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)

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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.

H. P. Lovecraft, “The Whisperer in Darkness” and “At the Mountains of Madness”: The Case for Unlocking the Necronomicon

Continuing my study of the collected stories of H. P. Lovecraft, I read two long stories, both produced around 1930: “The Whisperer in Darkness” and “At the Mountains of Madness.” In that last two posts, I critiqued Lovecraft from the Promethean perspective of the Enlightenment.  It seems to me that Lovecraft’s suspicions about science, his tendency to punish people for opening forbidden books or exploring forbidden knowledge, and the often-used plot device where a character recommends that everything is done to avoid revising a strange phenomenon (rather than exploring it in more detail) all are informed by his deep political conservatism, his xenophobia, and his fear of modernity. What I have not confessed is that I very much enjoyed reading his stories, even as I find their moral or political perspective troubling.  I certainly do not think all work needs to necessarily assume a projectoral life. But at the same time, I think Lovecraft’s writings come from an all too common and very unfortunate perspective on the world, based on fear (the most primal emotion according to Lovecraft) and cowardice.  Most of his stories are based on investigation of an unknown phenomenon, but almost always end with an attempt to seal the truth because the truth simply cannot be understood by human senses or experiences (describable). Like the Necronomicon, locked behind the desk at the Miskatonic University Library, the indifferent alien forces that surround us are best unknown. In short, my perspective was that the “Unknowable Horror” is a very weak and passive position to take through life and generally not suitable to free and creative people.  However, I am not realizing that this not an entirely fair way to read Lovecraft. We should start, not from a commitment to the Enlightenment project, but instead by starting with the reality of the unknowable.

Lovecraft is embracing a not uncommon modernist critique of the Enlightenment’s emphasis on reason, progress, and equality. Any rightwing politics he embraced derived from this, but it is not a unique perspective. This skepticism of the Enlightenment is deep in the DNA of modernist thought, science, literature, and art.  We can assume the worst and imagine that the senses fail us, that human progress is not possible or at least not very likely, that science can never explain the world enough to provide any security, and that the many enemies we face in life are ultimately unknowable. We can also just assume, with Lovecraft, that there are forces out there that look upon us with the indifference that we look at ants.  This does not actually take long to justify. A lab rat in a maze, certainly cannot conceive of the reasons he is being tormented, or even the ultimate purpose of the insane experiments we inflict on him.  And it takes a profound human arrogance to assume that we share any emotions, perspectives, or understanding with the rat.  This is not a random example because the plot of At the Mountains of Madness is based on aliens living in Antarctica, experimenting on the human explorers who discover their presence. If we can accept that the rat faced unknowable things, it is also arrogant to assume we would never face it ourselves.  So my question is: assuming that human reason has limits, what is the proper path of life?

Another way of stating this would be to ponder if the existence of the unknowable would suggest an abandonment of our inquisition of the world. Should we be like the narrator of At the Mountains of Madness and vow never to approach that unknowable again, better to lock it up with the Necronomicon?  I could point out that almost all of Lovecraft’s stories have at their center an investigator (often as narrator). In “The Whisperer in the Darkness” it is an investigator searching out the reality behind rumors of inhuman and unknown creatures in Vermont. In At the Mountains of Madness, the investigators are a team studying fossils in the Antarctic. Even if our conclusion of the tales we read is that the people would be better off not investigating the horrors, Lovecraft still cannot help but celebrate the investigator. They also always tend to move themsleves closer and closer to the horror before deciding that caution is essential.  Their curiosity about the unknown (reflected of course in Lovecraft himself in creating his myths) is quite admirable and perhaps a lesson about our proper orientation to any limitations we face as somewhat evolved apes.  Is Lovecraft telling us to push to the very limit of understanding?

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Our real danger is not our tendency to reach this limit of knowledge. Instead, we are mostly threatened by the cowardice or laziness coming in too soon.  Too often we accept the reality of unknowable or indescribable threats, evils, or dangers (think “terrorism” or “capitalism” or “the government”) and often fail to even pursue an analysis.  Like Lovecraft’s characters, perhaps we should err on the side of knowability and touch that limit even at the risk of facing the “unknowable horrors.”  And like Wilbur Whately did when he demanded that Miskatonic University allow him to read the Necronomicon, we should demand that at the very least our rulers open their books to our gaze.

H.P. Lovecraft, Collected Stories (1919-1928): Reaction and Knowledge

Frederic Jameson, in his book Archeologies of the Future makes the point that the fantasy genre tended to be conservative in its themes and sentiment, while science fiction almost had to be utopian because instead of reconstructing the past into new forms (like fantasy does) science fiction requires a recreation of our potentials. (I am simplifying his point of course.)  For instance, Tolkien conjured an idealized mythical past, while Martin is doing the same to the high Middle Ages.  To make a more specific point, hippies reading The Lord of the Rings perhaps failed to notice that the entire story involved the restoration of autocracy (“the return of the King”).  As Thomas Paine would remind us, the restoration of a monarchy by a good king is one thing, but as his children would likely be losers and genetic degenerates.  One could go beyond that and see the restoration of normalcy after the destruction of “the One Ring”  as an ending of a Promethean spirit, suggested in Sauron’s effort to use craft to overcome the limitations of nature.

Others have suggested that horror fiction may have all sorts of hidden class assumptions as well. Zombies are mindless consumers, or exploited workers and in these stories the heroes are inevitably Herculean figures attempting to tame a world gone mad.  See The Many-Headed Hydra for more on the class dimension of the Hercules myth. Vampires are the glorified elite, beautified and perpetual (much like how capitalists would like to see themselves).  This brings us to H. P. Lovecraft, one of the most important figures in modern American fantasy and horror writing.  It is rather banal to point out that Lovecraft was a conservative in every sense of the word. He idealized Europe, hated the cities, had strong racist tendencies, and feared threats to the social order.  I want to use these posts on Lovecraft (I plan on four or five) to investigate and understand the nature of his conservatism and see if there is any hope to applying Lovecraft’s writings in the age of Occupy.

The Library of America edition of Lovecraft’s writings came out in 2005. Since then the LOA has aggressively (and admirably) been expanding the canon to include science-fiction, supernatural fiction, and crime novels.  This particular collection brings together 28 stories from throughout his career, but the highlights are the longer works (really novellas) such as “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” and “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” Everything essential is here and the works range throughout his different periods and fully describe his multiverse.

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The period between Lovecraft’s birth in 1890 and the publication of “The Call of Cthulhu” may be seen as his formative years, before he put together the universe he is most well-known for.  Lovecraft started writing as soon as he could pickup a pen, writing his own versions of Homer at the age of 8. His father died of syphilis and Lovecraft became a bookish, introverted, and unstable child. He has a nervous breakdown at ten. Recovering from that he began a life-long interest in amateur astronomy and started some journals. In his teenage years, he started writing fiction, while continuing work on amateur astronomy. His social networks seems to be largely epistolary at that time.  He started publishing aggressively in pulp journals when he turned 30, around the time his mother died.  All of this time, Lovecraft lived in New England, but he did travel to New York. It was only after his 1924 marriage to Sonia Greene that Lovecraft moved to New York, which, if we are to believe his writings, he hated and feared.

This documentary gives a good background to Lovecraft.

I do not want to focus on his racism or equivocate on his statements. The documentary features some voices equivocating on his racism in rather silly ways.  There were plenty of non-racist voices and plenty of history that makes Lovecraft’s racism and xenophobia clearly odious and vile. Lovecraft’s racism comes out of his strange conservatism and rejection of the very concept of human progress.  In almost all of these earlier stories, the central argument of Lovecraft’s writing is the danger of knowledge, and by extension science and progress. This makes him at the least anti-Promethean and very likely anti-humanist.  Even Lovecraft’s creation of describable or unspeakable creatures, thoughts, or phenomenon suggests that he had serious doubts about the potential of writing to fulfill its job. The proper place for knowledge is locked away and not investigated.  It is not only that humans are not ready for that dangerous knowledge but also that humans will likely never be capable, mentally, to handle the true horrors of the world. In the early story “The Statement of Randolph Carter,” the narrator says: “The weird studies of Harley Warren were well known to me, and to some extent shared by me. Of his vast collection of strange, rare books on forbidden subjects I have read all that are written in the languages of which I am master. . . As to the nature of our studies–must i say again that I no longer retain full comprehension? It seems to me rather merciful that through reluctant fascination than through actual inclination.” (2) Of course, these studies do lead to a horrific end for Warren.  The same can be said for “The Outsider”, which describes a horrific monster who comes to knowledge about himself by walking out in daylight and eventually seeing a mirror.  In the pulpish “Herbert West–Reanimator” the forbidden knowledge is the science of life itself. West experimetns with reviving the dead.  This too, ends in a horrific disaster.

In fact, you can open up almost any page and find a description warning against humans sticking their nose in places where they do not belong (intellectually or physically) or suggesting the incapacity of the senses. This is perhaps an even more profound anti-humanism and the real base of Lovecraft’s vision.  Here are some examples from these early stories:

“An acute terror now rose within me, for here were anomalies which nothing normal could explain.” (“The Rats in the Wall,” p. 89)  Is there anything like this in real nature

“The more I analyzed the less I believed, and against my newly opened mind there began to beat grotesque and horrible analogies.” (“The Lurking Fear,” p. 73) So studying a phenomenon makes it harder to understand and an open mind courts horrors.

“Such a thing was surely not a physical or biochemical impossibility in the light of a newer science which includes the theories of relativity and intra-atomic action.” (“The Shunned House”, p. 114)

The description of the Cthulhu statue. “obviously of modern origin. Its designs, however, were far from modern in atmosphere and suggestion; for although the vagaries of cubism and futurism are many and wild, they do not often reproduce that cryptic regularity which lurks in prehistoric writing. And writing of some kind the bulk of these designs seemed certainly to be; though my memory, despite much familiarity with the papers and collections of my uncle, failed in any way to identify this particular species, or even to hint at its remotest affiliations.” (“The Call of Cthulhu,” p. 169)  Suggests the impossibility of taxonomy or knowledge even of a archaeological relic.

The logical conclusion of Lovecraft’s dilution of the senses and knowledge is our inability to really understand the world at more than a visceral level and a deep suspicion over any attempt to improve it.  If we were to describe class or political power in the same way that Lovecraft describes natural phenomenon, we would be helpless to confront their realities.  An example could be something like this: “The eldritch overseer held sway over the horrified factory floor workers with an aura and power that is unexplainable.” It does not recommend itself much as analysis or program for action. Furthermore, we have countless example of science, technology, and knowledge making concrete and measurable improvements in human life. In this way, I think I want to defend the doomed scholars who live out their lives studying the forbidden knowledge. They are the real Promethean heroes in Lovecraft’s stories.