Victor Nuovo: William James thought about thinking

30th in a series

William James (1842–1910) is surely the most celebrated of American philosophers, and, in the light of his achievement, he is justly celebrated. He is the quintessential American thinker. Although his mind may not have been as acute and as penetrating as that of his friend Charles Sanders Peirce, it was more open and receptive, broader, and more humane. It was a channel through which flowed a vast network of intellectual currents that deposited their riches, which he took up with interest, reflected on, and expressed in writing.

He did not intend to become a philosopher, but made his way there gradually. His first interest was in the natural sciences, in chemistry and biology. He took his degree in medicine, which he never practiced, and began his career at Harvard teaching anatomy and physiology, moving on to psychology. In 1890 he published “The Principles of Psychology,” a massive work, which has become a classic in experimental psychology, but even more, a classic pure and simple. By then James was also teaching philosophy.

Like Peirce and Oliver Wendell Holmes, James had read Darwin, and, persuaded by him, came to believe that human existence is a stage in a long evolutionary process of “descent with modification,” with the operating principles of chance and necessity. Thus, he became a naturalist, and his purpose in “Principles” is to portray psychology as an experimental natural science, to explain the operations of the mind in terms of their physical causes. Whether James was consistent in carrying out his purpose is a question that requires someone with more expertise than I to answer. To me, “Principles” is richly philosophical, especially in its account of the self. For it is commonly supposed that modern philosophy began with René Descartes’ (1596–1650) proof that the existence of one’s own self is self-evident to everyone who thinks: “Cogito ergo sum;” “Je pense, donc je suis;” “I think, therefore I am.”

From the very moment of birth, James observed, every human being is aware of “a teeming multiplicity of objects and relations,” of sensations, perceptions, reflections, feelings, ideas, passing through the mind, streaming by. Thus, James supposed that thinking begins with introspection, looking within oneself, plunging into the stream of thought, taking hold of one or another thought as it passes by, and floating along with it.

Which leads directly to the second topic, the awareness of self. “Whatever I may be thinking of, I am at the same time more or less aware of myself, aware of my personal existence.” The self is both knower and known, and what it barely notices and rarely claims, and yet directly knows, is that the stream of thought that runs through its consciousness is all its own. When we think, we don’t just enter the stream and go with the flow, struggling to stay afloat; we also learn to swim against the currents, and in this respect, thinking is like a sport that involves training and requires repeated exercise, through all of which we become self-possessed. Self-possession is a central theme in James’ philosophical work. And in passing, I note that it is reminiscent of Emerson’s idea of self-reliance; it is a thoughtful elaboration of it.

But what does anyone come to possess or own when becoming self-possessed? Answer: oneself, which is also a multitude. Looking within and attending to the flow, one discovers that being oneself is not a simple matter. The self has many faces, many aspects, many modes of existence, it moves in more than one direction. James takes note of three kinds of self, each of which is manifold. To begin with there is a material self. Whenever I think, and whatever I think about, I am also always aware of my body. Yet, I confess, that I have had the sense whilst dreaming that I am a disembodied spirit, a sprite, free to flitter from place to place, as though I were a ghost. But when awake, I cannot ignore my body, its bulk, its movements, voluntary and involuntary. Add to that the clothes I wear, the house I live in, the car I drive, and all my other material possessions and physical conditions, among them my birth and ethnicity, which are mine and with which I go forth into the world. My material self includes other persons with whom my life is bound up and with whom I am intimate: my family, significant others, bosom buddies, et al., which leads to my social self: which consists of how others see me, recognize me, acknowledge me, count me as one of them or discount me, all of which define my situation in community, society, in school, at work, or at home, and as part of a social class. This includes my self as citizen, to which belongs a sense of duty and honor, and a vision of a society to which I, along with many others, belong, and within which each of us has a duty to perform. Finally, there is my spiritual self, by which, James means, the self that thinks, that reflects upon itself, and wonders what it means to exist. This, according to James, is my inmost self, the mouth of the deep well of my memory, the subject of all my passions, remorseful, judgmental, resentful, penitential, joyful, caring, despairing, hoping.

There is, nevertheless, a flaw in this account of the progress of the self from social to spiritual self, from citizen to aspirant. The perfection of the self occurs only in society, as I’m sure James would have agreed. We are, as Aristotle observed, fundamentally political animals, and through our politics we become perfect; there is no other way. The perfection of self and the perfection of society must occur in tandem or not at all. And thus, the self that is to be perfected is the self as citizen, whose duties are not only national but global, to overcome racism and all other prejudices, to achieve full human equality, to remediate climate change to prevent environmental disaster, and to end all war. To be continued.

Postscript: “The Principles of Psychology’ is 1,500 pages long; fortunately, there is an abridgment of it, made by James himself, and this is published along with other of his writings in two volumes by the Library of America. They should be in every household. William James was very close to his brother, Henry James (1843–1916), the American novelist, and to his sister, Alice James (1848-92), a diarist. Their correspondence is a treasure.

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