Delight Springs

Thursday, July 9, 2020

WJ 13 -- "a mystery of rightness"

LISTEN. “There is a mystery of rightness about the Parthenon that I cannot understand,” James muses in Athens in 1905. Then, serendipitously (or perhaps predictably, philosophers flocking to Athens is not exactly like Pentecostals in Vegas) he runs into George Santayana, “that gifted fish, the oddest spectator of life,” whose rightness is also  hard for a Pragmatist to understand, and yet somehow he is inescapably ours. Maybe it’s the naturalism, the “animal faith,” I don’t know. Good subject for another post.

But James clearly perceives a natural ally in Santayana, against the “dessicating and pedantifying” tendencies of all those “baldheaded and baldhearted” young scholars of erkentnisstheorie being churned out by the new “Ph.D.  Octopus” we noted in the last installment.

For the record: some of my best friends are erkentnisstheorists (we call them epistemologists), a few are bald through no fault of their own, and none are quite heartless.

I do know what James means about the Parthenon, I took classes to our local version when I taught down the street at Vanderbilt… just to sample the atmosphere and soak up the aura. Athena really is something to behold. (A few blocks away, another Alan LeQuire production called “Musica” stops traffic at the head of Music Row. Also a  subject for another post.)

Besides his professional brother Santayana, James had some difficulty understanding his real sibling Henry, “younger and shallower and  vainer” and much less direct in his writing.

(More on this, and other highlights from the present section– including the great 1906 San Francisco earthquake, which was  just about to rumble– as soon as I can regain control of the letter “P” on my keyboard. A liquid mishap, curiously, has disabled only that key and I cannot seem to finish a sentence without it… This is now being pounded out on an alternative machine which, I now discover, cannot handle apostrophes… so I can’t do possessives and contractions, and that proves to be  a much bigger crimp in my style than I’d have guessed. Really, not making this up. Our dependence on the mechanics of symbolic expression, normally ignored, is just too absurdly fragile. How funny.) -- Orig. published 12.11.09
WJ 13.1
James loved the Parthenon, aesthetically, architecturally, symbolically. Me too.  It’s one of the great monuments to wisdom,and gilded Athena is cool… WJ 13

But let’s talk now about his response to great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. [USGS] He was there, or close enough in Palo Alto, during a visit to Stanford. His vivid description of the April 18 disaster (as detailed in the preceding link) reveals a predominant attitude of excitement, exuberance, even boyish delight in the unexpected demonstration of nature’s awesome but usually-restrained energies.
Most of Stanford lay in ruins. James went into San Francisco and saw the “whole population in the streets”… his first, instinctual response was to greet the earthquake with a wild Olympian joy…. in his heart of hearts he embraced and welcomed chaos, cataclysm, change, Zerrissenheit (brokenness)impulse, and chance.
His openness to experience, even to disastrous experience, is the key to the temperament that was now driving James’s interest in radical empiricism, panpsychismpluralism, and pragmatism. We may ignore no experience.
Also of note, at this time: the infamous “bitch-goddess” letter to H.G. Wells decrying our squalid national aping after the lowest-common-denominator variety of “success.” (This link includes Alain de Botton’s TED Talk on the subject. Wouldn’t it have been fun to see WJ’s TED Talk? Wonder what he’d have said about James Randi‘s?)

And in the late Fall of ’06 he commences the lectures that are later published as Pragmatism. He begins with the announcement that the history of philosophy records an ongoing “clash of human temperaments,” loosely ranging under the headings of “Tough-Minded” and “Tender-Minded.”  The former tend to favor empiricism, facts, materialism, pessimism, irreligion, fatalism, pluralism, and skepticism. The latter: rationalism, intellectualism, idealism, optimism, religion, free-will, monism, and dogmatism. But most of us are a composite of both types, and pragmatism (which derives directly from Darwin) promises to mediate between them.

This first lecture (“The Present Dilemma in Philosophy“) is also where James goes after Leibniz’s “superficiality incarnate” and the “airy and shallow optimism of current religious philosophy.”
One of Pragmatism‘s more intriguing analogies:
We stand in much the same relation to the whole of the universe as our canine and feline pets do to the whole of human life. They inhabit our drawing-rooms and libraries. They take part  in scenes of whose significance they have no inkling. They are merely tanget to curves of history the beginnings and ends and forms of which pass wholly beyond their ken. So we are tangents to the wider life of things.

Maybe so. (Our cat “Zeus” is trying to use my keyboard as a pillow, even as I type this.) But the smartest “dogs” in our pound seem to exhibit a greater curiosity and potential for mental expansion than I’ve detected in my own charmingly simple walking & blogging companions. I predict we’ll continue to fruitfully explore the wider life, without any serious risk of disenchanting our drawing rooms.

The Energies of Men” is one of James’s enduringly-popular essays from this time. Ideas power the world, he writes. “Ideas set free beliefs, and the beliefs set free our wills. The  result is freedom…”

James gave his last Harvard lecture in January 1907, “dying as a Professor” but continuing to think and lecture elsewhere.  And he continues to discover and celebrate other thinkers, including Gustav Fechner… who inspires James to observe  that “when we die, it’s as if an eye of the world were closed.”

But his eyes are still wide open. There’s  so much to experience, so much to see.

Orig. published 4.21.10

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