Henry David Thoreau: “Cape Cod” (1865)

It is generally supposed that they who have long been conversant with the Ocean can foretell, by certain indications, such as its roar and the notes of sea-fowl, when it will change from calm to storm; but probably no such ancient mariner as we dream of exists; they know no more, at least, than the older sailors do about this voyage of life on which we are all embarked. Nevertheless, we love to hear the sayings of old sailors, and their accounts of natural phenomena, which totally ignore, and are ignored by, science; and possibly they will not always looked over the gunwale so long in vain. (937)


The final work by Henry David Thoreau collected in this Library of America volume is the posthumously published Cape Cod. (For my thoughts on his essays, see my previous posts organized in the Index, linked above.) Cape Cod has some similarities with The Maine Woods. Both were published in the year or two after Thoreau’s death with the leadership of his sister. Both were based on three separate trips to a place in New England, explored over the course of a decade. Both, potentially, give a long view of historical and environmental change. Cape Cod, however, looks at a place that is fully “civilized,” while The Maine Woods considered a place that, in Thoreau’s mind at least, was still a wilderness. To find this wilderness that so attracted him, Thoreau had to look to the coast and the sea. This is his only work to take the ocean as a category of analysis. Water was a major theme in Walden, but as part of the local ecosystem. Here the ocean stands as a behemoth before Thoreau.

The sea has even power over the land. “Perhaps what the Ocean takes from one part of the Cape it gives to another,—robs Peter to pay Paul. On the eastern side the sea appears to be everywhere encroaching on the land. Not only the land is undermined, and its ruins carried off by currents, but the sand is blown from the beach directly up the steep bank where it is one hundred and fifty feet high.” (956) The sea was not something that Thoreau could quite get a handle on, but he was impressed by the sailors and fishermen who dwelled in Cape Cod for their intimate knowledge of the sea.

As a node of capitalism, the exploitation of the environment, and commerce, Cape Cod is the polar opposite of the self-sufficient world Thoreau tried to create near Walden Pond. Lighthouses, ship wrecks, and small towns lining the cape. Nevertheless, Thoreau notices signs of people living on the margins, making a living from the periphery. I am sure he saw in these self-sufficient fishermen the pursuit of the same type of life he tried to live in Walden. “It is remarkable what a serious business men make of getting their dinners, and how universally shiftlessness and a groveling taste take refuge in a merely ant-like industry.” (976) He defends this “shiftlessness” as merely a coastal version of the life he advocated.

The chapter called “The Wellfleet Oysterman” is an interesting window into a vibrant subculture of Cape Cod. I am struck that in his other works, Thoreau has little to say about other people’s labors. Often they are cast aside as wage slavery or rejected along with the rest of the emerging industrial civilization Thoreau saw around him. This chapter may be his most careful study of how other people live and work. For me this is a sign of maturity on Thoreau’s part and suggests an opening of his mind. If Walden is about he chose to live and pursue freedom, Cape Cod is interested in how others have done so. And in his honest moments, he must confess that they find their own space for freedom, even within the capitalist civilization. So those of you who think that Thoreau is an impractical lifestylist, I do suggest taking a look at Cape Cod as well as The Maine Woods for evidence that he did have a broader appreciate for the system, the damage it caused and the diversity of ways people could live within it. Well, I will keep it short and sweet today. That completes my study of Thoreau, the great American individualist and perhaps early anarchist thinker.


Henry David Thoreau: “Walden” (1854): Part Two

Patriotism is a maggot in their heads. What was the meaning of that South-Sea Exploring Expedition, with all its parade and expense, but an indirect recognition of the fact, that there are continents and seas in the moral world, to which every man is an isthmus or an inlet, yet unexplored by him, but that it is easier to sail many thousands of miles through cold and storm and cannibals, in a government ship, with five hundred men and boys to assist one, than it is to explore the private seas, the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean of one’s being alone. (578)

The chapters in Henry David Thoreau’s Walden or, Life in the Woods, following the indispensable introductory chapter “Economy,” consider different aspects of Thoreau’s economic, social, and philosophical life. They all flow from “Economy” and can be read in really any order once that initial chapter has been mastered. Oft-repeated, in many different ways, is his claim that most of the accoutrements of modern living are unnecessary—or even hostile—to living a good and reflective (he might say a “philosophical”) life. A handful of the chapters will be of special interest to people interested in nature writing, since they are focused on the local environment near Thoreau’s home at Walden pond. No chapter, even the ones devoted to nature, are indifferent to the social. Although he lived alone, he was never far enough away from society. Despite his choice to live alone, in the woods, Thoreau seems to have longed for human encounters and the authentic solidarity that came from interacting with neighbors. He has, however, utter disgust for the hierarchy and presumption that shapes so many human experiences. In his view, solidarity and community must be based on individual autonomy. Without it, you travel inexorably down the path to hierarchy.


The joint chapters “Solitude” and “Visitors” consider the nature of loneliness and society. He finds most social interactions worthless compared to a more spiritual connection. It bears mentioning that most of the lonely people are surrounded by others all the time and Thoreau, living alone, claims to have been rarely lonely surrounded by nature and never far from potential visitors and conversation.

Society is commonly too cheap. We meet at very short intervals, not having had time to acquire any new value for each other. We meet at meals three times a day, and give each other a new taste of that old musty cheese that we are. We have had to agree on a certain set of rules, called etiquette and politeness, to make this frequent meeting tolerable, and tat we need not come to open war. We meet at the post office, and at the sociable, and about the fireside every night; we live thick and are in each other’s way, and stumble over one another, and I think we thus lose some respect for one another. Certainly less frequency would suffice for all important and hearty communications. Consider the girls in a factory,—never alone, hardly in their dreams. (430)

Perhaps this is the introvert’s perspective on social life. Looking around, I see plenty of people who seem to relish the constant companionship of others (otherwise explain the constant texting and Facebook updating). Are those who do not see a contradiction between withdrawing from the banality of society and yet longing for some rich company in the minority?

The chapter “Higher Laws” is of particular interest to me for it takes on the question of the morality of eating meat. He suggests that eating meat (as with hunting) is something that exists in the larval state of humanity. (That is his metaphor.) “We cannot but pity the boy who has never fired a gun; he is no more humane, while his education has been sadly neglected. This was my answer with respect to those youths who were bent on this pursuit, trusting that they would soon outgrow it. No humane being, past the thoughtless age of boyhood, will wantonly murder any creature, which holds its life by the same tenure that he does.” (492) The argument, fully developed, is that when people takes the time to understand their neighbors they will less likely be desiring to exploit and harm them. He then goes onto a discussion of other appetites and how they do not satisfy him, but we can develop his argument in another way and suggest that is it not also true that capitalism and its values exist in the larval stages of modernity. Thrust from our communities only recently, we are still like the young boy who first picks up his rifle, when we interact with our neighbors. Thoreau overcomes the desire to eat meat as he comes to understand the animals he shares his world with. In the same way, actually building communities and solidarity is the key to destroying the violence of capitalism. An interesting suggestion in this chapter is that self-sufficiency demands solidarity and simplicity in life. Someone who cooks their own food, washes their own dishes, and builds their own home will naturally accept a bit more simplicity than one who relies on others to do that job for them.

I am sure many readers of Walden find the type of he lives appealing, but has anyone read this account with a bit of disgust. Are most enthusiastic readers of Walden deceiving themselves? Deep down, do they really think such a life is possible for themselves? I have not uncommonly heard people proclaim the virtues of a simple life, yet maintain massive wardrobes. I am sure every “hoarder” can read a book like Walden and see its wisdom. Why is the gap between thought and action so far in this respect? Perhaps they will equivocate and say: “Well, that was possible in nineteenth century New England, but not now.” Was Thoreau any better prepared for two years in the woods than anyone living today? Perhaps, but it did not sound like anything he did was beyond the capacity of someone with a bit of common sense.

I think we should set aside the critique of “lifestylism” and take Thoreau seriously as a systemic critique of industrial capitalism and a model of an alternative. He clearly desired a future written with a new set of rules. In this way, he remains a politically important voice as we engage in creative imagining of the future.

There is an incessant influx of novelty into the world, and yet we tolerate incredible dulness [sic]. I need only suggest what kind of sermons are still listened to in the most enlightened countries. There are such words as joy and sorrow, but they are only the burden of a psalm, sung with a nasal twang, while we believe in the ordinary and mean. We think that we can change our clothes only. It is said that the British Empire is very large and respectable, and that the United States are a first-rate power. We do not believe that a tide rises and falls behind every man which can float the British Empire like a chip, if he should ever harbor it in his mind. Who knows what sort of seventeenth-year locust will next come out of the ground? The government of the world I live in was not framed, like that of Britain, in after-dinner conversations over the wine. (587)

Henry David Thoreau: “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers”: Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday

Friendship is, at any rate, a relation of perfect equality. It cannot well spare any outward sign of equal obligation and advantage. The nobleman can never have a Friend among his retainers, nor the king among his subjects. Not that the parties to it are in all respects equal, but they are equal in all that respects or affects their Friendship. The one’s love is exactly balanced and represented by the other’s. (220–221)


This lovely passage comes from the “Wednesday” chapter of Henry David Thoreau’s book A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. The chapter, which is devoted to the question of this fundamental social relationship is one of the most memorable for me because it is looking at what an egalitarian relationship can look like, while acknowledging that most relationships between people fall far short of the friendship ideal. He perhaps takes too seriously the Confucian ideal of friendship (but if we ignore the rest of that system we can see that one part as redeeming). He goes beyond a strict definition of friendship and see friendship and love as a place of creative experimentation in social relationships. “Ignorance and bungling with love are better than wisdom and skill without.” (231) Only at that point does the usefulness of friendship come into play. It is almost presented as an afterthought in the chapter. What does come across strongly he is belief that the foundation of friendship is a more rational and just organization of society than in hierarchical or strictly pecuniary relationships. As a cooperative relationship it is better foundation for people to engage in individual re-creation and experimentation. Forgive a rather lengthy quotation:

I am never rich in money, and I am never meanly poor. If debts are incurred, why, debts are in the course of events cancelled, as it were by the same law by which they were incurred. I heard that an engagement was entered into between a certain youth and a maiden, and then I heard that it was broken off, but I did not know the reason in either case. We are hedged about, we think, by accident and circumstance, now we creep as in a dream, and now again we run, as if there were a fate in it, and all things thwarted or assisted. . . . When every other path would fail, with singular and unerring confidence we advance on our particular course. What risks we run! Famine and fire and pestilence, and the thousand forms of a cruel fate,—and yet every man lives till he—dies. How did he manage that? Is there no immediate danger? . . . No matter what imprudent haste in my career; I am permitted to be rash. (239–240)

It is compelling enough out of context, but in the context we realize that this freedom to explore and dare is the wages of friendship. Notice with me that Thoreau’s primary concern throughout A Week is a type of freedom that has a strong social foundation.


“Thursday” and “Friday” are thematically united around creativity, first artistic and then scientific. As might be expected, Thoreau believed that nature was often a source of inspiration for creativity, but it is more than that. Art and nature are thematically united. “Art is no tame, and Nature is now wild, in the ordinary sense. A perfect work of man’s art would also be wild or natural in a good sense. Man tames Nature only that he may at last make her more free even than he found her, though he may never yet have succeeded.” (258) That last big seems a backhanded strike at industrialization, which tames Nature by making it a devastated servant of humanity’s more crass needs.

In these chapters, Thoreau may be foreshadowing Nietzsche in his definition of “the Man of Genius,” which includes artists. The Man of Genius is “an originator, an inspired or demonic man, who produces a perfect work in obedience to laws yet unexplored.” (267) In contrast to the Man of Genius (the Artist) is the Artisan, who applies such rules. The poet is a special case of the Man of Genius because his laws cannot be easily applied or decoded. It seems to me Thoreau may define the Man of Genius a bit too narrowly, in part to justify his own life and accomplishments, but there is still something to be said for the creative and promethean urge.

A Week ends with Thoreau’s summation of the role of Nature in human life. Rather than something to overcome, Thoreau sees nature as something that must be achieved. “Men nowhere, east or west, live yet a natural life, round which the vine clings, and which the elm willingly shadows. Man would desecrate it by his touch, and so the beauty of the world remained veiled to his touch, and so the beauty of the world remains veiled to him. He needs not only to be spiritualized, but naturalized, on the soil of the earth.” (307) In this end we find a tension in Thoreau’s vision articulated most clearly. He appreciates the creative urge and the risk-taking spirit in other parts of his work, but remains dissatisfied with what humanity has accomplished. This is less of a dilemma than you would think, because it is the very creative and promethean urge that is the essence of nature. Civilization is what limits our creativity. Perhaps for some this will be a call for primitivism, but there is no looking back in Thoreau’s writings, except for the brief lesson. His is a projectural philosophy.

A Week is a challenging book to read and certainly not one that can be dissected quickly in two short blog posts. Walden, when I first read it years ago, struck me as fairly straightforward compare to this. Perhaps we see two sides. A Week is Thoreau as a poet, Walden is Thoreau as an artisan. I suspect many people will find the mystical speculations of A Week appealing, but both works are actually interested in our social lives and our ways of being together, even when we seek out periods of isolation and solitude. This is one of those works I may come back to sooner, in hopes of digging deeper into Thoreau’s mind. But for now, I am not flustered. Yes, A Week was opaque to me from time to time but that is part of what keep it so fascinating.

Henry David Thoreau: “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers”: Saturday, Sunday, Monday

Surely the fates are forever kind, through Nature’s laws are more immutable than any despot’s, yet to man’s daily life they rarely seem rigid, but permit him to relax with license in summer weather. He is not harshly reminded of the things he may not do. She is very kind and liberal to all men of vicious habits, and certainly does not deny them quarter; they do not die without priest. Still they maintain life along the way, keeping this side the Styx, still hearty, still resolute, “never better in their lives”; and again, after a dozen years have elapsed, they start up from behind a hedge, asking for work and wages for able-bodied men. (30)


Henry David Thoreau’s brilliant book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, is hard to summarize or even isolate thematically. Like the subtly changing landscapes along the Massachusetts waterways that Thoreau describes, his philosophical ponderings venture from the personal to the national to the universal. Many readers will tease out something for themselves, likely disregarding the rest. If, on the surface, A Week is a naturalists account of the plant and animal life and scenery of the river, it is also a documentary of his thoughts and values. Now we are free to take in some of the scenery and completely ignore others—Thoreau is not an authoritarian telling us to “Look at that tree!” In the same way we are free to completely ignore some of his philosophy. It does not seem to me to be a system that requires unification and strict method for the observer. Nature has certain rules and principles governing how things work. Thoreau’s philosophy has that as well. In neither case, are we required to know what those rules are to appreciate the beauty before us. A Week is an ideal book to read on a day when you promise yourself to do nothing. Maybe it needs to be read in that way. I had trouble getting into it before because I was thinking about what to say about it. I came back to it a bit hung over, bored and uninspired and its treasures opened up before me.

A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers was Henry David Thoreau’s first book. It was written alongside Walden while he was living at Walden Pond. It was published in 1849, almost a decade after the trip that it supposedly documents. It was a disappointment. Emerson did not promote the book to Thoreau’s disappointment. Of the original 1,000 books, Thoreau took back 706 of them. So, it is fair to say that Thoreau was largely neglected at this time. A few years later, Walden will be much more successful. Of course, Thoreau is not making a living from his writing and works various jobs throughout his life such as teaching, surveying, and a bit of lecturing.

A Week is broken up into seven chapters, each corresponding to a date. While I cannot even attempt to approach a summary of the work, I can highlight some anarchist themes. Thoreau is commonly identified as an anarchist and is certainly one of the most important figures in the American libertarian traditions. Months ago I looked at his essays and found not only themes of anti-slavery and individualism, but also strong currents of anti-capitalism and even work resistance. The theme of work resistance surprised me because I rarely saw that outside of a fully industrial, post-scarcity economy. Thoreau was not like Kropotkin, he was suspicious of industrialization and technology. His argument against industrial regimen of work was rooted in his effort to preserve individualism in the face of a homogenizing society. Anyway, let’s see what A Week contributes to my growing literary arsenal of anarchism.

At times Thoreau seems to hack the promethean spirit of early America, a belief in progress and the potential of the human mind to accomplish great deeds, while also sabotaging some of the clearest images of that progress. He questions the application of that promethean spirit.

Instead of the Scythian vastness of the Billerica night, and its wild musical sounds, we were kept awake by the boisterous sport of some Irish laborers on the railroad, wafted to us over the water, still unwearied and unresting on this seventh day, who would not have done with whirling up and down the track with every increasing velocity and still reviving shouts, till late in the night. [Notice that the exploitation of labor and the violation of nature are two sides of the same process for Thoreau.] One sailor was visited in his dreams this night by the Evil Destinies, and all those powers that are hostile to human life, which constrain and oppress the minds of men, and make their path seem difficult and narrow, and beset with dangers, so that the most innocent and worthy enterprises appear insolent and a tempting of fate, and the gods go not with us. But the other happily passed a serene and even ambrosial or immortal night, and his sleep was dreamless, or only the atmosphere of pleasant dreams remained, a happy natural sleep until the morning; and his cheerful spirit soothed and reassured his brother, for whenever they meet, the Good Genius is sure to prevail. (94)

In this second part, Thoreau details the two sides of this coin, labeling them the Evil Destinies and the Good Genius. It is the tension between these two sides of the American spirit that come as close as anything can to being a theme of the book.

As in the opening quote, Thoreau consistently uses the language of freedom and oppression. I included that one because it suggest the logic of the liberal state in a certain way. Like nature, the liberal state gives the illusion of autonomy and freedom. And in the same way that the industrial frontier is just 12 years away from shattering the myth that nature’s laws can be overcome, so is the jackbooted nature of the state always just one crisis from being exposed. Thoreau is perhaps most interested in the tension between freedom nature provides and the unavoidable laws of nature and the pull of society. “Gardening is civil and social, but it wants the vigor and freedom of the forest and the outlaw. There may be an excess of cultivation as well as of anything else, until civilization becomes pathetic. A highly cultivated man,—all whose bones can be bent! Whose heavenborn virtues are but good manners!” (45–46)

Thoreau’s critique of religion is libertarian to the core. A major theme of “Sunday,” the second day of the “week,” is that religions are products of their societies and reinforce the needs and assumptions of that civilization. A hierarchical society, while have a hierarchical god. A terrified society will have gods that terrify them. Thoreau seems to take from this two conclusions. The first is that people should not take the Bible very seriously, pointing out that it does not have much to teach that is valuable or unknown and that it is also bad poetry. “Examine your authority. Even Christ, we fear, had his scheme, his conformity to tradition, which slightly vitiates his teaching. He had not swallowed all formulas. He preached some mere doctrines.” (57) The second conclusion extends from this and suggests that we should create religious traditions that work for ourselves. Is he predicting William James? He talks about a wood-chopper who may find little of practical value in the New Testament. His goodness and conscience is not derived from faith and certainly not organized religion (which is often mocks in the book). “Monday” continues some of the religious perspectives of “Sunday,” where Thoreau takes a special look at the value and limitations of Hinduism and the ancient Greeks. Through this discussion these is the general suggestion that all the different philosophies and religions are windows to the same truth.

Thoreau is constantly worried that the universal truths of nature and humanity (including all that ancient “wisdom” that he gobbles up with only nominal reflection) is doomed to be swept aside and forgotten by the mad rush to industrialization. Even local history, often the topic of A Week, is in danger of being lost. Here is his ideal:

Let a thousand surmises shed some light on this story. We will not be confined by historical, even geological periods which would allow us to doubt of a progress in human affairs. If we rise above this wisdom for a day, we shall expect that this morning of the race, in which it has been supplied with the simplest necessaries, with corn, and wine, and honey, and oil, and fire, and articulate speech, and agricultural and other arts, reared up by degrees from the condition of ants to men, will be succeeded by a day of equally progressive splendor. (127)

Thoreau seems to realize that the world around him is a graveyard of ideas, past ways of living, bits of nature, people, and even entire towns. He is uncomfortable in such a place. At one point he said that has no friends in the graveyard. This again is the two sided coin. The same promethean spirit that Thoreau wants to embrace is responsible for digging a lot of graves.

William James: “The Meaning of Truth” (1909), and “Some Problems in Philosophy” (1911)

The great obstacle to radical empiricism in the contemporary mind is the rooted rationalist belief that experience as immediately given is all disjunction and no conjunction, and that to make one world out of this separateness, a higher unifying agency must be there. In the prevalent idealism this agency is represented as the absolute all-witness which “relates” things together by throwing “categories” over them like a net. The most peculiar and unique, perhaps, of all these categories is supposed to be the truth-relation, which connects parts of reality in pairs, making of one of them a knower, and of the other a thing known, yet which is itself contentless experimentally, neither describable, explicable, nor reducible to lower terms, and denotable only by uttering the name “truth.” (826–827)


The Meaning of Truth, by William James, was presented a year before his death as a sequel to his Pragmatism. Unlike some of his earlier books, this one was not a series of joined lectures, but a collection of essays published over the last half decade of his life. If you are reading his philosophical works together as I am, you find that they are really joined around an idea known as “radical empiricism,” which simply rejects the Truth claimed by idealists, but also attacked standard empiricism for basically coming down on the side of Truth (but using a different method to get there). In Pragmatism and A Pluralistic Universe (and Varieties of Religious Experience for that matter), James argues for a rejecting Truth and embracing a variety of truths, none of which can be pragmatically discounted and false. This is, of course, easy enough to prove with aesthetics. You cannot say that my preference for Beethoven over Mozart is reflecting Truth. As I understand it (I am saying this too much perhaps in this series), James would want to apply this same logic to other inquiries.

He talks about how we come to know a phenomenon, like a tiger. Our desire to hunt tigers is one phenomenon. The tiger skins we bring home are another. The tiger itself is yet another. All have a context that works in shaping our cognition. And as consciousness begins in cognition, we need to understand the process and context of our understanding of a phenomenon (“outer chain of physical or mental intermediaries connecting thought and thing”).

James argues that this position is highly humanistic, because it takes account for the diversity of various human perspectives. This seems to be a compelling argument for me as well. It certainly suggests that although human experiences are diverse and pluralistic, there are real reasons to think that humans interact in the world in ways that other creatures do not.

In one chapter, James puts forth a systematic response to all the major criticisms of pragmatism and radical empiricism. He takes them all on, but one that I do not find such a condemnation is the criticism that pragmatism is a “call to action.” It is that I think James’ philosophy demands action rather than thought that made me so attracted to it in the first place. As he clarifies, this criticism is that the philosophy appeals to technocratic types, who care only about applications without meditating on consequences of action. But, as James clarifies, the philosophy actually suggests a wide variety of actions, not the singular action of the technocrat.

To the charge that radical empiricism allows people to belief as truth in things that do not exist, James explains that things that do not have existence cannot have really good results that can be observed. Thus while you cannot get to God’s existence through his method, you can prove the existence of religious experiences. It is the same with historical figures, as he tries to explain with the question of the existence of Caesar. The radical empiricist has visible effects of Caesar’s life, including his books as evidence of his existence. The rationalist will actually have a much more difficult time proving his existence. (Now, perhaps this becomes more complicated with mythology, but I am not so troubled by the fact that people may think that Zeus or even Xena existed. At least I am not more troubled by that than the fact that people believe in God. In either case the existence is less important the experiences and the tangible results.

The book ends with a dialogue between a pragmatist and a non-pragmatist. It is a useful summary of his thought and it comes down to the pragmatist is interested in truth as it is made real in the world through various contexts. I cannot think of a more open-minded and democratic approach to truth without going off the wall into banal and useless relativism. It always us to have a conversation where the other does not assume that they look at the world in the same way as we do.

Part of the power of this perspective on truth is its practicality and flexibility. I cannot help to think that in general terms this is useful for libertarians attempting to construct free spaces in a variety of different cultural areas, each with their own ecology, in both urban and rural areas. It seems it be something that can inoculate such free spaces from being fill in (permanently at least) with bad ideas. Instead of allowing vile thoughts and practices from filling in a space under the guise of “truth.” It will judge ideas based on their results and observable goodness.

So, if you think I am being too easy on James, or misunderstanding his basic point, let me know. If you think rationalism is a better path for a libertarian epistemology, let me know. As my reading of James shows, I am easily convertible.

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William James: “A Pluralistic Universe” (1909)

The next in a series of William James’ late career works on radical empiricism is A Pluralistic Universe, another series of lectures published into a book in 1909. Of the works I have read, it is his more direct attack on rationalism and monism. As far as philosophy goes, A Pluralistic Universe, reads a bit like an argument against intellectual absolutism and homogeneity. As such, I am forced to appreciate it. The big problem with rationalism is that is posits a Truth that is external to our own experiences (at least in many cases). If truth is singular and all of us experience the world differently, most of us are then looking at the world falsely or as a delusional. That seems unlikely as a point of fact. (At least this is how I understand the core of his argument, with my soft non-philosophical mind.)

But one as we are in this material sense with the absolute substance, that being only the whole of us, and we only the parts of it, yet in a formal sense something like a pluralism breaks out. When we speak of the absolute we take the one universal known material collectively or integrally; when we speak of its objects, of our finite selves, etc., we take that same identical material distributively and separately. But what is the use of a thing’s being only once if it can be taken twice over, and if being taken in different ways makes different things true of it? (647)


See, there is an added value to looking at the universe pluralistically. We can actually take part in a more rich, playful, and diverse universe.

His most significant attacks on other philosophers come at Hegel. His questioning of Hegel is really an extension of his disapproval of idealism as absolutist. An rationally-determined position conquers and dismisses all other perspectives and eventually all evidence. “All facts lead to him [the idealist].” (688) Here we come to the crux of radical empiricism as I understand it. Idealism finds truth through reason and ideas alone and then (for James at least) voyages into near solipsism. At its most radical, the idealism would be willing to reject all other opinions as false, no matter how they were determined, if they do not fall into “Truth.” The typical empiricist (I suppose most scientists fit into this category) accept “Truth,” but realize that specific findings may be provisional or incomplete. Truth determined through observation, but constantly tests by other findings and observations. The radical empiricist rejects “Truth” finding value in all observations made by others as having truth. Going a bit farther he states that fact can be found in the process by which something is observed and realized needs to be taken into account as well, and those will be highly pluralistic. Each observation is a process, thus ultimately two people will observe the same event with different processes and therefore one cannot be rejected without exposing some absolutist position. I guess in practice this means that a scientist is more right in her observation of some phenomenon than an untrained spiritualist, just because ones process of observation is informed by training and the other by a belief in ghosts.

If philosophy is more a matter of passionate vision than of logic,—and I believe it is, logic only finding reasons for the vision afterwards,—must not such thinness come either from the vision being defective in the disciples, or from their passion, matched with [Gustav Theodor] Fechner’s or with Hegel’s own passion, being as moonlight unto sunlight or as water unto wine.” (710)

So, is the point here that the typical John Locke style empiricist is a variant of idealism in that is does not understand the context of an observation?

Does this leave us with some anti-intellectualism? I suppose a degree of that is inevitable with radical empiricism, but that may not be bad in a highly technological democratic society, where scientists and engineers hold immense powers over our individual lives. Many historians of science have filled in this gap by looking at the context of this or that scientific discovery and showing how they were not the result of pure observation, but influenced by training, disciplinary standards, social expectations, religious values, culture, and much more. In this sense, perhaps James is rightfully questioning “Truth” as determined by thinkers, while also raising the standards of inquiry to include increased not just a finding, but how a finding was determined.

James explicitly states that he thinks his view of a pluralistic universe is more democratic than idealism or other absolutism philosophies. This suggests he was really seeing his ideas as an American alternative to the rationalist traditions of Europe. “The pluralistic world is thus more like a federal republic than like an empire or a kingdom. However much may be collected, however much may report itself as present at any effective centre of consciousness or action, something else is self-governed and absent and unreduced to unity.” (770)

I am not sure how much thought anarchists have given to epistemology, but I am convinced that the place to begin such an investigation would be a thinker like William James. At the very least, I am convinced that there are real conflicts between idealism and a libertarian worldview, but maybe others see it differently.

William James: “Pragmatism” (1906–1907)

William James delivered the lectures that make up the book Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking in late 1906 and early 1907. They build on the conclusions of The Variety of Religious Experiences. Essentially, his perspective on religion was pragmatic and based on observably significant religious experiences. This collection of essays is a more general statement of these principals. It seems to be to be an essentially correct perspective, resting on the idea that what matters as true is what works. And what does not work should be rejected as false. A major reason to accept his position is that “Truth” actually matters little in the world as we experience it, even if it could be determined (which Kant already showed is not really possible).


He starts out by describing the “dilemma in philosophy” as between empiricists and rationalists. He shows his clear preference for the empiricists. He puts it quite nicely in the following. “You want a system that will combine both things, the scientific loyalty to facts and willingness to take account of them, the spirit of adaptation and accommodation, in short, but also the old confidence in human values and the resultant spontaneity, whether of the religious of the romantic type. And this is then your dilemma: you find the two parts of your quaesitum hopelessly separated. You find empiricism with inhumanism and irreligion; or else you find a rationalistic philosophy that indeed may call itself religious, but that keeps out of all definite touch with concrete facts and joys and sorrows.” (495)

He then approaches the basic philosophy of pragmatism, stating that what matters is the concrete consequences of a particular claim. What is so radically powerful about this perspective is that it makes truth (he is indifferent to Truth) “malleable to human needs.” (515) “Pragmatism is willing to take anything, to follow either logic or the senses and to count the humblest and most personal experiences. She will count mystical experiences if they had practical consequences.” (522) This seems to me a democratic, fair-minded, and useful approach.

The rest of the lectures explore different ramifications of this position. One is that categories of substances (whiteness, combustibility, insolubility, etc.) are purely creations of pragmatic humans. This is about as clear a rejection of idealism as I can think of. Of course, that this can be immediately extended to character may be troubling to some. Of course, I am rather sympathetic to the idea that honesty or value or generosity be reflected in human interactions rather than the realm of abstract ideas. This is also James’ defense of free-will. While it may be “Truth” that free-will is an illusion, we act as if we have free-will and that assumption works fairly well in a host of questions in human societies.

He includes in the book a foundational argument to his next major work, The Pluralistic Universe.

Pragmatism, pending the final empirical ascertainment of just what the balance of union and disunion among things may be, must obviously range herself upon the pluralistic side. Some day, she admits, even total union, with one knower, one origin, and a universe consolidated in every conceivable way, may turn out to be the most acceptable of all hypotheses. Meanwhile the opposite hypothesis, of a world imperfectly unified still, and perhaps always to remain so, must be sincerely entertained. This latter hypothesis is pluralism’s doctrine. Since absolute monism forbids its being even considered seriously, branding it as irrational from the start, it is clear that pragmatism must turn its back on absolute monism, and follow pluralism’s more empirical path. (556—557)


Let me attempt a pragmatic defense of anarchism. We certainly could accept an anarchist-communist principle like “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs” on principal, but that is actually the least direct way to get there, and the path most likely to inspire resistance. It is much better to argue (as David Graeber did in a talk I saw) that this principle is essentially how we function in social relationships already. In the simple encounter of asking for direction, this principle is lived. When I ask from directions, I take from someone who owns knowledge freely from someone who is not capable (morally, most of us would agree) of refusing. In the workplace, the same principle usually applies. It would be a pretty inefficient workplace that did not accept at least the “from each according to their abilities” principal. To give a more difficult example, squatters rights (or the principal that ownership should derive from use) is simply a more efficient and just way to distribute housing. To rely on a hard principle of property rights in respect to housing is inefficient (requiring guards, banks, and all sorts of invasive legal proceedings) and unjust (ensuring that people with the need for homes will go without). Also, giving de facto ownership to occupants is basically how we see the world. When we visit a renter at their house, we act as if they were the owner. In every meaningful way that house (perhaps owned by an absentee landlord or a bank) is the moral domain of the one who lives there.

At the same time, it is may be a useful exercise to critique the state or capitalism using pragmatism. People may like in a democracy, while having little actually say over their lives. This actually seems to be empiraclly true for most people. In the same way, anarcho-capitalists may speak of free markets or free exchange, but have no empirical evidence that these exist or can exist. At the same time, pragmatically, we see that we can function without a state.

Well, I am sure a philosopher or a James’ specialist can set me right on this, but I find this a reasonable extension of what he was saying in Pragmatism. Capitalism seems to be an imposition of abstract principles (most significantly property ownership) over a more pragmatic perspective.