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Pragmatism

Francesca Bordogna begins her 2008 book on William James ‘at the Boundaries’ discussing how the pragmatist philosopher created confusion with his 1906 address of the APA, on ‘the Energies of Men’. According to the closed-in minds of the professional philosophers, Bordogna writes, he only showed his own failure at good philosophy, by mentioning not only psychological and physiological insights, but also unscientific sources from popular spiritual healers and thinkers – in search for what could bring human beings to higher levels of mental and physical energy. An approach like that of James would probably still get the same kind of reaction at most gatherings of professional philosophers. Philosophy is, they hold, about conceptually clear analysis of theoretical and practical problems, or, if one is into continental philosophy, about rich hermeneutic descriptions of structures and ideas. It is not about ideas of what James called “common, practical men”. Philosophers can speak about their beliefs, of course, but not take these beliefs into the philosophical discourse itself – thus works the discipline’s exclusion of voices from ‘ordinary’ life. As Peter Park has shown in his historiography of the modern canon in philosophy, the gradual exclusion of religious and spiritual texts from philosophy, and the rewriting of its history to legitimize this move, has served the racist effects (if not motives) of the modernist, professionalized field. The issue of racism in modern philosophy had earlier already been outlined by Emmanuel Eze. His work and that of Park, implicitly also serve to bring philosophy, in post-Enlightenment times, again beyond the modernist boundaries that were challenged by James.

Pius Mosima’s recent book, which aims to provide a critical discussion of the concept of sagacity, as introduced by Henry Odera Oruka, now adds the case of African philosophy to this growing movement to bring philosophy beyond the boundaries. And it does so in a new, deconstructive, way, not trying to write a ‘grand narrative’ of what’s African (like e.g. John Mbiti attempted almost fifty years ago), but by including (in between the lines of his discussion of the past seventy years of the African philosophy debate, and of the philosophy of Oruka) practical and narrative approaches to problems of life that root in African traditions into the field of philosophy. Thus his book, titled Philosophic sagacity and intercultural philosophy, simultaneously criticizes the Euro-American hegemony in philosophy, as well as the strict policing of its disciplinary boundaries that goes along with it, and does so more by showing how things can be done otherwise, rather than by highlighting once more what’s wrong with modernist thought. At some points in his book Mosima is outspoken about his aim, as well with regard to its critical aspects, as to its constructive contribution to what he names ‘global wisdom traditions’. Below I want to highlight these outspoken moments, that add to a better view of what African philosophy could bring to the dialogical table of philosophy, as well as to a deconstruction of the modernist identification of philosophy with professional disciplinarity. What the book offers beyond that I will leave aside here. But one can also find in it also a well-researched (and much needed) overview and discussion of the different positions in the debate about African philosophy since the publication of Bantu Philosophy by the Belgian missionary Tempels, shortly after WW II. And of course a critical analysis of its main subject: Oruka’s philosophy of sagacity. Besides these two, very clear, main expositions, I was most intrigued by the general approach present in the book – which shows directions for a globalized philosophy beyond what Lewis Gordon has called disciplinary decadence.

What makes African philosophy a special case for doing so, lies in the fact that because “European imperialism and colonialism violently and profoundly disrupted Africa’s social, cultural, and political continuity and integrity” (17) it has had to find it’s voice, as Mosima shows, through and beyond debates about the status of traditional and modern knowledge systems, about whether to adopt an essentializing identity as ‘African’ at all, and, finally, about how philosophy can deal with its universalizing urges and its always localized commitments. This brings the author to adopt the view that “Place and belonging become what we make of them through constructs of meaning and through the construction of community.” This view sheds new light on the now globally so urgent matter of identity in a world that is increasingly interconnected through economical, political and even military processes. What’s more, it allows us (as I understand it) to take the achievements of African philosophy as a model for philosophizing in other places too. Philosophy is then allowed to move beyond a fixed geography of space, and beyond the idea of contained ‘continents’ to a continuous hermeneutical negotiation of the places where we think from. Thus marrying traditional structures of understanding that we commit to, to nonlocal reflections. This movement makes it no accident that a deconstructive (dislocating) approach is pervasive in the book. According to its author “intercultural philosophy enables us to go beyond the particularism of the ethnophilosophers and the universalism of the professional philosophers […] and helps us deconstruct the hegemonic imposition of the North Atlantic model.” (25)

Now the reader becomes intrigued to know what actual insights then, beyond the idea of an essentialized African tradition, African philosophy will bring to the global discussion. Here Mosima is not very explicit, but we can find many indications of where he would want to go to find such a contribution. We find remarks such as “We cannot interpret reality and search for wisdom just as abstract reality.” (70) Or, in a rather harsh criticism of those thinkers rejecting ethnophilosophy (like Hountondji, Towa and Oruka), we read that they are “overrated and promoted merely for the sake of the triumph of the Western, individual, text-based philosophy that they project.” (72) Alternatively, philosophy should take seriously, even include, ‘collectively managed and owned worldviews’ – to put it in James’ words: the ideas and practices of dealing with life of ‘common practical men’. Towards the end of the book, building from and critically dialoguing with Dutch intercultural philosopher Wim van Binsbergen, it becomes more clear what these ideas and practices in the case of the African heritage could be: besides traditional “wisdom of the body, expressed and mobilized in every ritual act of therapy” (120), “there are African local-level practices of conflict resolution and reconciliation”. (121) Thirdly, ‘comparative mythology’ is mentioned, as a source of symbolic knowledge of life available to human beings.

In the end, in the promotion of his radically dialogical version of intercultural philosophy (which differs from the more static approach of comparative philosophy), Mosima proposes to “look for an African sagacity that does not limit itself just to a ‘culture’ but goes beyond borders [taking into account] the oneness and interconnectedness of humanity.” He also clarifies the importance of this move – “to enable us to deal with common problems [for humankind, AR] across borders.” Thus, if we follow this proposal, philosophy will go beyond many boundaries simultaneously: first, it will leave behind the Western normative idea that ‘real’ philosophy consists of abstract thought and should be practiced only by professional philosophers; second, it will move beyond the idea that local wisdom is contained within fixed cultures (but rather is all the time anew performed, while cultures develop and interact with their context); and third it will move towards the most uncommon idea that philosophy can not just be detected or unearthed in human practices (e.g. of justice, of mythological storytelling, or of healing) – but that these practices themselves are philosophical. Philosophy cannot be identified with reason, but is love of wisdom, be it present in abstract thought, in healing practices, or in therapeutic storytelling. Interestingly enough, all this is motivated by a commitment which reminds one of the pragmatism of William James, understanding philosophy as a way of dealing with shared human challenges of survival, and inviting into it therefore practical wisdom from all kinds of venues.

A long time ago I wrote in a Dutch magazine a short article about the philosophy that could be found in the sayings of world famous and now mourned soccer player Johan Cruyff. Some readers found that I had went to far in translating the intriguing words of Cruyff into philosophical language. I might have. Cruyff’s exressions should perhaps be taken to be philosophy already. I am not sure about it. To the practical question of how to include the voices of ‘common men’ into philosophy William James did not yet produce clear answers. Pius Mosima does not provide us with them either. His book is more like a program, a guide of where he thinks a globalized philosophy should go. But with this already quite radical program in hand – to let the case of African philosophy deconstruct and reform the North Atlantic hegemonic idea of philosophy as abstract reason – one is now expecting the next, even more radical step: to include the actual practical wisdom, the actual voices, rituals, institutions and stories from ‘daily life’ into philosophy and bring them into dialogue with each other as well as with those of – now recognized to be local in origin too – Western-style disciplinary philosophy.

 

The page references follow the printed version of Pius Maija Mosima, Philosophica sagacity and intercultural philosophy. Beyond Henry Odera Oruka, published by the African studies Center, 2016. The book can be read online too.

 

I like it when new and unread books are standing on my desk, waiting for me to read them. In my student days in the eighties of the last century, when course programs where published in a booklet in the summer, I used to get the new prescribed half meter of books as soon as possible and put them there in front of me – creating the excitement of anticipation for the next year of study. Nowadays my years of teaching have no end, they are like a circle that begins again when it reaches its fulfillment. Studying has become an even greater joy as it is my reward when course administration, grading, actual standing for the classroom leaves any spare time. Among those new books have been, for some time, the titles by two Eduardo’s: Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s Cannibal Metaphysics, and Eduardo Kohn’s How Forest’s think. Preparing my next conference paper, the time to read them has come (and I have to make haste to get my presentation ready in time!) Although very different in style and argumentation, both books show in unison that much creative philosophy is done outside philosophy departments. Here we have anthropologists who delve into the works of philosophers to question the ontological presuppositions that stand in the way when they try to understand how their research subjects, ‘non-Western’ peoples, understand the world and interact with it.

While still reading the introduction of Kohn’s book I got a pleasant surprise – that it will be the old pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) who will provide for Kohn the groundwork for understanding how forests, and animals, all living creatures for that matter, think. Kohn announces that he will draw on ‘the “weird” Peirce [that is on] those aspects of Peirce’s writing that we anthropologists find hard to digest – those parts that reach beyond the human to situate representation in the workings and logics of a broader nonhuman universe out of which we humans come.’ This made me happy as it again brought me back to an important period in my years of study: following the courses of one of our most excellent teachers – Gabriel Nuchelmans (1922-1996), who taught philosophy of language and analytic philosophy. All very broadly understood. Nuchelmans wrote sturdy and thorough books on philosophical problems, and specialized articles that were just as thorough, all of which will only be familiar still to those who specialize in the history and philosophy of logic. As a teacher he just passed on some of his wide readings in whatever interested him. One year he passed on his knowledge of pragmatism – and although at first I did not know how to fit this in with my mostly ‘continental’ interests, over the years my notes of this course would be the only ones that I always kept – which in retrospect can be seen as a predicting sign of my later return to the material.

For years it was mostly William James that interested me, first his Varieties of Religious Experience, and later his Pluralistic Universe. Works that I still consider to challenge standing frameworks of thought and to be indispensable if one tries to begin to build a critical ontology of the spiritual. In the article by Eugene Taylor which serves as an introduction to the centenarian edition of the Varieties, I read about the influence of Swedenborgian thought on James, but also on Peirce, as both longtime friends participated in the circle of James’s father, and in experiments that aimed at understanding spiritual communication. I only knew Peirce as having contributed to logic and philosophy of science/epistemology, so this came a bit as a surprise to me. But now I find that Peirce’s ability to think beyond philosophical modernism, seeing relation and signification  as the basis of thought rather than immediate intuition and mental clarity (which one can call the unfounded dogma’s of modernist thought) – forms the inspiration for those that are creatively moving beyond modernism by different paths, as Kohn does while trying to understand the world as understood by the peoples of the Amazon.

When I will be reading along, I will not only follow Kohn’s path of a semiotics of the forest, but I will also remember the mysterious smile of professor Nuchelmans when he spoke about Peirce’s weird categories of ‘firstness, secondness and thirdness’. And also how this old-fashioned professor lifted his hat for female students, calling them ‘mevrouw’ (mrs) – and then again how he left his comfort zone of the history of logic when he felt the need to criticize Heideggerianism. Then his face gained more color, and his voice betrayed suppressed excitement – and one felt the echoes of the struggle against the irrationalities that had swept over Europe only fourty years ago. Nowadays Nuchelmans’ suspicions of Heidegger have been vindicated by the publication of Heidegger’s explicitly racist notebooks. But that is perhaps not the most important thing in which Nuchelmans’ teaching put up signposts. More important was how his own work showed that digging into abstract stuff like logic, grammar, and structures of thought did not have to lead away from real world issues. As goes for the work of the ‘weird’ Peirce – which invites us to think the human in relation to the non-human in a thorough philosophical manner – work that is very relevant in these days, when it becomes more and more visible that the human, all too human issues that have led modern civilization, are destroying the possibilities to lead enjoyable lives for so many. Let’s try to read the signs of other ‘living ones’, and forests are not the least among them.

All those years that I have been involved in teaching, I have reflected on the process of education, and it’s relation to learning. Well, not all those years… the first time I was allowed to teach philosophy of sociology, at age 22, to students of my own age, I was just very excited that I could do it. That I could capture their brains and keep them focused on the texts I had chosen for two or three hours. When, later, I found myself in class again, I realised that the teaching experience had learned me more than being in the role of a student. Having to explain a text to others, and inspire their reflective process, makes you graps the subject matter deeper than just trying to understand it for yourself.

This experience got me interested in methods of education that promote active participation of students. Later, when teaching subjects like ethics and philosophy of spirituality, I searched for even more profound ways to get students involved in their own learning process – by inciting them to research their (overt and silent) presuppositions and prejudices – trying to create a safe environment to get into a dialogue over those prejudices and presuppositions. The aim was to learn to critically examine one’s point of departure, to learn to give sound arguments for it, to dismiss elements of it that proved unsound, or to put them in a stand-by position for later investigation. All this activity earned me a task to coordinate and develop (in a team) at my university what was then called value education – a task I gave up when it was forcibly changed into just another managerial task, administrating teaching hours and their financial exchange currency.

All the same, I kept trying out different teaching styles in my own classes, finding students to react very differently: those that are interested especially in developing their political, moral and/or spiritual worldview react enthusiastically to this kind of teaching; other just want to become very good in some subject, and they tend to be somewhat annoyed at ‘losing time to dialogue’ and ‘uninteresting expressions of personal views’. Always returning to literature to understand my experiences, and reading John Dewey and Ivan Illich to help me these days, it is dawning on me that below the debate on learning styles and teaching methods, a more profound struggle is taking place to understand modern human society, it’s problematic aspects, it’s silent goals, it’s goods and evils – and that we cannot enter into any debate on education meaningfully without adressing this struggle too.

Illich takes a radical position, criticizing the consumer society as a whole, and school as a vehicle to train individuals to be efficient consumers. To restore what he sees as real humanity, i.e. an experience of freedom, dignity and creativity, he tried to envisage a way to stimulate ways of learning that are not subjected to the obligatory discipline which the schooling system offers. It interests me that in so doing he criticizes the famous philosopher of education, John Dewey, who was a critical spirit in his own way. Where Dewey envisages to ‘make each of our schools an embryonic community life, active with types of occupations that reflect the life of the larger society’ (getting rid of an old type of old-world education which did not reflect the needs of the dynamic, young, American society), Illich still sees here the sense of obligation at work ‘to process [the young] […] into a society which needs disciplined specialization as much from its producers as from its consumers and also their full commitment to the ideology which puts economic growth first.’

Illich’s criticism seems unfair, since Dewey defined ‘the proper end of education [to be] the promotion of the best possible realization of humanity as humanity.’ He criticized the Prussian school system, which disciplined pupils to subordinate to state goals, instead of promoting their personal development. The reason for Illich’s harsh view lies in an element failing in Dewey’s philosophy: the Marx-inspired analysis of society’s goals in their dependency on economic processes that silently direct them. Illich sees the consumer society as a great evil, threatening not only a free and dignified human life (especially for the poor) but even threatening the earth because of it’s necessary polluting character. It is not a struggle between communist and capitalist views however, which is at work here – as both ideologies use schooling to discipline the young for what are to me just varieties of producer-consumer systems. What Illich wanted to make possible are ways of learning that might lead individuals to entirely different ways to live, ways still unimaginable, beyond the ‘economy of growth’. As I sympathize with Illich, although more with his criticisms than with his solutions, classroom life often feels like living a paradox: as a teacher I am part of the ‘disciplining’ system of society (grading, certifying, etcetera), but all the same I am convinced (and try to embody this conviction while teaching) that to shape the conditions for truly critical and creative thought in students and teachers together, one cannot put boundaries to this thought – it should be fundamentally open to criticism of the very conditions of the education we all participate in.

I cited from Ivan Illich Deschooling Society, Marion Boyars Publishers, 1970 and from John Dewey Democracy and Education, published as volume 9: 1916 from The Middle Works, 1899-1924, Southern Illinois University Press, 1980.

John Dewey lived from 1859 untill 1952 and is seen, together with William James and Charles Sanders Peirce, as one of the founders of the philosophical movement called pragmatism.

Ivan Illich lived from 1926 untill 2002 and got most famous for the mentioned critical work on education and society.

Before I studied Philosophy, I tried another field: Sociology – a field which I left, disappointed and confused, after two years. Where I had expected to learn to think about what society is, the studies focused on how to administer methods of research in order to solve problems of governments and large institutions with people. Research normally was top-down: one studied workers, immigrants, natives – not government officials, owners of companies or invaders of countries. To my mind the produce would therefore never provide substantial knowledge, but only useful tools to influence human beings for the benefit of the powerful.

Of course there were some exceptions: the old, left, Frankfurt School thinkers had studied ‘the authoritarian personality’ (in reaction to fascism) and criticized the Enlightenment, which had heralded progress and rationality, but meanwhile had suppressed and broken a lot too. And then, back in 1979, due to some radical teachers, we also had to study political economy from a textbook printed in Soviet Russia – but no one could take that seriously, as it was just a watered down version of a watered down version of what in Marx had been original thought. Mainstream sociology in my country, The Netherlands, was not bent however on anything critical, but only on providing tools to keep the status quo in order. The dominant theory was functionalism, which I thought to be a very strange, magical conjuring with models consisting of four rectangles, in which any forces in society ought to be ordered – and that would provide understanding? Actually, they were all rather foolish, the functionalists and the communists – the ones without beards and the others with, the ones smoking Marlboro cigarettes and the others hand-rolling tobacco like real workers would do… drowning themselves indiscriminately in theory.

The only real exception for me was an approach which was considered not very interesting for research (as it was understood – see above), but just had to be taught as a part of sociological history: symbolic interactionism. This was the only approach, to my view, which was based on real observation of real people. But, then, I abandoned sociology, and was soon absorbed in Plato, Descartes and other ‘great thinkers’ of the philosophical canon. The only thing which I always remembered was the expression ‘Looking-glass self’, which I thought was an expression of the interactionist thinker George Herbert Mead. It was not! As I found, when I finally returned to this piece of the history of sociology some five years ago. It was coined by a thinker whose name I did not remember, Charles Horton Cooley, but he borrowed the words of poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. He changed them too, in order to capture the central idea of the long poem ‘Astraea’. Wrote Emerson: ‘each to each a looking-glass, reflects his figure that doth pass’ – Cooley changed it to ‘each to each a looking-glass, reflects the other that doth pass’. The central idea is that no human being has a fixed, given, identity, but that identity is a flexible thing, a reflection of social life in it’s plural forms. Each has as many identities as he/she takes part in different groups. And the same goes for groups – they get their diverse identities too from human interplay, and influence each other in the same process.

Since my return to the interactionists, I have been reading further along: Mead led me to Cooley, Cooley to James, James to Swedenborg, et cetera. And gradually I begin to understand the characteristics of these thinkers which explain my initial liking of symbolic interactionism. None of them tries to build his understanding from coarse oppositions like ‘mind and matter’ or ‘individual versus society’ or ‘reason over against emotion’, ‘nature versus nurture’. They all try to link the different ways human beings experience their world, to get a more complex, refined, understanding of what society is. Not the abstract communist substructure and superstructure or the weird Parsonian functionalist schemes – but a more concrete understanding of real-life processes and interactions. They are really worthy of the rediscovery of their works, not only in sociology, but also and perhaps more so in philosophy – as inspirational examples of non-ivory-tower thought.

Charles Horton Cooley (1864-1929) wrote Human Nature and the Social Order which I read in the Transaction Edition of 1983 [originally published in 1902]

A good commentary on his life and works can be found in Glenn Jacobs Charles Horton Cooley. Imagining Social Reality, University of Massachusetts Press 2006.

Also recommended: George Herbert Mead Mind, Self and Society, University of Chicago Press, 1934 and C. Wright Mills Sociology and Pragmatism. Higher Learning in America, Oxford University Press, 1966

The work of Cooley, and much many more interesting texts in the field can be accessed for free through the index of the Mead Project: http://www.brocku.ca/MeadProject/inventory5.html#sectJ

When starting to prepare the paper which I will have to present soon in Bonn, Germany – on Kant’s and James’ dealings with Swedenborg’s thought, I had the impulse to look into Bergson’s work too, as I knew he and James read each other’s work and were approving of it. My interest in the relations between the mentioned authors is an interest in the relation between the concepts of morality, freedom and the spiritual. What, when reading Bergson sprung to my mind is this other fact: that all of these thinkers distinguish between levels or aspects of self – and that this is crucial to understanding the said correlation.

The point is that in modern times, in which scientific knowing is seen as the highest achievement of humankind, the free, choosing, moral agent, is hard to understand philosophically. As Kant has stated: in the world of phenomena, the world as it can be studied by the sciences, there is no freedom and no choice, since we have to suppose all events to be determined by the law of external causation. Think psychology’s attempts to explain the behaviour of people. Behaviour, the word already says it, is what we see when we look from the outside – it is not what I, as an individual, might experience as a free choice. So, when we do not observe free choice in the world as we study it by scientific research, we cannot understand morality. For Kant this was unacceptable, since we also have and need ideas of justice and goodness. His solution was that besides the empirical self (the one which is studied by science), we have to pose a free self, which he called the noumenal self – the self of pure practical reason. 

Bergson, in his study Time and Free Will, makes another disctinction, between the deep self, which experiences differences in quality, but not in quantity – and the surface self, which knows discrete states. The emotions, as they are understood in psychological theory, but also in everyday self-reflection, are states that can be distinguished and named. It is a mistake, however, according to Bergson, to think that free decisions are made at the superficial level of the emotions. This is only done at the deep level: ‘The deep-seated self which ponders and decides, which heats and blazes up, is a self whose states and changes permeate one another and undergo a deep alteration as soon as we separate them from one another in order to set them out in space.’

James, then, made his famous distinction between the conscious and the subconscious level of the self. He and Bergson seem to agree that the freedom to make moral choices can not be localized in the level of the conscious – here we have distinct states, spatially arranged, which are subject to the laws of a time that is understood in spatial terms: first comes an impulse, than a reaction. Freedom cannot be understood scientifically or logically, about this Kant, Bergson and James agree. Still we know freedom, and all three connect it to a different aspect or level of Self. A level which we thus cannot ‘know’ in the only way that modernity acknowledges as valid.

Some writers claim a profound influence of Swedenborg here – who makes the distinction which is well-known in so-called traditional cultures: that between the everyday, material world and the spiritual world. A living human being is part of both worlds, but how? Let us look into a passage from his work on Heaven and Hell:  ‘whatever does not enter into man’s freedom has no permanence, because it does not belong to his love or will, and what does not belong to man’s love or will does not belong to his spirit; for the very being [esse] of the spirit of man is love or will.’ So it is through love/will that a person belongs to the spiritual world. And: ‘Only what is from the will, or what is the same, from the affection of love, can be called free, for whatever a man wills or loves that he does freely; consequently man’s freedom and the affection of his love or of his will are a one. It is for this reason that man has freedom, in order that he may be affected by truth and good or may love them, and that they may thus become as if they were his own.’ Swedenborg’s conclusion is thus that we have freedom in order to be able to choose morally, and we can choose morally to become spiritually good.

So, yes, this text seems to confirm that the argumentation which we saw with our three thinkers is in line with that of Swedenborg: a good will as the source of a free choice cannot be found in the phenomenal world, it cannot be proven by observation nor by reasoning from known facts. It is conditional on our desire for this better place which traditionally is called heaven, and which Swedenborg claimed to be the imaginative world which we create ourselves by our way of being (as we do with hell).

Henri Bergson lived from 1859 untill 1941. I cited from his Time and Free Will, a 1910 translation of the 1889 French Essai sur les données immédiates de la la conscience. It can be read online: http://archive.org/stream/timeandfreewilla00berguoft#page/n0/mode/2up

Dates and works of Kant and James were mentioned in earlier posts. The same goes for the dates of Swedenborg. I cited from his work Heaven and Hell, which was originally published anonymously in Latin as De Coelo et Ejus Mirabilibus, et de Inferno, ex Auditis et Visis, in 1758. There are several online versions of the work in English.

‘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

Once upon a time, when I was a poor student of philosophy, I stumbled upon a book named Principles of the Philosophy of the Future. I had never read a text by its author, Ludwig Feuerbach, but the title uplifted my mood. It was reduced in price, so I could buy it… the only problem being that it contained the reprint of its original edition in Gothic script. Because of its affordability, however, I decided I would learn to read it, and was happy when I finally managed to do so.

Feuerbach is a philosopher who is read too little. Most people know his name only from introductory courses in philosophy or theology, and name him in one breath with Marx. ‘Oh, Feuerbach, that’s the one who said religion is human projection!’ Well, there would be more to be said about that characterization, but it is not my aim here and now. Feuerbach wrote his pamphlet-like book on philosophy (published in 1843), aimed at ‘pulling philosophy down from the divine, self-sufficient bliss in the realm of ideas into human misery’, into ‘the realm of embodied and living souls.’

The reason for Feuerbach to try to revolutionize philosophy was the predominance of idealistic, otherworldly thinking in the midst of great social change. The reason that we should widely re-read his book is that, although philosophy in our days is no longer idealistic, it surely is otherworldly. Not in the sense of focusing on the spiritual or the religious, but by focusing only on questions of academic interest, forgetting the huge problems most human beings, as well as the non-human earthlings (animals, plants), face every day in our times.

It is perhaps not the primary aim for philosophers to change the world, as Marx urged them to do, but it should certainly be their aim to change our understanding of the world, so it can come to light what has been silently screaming for change. Feuerbach thought that philosophy should take the place of religion, providing moral and spiritual direction to humankind. He was not right in that point, since we better draw from multiple guiding traditions, in stead of looking for a single one to take the lead. With William James I hold that human imperfection asks for plurality in views and philosophies, since we can never reach absolute certainty. With Feuerbach I strongly agree, however, that philosophy, ‘without damaging the dignity and independence of theory’ needs a practical direction. It should look global problems, as they relate to our behaviour, in the eye, and focus on ‘the needs of mankind and of the future’.

All citations are taken from Ludwig Feuerbach, Principles of the Philosophy of the Future, Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis/Cambridge, 1986 [1843].

Ludwig Feuerbach lived from 1804-1872.