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Inspirations for the Unbounded Seeker

by Ovidiu Gherge

A wandering inquirer may find inspiration, as I surely do, when reading words that seem to combine an inner sense of soothing approval with a delightful method of presentation appeal, neither reasonless nor emotionally exclusive; or I should say an interacting flow between — what we divide into — the so-called internal and external worlds. The wandering inquirer may even stumble upon those very words reproduced below, words which may not appeal to everyone, yet, may offer a soothing effect for some as they did for me:

What you want is a philosophy that will not only exercise your powers of intellectual abstraction, but that will make some positive connection with this actual world of finite human lives.

There is a process of assessing the statement; an impulse to evaluate the information presented. There are some who may ask to know who said such words before rendering verdict. That may be an important factor to consider for some, while for others the statement may appear as inconclusive and dubious. Remarks such as 'of course' or 'who wouldn't want such philosophy' may indeed be offered as immediate reactionary statements, and even if we hoped for more external cues of information there is enough in the statement to make us see that it deals with a sort of harmony at work; and perhaps an indication of potentially conflicting realms of human concerns and inquiry.

What the statement says depends in part upon the individual reader, as these words expressed as such are filtered and processed internally where there could only be limited options for verdict categorization. Can we measure how much do our own biases and individual temperament affect whether we end up agreeing, disagreeing or suspending judgment with such a statement? Can only formal languages adequately serve to settle the whole of human affairs and provide absolute answers? And maybe we should ask if philosophy is the most essential and connecting feature amongst reflecting and sentient beings? Or perhaps you, the reader, do not approve of the statement's direct emphasis on you; which may understandably stimulated a natural defensive reaction in which case it failed to produce the soothing effect it originally had on me.

Our mysterious author is William James. [1] The pragmatic view, [2] of which James was a vivid advocate, questions the Cartesian bifurcation and the dominant monistic idealism views inherited, but it must be noted that it differs in variation from proponent to proponent — some widely different in a number of approaches and conclusions. However, that is not a topic of our focus in this writing as we will only attempt a Jamesian incursion. James's quotation above reflects and implies what some would no doubt perceive as a 'philosophical attitude' and James continues on to propose a "system that would combine both things, the scientific loyalty to facts and willingness to take account of them, the spirit of adaptation and accommodation ... but also the confidence in human values and the resultant spontaneity, whether the religious or of the romantic type."

The philosophical reactions to the Kantian-Hegelian idealistic influence sprang into different conceptual directions, some attempting to rise above, others to completely denounce, and yet even others to assimilate between complete opposite concepts resulting in shifting philosophical interpretations. James acknowledges the connection between past thinkers and his own version of pragmatism, and reflect such debt by later subtitling his book Pragmatism as 'Another Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking.'

Kant and James were both adept integrators, attempting a reconciliation between conflicting verdicts, yet it will be a serious mistake to assume this to be an evaluative interpretation between the two. James appeals to a different temperamental character and a different philosophical vision, and is better viewed not in the same philosophical tradition as Kant, but as a voice singing that the old Way towards the Truth, ought to be ways toward co-truths. Kant referred to his own major formulations as "the Copernican revolution in philosophy," standing in between established boundaries in accord with the rationalistic philosophy of Descartes and the skeptical extensions of Hume. Also due to Kant is the sharp distinction between theory and praktische, and his distinction of separate ethical and pragmatische rules; the ethical being governed by an appeal to the 'categorical imperative' of one's duty to treat people as ends in themselves, while by his meaning of 'pragmatic' Kant meant prudent in the sense of self-interest, and not pragmatic in the sense meant by James when he first used the word in 1897 to associate it with his philosophical outlook.

Though Kant's impact is of unquestionable influence across a vast field of philosophies, James acknowledged instead he was "influenced by a comparatively young and very original French writer, Professor Henri Bergson," [3] of whose essential contribution to philosophy, in James's words, was the "criticism of intellectualism."

James similarly classifies Kant as against the intellectualism of his time, meaning only his denial of the complete knowledge of reality (ding an sich, thing-in-itself), but their principal association stops there. James pulls away from Kant due in part because "Kant still leaves [reality] laying down laws — and laws from which there is no appeal — to all our human experience;" and shifts closer in line with Bergsonian doubt. And it was Bergson who wrote these words:

"Now it is the essence of mental things that they do not lend themselves to measurement... You cannot have a ton of love ... or a yard of hate or a gallon of numinous awe; but love and hate and awe are just as real as a ton of flour or a yard of linen or a gallon of petrol, more real indeed, because they have immediate significance, they are not simply means to ends like making bread, a pillow case or haste." [4]

James echoes Bergson's disagreement that Kantian "methods give any adequate account of this human experience in its very finiteness." [3] In another reading, James states:

"We encounter [the sensible core of reality], but don't posses it. Superficially this sounds like Kant's view; but between categories fulminated before nature began, and categories gradually forming themselves in nature's presence, the whole chasm between rationalism and empiricism yawns." [5]

This is part of a defense on behalf of F.C.S. Schiller's pragmatic view [6], challenged by absolute idealists of the time, in which James summarizes the "humanistic principle" as that "you can't weed out the human contribution." More impressively James goes on to call out a recurring prejudice against the pragmatist: "To the genuine 'Kantianer' (Schiller) will also be to Kant as a satyr to a Hyperion." [5]

It is in part a reaction against fixation that might have propelled James in a different direction; a search for a more dynamic and fluid philosophical system, yet similarly comprehensible, adaptable, practical (shortly defined here as experimental or action-tested) and communicable to others in the hope for a better life. It is an open-ended system James is after, not one restricted to a fixed set of stagnant rules and classical standards. His attempt to be in harmony with a flux reality went against the absolute fixation of principles and theories dominating academic institutions. James constantly refuses to give up his creative spark and his positions could be perceived by others as paradoxical and non-committed. My starting quotation at the beginning of this writing nevertheless may have struck some readers as such example. Or consider this: "On the one side the Universe is absolutely secure, on the other it is still pursuing its adventure." [5] But that is perhaps because it requires a certain leap of courage to understand, or to want to understand James; it may ask of ourselves to face and engage our own "human contribution" to the evaluation of what we divide between the internal and the external, and how we act towards others who may share a different worldview or come from a crossroads of multiple and various points of view. And what better enterprise for such quest to continue its intergenerational dialogue than philosophy itself, if it is to serve the humanity as a whole through individual participation of diverse 'philosophical attitudes' examining and interpreting a shared human experience.

The world of experience is a constant flux, a "continuum" as James called it, while the activity of the mind is to discriminate, or better yet, to interpret reality by breaking up the continuous whole. As James would say: "We create the subjects of our true as well as our false propositions." [5] Reality is to be accounted as something which is shaped and created by the subject, a perceptive construct that has a higher degree of 'usefulness' or serves the better 'purpose' — a reality colored by the individual's interests, desires and temperament. The emphasis on this conditioning of perception and its role is well off the mark of traditional logic. In his later life, A. N. Whitehead remarked: "[James] has discovered intuitively the great truth with which modern logic is now wrestling, that every finite set of premises must indicate notions which are excluded from its direct purview." [7]

Whitehead's process philosophy may offer a metaphysical extension to the Jamesian flux, as Whitehead's conclusion was that "nature is a structure of evolving processes. The reality is the process." [8] The world is, according to Whitehead, organic rather than materialistic, signifying his later departure from traditional views, yet maintaining that if philosophy is to be successful it must account for the discrepancies between the internal and external worlds of traditional dualistic philosophy.

Although some postmodern neopragmatists may denounce metaphysics outright, I support the 'Jamesian totality' and non-exclusiveness of all realms and methods of inquiry. However, my extension of support also goes with James's choice of philosophical near-sightedness and therefore focusing away from a heavy metaphysical outlook, but in all honesty, that is a temperamental bias and is countered by a constant reminder for a sense of granting individuals their will to believe, but also my co-allowance of reciprocal and mutual right to believe as long as it is inquired through a framework of justice in the name of every one possible to be considered, and not just the one only absolute to be followed. That constant search for democratic realignment and harmonization is what keeps philosophy fueled; whether the distinction is made between those in the institutionalized academia or the wandering wonderer, the questions circle back to 'what is philosophy?' and 'who is to be considered a philosopher?' This is the perpetual human flux in which inquiry and creativity dominate and refuse to be governed by fixed and static laws. It constantly has to re-question whether or not it requires a methodology or a static classification. It has to question the 'facts' of the sciences within the comprehensiveness of a pluralistic reality, as human nature and the human point of view — for us and in itself — means much more than a single abstract concept or an atom of matter, for example. Such linguistic and conceptual cycle and its pluralistic outlook give movement to the engine of philosophy; James put it this way:

"We humans are incurably rooted in the temporal point of view. The eternal's ways are utterly unlike our ways. 'Let us imitate the All,' said the original prospectus of the admirable Chicago quarterly called the 'Monist.' As if we could, either in thought or in conduct! We are invincibly parts, let us talk as we will, and must always apprehend the absolute as if it were a foreign being." [9]

As there is no escape into Solipsist Abstraction with James, there is no escape into a theistic God either. Again, in his lecture The Present Dilemma of Philosophy, James says "The God of the theistic writers lives on as purely abstract heights as does the Absolute." James is not only dethroning, but creating. He is an innovator, a repairer and constructor, and he would nevertheless allow others to disagree to my interpretation, not only since value judgments are hypothetical but because it would generate the philosophical dialectic of those desiring to investigate the truth of opinions; and how else better than engagement in the dialectic?

And for those whose temperament and experience may naturally react against the fixation of mind and who believe that philosophy truly can help us understand each other better, the 'love of wisdom' at least offer us the banks for the river of the common language, in the hope that it allows those of us who try to understand the perspective of another in order to expand our own. It requires a concern for some acceptance of the strange beauty of others. Not to exclude, but to accept them; mingle them with our own interpretations and visions even though they may stand opposed to even us, that is something in itself to be respected in philosophy. In a world where abstract perfection is something to be emotionally satisfactory to the individual, but not exercised authoritatively or divinely, the gates of philosophy shall stand open to all willing to embark on a journey of learning, discovery and experiencing. I leave you with another great saying from William James, in which those who find that restrictive conditions limit the freedom of the mind, those wandering wonderers may find a feeble but non-extinguishable flame of hope, as I surely do:

"Among the variations, every generation of men produces some individuals exceptionally preoccupied with theory. Such men find matter for puzzle and astonishment where no one else does. Their imagination invents explanations and combines them. They store up the learning of their time, utter prophecies and warnings, and are regarded as sages. Philosophy, etymologically meaning the love of wisdom, is the work of this class of minds, regarded with an indulgent relish, if not with admiration, even by those who do not understand them or believe much in the truth which they proclaim. [10]

Let your mind prevail; never give up the struggle for philosophy — whatever that may mean to you — and the search for your good within the boundaries of the mutual good of others. Let honesty guide you towards that good, and never lose hope. I only wish that my words will at least offer inspiration to some, while at the same time accepting the accusation from others that I have failed to Philosophize. That would only take us back to the beginning, once again:

What you want is a philosophy that will not only exercise your powers of intellectual abstraction, but that will make some positive connection with this actual world of finite human lives. [1]


0. All James's essays are from William James, Pragmatism and The Meaning of Truth (Harvard University Press, 1998) and The Writings of William James (ed. John J. Dermott, University of Chicago Press, 1977)

1. The Present Dilemma in Philosophy

2. James credits Peirce in 1897 as the originator of Pragmatism

3. The Compounding of Consciousness

4. ibid

5. Pragmatism and Humanism

6. Schiller's referred to his version of pragmatism interchangeably as humanism, voluntarism and personalism.

7. Modes of Thought, A. N. Whitehead, 1958

8. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

9. The Types of Philosophic Thinking

10. Philosophy and Its Critics

Also See:

© Ovidiu Gherge 2004