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)

james

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.

Continue reading

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)

james

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).

cover

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)

james

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.