restricted access 9. Active Tension
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Active Tension Linda Simon 9.   .   .   .   .   James’s insistence on the relationship between an individual’s philosophy and his temperament urges us to ask, first of all, how can we understand the connection of pragmatism to James’s own “essential personal flavor” (P, 24)? And second, if pragmatism is not idiosyncratic to James but applicable and appealing to others, as well, then how does it account for the myriad varieties of individual perspectives, needs, and yearnings that James says characterize humanity? How does it provide a method of solving problems that fosters a sense of community? Because the definitions of pragmatism that we can infer from James’s many writings about experience, knowledge, truth, and mind are various and protean, understanding pragmatism itself is a slippery project. And so is pinning down the quicksilver personality that was James. While we can generalize about some facets of his temperament, other qualities were contradictory. As he admitted, he had many selves, some manifested publicly, some only privately, some hidden, some evolving. His identity as a public intellectual was not necessarily consistent with his identity as a father and husband; nor were his pragmatic ideas about religion and spirituality necessarily consistent with his ideas about political and civic life. Nevertheless, it is possible to begin with a working definition of pragmatism and, similarly, a working definition of William James. Let’s define pragmatism as a method of solving metaphysical debates and of making decisions in a changing world. This world is unstable, unfixed, undetermined , and yet there is a reality that we can know through our own experiences. Through actions and practices we test our ideas by paying attention to their consequences for us and for others. What is the effect of holding one idea rather than another? How do our ideas contribute to the world we are creating by our interactions , decisions, and behavior? These are questions to which a pragmatist re- 174  •  Linda Simon sponds. For James, pragmatism had a particular relevance to religion, and offered a way to reconcile science with metaphysics (P, 31). It served, he said, as “a happy harmonizer of empiricist ways of thinking, with the more religious demands of human beings” (P, 39). It allowed for the possibility of God. Let’s define James, as he reveals himself in Pragmatism, as a restless spirit who resists the imposition of any authority on what he wants to believe. He wants to be able to make decisions according to his own values and needs, and yet he recognizes that personal desires can create a world of self-serving individuals who do not care about communal life. He defines himself as a combination of a tender-minded person who is romantic, religious, free-willist, and at the same time a tough-minded person who is empiricist, pluralistic, and skeptical. As a radical pragmatist, if he is one, he sees himself as “a happy-go-lucky anarchist sort of creature” for whom truth “grows up inside of all the finite experiences” (P, 124–32). He knows that who we are shapes what we see, what we attend to, and he urges us to be self-conscious about the assumptions that we hold so that we remain open to novelty. Concepts are limiting; even language is limiting to the free-spiritist James. At the same time that he wants to live in a changing world of concrete experience , he also yearns for spiritual affirmation; he believes that religion can serve as both a moral guide and a refuge: “a place,” he writes, “of escape from the crassness of reality’s surface” (P, 23). He yearns to believe that there is a meaning in the universe that transcends the material and that this transcendent meaning endures even after material things decay. But James is focused on real experience; he is delighted by living. When he turns to religion or to “rationalistic philosophy that indeed may call itself religious,” he discovers that it “keeps out of all definite touch with concrete facts and joys and sorrows” (P, 17). This separation distresses him, and, he believes, distresses many of his contemporaries, too. James apparently includes himself when he notes that there is “a decidedly empiricist proclivity” in his own time. People want facts, they want science, but they also want religion, and they think that empiricism is not religious enough, nor is religion empiricist enough (P, 14–15). Increasingly, he sees, a “naturalistic or positivistic feeling” has privileged science, and a focus on nature has...