IV. How may our intelligence keep on speaking terms with the universe which engendered it?
William James had a problem (the resolution of which may provide an answer to this final question).
James sees little room for
the resolution of this paradox. Either we must grant that distinct
mental states are
In his chapter on "Self" James develops the position that what we call "I", the self as knower, is actually the immediate state
In his later essays he pinpoints as a central problem the method and means by which such an identity is established.
This "strategic point" of the conjunctive relation marks the position at which (concerning this one central issue) the dialogue between our intelligence and the universe may break down. James feels that "intelligence" (perhaps the whole western philosophical tradition) has ignored the reality of conjunction ("That secret of a continuous life, which the universe knows by heart and acts on every instant..." (PU, 207) In the apparent absence of a unitive power in experience, "intelligence" has had to posit various theoretical powers to explain why life is the way it is, how we can know things or ourselves. James finds these powers unsatisfying in the light of his physiological findings and his pragmatic method, yet intellectualistic logic would have him deny the reality of conjunctive experiences. In the face of this dilemma, James insists on the pragmatic method, which can be understood as follows.
In section II we defined intelligence
as that three-fold
A second postulate is "the principle of pure experience" (already noted in section I.) which holds that every fact must be experienceable and every experience must be considered a fact. (RE, 160)
We read this in The Principles of Psychology,
The "sensation" James produces to support his theory of self (composed of a stream of distinct yet conjunctive states of consciousness) is nothing less than the experienced continuity of reality.
A logical process cannot begin to measure the truth of experience because it is limited to substantive terms and cannot conceive of transitional ones. James says we must "hold fast to this conjunctive relation" (the co-conscious transition) because this experienced continuity of our own self is a fundamental fact, an axiom that gets me out of bed each morning because I remember who I am. This experienced continuity is a pre-condition for the possibility of any kind of knowledge. To deny it is to upset seriously the discourse between intelligence and the universe. James's argument with the western tradition seems to revolve around a dispute over the nature of truth. Any representative of any western philosophical persuasion would probably admit that truth was the goal. (I presume and generalize of necessity from ignorance.) But of all these we get the impression (from James himself) that only James is seeking a useful truth. (BC, 109-110) And that truth would not be one, but many. And those truths would not be immutable, but flowing, Consider his attitude toward essence:
He grants very little ontological, but a great deal of teleological significance to these "essences", these properties plucked from the flux by our sensate and conceptual machinery. He defines essence in its relation to particular phenomena, not standing by itself, absolute and free of accidental "impurities".
This is a truth useful enough for a lion on the veldt, a general at the front, or a suburbanite with weeds. The essence of any truth is firmly bound to the interest of the truth-seeker and is no end in itself.
One gets the feeling that if "essence" (as traditionally figured) is not a completely wrong-headed concept, it is at least useless. James's project throughout Psychology and the essays has been to describe a way of looking at and speaking to the universe of which we are made so that we may act more successfully within it. At the end of A Pluralistic Universe, he quotes Blondel, "We use what we are and have, to know; and what we know, to be and have still more." Our logic, reason and truth are tools to help us get on in the world. How we use these tools is determined by our interest (BC, 225), that antenna which selects experience from the flux and the personal fringe (as relentlessly as the fovea zeros in on the faintest peripheral motion) that we may not only survive, but flourish in the middle of the stream.
If our intelligence would remain on speaking terms with the universe that engendered it, James suggests, a good dose of humility is in order, So much of James's thought in these works is accompanied by an implicit plea to recognize our limits, to begin with particular experience, evaluate its significance, and act. This action requires a sacrifice (of intellectual ego if nothing else).
Intelligence cannot begin with the big picture because it does not experience the big picture. It must move through the universe with small steps, binding up experience as it goes. James holds that the universe is "many" and (as noted in the first section) it is comforting to think that the end of our intelligence may be to weave an ever-expanding fabric of connective experience, but we can never know the whole truth. There is always something more. There is good reason therefore for a humble tone in our conversation with the universe. Uncertainty comes with the territory. But, in any case,
BC Psychology: The Briefer Course, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, Indiana. 1985.
PH Psychology: The Briefer Course, Collier Books, N.Y. 1962. (This text was used for the physiological chapters.)
PP The Principles of Psychology, vols. I and II, Dover, N.Y.
RE Essays in Radical Empiricism, Peter Smith, Gloucester, Mass. 1967.
PU A Pluralistic Universe, Peter Smith, Gloucester, Mass. 1967.