5. William James’s Pragmatism: A Distinctly Mixed Bag
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William James’s Pragmatism: A Distinctly Mixed Bag Bruce Wilshire 5.   .   .   .   . They picture pragmatism a priori (I don’t know why) as something that must necessarily be simple . . . I repeat . . . pragmatism is one of the most subtle and nuanced doctrines that have ever appeared in philosophy (just because the doctrine reinstates truth in the flux of experience), and one is sure to go wrong if one speaks of pragmatism before having read you as a whole. —Henri Bergson, letter to James, 1909  William James is a tragic figure. I will try to fully explain what I mean by that. But right off the bat, we can point out a feature of this tragic stance. It’s fairly widely believed that James is a major philosopher. Yet in no other such philosopher’s work, I believe, are great strengths so vividly mixed with major defects. His famous, often read—too often read, I think—popular lectures, Pragmatism , gaudily illustrate this claim. What does it take to be a major philosopher? A most difficult question. Wilfrid Sellars’s one-liner statement of what philosophy seeks to discover is hard to better: how things, in the broadest sense, hang together, in the broadest sense. But how does one start a process of discovery without begging crucial questions that philosophy should endeavor to answer? How does one begin to comprehend the farthest reaches of complexity without prejudging things—or occluding whole horizons of possibilities and viewpoints—stupidly? James’s description in Pragmatism of expertness in philosophy is arresting: “Expertness in philosophy is measured by the definiteness of our summarizing reactions, by the immediate perceptive epithet with which the expert hits such complex objects off” (P, 25). The summarizing that emerges through perceptual epithet! A taking in at a glance that delivers the first sketch of the whole lay of the land. Is there any better way to avoid getting lost in the details of some corner of the subject matter, any better way to begin doing philosophy unprejudiciously? Asserted are deep points of affinity between philosophic and artistic intuition . It should not greatly surprise us that James studied art seriously for a time. In an expertly done self-portrait as a young man, James shows himself looking sidewise and sharply at viewers, as if he would take us in at a glance. James did not finally take the career route of the professional artist. But, thankfully, his artistic proclivities never totally left him—the definiteness of summarizing reactions, the immediate perceptive epithet with which the expert William James’s Pragmatism  •  97 hits such complex objects off. Art gave him a grip on what confronts us from every side every instant, on what confronts us viscerally and concretely, on what he calls the much at once. Look very carefully, he says, at the actual color of the shade under the trees on this sunny day here and now in the fields. Hackneyed thoughts suggest immediately and automatically that that shade be painted black or some shade of gray. But the color that actually appears is purple! That is, the total circumpressure of the situation here and now makes the shade appear purple, and to this the good painter—and the philosopher—must try to adhere. James’s vitality is plain enough: his racy, many-allusioned, colorful prose, his common touch, as if he were just one person talking to another. But this frequently conceals another deeper layer of vitality. I mean his energy of mind that cuts through the periphery to the center of its subject, and—holding that center fast— still keeps in its grasp the manifold aspects of that same subject that prevent any false simplification.1 At his best, he sees how things, in the broadest sense, hang together, in the broadest sense. He learns to keep his poise in the midst of the much at once pulsing and moving unpredictably on every side and within him. Not to be omitted from our initial account is James’s personal experience of an overwhelming much at once. Following his earning of an M.D. degree from Harvard, he was struck down in a nearly total existential collapse. Something “gave way in his chest,” and he was bedridden for about a year in his parents’ house. He described it as “a terror at his own existence” that paralyzed him. Despite all his advantages—his family’s wealth, his father’s social and intellectual circle that included Emerson, his own advanced degree from Harvard—he...