Tag Archives: William James

Affect and Rationality in William James

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William James writes in his Varieties of Religious Experience: “Each emotion obeys a logic of its own, and makes deductions which no other logic can draw. Piety and charity live in a different universe from worldly lusts and fears, and form another centre of energy altogether” (Varieties 298). James suggests that affective knowing, the focus on emotional or bodily information for the interpretation of experience, seems to illuminate domains that are inaccessible to the usual connotations of the word “logic,” as opposed to the more expansive derivation of the “Logos” of Greek philosophy in which sense James appears to be employing the term. As he describes it, being “inside” certain affective modes, including those accompanying rationality, constructs bodily experience of the world in radically different ways, forming different energetic centers that fundamentally color one’s perception of the world. Indeed, as James writes in Pragmatism: “The philosophy which is so important in each of us is not a technical matter; it is our more or less dumb sense of what life honestly and deeply means.  It is only partly got from books; it is our individual way of just seeing and feeling the total push and pressure of the cosmos” (Pragmatism 1). James contends that bodily experience is prior to any theoretical system that one may hold. As he makes clear, affective intuition determines the type of philosophy that one is drawn to, though because of the pervasive repression of feeling modes in favor of rational thought in modernity, this knowledge is often unconsciously acted out as if we are driven primarily by rational considerations.

James suggests that educated people in the modern West often think that we believe things for rational reasons when, in fact, we almost always use rationality as an instrument for justifying what we feel for, as he writes, “our passions or our mystical intuitions fix our beliefs beforehand.” He continues, philosophy “finds arguments for our conviction, for indeed it has to find them. It amplifies and defines our faith, and dignifies it and lends it words and plausibility. It hardly ever engenders it; it cannot now secure it” (Varieties 391-92). Although this view might appear anti-intellectual at first glance, to even undercut the very basis of reason, this does not appear to be James’ intention.  Rather, James demonstrates that intellectual rationality is but one way of knowing the world applicable to certain domains of experience more than others, and that, for complex historical reasons, the West has, for the last few centuries, pervasively and systematically privileged “logical reason” over what he terms “feeling” and “intuition.” As James notes: “Until the seventeenth century this mode of thought prevailed” (Varieties 443-44), particularly until the widespread acceptance of the Cartesian equation of thought with human being in general as codified in the cogito: “I think, therefore I am.” However, before Descartes and the epochal shift in philosophy that he enacted and represented, “such distinctions . . . between the impersonal and the personal aspects of existence, were hardly suspected or conceived” (Varieties 443-44). Thus, James suggests that the domains accessible to intellect and affect were not yet individuated in premodernity as they are in the experience of late modernity, visible in the radical Kantian separation of subject and object, which assumes that one can never directly perceive the world outside of oneself, so the only way to obtain real knowledge is through mathematics, formal logic, and empirical testing.

Contrary to this Cartesian-Kantian conclusion, the foundation on which the privileging of scientific rationality rests, James contends that intellectual rationality is but one valid and productive way of constructing experience and, thus, of knowing the world. This approach refocuses attention on bodily experience which, as James suggests, can provide just as much real information as rationality, though of a radically different kind. However, while modernity has often constructed these two epistemological domains as fundamentally discontinuous and incommensurable, James posits that, just as they were combined in premodernity in a generally naïve, unconscious way, it seems that the way to attain a more complete understanding of lived experience lies in the intentional integration of these experiential domains. And this integration appears to be constituted primarily in a consciousness of where one’s attention is directed, and of which mode one emphasizes at any given moment. James writes:

Now however fixed these elements of reality may be, we still have a certain freedom in our dealing with them. Take our sensations. That they are is undoubtedly beyond our control; but which we attend to, note, and make emphatic in our conclusions depends on our own interests; and, according as we lay the emphasis here or there, quite different formulations of truth result. We read the same facts differently (Pragmatism 94-5).

Ultimately, James sees freedom not as a triumph of rationality over mute feeling as the case has often been constructed in modernity, but as the freedom to emphasize whichever domains of process one finds most appropriate to illuminate one’s experience at any particular moment. Thus, by becoming conscious of repressed bodily knowledge, one becomes more able to participate in the “formulation” of “truth” than if one is conscious only of one’s verbal, conceptual rationality, but unconsciously driven by one’s neuroses: the non-verbal affective and intuitive modes of engagement returning as compensatory Freudian symptoms. “Experience, as we know,” James writes, “has ways of boiling over, and making us correct our present formulas” (Pragmatism 86), a statement that bears a strong resemblance to Freud’s description of the process through which neurotic symptoms are produced. However, James perhaps goes farther than Freud to see these symptoms as impelling the psyche towards greater integration rather than simply cathexis, which Freud describes as leading to regression, anti-cathexis, or sublimation, none of which seem to have the potential for the psychic conciliation that James implies. According to James, by paying attention to intimate bodily feelings and not just to rational logic, one can apparently participate in what James would later term a “radical empiricism.” James writes:

Our acts, our turning-places, where we seem to ourselves to make ourselves and grow, are the parts of the world to which we are closest, the parts of which our knowledge is the most intimate and complete. Why should we not take them at their face-value?  Why may they not be the actual turning-places and growing-places which they seem to be, of the world—why not the workshop of being, where we catch fact in the making, so that nowhere may the world grow in any other kind of way than this? (Pragmatism 111).

In James’ view, attention to intimate experience is the primary locus for the growth and transformation, not only of the individual, but of the world, for the deepest premises that we hold about the nature of reality fundamentally condition the type of meaning that we can elicit from immediate experience. In turn, the meaning that we cull from the raw data of our senses determines what kind of world we collectively co-create.

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Bob Dylan’s Archaic Mode of Thought

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Whereas the beats, exemplified by Jack Kerouac, seemed to Bob Dylan to be obsessed with liberating themselves from the constraints of the prevailing order, Dylan apparently found this liberation to be a necessary, but ultimately incomplete endeavor, a mere rejection of what modernity had become without offering a viable alternative. Rather, Dylan was drawn to old songs, stories, and modes of thought that preceded his immediate context, for Dylan saw the way out of the current stalemate that the beats decried not in a rejection of the past, but in a more complete embrace of tradition, an “archaic revival” of a history so deep and mysterious that it seemed radically novel in the current historical context. For Dylan, having immersed himself in profoundly different ways of seeing the world characteristic of earlier times, generally constellated around mythic “enchantment” (as opposed to the “disenchantment” characteristic of modernity posited by Weber), the folk songs that encapsulated these modes of experience really did seem to evoke a “parallel universe,” as he writes in Chronicles, “a reality of a more brilliant dimension.” Indeed, the “principles and values” that folk music portrayed were literally “archaic” because, in folk’s general focus on liminal figures from American frontiers, the “outlaw women, super thugs, demon lovers and gospel truths,” and the “Stagger Lees, Pretty Pollys and John Henrys,” Dylan found a window into predominantly premodern epistemologies, persisting well into modernity in the forgotten borderlands and rural routes of America.

It was a mythologically oriented “invisible world” whose “archetypes” seemed more real to Dylan than the scientific knowledge of distant cities and universities. Whereas for Dylan, the late modern subject was alienated from his (for it was always “he” that was referred to) labor, his culture, and even his body, the archetypal denizens of folk songs were “filled with natural knowing and inner wisdom,” precisely evocative of the epistemologies so effectively repressed by the predominance of rationality in postwar America. Indeed, while the individual in late modernity seemed small and peripheral, merely a commodified and insured sack of flesh and bone with a list of marketable skills and a net worth, the figures in folk songs seemed to Dylan to defy this reductive view of human nature by their participation in the “full spectrum” of “life magnified” through these other modes of being in the world, “each demanding a degree of respect.” Whereas in the late modern visions of the existentialists and the beats, the world seemed vacated of meaning, the folk tradition was the repository of a mode of thought in which the world was an epic place of profound significance inhabited by larger-than-life characters. Dylan, not just academically interested in this mode, seems to have lived his life in the light of the mysterious world view that he describes, though mitigated somewhat by the intellectual self-consciousness forged in modernity that had not yet been fully individuated in premodernity. As Dylan puts it: “I was beginning to feel like a character from within these songs, even beginning to think like one,” though always with the self-awareness of one who seeks out this premodern mode as a reaction to his culture rather than being born into it without access to mediating rationality.

But certainly, as Dylan notes, at that moment in the early sixties, “there wasn’t enough” of this archaic way of thinking available in the main streams of culture. The mode of consciousness exemplified in folk music had been buried so effectively, expunged from collective awareness by the predominance of pure reason in the central nodes of American culture’s discursive networks, that it was a titanic labor archaeologically to unearth the evidence of this repressed way of relating to experience. To be sure, the older mode was there to be found, but “it was out of date, had no proper connection to the actualities, the trends of the time,” for the American ideal had long been reconstellated around an entirely different center of gravity focused on paradoxically individualistic conformity, with scientific repeatability and the efficiency of the machine as the governing metaphors. The repressed modes were “a huge story” because, as William James and Alfred North Whitehead explicitly suggest, they had been the primary mediators of human experience prior to the seventeenth century, as the modes of thought characteristic of science had not yet been systematically differentiated from archetypal and teleological cognizance based on formal and final causation. However, it is a testament to the adaptability of the human mind that, only a few hundred years after the Enlightenment, the mode of constructing experience that had defined human culture for so long “was hard to come across.” Dylan discovered that these were modes of explanation that could account for the vital, animate, meaning-infused quality of human experience in the animal body. If these forms of consciousness had no connection to the “trends of the time,” at least those predominant in the main streams of culture, then Dylan would just have to start new trends and, in order to perform this epochal role, he found it necessary to cut himself off from the sovereign discursive milieu so that he “had little in common with anyone not like-minded.” Dylan’s intuitive revulsion at explaining himself to journalists and other gatekeepers of the principal cultural hierarchies seems to stem directly from this need to maintain consciously the new mode that was constituted in the integration of an archaic mode with the critical awareness more characteristic of his time. Ultimately, Dylan was an artist, not a philosopher, and he did not have the time or energy both to concretize his world-transforming visions and explain them to skeptics, which is probably one of the reasons why so many books have been written about him: The musical and mythological narrative he created is profound and can bear the weight of such explanation.

[This is a (slightly modified) excerpt from my book, How Does It Feel?: Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Philosophy of Rock and Roll]

References:

Bob Dylan, Chronicles (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005) 235-6, 240.

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Refining the Teleological Vision: A Response to Thomas Nagel’s “Mind and Cosmos”

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I’ve just finished reading Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, published in 2012, which is one of the best new books by an unfamiliar thinker I’ve read in a long time. It’s not often that I come across a text that I feel belongs in my own private canon, but Nagel’s book seems to me of sufficient quality for such consideration (despite the hysterically negative reaction from some scientists, philosophers, and reviewers). In fact, it fits snugly in a subcategory of that canon, which also includes William JamesPragmatism and Thomas Khun‘s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, all very short books that clearly, compellingly, and compactly argue for a startlingly novel concept. In the case of James, this concept is that the premises we bring to bear on our interpretation of reality condition the kind of meaning that we can elicit from the felt reality of immediate experience. Furthermore, James shows that the premises we choose to hold are affectively driven. Finally, he submits that truth is not something waiting to be found ready-made, but a process that creates its own verification. In the case of Kuhn, the concept is that scientific revolutions (and possibly revolutions in other cultural domains) are relatively sudden reorganizations of the conceptual system impelled by an anomaly or set of anomalies that force the scientific community to reevaluate their fundamental premises. And like James, Kuhn suggests that these reorganizations of the system’s rules are caused by affective impulses that themselves exceed the capability of scientific explanation.

To my mind, Nagel has convincingly demonstrated that pure materialist reductionism cannot provide a satisfying explanation for the totality of phenomena, including both material interactions and agential consciousness, so we must admit teleology in some form if we hope fully to understand the nature of our world (a point which James also suggests). However, Nagel argues that materialist reductionism cannot explain these phenomena without recourse to teleology, and while his argument is subtle and convincing, I would like to suggest that this may even still be too radical a hypothesis, or perhaps not radical enough. What if the mind can be explained by the mere combination of material factors, but this is not the only valid and productive way to explain the existence of consciousness? In this possibility, for which I suggested the figure of the “teleological incline” in an earlier post, materialism and teleology do not require one another for internal coherence—both scientific materialism and teleological modes of thought would be perfectly coherent world views—but they may require one another for explanatory completeness. The evolutionary process would then be seen as susceptible to both modes of interpretation, both yielding real, though partial truths about the cosmos. They would each be complementary modes of thought valid within their domains of significance, which have very little, if any overlap, though I do think that holding these two hypotheses in tension together can produce a third, emergent, integral mode of thought in which both materialist reductionism and teleology are tools, inherently partial but highly useful human inventions appropriate for specific purposes.

In this hypothesis, materialist modes perhaps provide a sufficient explanation for the structure of process, while teleological modes can provide an explanation for the purposeful, meaningful, and directional flow of temporality in which we are undeniably immersed as conscious beings. This may sound like Cartesian dualism, but I would argue that it’s really a monism with dual points of access, different parts of the elephant, as it were, because these conceptual systems are each describing one aspect of a much larger whole. This is very close to what Nagel suggests in Mind and Cosmos, though the slight difference is that he does not think it likely that life, consciousness, and reason were able to evolve purely by the process of random natural selection, a belief which suggests that teleology must have guided this emergent process in some way. As he writes:

Natural teleology would require . . . that the nonteleological and timeless laws of physics—those governing the ultimate elements of the physical universe, whatever they are—are not fully deterministic. Given the physical state of the universe at any moment, the laws of physics would have to leave open a range of alternative successor states, presumably with a probability distribution over them. (92)

While I’m deeply sympathetic to Nagel’s view, and I believe he very well may be correct, my suggestion here is only very slightly different, which is that all we can say is that this processual emergence is susceptible to both modes of explanation, the materialist and the teleological, and that they both have pragmatic value and also limitations of explanatory scope. We may never know for certain if a purely materialist reductionism could have produced us because we would have to calculate the trajectory of every particle for the whole history of the universe to be sure, which seems an impossible task. But there is no evidence directly to contravene this belief except our intuition that there is “something more,” as James puts it. However, the sword cuts both ways, and so there is also no way empirically to contravene the belief that teleology has informed the evolution of process, which, belief in purely materialist reductionism notwithstanding, seems self-evidently to be the case. Thus, reductive materialism and finalism are both valid but incomplete explanations.

Furthermore, I would suggest that the third, emergent mode described above is one that is not committed to any particular view of reality other than that reality is multivalent and that these often seemingly incommensurable modes can be integrated by pushing through the paradoxical line dividing these modes from one another to birth an emergent conceptual entity. Unlike the deconstructive forms of postmodernism, which generally posit that no mode can be privileged while implicitly and unconsciously privileging its own deconstructive mode, the “integral” mode of thought acknowledges that it privileges the mode which integrates the others. Thus, “integration” is precisely the positive inverse of negative “deconstruction”; integration is deconstruction turned on its head (to appropriate what Marx said about Hegel—actually, he said “I have stood Marx on his feet,” which makes more sense because Marx sees himself as correcting Hegel, but this phrase simply doesn’t sound as good as the one so often misquoted). The integral mode fundamentally employs the same insight as postmodernism, that the world is radically multivalent, but the deconstructive forms of postmodernism generally interpret this to mean that the world is devoid of real meaning, while integral thought takes this multivalence to be evidence that the world is filled with meaning, an instance of Whitehead’s “slightest change of tone which yet makes all the difference.”

In a fractal reiteration of this operation, while postmodern modes of thought generally reject the idea that certain individuals can exemplify and embody the larger movements of culture as a fallacious “great man” approach to understanding the evolution of consciousness, this emergent integral mode posits that individuals do in fact embody the collective, but only at the will of the collective. Through a process of negotiation along constantly shifting discursive networks, certain individuals are elevated to cultural prominence because they perfectly express the collective needs of that moment. Thus, Bob Dylan or Barack Obama, or Thomas Nagel for that matter, can validly be seen as emergent beings, in some sense specially elected by the many (literally in Obama’s case) to perform and catalyze the integration of disparate processual streams within themselves. Even if they ultimately fail in the full realization of the ideal, and they almost always do, they leave us with a “more perfect union.” And this is the way cultural process evolves, by lifting individuals to speak for the whole in our constant drive towards novelty through integration of apparently incommensurable entities.

One more thing about Nagel: He seems possibly to be influenced by Richard Tarnas, the most influential contemporary philosopher on my own work, not only in that his book is named Mind and Cosmos while Tarnas’ 2006 book is called Cosmos and Psyche, but in that Nagel writes that “each of our lives is a part of the lengthy process of the universe gradually waking up and becoming aware of itself” (85), while Tarnas writes in 1991’s The Passion of the Western Mind that “the human mind is ultimately the organ of the world’s own self-revelation” (434). These coincidences, while not conclusive evidence of Tarnas’ influence on Nagel, at least show a strong sympathy between the two thinkers, and may be suggestive of a direct connection between them.

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Huffington Post Writer Appears to Engage in Blatant Confirmation Bias and Scientism

Matthew Hutson wrote a blog post for the Huffington Post a few days ago called “Even Top Scientists Believe Everything Was Created By Magic,” that seems unintentionally to deconstruct its own premise, practicing blatant scientism and confirmation bias against teleology in relation to a new psychological study “currently in press at the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General” whose findings, contrary to the interpretation of the psychologists, seems to suggest that teleological thinking is intrinsic to the human mind, thus apparently confirming that final causation is valid in some sense.

By way of a disclaimer, although Hutson’s book, The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane, apparently argues that teleological thought is comforting and even beneficial for the living of life (a supposition with which I generally agree), his blog post, to which I’m primarily responding here, seems to assume that final causation can’t possibly be true in any real sense. Without reading his book, it’s unclear if the piece is being ironic and deliberately provocative, but I’ll take him at his word and respond to what he seems to argue in the blog post, which leaves us with the pleasant thought that “one cold fact is unavoidable, particularly in science: Sometimes shit just happens. So watch your step.”

The post suggests that “many countries have done a better job than we have at quashing creationism and intelligent design,” two rather different concepts that Hutson conflates in order to dismiss them, seeming to argue that fundamentalist creationism is the only option if we are to believe in teleology, a vast oversimplification of the issue. In fact there’s no scientific way for anyone to know if “something more” (to use William James’ phrase) than pure materiality exists or not; it’s not empirically provable one way or the other, so Hutson’s unsubtle query, “why are those nonscientific beliefs so persistent?” assumes that scientific knowledge is the only valid knowledge as an article of faith, which merely exchanges one credo for another. Hutson goes on to state that “new research suggests even top scientists are not immune to such magical intuitions,” a seemingly condescending and trivializing way of stating the result of the study, which basically found that even scientists have a hard time avoiding interpreting teleological statements as valid. In the comments to the blog, some have raised the question of if this is merely a problem with the study’s methodology, in which case it wouldn’t say anything at all about teleology but merely about the imprecision of language. However, for the sake of argument, I’ll assume that this is not the case and that the study does in fact offer data genuinely reflective of teleological intuitions. If we employ Occam’s razor that the simplest explanation is usually the best one, rather than suggesting that teleology is an unaccountably persistent superstition, these “tenacious teleological tendencies” (as the study puts it) perhaps suggest that the world is susceptible to interpretations in terms of final causation just as it is susceptible to scientific interpretations based on material and efficient causation. And certainly, that Hutson facilely equates “magic” with “teleology” and “intelligent design” betrays a lack of nuanced understanding concerning the many sophisticated volumes of philosophical discourse exploring the interrelations of these subjects in their various inflections. For one instance of many, Henri Bergson writes in Creative Evolution:

Finalism is not, like mechanism, a doctrine with fixed rigid outlines. It admits of as many inflections as we like. The mechanistic philosophy is to be taken or left; it must be left if the least grain of dust, by straying from the path foreseen by mechanics should show the slightest trace of spontaneity. The doctrine of final causes, on the contrary, will never be definitively refuted. If one form of it be put aside, it will take another. Its principle, which is essentially psychological, is very flexible. It is so extensible, and thereby so comprehensive, that one accepts something of it as soon as one rejects pure mechanism (33).

Hutson seems to assume a priori that teleology is false in any real sense. (note: the subject of his book reveals this apparent assumption possibly to be the product of egregious miscommunication on Hutson’s part in the post, though it’s impossible to tell, which I would contend is a fault of the writer, not the reader.) Although there is no empirical way to prove the supposition that teleology is a silly superstition, both he and the scientists he cites interpret the data according to their implicit and ultimately extra-scientific beliefs. It seems to me that a more straightforward interpretation of the data is that the mind is inherently geared towards teleological thinking because the world is in some sense teleological. Wouldn’t a real empiricist, a “radical empiricist” (as James puts it), examine the evidence without any presuppositions as to the nature of the phenomena and conclude that if final causation can’t be conditioned out of “even the most skeptical and well-educated of us” (which are not, as Hutson seems to suggest, identical qualities), perhaps there’s something to final causation after all? As numerous widely respected philosophers demonstrate in different valences, including James, Bergson, and Alfred North Whitehead, the human mind is evolved from and embedded in the cosmos, so it must share something of the underlying cosmic structure. As Richard Tarnas puts it in The Passion of the Western Mind: “The human mind is ultimately the organ of the world’s own process of self-revelation.” How could it be any other way? We are made of the stuff of the universe, and we have the capacity to know ourselves to varying degrees, so it logically follows that we are the universe coming to know itself. To my mind, although this supposition has often been anathema to the scientistic culture of modernity, the burden of proof should lie with those who seek to deny this seemingly obvious and irrefutable fact.

Ultimately it seems to me that the only insight Hutson has to offer, at least in his post, is that it’s easy to knock down a straw man because he can’t fight back, a phenomenon that we’ve also seen recently in TED’s censorship of talks by Rupert Sheldrake and Graham Hancock, which I discuss in an earlier post. As I said before, these kinds of hysterical, knee-jerk reactions to anything that contradicts materialist, scientistic dogmas (as Sheldrake puts it) appear to indicate that the old paradigm, like the church fathers who condemned Copernicus and Galileo and insisted the world was flat, is on its last legs, is backed into a corner, and that a new world view that integrates scientific knowledge, partially true within its domain of validity, with other forms of knowledge based on formal and final causation is in the process of emergence. Even if Hutson believes that teleology, though “irrational” and plain wrong, can act as a beneficial placebo effect (though this is far from clear based on his blog post alone), he’s still apparently recycling the same old scientistic platitudes that keep so many of us from engaging in a real dialogue about the nature of reality just as surely as the dogmas of the medieval church.

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