Monthly Archives: September 2013

Teleology and Darwinism in William James


Although the general view of Darwinism is that it directly opposes the validity of final causation, which I, along with William James, Henri Bergson, Alfred North Whitehead, Thomas Nagel, and many other philosophers unequivocally assert, it seems unlikely that a mode of thought would attain the wide and lasting success that Darwinism has without containing some significant grain of truth. William James addresses this issue obliquely in a long passage from The Will to Believe (1897, 221-4), in an essay called “Great Men and Their Environment.” According to James, Darwin did not purport to explain the underlying cause of what he called “tendencies to spontaneous variation.” In fact, he “ignored them altogether,” as James puts it. What Darwin does seem to have explained rather convincingly, which James deems an instance of Darwin’s “triumphant originality,” is the way the traits produced by those “spontaneous variations” are preserved and passed on in relation to the environmental context through natural selection and sexual selection.

Charles Darwin states his hypothesis directly in the introduction to On the Origin of Species:

As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive; and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected. From the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form (5).

If James is correct (and I believe he is correct about most things), then Darwin himself has very little to say about whether the underlying cause of the emergence of new traits is random chance or teleological tendencies in the nature of process. And as to the question of what Darwinists other than Darwin himself have believed about this issue, some of his followers appear to have understood him better than others, and many have asserted things that Darwin himself never asserted. To my mind, anyone who denies teleology, whether they call themselves Darwinists or not, are mistaken, as there is an undeniable trajectory visible in cosmic history towards the progressive emergence of novelty and consciousness, from nonlife, to life, to episodic mammalian consciousness, to the emergent human mind.

The two kinds of selection Darwin posits define the mechanism by which traits are preserved, whether they are caused by random chance or by teleology. It seems to me that this central point of Darwinism makes a positive, and rather large contribution to understanding how evolution occurs without denying any other theory, particularly final causation, even if the underlying cause of the variations remains a mystery for Darwin. Similarly, the idea of subtraction itself is a positive contribution to the total field of human knowledge, even though that operation itself is the mathematical embodiment of the negative.

James interprets Darwin’s citing of “accidental variation” as the cause of new traits to mean not that the underlying cause is necessarily random, but that these causes of variation are so complex, numerous, and deep that they are unknowable to the methods of empirical science. I remain agnostic on the quantitative measurability of teleology at the micro-scale of almost infinite complexity, the scale of the relations of individual molecules over billions of years. But it is clear that at the macro-scale, the evolution of species has consistently tended, over the course of those billions of years, towards the emergence of novel forms of life and consciousness. Judging from James, I do not believe that this supposition is incommensurable with the core assertion of Darwinism, which is the novel idea of selection, even though Darwin appears consciously to have stripped his work of reference to teleology, largely in relation to the Christian form of eschatological finalism prevalent in his historical milieu, as he apparently told botanist Asa Grey. Darwin seems not to have been interested in being in the business of tracing either first principles or final ends, even if some of his followers have been. Some thinkers have even argued that Darwin may in fact have given credence to teleology in some form, particularly James G. Lennox in his contribution to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Ultimately it seems unlikely that James would have so admired the work of Darwin if the latter’s theory had explicitly denied James’ belief in final causation, for as James writes in Pragmatism: “Everything makes strongly for the view that our world is incompletely unified teleologically and is still trying to get its unification better organized” (54).

I’ll give the last word to Darwin, who writes in On the Origin of Species: “I am well aware that scarcely a single point is discussed in this volume on which facts cannot be adduced, often apparently leading to conclusions directly opposite to those at which I have arrived” (3). This statement seems an implicit recognition of the guiding principle of Jamesian pragmatism, of John Stuart Mill in his essay on Coleridge (which I’ve quoted often in earlier posts), of Hegel’s discussion of the negative in his dialectic, and of the work of many other philosophers, a principle by which I set my own course: Facts are often susceptible to incommensurable interpretations, so the most comprehensive approach is to see if opposed modes of thought can be reconciled by affirming the positive content of each mode and putting aside the negative content as historical contingency. In my experience, as with this brief study of the supposedly antithetical theories of Darwinism and teleology, both sides of any controversy that has persisted for generations almost always possess some validity within their respective domains of applicability.


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How Old Were Philosophers When They Published Their First Major Works?


I’ll be turning 35 in January, so I’ve been doing some thinking about age in relation to the trajectory of my career. I’m in the final stages of preparing my first book, How Does It Feel?: Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Philosophy of Rock and Roll, for publication, and I’m well into my second book, a straight work of philosophy. With these considerations in mind, I decided to look at how old my favorite philosophers (and a few psychologists and a stray scientist and sociologist) were when they published their first major works and some of their best known works thereafter. I haven’t tried to be comprehensive, so please don’t be offended if I’ve left out one of your favorite books or thinkers. Rather, I’ve given a subjectively chosen selection of works merely sufficient to answer my question. To make a long story short, the conclusion I’ve drawn is that we philosophers are doing just fine if we publish our first book by our late forties. Philosophy is clearly not a vocation for those seeking instant gratification.

One caveat: the ages I’ve listed are approximations based solely on the years, not the months, of birth and publication, so there’s essentially a one year margin of error. I could take the time to recheck all the numbers, but you get the idea, and I need to get back to writing my book.

William James

48 – The Principles of Psychology

55 – The Will to Believe

60 – The Varieties of Religious Experience

65 – Pragmatism

67 – A Pluralistic Universe

Henri Bergson

30 – Time and Free Will

37 – Matter and Memory

48 – Creative Evolution

Alfred North Whitehead

49 – Principia Mathematica

64 – Science and the Modern World

68 – Process and Reality

72 – Adventures of Ideas

77 – Modes of Thought

C.G. Jung

37 – Psychology of the Unconscious

46 – Psychological Types

59 – The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious

69 – Psychology and Alchemy

77 – Synchronicity

87 – Memories, Dreams, Reflections

Jean Gebser

44 – The Ever-Present Origin

Richard Tarnas

41 – The Passion of the Western Mind

56 – Cosmos and Psyche

G.W.F. Hegel

37 – The Phenomenology of Spirit

42 – The Science of Logic

Thomas Kuhn

35 – The Copernican Revolution

40 – The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

James Hillman

34 – Emotion

38 – Suicide and the Soul

49 – Re-Visioning Psychology

Sigmund Freud

44 – The Interpretation of Dreams

48 – The Psychopathology of Everyday Life

57 – Totem and Taboo

74 – Civilization and Its Discontents

83 – Moses and Monotheism

Charles Darwin

50 – On the Origin of Species

62 – The Descent of Man

Max Weber

41 – The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism


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