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  • Entropy, Eternity, and Unheimlichkeit in William James’s Philosophy
  • Romain Mollard (bio)

For naturalism, fed on recent cosmological speculations, mankind is in a position similar to that of a set of people living on a frozen lake, surrounded by cliffs over which there is no escape, yet knowing that little by little the ice is melting, and the inevitable day drawing near when the last film of it will disappear, and to be drowned ignominiously will be the human creature’s portion. The merrier the skating, the warmer and more sparkling the sun by day, and the ruddier the bonfires at night, the more poignant the sadness with which one must take in the meaning of the total situation.

—William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience1

Baron Kelvin, in an 1852 paper called “On a Universal Tendency in Nature to the Dissipation of Mechanical Energy,” said that the irreversible running down of the earth’s energy meant that it was irreversibly heading to a “thermal death” and that it would become “unfit for the habitation of man as at present constituted.”2 In the following decades, talks about the thermal death of the earth or of the solar system became very popular and helped scientists to become the advocates of a new form of scientific naturalism based on a materialistic and atheistic cosmology. An example of these discussions can be found in The Foundations of Belief by Arthur James Balfour: [End Page 32]

The energies of our system will decay, the glory of the sun will be dimmed, and the earth, tieless and inert, will no longer tolerate the race which has for a moment disturbed its solitude. Man will go down into the pit, and all his thoughts will perish. The uneasy consciousness which in this obscure corner has for a brief space broken the contented silence of the universe will be at rest. Matter will know itself no longer. “Imperishable monuments” and “immortal deeds,” death itself, and love stronger than death, will be as if they had not been. Nor will anything that is, be better or worse for all that the labor, genius, devotion, and suffering of man have striven through countless ages to effect.3

When William James was studying science at Harvard University, the idea of a thermal death reached its climax and had a long-term effect on his mind. I think that it played a major but unnoticed role in triggering what is usually referred to in the secondary literature as James’s spiritual crisis, which probably occurred between 1868 and 1872 and was so pervasive that it determined a great amount of his further philosophical development. Naturalist theories could find in the second law of thermodynamics a new argument in favor of humanity’s lack of supernatural destination. As a result of his early acceptance of Darwinism, James kept agreeing with those who negated humanity’s spiritual origin, but he came to refuse the negation of his spiritual destination by developing his own brand of supernaturalism. He always connected the question of the death of the visible world with the eternal preservation of something unseen. The effect that the problem of the growth of entropy had on his mind can be seen from his earliest writings, as in his 1875 review of P. G. Tait and Balfour Stewart’s The Unseen Universe, where we find in a nutshell the premise of the doctrine he outlined in The Will to Believe, as well as some features of his pragmatism. The problem can also be seen in his criticism of materialism and agnosticism and, in the late 1870s and early 1880s, when he described the view of life inspired by the thermal death of the universe by using the German word Unheimlichkeit, a word that can be translated as “uncanniness of the ordinary” and that he associated with the absence of what Balfour called, in the quote above, “love stronger than death.” This rather unnoticed thesis reappeared in the background of “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life” (1891) and in “Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results” (1898), where James quoted Balfour in order to make sense of one of the key arguments...


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