Victor Nuovo: James saw a pluralistic universe

32nd in a series

William James was an American hero. He displayed boundless energy, which was more willed than natural, and he was driven by an insatiable desire for knowledge, which he pursued relentlessly in spite of chronic ill health (a weak and failing heart, and recurring episodes of depression). His writings are testimonies to his indomitable will and extraordinary courage.

The tragedy of William James’s life is that he did not live to finish his life’s work. He aimed to create a philosophical system. However, fortunately for us, he envisioned it before he died. In 1904, six years before his death from heart disease at the young age of 68, he published an essay entitled “A World of Pure Experience.” And in it he gave his system a name: “Radical Empiricism.” Empiricism is the philosophical doctrine that all the ideas that fill our minds derive from the perceptions of real things in a real world, and that human knowledge and understanding are founded upon them. “Radical empiricism” is just an emphatic way of stating this. But James goes to great pains to make clear that experience consists not only of our perception of things, but also of the many ways by which they connect to each other, so that all the terms that we employ in our discourses about things, for example, “near” and “far,” “for” and “against,” “because,” are fashioned from experience, so that if we have no perception of them, we cannot claim to have any idea of them. Imagine what it would take to teach a young child the meaning of “because.”

 In 1907, three years before he died, James gave a series of lectures at the University of Oxford. He entitled it “A Pluralistic Universe.” It is his testament. As a psychologist, he was well aware of the variety of human experience. It was this variety, or plurality of psychological types, that James undertook to discover, describe, explain and to celebrate.

He had already made progress on this task. In 1901 he delivered a series of lectures in Edinburgh, Scotland, which he entitled “The Varieties of Religious Experience.” It was published under this title in 1902, and it has become a classic. A pluralistic universe would accommodate far more than this, a totality of all kinds and varieties of human experience. Imagine a series of studies: The Variety of Political Experience, The Variety of Moral Experience, The Variety of Aesthetic Experience, The Variety of Social Experience, The Variety of “the whips and scorns of time: the oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, the law’s delay,” to borrow from Shakespeare, or The Variety of the Experience of Racial Injustice, or The Variety of the Experience of Pain. And there is more, much more.

According to James, a universe is more than a system of bodies in motion; it is a totality in which thinking, feeling animals live and move and have their being. It is not only a material system that we can manipulate through technology, but also a spiritual universe of sorts, in which moral and aesthetic values are given expression and sometimes flourish, a universe with which we can become intimate, and also one that we might come to trust. The old dichotomy of matter and spirit is replaced by the unity of spirit and nature.

As I’ve already stated, “A Pluralistic Universe” is James’s legacy; our inheritance, a prospectus of the intellectual and moral tasks that are still before us. “The Varieties of Religious Experience” provides a means to gain a closer look at a part of this legacy, and I will end this essay with a brief account of it.

“The Varieties” is a study of personal religion, not of the dogmas and practices of organized religions, for which James had little regard or interest. He defined religion as “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men [and women] in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.” And by “divine” James means whatever an individual takes to be ultimate, it is the object of their ultimate concern.

The most memorable result of this study is James’s identification of two general types of religious personality, the healthy minded and the sick-soul. The former has a positive and life-affirming disposition; the latter is beset by remorse, pessimism and melancholy, and afflicted with what the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard described as “the sickness unto death,” and a divided soul.

Healthy-minded persons are “once-born”; they need undergo no personal crisis and conversion in order to live a happy, fulfilled life, for they are by nature open-minded, world affirming, and self-reliant. They have no doubt about what is good, and they are confident of their ability to make it real. Their chief motives in life are kindness, generosity and everything that is decent and fair. At the peak of performance, they are joyous. As proof that this type is not an unattainable ideal, James cites three examples: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller and Walt Whitman.

In contrast, those beset with a sick soul must experience a second birth if they are to ever be happy, they must experience a spiritual rebirth. Until then, they are “pathologically unhappy,” pessimistic, suspicious of whatever or whoever is supposed to be good, cynical, melancholy, and plagued by the terrors of the dark night of the soul. They have a longing for redemption. Reading his biography, it is clear that James combined both types in his personality. And this is confirmed by his writings. Overall, the tone of his writings is joyous, uplifting and optimistic, and yet the attentive reader cannot fail to detect unmistakable echoes of despair. It is what makes reading James so interesting and so engaging and so human. As I’ve written in a previous essay, James is the quintessential American philosopher. Anyone who has not read William James cannot begin to understand the life of the mind in America and even less live it.

Postscript: “The Varieties of Religious Experience” is available in an affordable paperback edition. Visit your local bookseller, and read William James.

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