2012 Politics and William James



Walter G. Moss is a professor emeritus of history at Eastern Michigan University. His most recent book is "An Age of Progress?: Clashing Twentieth-Century Global Forces" (2008). For a list of all his recent books and online publications, including many on Russian history and culture, go here: http://people.emich.edu/wmoss/pub.htm

William James, left, and fellow philosopher Josiah Royce, 1910.

In the midst of our political season of hype, falsehood, half-truths, and unprecedented spending, the words of Walter Lippmann after the death of William James seem pertinent. In 1910, only two years after the famous Harvard philosopher first met the young man who would become one of the leading journalists of his generation, Lippmann eulogized him in his first signed article after graduation. In "An Open Mind: William James," he wrote:

James was a democrat. He gave all men and all creeds, any idea, any theory, any superstition, a respectful hearing. ... James knew that he didn't know. He never acted upon the notion that the truth was his store of wisdom. He felt with all sorts of men. He understood their demand for immediate answers to the great speculative questions of life. God, freedom, immortality, nature as moral or non-moral -- these were for him not matters of idle scientific wonder, but of urgent need. ... [He believed that] atheism and theism are both dogmas, for there is scientific evidence for neither. ... And this democrat understood the need of feeling at home in the world, and he understood also that the aristocrats are not at home here. ... "The luxurious classes," he says, "are blind to man's real relation to the globe he lives on, and to the permanently hard and solid foundations of his higher life." And he prescribed for them ... this treatment [in some type of non-military national service]: "To coal and iron mines, to freight trains, to fishing fleets in December, to dishwashing, clotheswashing and windowwashing, to road-building and tunnel-making, to foundries and stoke-holes, and to the frames of skyscrapers, would our gilded youths be drafted off according to their choice, to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas" [see here for source of James quote]....

It is an encouraging thought that America should have produced perhaps the most tolerant man of our generation. It is a stimulating thought that he was a man whose tolerance never meant the kind of timidity which refuses to take a stand "because there is so much to be said on both sides." As every one knows, he fought hard for his ideas, because he believed in them, and because he wanted others to believe in them. The propagandist was strong in William James. He wished to give as well as receive. And he listened for truth from anybody, and from anywhere, and in any form. He listened for it from [anarchist] Emma Goldman, the pope, or a sophomore; preached from a pulpit, a throne, or a soap-box; in the language of science, in slang, in fine rhetoric, or in the talk of a ward boss.

In the words of Lippmann's biographer Ronald Steel, "James was a liberating influence on an entire generation. ... James's openness to new ideas, his warm character, his life-embracing optimism revealed how philosophy could help enrich human life." In 1950, historian Henry Steele Commager thought that James's ideas were "wonderfully adapted to the temperament of the average American."

What is so refreshing about James -- and what we could use more of in this election season -- is his mixture of passion with empathy, tolerance, and humility. The tolerance sprang from his humility, knowing there was much he didn't know. He constructed his undogmatic philosophy of pragmatism and pluralism based upon this realization. No one has a monopoly on truth. We should all be humble seekers of it, but always mindful of its complexity and how our individual personalities lead us to see it in different ways. As James put it in his essay "On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings": "Our judgments concerning the worth of things, big or little, depend on the feelings the things arouse in us. ... Now the blindness in human beings, of which this discourse will treat, is the blindness with which we all are afflicted in regard to the feelings of creatures and people different from ourselves. ... Each is bound to feel intensely the importance of his own duties and the significance of the situations that call these forth. ... Neither the whole of truth nor the whole of good is revealed to any single observer, although each observer gains a partial superiority of insight from the peculiar position in which he stands."

Yet he combined this humility and tolerance with strong opinions. In 1899, after reading of U.S. troops putting down Filipinos fighting for independence, he wrote in the Boston Evening Transcript an article burning with passionate condemnation. While the whole piece should be read in order to appreciate the depth of his passion, the following sample gives us some indication. He depicts the U.S. position as declaring, "We are here for your own good; therefore unconditionally surrender to our tender mercies, or we'll blow you into kingdom come." And he adds, "It is horrible, simply horrible. Surely there cannot be many born and bred Americans who, when they look at the bare fact of what we are doing, the fact taken all by itself, do not feel this, and do not blush with burning shame."

Against the general glorification of war and imperialism that was so common at the time, a spirit well captured in historian Barbara Tuchman's The Proud Tower, James was a strong critic. In his classic The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), he wrote, "What we now need to discover in the social realm is the moral equivalent of war: something heroic that will speak to men as universally as war does, and yet will be as compatible with their spiritual selves as war has proved itself to be incompatible." Four years later he elaborated on this sentence in his "The Moral Equivalent of War," where he wrote "I look forward to a future when acts of war shall be formally outlawed. ... All these beliefs of mine put me firmly into the anti-military party." But he realized that "the war against war is going to be no holiday excursion or camping party. The military feelings are too deeply grounded to abdicate their place among our ideals until better substitutes are offered." 

He also expressed strong words about other social and political issues, for example the U.S. "moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS. That -- with the squalid cash interpretation put on the word success -- is our national disease."

Thus, James's lesson for us is twofold. Speak out strongly for your convictions. But do so with humility and tolerance. He was a Harvard professor who preached the importance of academics communicating with the general public, as he often did. And he believed that knowledge should lead to action. In a New York Times interview in 1907, he stated that "Our minds are not here simply to copy a reality that is already complete. ... In point of fact, the USE of most of our thinking is to help us to CHANGE the world."

A very cosmopolitan and cultured man, James was also a graduate of Harvard Medical School, and his first Harvard teaching position was in anatomy and physiology. His education taught him the importance of a scientific approach to knowledge, and his later pragmatic philosophy emphasized the importance of hypotheses and verification. He thought we need to act based upon our best factually grounded knowledge at the moment. But we should also realize that we could be wrong. And we should always be open to new evidence and to modifying or even discarding our past opinions and positions in the light of new insights.

In the current presidential race, President Obama is clearly more in James's pragmatic tradition than is Mitt Romney, especially now that he has added Paul Ryan to the Republican ticket and his party has adopted a platform clearly reflecting its conservative ideology. Historian James Kloppenberg in his Reading Obama (2011) emphasizes that "the philosophy of pragmatism that originated over a century ago in the writings of William James and John Dewey ... has provided a sturdy base for Obama's sensibility." This type of pragmatism "challenges the claims of absolutists -- whether their dogmas are rooted in science or religion -- and instead embraces uncertainty, provisionally, and the continuous testing of hypotheses through experimentation," in order to see what works.

Often in his speeches and writings Obama has expressed sentiments very close to those of James regarding empathy, humility, tolerance, and passion. For example, in a 2010 University of Michigan commencement speech, he said: "These arguments we're having over government and health care and war and taxes -- these are serious arguments. They should arouse people's passions, and it's important for everybody to join in the debate, with all the vigor that the maintenance of a free people requires."

But "we can't expect to solve our problems if all we do is tear each other down. You can disagree with a certain policy without demonizing the person who espouses it. You can question somebody's views and their judgment without questioning their motives or their patriotism. ... Vilification and over-the-top rhetoric closes the door to the possibility of compromise. It undermines democratic deliberation. It prevents learning -- since, after all, why should we listen to a 'fascist,' or a 'socialist,' or a 'right-wing nut,' or a 'left-wing nut'?" (See here for more on the speech.)

Although such Jamesian thinking seems reasonable, can it help us in these final campaigning months? Historian Kloppenberg himself expresses some doubts:

If philosophical pragmatism informs Obama's political outlook, the history of pragmatists' engagement in politics also suggests the reasons why pragmatism may be particularly ill-suited to our own cultural moment. At a time when partisans left and right vie to proclaim rival versions of certainty with greater self-righteousness, the pragmatists' critique of absolutism and embrace of open-ended experimentation seems off-key, unsatisfying, perhaps even cowardly. ... The flexibility of pragmatist philosophy, which helps explain Obama's intellectual acuity and suppleness, may paradoxically undercut his ability to inspire and persuade the American electorate and the United States Congress at a time when strident rhetoric and unyielding partisanship have displaced reasoned deliberation and a commitment to problem solving.

Another thinker, John Summers, suggests that both Kloppenberg and Obama have approached politics too much from a rational viewpoint, as if appeals to reason and evidence should be decisive. By the end of the George W. Bush's second term, Summers writes, "a sense of absurdity, a feeling that American [sic] had fallen into the hands of a claque that refused to acknowledge the results of logic and evidence, had become a general theme voiced by many observers." He cites Susan Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason (2008) and Rick Shenkman's Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth about the American Voter (2008) to support his point and also adds that "the incorrigible irrationality of the citizen was ostensibly proved by the empirical science of mass politics."

To Summers' criticism, Kloppenberg responds that "denying the efficacy of reasoned debate and embracing the politics of emotion and symbol seems to me unlikely to cure what ails our politics," and that James himself continued "to endorse rational argument and empirical evidence as the best democratic response to unreason."

Yet James also realized the importance of the non-rational. In an essay on "What Psychical Research Has Accomplished" he referred to other ways of thinking "that have played the greatest part in human history. Religious thinking, ethical thinking, poetical thinking, teleological, emotional, sentimental thinking, what one might call the personal view of life to distinguish it from the impersonal and mechanical, and the romantic view of life to distinguish it from the rationalistic view, have been, and even still are, outside of well-drilled scientific circles, the dominant forms of thought."

He added, "Of course, we must all admit that the excesses to which the romantic and personal view of nature may lead, if wholly unchecked by impersonal rationalism, are direful." But the important point here is that he realized that the scientific, rational approach to reality -- as important as it was—was not the only path to truth.

In his Consciousness and Society, which deals with European social thought from 1890-1930 to H. Stuart Hughes wrote: "After the turn of the century the influence of William James began its triumphant progress. I doubt whether ever before or since an American thinker has enjoyed such prestige on the European Continent." Hughes goes on to write about the European thinkers, many of whom were influenced by James, "They were lead to discover the importance of subjective 'values' in human behavior. Man as an actor in society, they came to see was seldom decisively influenced by logical considerations: supra- or infra-rational values of one sort or another usually guided his conduct."

In summary, the wisdom William James conveys to us amidst the din of our strident political opining (e.g., Fox News and much of the blogosphere) is that humility, tolerance, civility, and empathy are as important as passion; that we should always seek truth but realize that it is complex and our individual circumstances lead us to see it differently; and that most people are moved more by their feelings than by reason and logic. But this last realization did not lead James to pessimism. He was one of our more optimistic and hopeful philosophers and also stressed the importance of individual deeds. In his essay "What Makes a Life Significant?" he wrote of the importance of heroic qualities, of combining "ideal visions" with courage and character. It would probably not surprise him if in November we elect the presidential candidate who best demonstrates this combination. If he also then leads our nation with the type of passion, tolerance, open-mindedness, and empathy for the common people emphasized by William James, even better.

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