- William James on Immortality. An unsigned review of Human Immortality: Two Supposed Objections to the Doctrine, by William James
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582 ] William James on Immortality An unsigned review of Human Immortality: Two Supposed Objections to the Doctrine, by William James London: J. M. Dent, 1917. Pp. 80; London: Constable, 1917. Pp. 128. The New Statesman, 9 (8 Sept 1917) 547 These two editions are convenient reprints of the Ingersoll Lecture of 1898.1 A considerable number of philosophers, scientists, and men of letters have taken their turn as Ingersoll Lecturer; few have succeeded in contributing anything very important to an obscure problem; yet the series has the interest , in retrospect, of a comparative study of points of view. William James’s is one of the small number that have any individual interest, and the interest which it has is due chiefly to its place in the development of James’s thought, and the light which it casts upon his philosophic attitude. The place of the lecture among James’s works, it must be admitted, is not a very important one. The sub-title of the lecture is characteristic of an attitude very frequent in James: the union of sceptical and destructive habits of mind with positive enthusiasm for freedom in philosophy and thought. His own personal feeling about immortality, he admits frankly, “has never been of the keenest order” , but he had great curiosity, and a curiously charming willingness to believe anything that seemed preposterous to the ordinary scientific mind. He hated oppression in any form; the oppression of dogmatic theology was remote from him, who lived in the atmosphere of Unitarian Harvard; but the oppression of idealistic philosophy and the oppression of scientific materialism were very real to him. Many of James’s ideas may be due rather to his antipathy to other people’s narrow convictions than to convictions of his own; as when, in a footnote to this lecture, he suggests a notion which he repeats elsewhere more emphatically, that “there might be many minds [sc. divine] behind the scenes as well as one” .2 Philosophically, the footnotes, though they are chiefly citations, contain several suggestions which are more provocative than the lecture itself. They show that James was already struggling toward the philosophy barely outlined at his death, the “Radical Empiricism” which he considered more [ 583 William James on Immortality important than his Pragmatism.3 Note 3 observes, for example, that the point of view taken in the lecture has been “the ordinary dualistic point of view,” but that: An absolute phenomenism, not believing such a dualism (of mind and matter) to be ultimate, may possibly end by solving some of the problems that are insoluble when propounded in dualistic terms. 4 The two points made and elaborated in the body of the lecture are the “transmission” theory of psycho-physics,5 [and] the futility of the objection to immortality as an appalling and tiresome multiplication of souls. On the latter point, James is characteristically democratic, genially drawing a picture of a future life which includes animals and savages and our primitive ancestors . The former point, the theory that the absolute dependence of mind upon brain is only the dependence of the workman on his tool, the theory that the function of the brain is not to generate consciousness but to “limit” it, has since been made familiar by Bergson’s Matter and Memory, and had already been developed by F. C. S. Schiller.6 There are difficulties in the theory which James does not quite face: the greatest of these perhaps is that we do not clearly conceive what it is, according to the theory, that is “transmitted ”; what “consciousness” is, apart from its actualisation through the brain into thoughts and words and acts. Thus James compares consciousness to the air which is shaped by the vocal cords into “my personal voice”; and later he says that after death the “sphere of being” that supplied the consciousness would still be intact [27-28]. Personal immortality always tends to evaporate in this way. It would be easy to pick the lecture to pieces; its binding fluid is its attack upon dogmatic disbelief, not any constructive theory. But James has an exceptional quality of always leaving his reader with the feeling that the world is full of possibilities–in a philosopher, a rare and valuable quality; and what seems scepticism or inconsistency or vagueness in others, James has the knack of communicating as a sense of sincere adventurousness. Notes 1. The Ingersoll Lectures on Human Immortality at the Harvard University Divinity School were established...