English person (in me, for instance), anxious not to believe a lie, thinks instantly of all the cases where belief won’t make a difference, where the mountain in question will stubbornly resist all faith’s attempts to move it. James takes these doubts and counter-examples for granted, sees no point in denying them. What he denies is their leverage or decisive interest. And then he turns to the cases where belief makes all the difference. There is, he says, ‘a certain class of truths’ where faith ‘creates its own verification.’ ‘Believe, and you shall be right, for you shall save yourself. Doubt, and you shall again be right, for you shall perish.’

This perspective places James not in the midst of the Modernism evoked in Richardson’s subtitle, and not even in the 20th century, but in a curious double time, that of the late 19th century and our early 21st-century moment: a time when Darwin is the enemy, religion is the answer, wizards, cranks and conversions are everywhere, and an ageing American empire repeats the raw interventionist international politics of its youth. James is enormously helpful here, because he understands the power of self-confidence (and the power of power) and the fear and blindness that often lurk in that very posture, everything self-confidence has to refuse to stay in business. He uses the word ‘evil’ a lot, even the term ‘radical evil’, and you sometimes wonder if he actually knows what the word means – what it had meant for a medieval saint, for example, or what it would come to mean for Hannah Arendt. But he knows what he means. Evil is whatever crosses the path of our ideas of goodness, shadows our mind, confounds our impulse to optimism. It is not, usually, something we are likely to do or have done to us: it is a thought, a memory of all the horrors that we, with any luck, are spared. It is the scrupulous conscience of happiness that knows its own good fortune.

James is drawn to what he calls ‘healthy-mindedness’, and doesn’t like complaining pessimists (no doubt because he was himself, as Richardson says, a virtuoso complaining optimist). He thinks ‘the sallies’ of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche ‘remind one, half the time, of the sick shriekings of two dying rats’, and he is impressed by Emerson’s dismissal of centuries of moral agony. ‘Original sin, origin of evil, predestination, and the like,’ Emerson said, ‘never darkened across any man’s road, who did not go out of his way to seek them.’ But then James thinks we should go out of our way, at least to understand these things, precisely because they or the disturbances they represent have bothered so many people. Failing to think of evil, he crisply says, ‘is a bad speculative omission’ and the very religion of healthy-mindedness rests anxiously on its opposite: ‘We divert our attention from disease and death as much as we can; and the slaughter-houses and indecencies without end on which our life is founded are huddled out of sight and never mentioned.’ Even Whitman, James says, ‘is aware enough of sin for a swagger to be present in his indifference towards it’, a very subtle description of a complicated attitude.

In fact, James thinks despair, the ultimate evil for him, is liable to attack even the most ‘athletic’ optimist, to say nothing of ‘one all sicklied o’er with the sense of irremediable impotence . . . all decaying and failing.’ ‘Well, we are all such helpless failures in the last resort,’ James continues. ‘The sanest and best of us are of one clay with lunatics and prison inmates, and death finally runs the robustest of us down.’ It is characteristic that mentions of evil accumulate in The Varieties of Religious Experience around moments of what most of us would call panic or despair, the darkest hours of Tolstoy, Bunyan and (in disguise as a French correspondent) James himself. James calls these moments of recognition the awareness of ‘the vanity of mortal things’ (Tolstoy), of ‘the sense of sin’ (Bunyan), of ‘the fear of the universe’ (himself). ‘I felt,’ Tolstoy says, ‘that something had broken within me on which my life had always rested.’ ‘I was both a burthen and a terror to myself,’ Bunyan writes, and James encounters ‘a horrible fear of my own existence’, figured in the memory of an epileptic patient in an asylum. ‘This image and my fear entered into a species of combination with each other.’

What has happened in each case is that meaning has fallen away. The wilderness has returned, the edifice of civilisation or religion, whether personal or collective, has crumbled or seems a sham. The vision is not unlike that of the Dionysian man in Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, a glimpse into the empty heart of things, and it is very like that of William James’s own father, whose experience is footnoted at this point in Varieties of Religious Experience, but not quoted. Such experiences, James argued, are by their nature religious as well as psychological, and prove the existence of religious need, whatever solution we may find to their presence. This conclusion doesn’t seem at all indispensable, but the much-quoted sentences of the father certainly help us to understand what the son is trying to tell us. ‘The natural inheritance of everyone who is capable of spiritual life,’ Henry James Sr wrote, ‘is an unsubdued forest where the wolf howls and every obscene bird of night chatters.’ It is because he himself had heard the howling and the chatter, and indeed perhaps kept hearing them, that William James knew what it meant to manage to ignore them. He knew too that such practised ignorance is neither bliss nor denial but at times a virtue and at times a disaster. The trick is to know which times are which.