162. William James, Pluralism, and Tragedy

In his essay “What Pragmatism Means” the great American philosopher and psychologist William James (1842-1910) asserts that pragmatism represents the empiricist attitude in both “a more radical and in a less objectionable form than it has ever yet assumed” (see John McDermott’s The Writings of William James, 379; all quotations will be from this text).  What makes the pragmatist so radical is that he turns away from “abstraction and insufficiency, from verbal solutions, from bad a priori reasons, from fixed principles, closed systems, and pretended absolutes and origins” (379).  And what does he turn towards? “He turns toward concreteness, adequacy, towards facts, towards action, and towards power” (379).  Now there are many consequences of this radical turn. For example, here are four: (1) all our statements of fact are “hypotheses liable to modification in the course of future experience”(136); (2) the only things that shall be debated in philosophy are things definable in terms drawn from experience (136); (3) “relations between things, conjunctive as well as disjunctive, are just as much matters of direct particular experience, neither more so nor less so, than the things themselves” (136, cf. 195, 197, 220, 293); and (4) “the parts of experience hold together from next to next by relations that are themselves parts of experience. The directly apprehended universe needs, in short, no trans-empirical connective support” (136, cf. 212).  While these are all obviously interesting, I would like to focus on the one which may be the most important, namely, that upon turning the radical empiricist discovers the world to be a pluralism: “Prima facie the world is a pluralism” (134).  In fact, to be a radical empiricist is to adopt the hypothesis that pluralism is the permanent form of the universe: “He who takes for his hypothesis the notion that it [pluralism] is the permanent form of the world is what I call a radical empiricist” (135).  I would also like to sketch how pluralism relates to both morality and tragedy. Let’s begin with a closer look at pluralism.

Pluralism means three related things for James: (1) there is a givenness in the universe which will always resist both our thought and action: “For him [the pluralist] the crudity of experience remains an eternal element thereof….The negative, the alogical, is never wholly banished…..Something is always mere fact and givenness” (135); (2) there are a plurality of points of view which are all denied a view of the whole: “[Indeterminism] gives us a pluralistic, restless universe, in which no single point of view can ever take in the whole scene” (606); and (3) the events in the universe are not determined, that is, chance, or the fact that of alternatives that tempt our will more than one is really possible (595), is real: “Make as great an uproar about chance as you please, I know that chance means pluralism and nothing more” (607). 

These three aspects of pluralism can be related to James’ conception of morality in three ways: (1) the bare givenness in the world lies at the root of James’ notion that morality is about objective conduct rather than subjective thoughts or feelings: “But what is at the essence of this philosophy of objective conduct?  It is the recognition of limits, foreign and opaque to our understanding” (605); (2) the plurality of points of view in the world entails that there will be a plurality of real goods insofar as “the essence of good is simply to satisfy demand” and, given the plurality of individuals and their perspectives, demands may be for “anything under the sun” (621); and (3) a necessary condition for an act to be bad is that one regrets it; and one cannot regret without possibility: “I cannot understand the belief that an act is bad, without regret at its happening. I cannot understand regret without the admission of real, genuine possibilities in the world” (605). 

Now let’s see how these moral implications of pluralism relate to tragic conflict.  In his essay “The Dilemma of Determinism” James notes that a determinist, in order to avoid pessimism, must embrace subjectivism.  Subjectivism is a form of determinism which asserts that outward goods and evils are practically indistinguishable except insofar as they result in moral judgments made about them.  But this means that our judgments, not the world, have a moral quality: “But then the moral judgments seem the main thing, and the outward facts mere perishing instruments for their production.  This is subjectivism” (601).  James claims that the subjectivist, when his moral feelings are at war with the facts about him, is always free to seek harmony by toning down the sensitiveness of his feelings.  But this harmony is an “anesthesia” inimical to the moral life and its energy (343).  He notes that Carlyle once proclaimed: “Hang your sensibilities! Stop your sniveling complaints, and your equally sniveling raptures!  Leave off your general emotional tomfoolery, and get to WORK like men!” (604).  James comments: “But this means a complete rupture with the subjectivist philosophy of things.  It says conduct, and not sensibility, is the ultimate fact for our recognition” (604).  Thus for James the subjectivist is unacceptable because he refuses to embrace the resistance of work at the heart of moral conduct.  

Now the interesting thing is that this refusal to engage in moral work can be construed as a refusal to take up a tragic attitude.  Consider this passage in which James describes how the subjectivist deals with the facts of life:  “It is by letting moral interests sit lightly, by disbelieving that there is any duty about them (since duty obtains only between them and other phenomena), and so throwing them over if I find it hard to get them satisfied—it is that by refusing to take up a tragic attitude, I deal in the long-run most satisfactorily with the facts of life” (343).  Now consider this passage from “The Sentiment of Rationality” which describes the absolute moralist or the person who believes that certain ideal interests absolutely should be: “The absolute moralist, on the other hand, when his interests clash with the world, is not free to gain harmony by sacrificing his ideal interests.  According to him, these latter should be as they are and not otherwise.  Resistance then, poverty, martyrdom if need be, tragedy in a word—such are the solemn feasts of his inward faith” (342, my emphasis).

These passages make it clear that James links the terms ‘tragic’ and ‘tragedy’ to conduct.  For the subjectivist’s refusal to take up a tragic attitude is precisely his refusal to take up the real clashes and sacrifices that accompany the moral life as conduct. 

In “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life” we learn that these clashes and sacrifices come about because our world has a space-time that does not allow incompatible experiences to go in conjunction (621).  Thus “there is hardly a good which we can imagine except as competing for the possession of the same bit of space and time with some other imagined good” (622).  Such a world has a “tragic constitution” (618) and gives rise to tragic situations. For example:  

“Every end of desire that presents itself appears exclusive of some other end of desire.  Shall a man drink and smoke, or keep his nerves in condition?—he cannot do both.  Shall he follow his fancy for Amelia, or for Henrietta?—both cannot be the choice of his heart.  Shall he have the dear old republican party, or a spirit of unsophistication in public affairs?—he cannot have both, etc. So the ethical philosopher’s demand for the right scale of subordination in ideals is the fruit of an altogether practical need.  Some part of the ideal must be butchered, and he needs to know which part.  It is a tragic situation, and no mere speculative conundrum, with which he has to deal” (622).

The subjectivist, as we have seen, can avoid a tragic conflict by changing his opinion of certain factors within the situation.  But this escape is not possible for the moral man. In Essays in Radical Empiricism we learn that the tragic quality of a situation is not dependent on our opinion of it.  James writes: “The man is really hateful; the action really mean; the situation really tragic—all in themselves and quite apart from our opinion” (273). Thus the only way he can resolve the situation is through conduct which necessarily involves some sacrifice. But why a necessary sacrifice? 

It is here that the second and third aspects of James’ morality mentioned above come into play, namely, a real plurality of goods and genuine possibility.  For the conflict in the above situation is a conflict between real, rather than apparent, goods.  Both Amelia and Henrietta are really good; and to give one’s heart to one is to lose the heart—perhaps even butcher the heart—of the other.  Of course, for the subjectivist these women are mere data which are neither good nor bad in themselves.  But for the man of moral conduct the objective goodness of both these women is made possible by a pluralistic universe with a real plurality of goods. And if we weren’t in a pluralistic universe we wouldn’t have possibilities from which to choose in the first place.

Thus we see that conduct, the plurality of goods, and genuine possibility all play a role in making tragic conflict real rather than apparent in the pluralistic universe envisioned by James.

For my post on James’ view of heroism in relation to tragic conflict and progress, go here.

Check out my related post series on tragic conflict and intelligence here.  

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