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Peter Jones PRAGMATISM AND THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY In 1868 William James commended his younger brother Henry for recognizing the impossibility of exhaustively displaying a character's feelings or thoughts, and for skillfully implying the existence of such states behind the external acts selected for presentation. Five years later, Henry James himself complained that "many of the discursive portions" of Middlemarch were "too clever by half," the novel being "too often an echo of Messrs Darwin and Huxley." The parallels between Middlemarch and The Portrait ofa Lady are too obvious to need comment here, each novel portraying an ardent, intelligent young woman, herself an egoist of one kind, married to an arid egoist of another kind. Although he admired George Eliot for being "really philosophic," Henry James clearly wanted to fuse any philosophical aspects of his own story more subtly into the overall presentation than he took Eliot to have done. The aims of this article are to show some of the philosophical aspects of The Portrait of a Lady, chiefly in relation to the central character, and to show that the absence from the novel of the detailed epistemologica ! presuppositions evident in Middlemarch can be explained as a result of James's departure from the traditional empiricist views to which George Eliot largely subscribed.2 According to his Preface, written much later, Henry James began to compose The Portrait of a Lady in Florence in the spring of 1879, and was still at work on it a year later. A few years earlier, in 1875, James had met his brother's friend C. S. Peirce in Paris, and for several months they dined together every few days. Peirce told William James that Henry preferred to settle questions rather than to turn them over, and in this respect was not "philosophic." There is no evidence that Henry was familiar with an article Peirce published shortly afterwards, in January, 1878, entitled "How to Make Our Ideas Clear," but the way in which the vacuity of Isabel Archer's ideas is displayed, as we shall see, precisely conforms to Peirce's view that beliefs are really rules for action, and his view that "to develop a thought's meaning, we need 49 50Philosophy and Literature only determine what conduct it is fitted to produce: that conduct is for us its sole significance."4 Moreover, the overall presentation of The Portrait ofa Lady conforms to the view of pragmatism as a method, rather than a set of specific results. Beliefs of the central character are shown to be sometimes false, sometimes incoherent, by pragmatistic criteria, and the beliefs of others to be true; understanding is to be reached, if at all, by comparing and contrasting descriptions offered from different points of view and expressed in behavior judged appropriate by the agents. It would be anachronistic to interpret the novel in terms of lectures delivered in 1906, but there are remarks in William James's Pragmatism which help us to determine the kind of attitudes to be contrasted with those of Isabel Archer. First, as William James understands it, pragmatism "is a method only"; "the attitude of looking away from first things, principles, 'categories,' supposed necessities; and of looking towards last things, fruits, consequences, facts." Second, "true ideas are those that we can assimilate, validate, corroborate and verify." Third, "purely objective truth ... is nowhere to be found"; "we break the flux of sensible reality, then, at our will. We create the subjects of our true as well as of our false propositions." Such views, when properly understood, James contended, represented both a less objectionable and a more radical version of the familiar empiricist attitude. In brief, it is an empiricism shorn of its original rationalist elements. Commenting on his brother's book in 1907, Henry James expressed delight in the apparent discovery that he had "unconsciously pragmatised " all his life. However disingenuous that declaration, it is significant that no thesis is presented or argued for in The Portrait of a Lady, no conclusions are drawn from premises, and the few generalizations that occur lack theoretical support; and, of course, if some form of the pragmatic method informed the novel there could be no...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 49-61
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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