Strung along

‘Why did we never hear from this in all those years that we studied philosophy?’ That was the comment of some Master students in philosophy after I suggested A Pluralistic Universe by William James for their reading assignment. Indeed this late work of James is seldomly studied, or even discussed, in philosophy departments. It came to my attention through the biography of the pragmatist philosopher by Robert Richardson. Like James’ well-known work Varieties of Religious Experience, it is the result of a series of lectures, given first for an enthousiastic public in the U.K., and later repeated in the U.S. His academic colleagues rejected it almost unanimously, being without doubt the origin of its later absence in philosophy curricula.

And of course the book might be easily criticized, since it does not rest on a strong argumentative structure, but rather is an attempt to draw together insights from such widely divergent thinkers as the physicist-turned-psychologist Fechner (1801-1887) and the vitalist philosopher Bergson (1859-1941), in support of what is only the outline of a new ontology. An ontology which aims to surpass the boundaries of objectivism: expecting the Cartesian idea that a self-supporting thinking ego might describe the world as it is (as its object) to be false. One should acknowledge that ‘the Philosopher himself [is] taken up into the universe which he is accounting for.’ This makes any ontology provisional, makes us having to accept pluralism (giving up the effort to surmount conflicting ontologies into a definitive one), and potentially leads to a conception of consciousness as potentially continuous with a wider consciousness. Wider than the individual, or than reason, or than humanity.

In this work, published only a year before James’ death from heart disease, the philosopher tries to interconnect the ideas and passions which interested him all his adult life – radical empiricism, religion, psi research, and of course pragmatist epistemology. What I like so much in his attempt is that he (almost) succeeded in rendering human attempts to interact with the world (through theory, through practice, psychically and religiously) into a coherent view – a view that does not slide into an easy holistic or cosmological theory (which would have been another objectivist fallacy), but that accounts systematically for the inescapable limitedness of any ontology.

The consequence of all this is captured in one of those apt expressions the artist with words added to philosophical language: that the ‘universe’ (which presents itself as a ‘multiverse’) might not consist of entities springing all from a single source, but that its consistency might be described aptly enough as ‘strung along’. We experience continuity, coherence, concatenation without borders, without a definite whole supporting it. This should not lead us into relativistic or nihilistic desperation – it is, says James, the normal condition of human life. We do not need ‘logical considerations that hold good in all conceivable worlds’. ‘the philosophy of the future’ must take ‘the actual peculiarities of the world […] more and more elaborately into account.’ Not only those experiences filtered out by a positivistic censor, but also dreams, intuitions, apparitions – all those ‘wild beasts of the philosophic desert’ who present themselves in actual human lives.

William James lived from 1842-1910

Citations are from his A Pluralistic Universe. Hibbert Lectures at Manchester College on the Present Situation in Philosophy, University of Nebraska Press 1996 [originally published in 1909]

Recommended reading on James is a.o.:

Robert D. Richardson William James in the Maelstrom of American Modernism, Houghton Mifflin Company 2006

Deborah Blum Ghost Hunters. William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life after Death, Penguin Books 2006

  1. Feyerabend is very close to William James’s pluralism and claims, as you do here, that it leads not to impoverishment and nihilism but to fulfilment and abundance. His “last letter” summarising his ontology, or rather his ontological attitude, can be found here:

    • Thanks once more for sharing your knowledge of Feyerabend – surely makes one curious to read his posthumously published ‘Conquest of Abundance’ to which I understand the letter in your link was to be the foreword.

  2. Albert Sonntag said:

    The sad loss, – or joyous gain? – of the twentieth century was the vanishing of the possibility of certainty. I am also struck by the fact that the main article here and the comment both refer to philosophers whose background was science, rather than Protestant theology or the Academy.

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