Transforming the Self amidst the Challenges of Chance: William James on "Our Undisciplinables"
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Transforming the Self amidst the Challenges of Chance
William James on "Our Undisciplinables"

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Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1852 novel The Blithedale Romance offers a fictionalized portrayal of the author's 1841 immersion in the utopian commune of Brook Farm. The experiment in sociality begins as the narrator sets out through a "pitiless snowstorm, in quest of a better life" consoling himself against the storm with the following meditation on the moral meaning of his efforts: "The greatest obstacle to being heroic is the doubt whether one may not be going to prove one's self a fool; the truest heroism is, to resist the doubt; and the profoundest wisdom, to know when it ought to be resisted, and when to be obeyed."1 Hawthorne's moral meditation, and indeed the novel on the whole insofar as it is riddled with all manner of indecision, offers a paradigmatic statement of a nineteenth-century problematic to which conceptions of chance then still being solidified would soon be seen as offering a response. If doubt was of deep moral concern for Hawthorne and those of his milieu, then it should be unsurprising that an emerging obsession with chance and probability soon came to be regarded with equal moral gravity.

According to Ian Hacking in The Emergence of Probability (1975), modern sciences and technologies of probability stabilized sometime around 1660. Hacking offers Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716) as a representative figure.2 Continuing this history in The Taming of Chance (1990), Hacking shows that it would not be until the late nineteenth century, as paradigmatically represented in Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914), that technologies of probability were able to tame chance enough to defeat the moral and epistemological specters of determinism.3 A sea change separates Peirce from Leibniz.

To gain a sense of that sea change, consider that Hawthorne's concern with doubt is just one historical configuration of a long-term obsession of Western modernity. Hawthorne helps mark the erosion of a kind of generalized anxiety over doubt that stretches back before Leibniz, at least as far as René Descartes. In seeking to refute doubt, Descartes implicitly presented it as something to be argued away. For Descartes, this involved refiguring doubt as a purely mental affair. The Cartesian difference is always the difference that mind makes. Doubt could become a moment to be reasoned away in that new space of the interiorized mind. Meanwhile, other philosophers less rationalist and more empiricist in bent, yet as committed as Descartes to the importance of mentality, would position experience as the posit that defeats doubt. For Hawthorne, in contrast to such philosophical predecessors, doubt and its dealings were not so much affairs of the mind as matters of action. Descartes was mentally anxious beside his warm fire, while Hawthorne was hesitant in his capacities to act as the snow blustered about him. These are two radically different forms of doubt.

In Hawthorne doubt is a condition of possibility of a certain kind of potency or agency. Doubt is not so much to be defeated as to be worked through. We resist doubt, but we need it as a term of resistance through which we may act. The Cartesian theatrics of mind according to which doubt can be nullified by reason alone had come to seem unworkable to Hawthorne and many of his American contemporaries. For many Americans of the generation following Hawthorne's, and perhaps most notably the pragmatist philosophers, purely mental defeat of doubt would become, in actual fact, impossible. The middle decades of nineteenth-century America were witness to a new [End Page 41] relationship to doubt that swiftly spread throughout American culture.4 Following the fiery furnaces of the Civil War, doubt in America came to be seen less as an invitation to wary skepticisms and more as an antidote to violent dogmatisms. One way of formulating the pragmatist response to this transformation of doubt would be to follow Hacking's narrative of how chance (and related notions of probability and possibility) came to be seen as a viable response to doubt. Whereas for Descartes chance is part of the problem, for Peirce, "chance itself pours in...


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