It’s William James’s birthday today, and not only that but Metaphysics Monday to boot. He was born January 11, 1842. So, let me share with you a thought that has been brewing in my mind about James recently. We can put it to the test if this works at all.
In my reading of William James’s and discussions about his work, I always get pushback on my phenomenological interpretation of his works. The pushback I get is based on thinking that while James is clearly against any Kantian or idealist interpretation of consciousness, James advocates for a relational-only-view of consciousness. Scholars call this his teleological view of mind, which I have equated to intentionality in phenomenology, and the only claims James scholars seem to make about this teleological-mind is to talk about what it means for a self to be in process using James’s terms. In so doing, James scholars seek to understand what James said, but we should take his warnings to heart about metaphysics, the very same warnings I’ve given to others here. These scholars warn that we should never should we ontologize aspects of its operation, nor commit ourselves to any one metaphysical interpretation of what James is doing much like Husserl scholars avoid metaphysical interpretations of intentionality by citing Eugene Fink’s famous term for intentionality as an “operative concept.” Nobody wants to claim that James’s experience/relational-only-consciousness is transcendental in any way, yet I think the case can be made that experience functions in his Essays on Radical Empiricism (1904-1906) as a quasi-transcendental concept.
Moreover, finding a uniting element in James goes against all the selves present in James. According to Richard Gale in his The Divided Self of William James, James’s self is divided. There are multiple selves vying for self-realization, and James’s philosophy is produced in part because James wants a philosophy that can fit all of these disparate experiences into one, yet they cannot stand together in one whole, but must constantly give way to other experiences. This gives rise to a tension in interpreting William James’s works:
Before getting down to the business of putting flesh on the preceding outline of “my William James,” I need to address some thorny issues in how to read and interpret him. Because James’s philosophy is an attempt to have it all, to let all of his many selves fully realize themselves, it presents the interpreter with a dazzling array of seemingly incompatible positions, and thereby the temptation to attempt to neutralize these clashes by focusing in on one of them to the exclusion of others (19, emphasis mine).
In one way, the phenomenological interpretation might be seen as just that, attempting to neutralize the overwhelming complexity of the many selves. Now, I will not deny Gale’s observation of the many selves. There’s the artist-James, the poet-James, the strenuous-moralist-James, the scientist-James, the mystic-James, and the naturalist-James to name a few. Yet, to uncritically assume the different versions of selves offered up for discussion are not descriptions of one self seems a bit forced, and that’s what it’s like to read Richard Gale’s work on James. It’s an analytic imposition of the many selves without thinking these are but descriptions of experience. Moreover, since James published on his views about experience and metaphysics towards the end of his life James had access to everything he had written previously. Hence, it makes sense to read those concepts of a late philosopher back into the trajectory from which his work developed and eventually arrived. Not only that, but if another form of philosophy, tradition, or series of thinkers can elucidate those points of seeming incompatibility, as I think phenomenology can, then these may be vehicles to render further clarity in James.
A quasi-transcendental concept is any concept (C) that is posited to explain why experience (E) is both caused and causing, but is not as full-blown transcendental concept to the extent that it explains the preconditions of why (E) is the case necessarily. This necessity can imply, I think, causal closure for the person experiencing the world and the world foreclosing possibilities about what can be. Instead, I’ll ask you to note the language of posit and causing. Transcendental concepts are introduced apart from experience, and by keeping to the gerundive of “causing” and not caused, the notion of process and “operative concept” are preserved. By keeping to the language of “posit,” we can also avoid the dangers of necessity and determination. In this way, I think it’s safe to say that James’s notion of experience is a quasi-transcendental concept. Let me explain briefly here to let the blogosphere chew on it.
Throughout James’s work, we are free to choose how to join the various concatenenations of experience, and introduce how it is that we relate to the world, especially when it concerns those possibilities that can have meaningful impact upon our lives. However, these linkages we make will run the course of our lives and maybe others, but no concatenation can fully exhaust the rich possibilities that our interactions with the world may give rise to. In this way, the entire process of experience discerned in these lectures touches upon the how of experience and its unfolding operation.
The openness of experience and dynamism of what we could call the self concretizes in the various ways people can experience themselves, and this openness constitutes the reality of the self and the world, which in their union is the very stuff of experience itself. As such, we can introduce new beliefs into our experience, and control our attempts at experience, but we cannot explain all the rest of James’s philosophy without the boldness of experience itself. Moreover, the primal stuff of the universe expressed in his neutral monism implies a unity between act and object, noesis and noema. To find experiences meaningful, one experiences-experiencing, and that may be the limit of any clarification concerning what we should talk about concerning the ontological status of experience. It seems clear to me that there must be a tentative center to find and discover meaning in experience and from underlying this tentative and dynamic center is its very freedom. Neither freedom nor experience can be proven absolutely, but adopting a pragmatic stance towards them requires a quasi-transcendental interpretation of their status to facilitate our own experience of reading James coherently.
The larger question that motivates the Jamesian one here: Is it really that dangerous to believe in some unifying aspects of the subject?