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3 The Principles of Psychology: Consciousness as a Constitutive Stream

William J. Gavin Indiana University Press ePub

The Principles of Psychology (PP), James’s first major work, was twelve years in the making and earned for him the title “father of American psychology.” Initially, James adopted a “functional dualism” for this text, separating the domain of psychology from other domains, such as metaphysics: “Every natural science assumes certain data critically. . . . Psychology, the science of finite individual minds, assumes as its data (1) thoughts and feelings, and (2) a physical world with which they coexist and which (3) they know. Of course these data are discussible; but the discussion of them (as of other elements) is called metaphysics and falls outside the province of this book.”1 And again, “This book consequently rejects both the associational and the spiritualist theories; and in this strictly positivistic point of view consists the only feature of it for which I feel tempted to claim originality” (PP, 1: 6). This, then, is the “manifest image” presented by James to the reader. Also part of the manifest image is his radically new view of consciousness as a stream rather than an object or a substance. The latent content of his position becomes manifest when he realizes that the dualism he espouses cannot be maintained and that psychology leaks into metaphysics itself. This chapter focuses primarily on an analysis of the “stream of consciousness” and to the realization that its characteristics, as outlined by James, entail its undoing as a neutrally functioning object.

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Conclusion: Pragmatism, Death, and “The Will to Believe”

William J. Gavin Indiana University Press ePub

As was seen in the previous chapters, the importance of the individual was a topic central to James’s thought. This chapter will focus on how individuals comport themselves at the end of life insofar as this can be gleaned from the text of Pragmatism (Prag) itself. My analysis begins with an observation, perhaps with a detour of sorts. The “manifest content” of Prag concerns its image as a method and as a theory of truth. Both of these are important. However, there is also a more “latent” content to Prag. The method and the theory of truth are “situated” in a more nebulous “context.” That context can be found in the first and last lectures of the text. Both of these turn to the subject of “death” as an important theme with which pragmatism must deal. “Dealing,” it may be noted, does not necessarily mean “solving.” Dealing may have to do with affirming, even if not wholly accepting or, alternatively, declaring “tragic” and incomprehensible. Any view of pragmatism as a method or “problem solver” can be rejected or at least significantly limited in power and scope by noting domains where and how it does and does not apply. In sum, this concluding chapter will focus on death (suicide) and tragedy, as these are found in Prag. These seem not to be “solvable” via the pragmatic method because they are not problems to begin with. They may be “resolvable,” that is, appropriated or rejected, but that entails utilization of “the will to believe.” Thus, we return to the theme brought forth at the outset of this volume on James, namely, the pervasiveness of “the will to believe” in his thought.

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Preface

William J. Gavin Indiana University Press ePub

William James is arguably America’s foremost philosopher—or at least one of them. But the one thesis for which he became most “infamous” was his espousal of “the will to believe”:

Our passional nature not only lawfully may, but must, decide an option between propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds; for to say, under such circumstances, “Do not decide, but leave the question open,” is itself a passional decision—just like deciding yes or no—and is attended with the same risk of losing the truth.

Many thought that this kind of psychological subjectivism had no place in the cold logical circles of philosophy, where one sought objectivity and, ultimately, certainty. A strategy was undertaken to engage in some sort of “damage control,” that is, to allow sentimental concerns in “soft” areas like morality, interpersonal relationships, and religion, but not in the “hard” areas dominated by the sciences. The present study argues for the opposite of this position. It suggests that the will to believe should not be relegated to specific domains; rather, it should be employed wherever choices between options are “forced, living, and momentous.” It also argues that the will to believe is not a onetime affair but must be continually reaffirmed in life.

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2 “The Will to Believe”: Policing versus Free-Roaming

William J. Gavin Indiana University Press ePub

In 1879 and 1882, James published two parts of articles that collectively would become known as “The Sentiment of Rationality.” It is remarkable how much this early text anticipates his more mature and even his final positions in philosophy. He begins by looking over various conceptualizations of the universe and noting that, while some people seek out similarities, others seek out differences in providing descriptions. This became the notorious issue of “the one and the many,” which James later called the most important problem in philosophy. Here he quickly moves on, telling the reader that “the only possible philosophy must be a compromise between an abstract monotony and a concrete heterogeneity.”1But he quickly concluded from this that pluralism is necessary, that “none of our explanations are complete.” A completed explanation is always perspectival and also incomplete. “In a word, so far as A and B contain l,m,n, and o,p,q respectively, in addition to x, they are not explained by x. . . . A single explanation of a fact only explains it from a single point of view” (WB, 60). Going further, conceptualizations are teleological in nature. We see things from a particular point of view for a particular purpose. Hence, certainty is not possible.

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7 “Pure” versus “Impure” Experience: Examples of Pure Experience

William J. Gavin Indiana University Press ePub

The question of the availability of pure experience leads directly to the issue of language and to James’s ambivalence about language. The question of the availability of pure experience also constitutes the latent content of Essays in Radical Empiricism (ERE) and A Pluralistic Universe (PU). Let us take up the issue of language first. There actually exist two different views on language in the Jamesian texts. One of these is disparaging toward language, but the second is more positive in nature.

The first position is the one most readily identified with James, and it is scattered throughout his works. In The Principles of Psychology (PP), for example, he states that

language works against our perception of the truth. We name our thoughts simply, each after its thing, as if each knew its own thing and nothing else. What each really knows is clearly the thing it is named for, with dimly perhaps a thousand other things.1

Here James argues that we take language too much for granted. We all assume that each word has one meaning and that, when the word is used in “x” number of sentences, the meaning is the same. Language so taken, he asserts, is inadequate to the substantive and transitive parts of the stream of consciousness. The sheer inadequacy of language to describe the nuances of the stream is brought out by James in PP. Having asserted that relations between things are real, both in the existent order of events and in the stream of consciousness, he continues,

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