Up@dawn 2.0

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings: William James [Nathan Tilton, Final]

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be someone else? To see what they see, think what they think, feel what they feel? I certainly have, and so did William James (1842-1910), an early American pragmatist and psychologist. This final project is a short reflection on William James' essay, "On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings." 

So, what blindness is James writing about? Here are a few opening lines from his essay:

Our judgments concerning the worth of things, big or little, depend on the feelings the things arouse in us....Now the blindness in human beings, of which this discourse will treat, is the blindness with which we all are afflicted in regard to the feelings of creatures and people different from ourselves."

First, a bit of context. James published this article in 1899. The turn of the century was the golden age (or dark age, depending on how you look at it) of industrialization. It was also an era of great discrimination (race, gender, age, and ethnicity). 

Basically, there were a lot of divisions that separated people. Kinda like our world today. Though a lot of divisions our obvious (like the color of your skin), James seems to be concerned about divisions in our thoughts and feelings.

To write his essay, James uses the voices and thoughts of many different thinkers. He directly quotes or references Robert Louis Stevenson, Josiah Royce, William Wordsworth, Walt Whitman, Thomas Carlyle, Arthur Schopenhauer, Leo Tolstoi, and several others. James is a story-teller, pulling examples and insights from these philosophers, authors, and poets. As a writer, I envy James and his ability to blend into the background of his own writing.

There are three stories that James uses that I found really striking: Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Bull's-Eye Lantern," Walt Whitman's " Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," and a segment from Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace

Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Bull's-Eye Lantern" is a reflection on joy and where it comes from. As a child, Stevenson and his friends would collect these lanterns, called bull's-eye lanterns. The lanterns reeked and were ineffective sources of light, but they were a hilarious game for these boys. Hiding their lanterns under their cloaks, Stevenson and his friends would have secret meetings in the middle of the night.

On the surface, it seems rather silly. But as Stevenson writes, "But take it for all in all, the pleasure of the thing was substantive; and to be a boy with a bull's-eye under his topcoat was good enough for us."

James uses this story because he want to realize, as Stevenson understands, that "to miss the joy is to miss all." People find joy in the strangest places. Harlem shake anyone? Like Stevenson, you probably experience joy differently now than as a child (or maybe not). The point, as the philosopher Josiah Royce points out, is that, "Pain is pain, joy is joy, everywhere, even as in thee." 

Walt Whitman's "Crossing Brooklyn Bridge," unlike Stevenson's story, is about the similarities in how we experience joy. Apropos to the title, Whitman's poem is a reflection upon a ferry ride. (This experience resonated with my time in Istanbul, Turkey. Hence, the heading photograph). It's a beautiful poem, and if you have a few minutes I recommend experiencing it. Essentially, Whitman realizes his experiences are not exclusive himself.

Others will enter the gates of the ferry, and cross from shore to shore;
Others will watch the fun of the flood-tide
Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east;

Others will see the islands large and small
Just as you were refresh'd by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh'd:

These, and all else, were to me the same as they are to you.

There are differences in how we experience joy, but there are also similarities. Perhaps the biggest similarity between us all, as philosophers have pointed out, is death. James writes "There is life; and there, a step away, is death. There is the only kind of beauty there ever was." Unlike Carlyle and Schopenhauer, James finds this certainty, this tedium, beautiful. We are only given the world that we live in once, and life is a rare chance to enjoy it. 

James chooses a segment from Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace that reflects upon nature of joy in light of our finite existence. Peter, the richest man in Russia, is stripped off his wealth and imprisoned during the French invasion in 1812. It's a miserable experience. After this experience, Peter finds unexpected joy in simple things, such as  food and company.

"He learnt that man is meant for happiness, and that this happiness is in him, in the satisfaction of the daily needs of existence, and that unhappiness is the fatal result, not of our need, but of our abundance."

For James, life is definitely worth the living. We just lose sight of the things that matter. "Life is always worth living, if one have such responsive sensibilities." 

James delves into joy because he believes that it is what drives us, and that ultimately misunderstandings of this drive (the blindness he is writing about) are what lead to conflict and division. What does James suggest? The following is a segment from his concluding paragraph:

"And now what is the result of all these consideration and quotations? It is negative in one sense, but positive in another. It absolutely forbids us to be forward in pronouncing on the meaninglessness of forms of existence other than our own, and it commands us to tolerate, respect, and indulge those whom we see harmlessly interested and happy in their own ways  however unintelligible these may be to us. Hands off: neither the whole of truth nor the whole of good is revealed to any observer  although each observer gains a partial superiority of insight from the peculiar position in which he stands."

Essentially, do not be blind to your blindness. It is a philosophy of humility, that accepts people for who they are and how they achieve joy. 

That is the end of my reflection upon James' essay. It was a joy to read, and I learned a lot. The few paragraphs that follow are my own thoughts, so I warn you if you keep reading. They're not what James writes, but it is my reaction, and it would dishonest to write this final paper without including them.

It's based on story of Jesus and the Samaritan Woman.

After travelling for some time, Jesus stops to rest a well in Samaria. Samaritans were mud-bloods (Harry Potter fans out there?), mixed Jewish and non-Jewish blood. Consequentially, there was a lot of racial discrimination. At this well, there was a Samaritan woman, and Jesus, a Jew, asks her for water. Surprised, she replies, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?" This is Jesus' response:

“Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

James pinpoints our blindness as our blindness towards each other. While James is certainly right on this, I think our greatest blindness is not towards each other, but towards Jesus. J
oy is not finite, nor is it something that we have to create or find within ourselves. It is something that is given, and there is only person who can give it (and he gives it freely and abundantly). Our diversity is a reflection of that abundance, and it ultimately points back to him.

"On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings" was an enjoyable read, and I highly recommend it. It has incredible insights into the blindness that we all struggle with, to see someone else for who they truly are and not as we project them to be. 

Word Count: 1,337


  1. So glad you enjoyed "Blindness," Nathan, it's my favorite James essay by far. Having abosrbed it's central message, "Hands Off" etc., you'll understand that your own "superiority of insight" with respect to the objects of your particular faith and devotion will be different BUT NOT INHERENTLY BETTER THAN those of others. We're all blind with respect to some things, and sharp-eyed with respect to others. We must constantly guard againt the temptation to think that our personal (or communal/cultural) acuity is sharper just because it's ours.

  2. What does he mean by saying "negative" in "It is negative in one sense, but positive in another"?

  3. I really enjoyed your thoughts on James' essay. Thank you for sharing it with us. As I age, I find it easier to do as James suggests. Maybe wisdom?