Up@dawn 2.0

Monday, June 19, 2017

Week 3 - June 19 - Post 3

William James receives kudos from all corners, but I wonder how many of the people that praise him so highly really understand him and what he is saying on any particular topic. His high and lofty speech leaves the common man and most academics struggling to understand as they ponder the meaning of it all. I think that many of those who claim to relate to and understand his teaching are embarrassed to admit that they do not understand and, in reality, have not a clue. For some people, claiming to have the ability to relate closely with James puts them in the club of intellectuals to which they aspire. It is more likely, however, that only those who have immersed themselves in philosophical studies and have dedicated their lives to the study of philosophy will have a firm grip on what James says and how he relates it to his audience. The balance of us is relegated to the fringes of understanding where we thrash about in a nebulous sea of murkiness and misunderstanding, trying to make sense of it all. I do, desperately want to understand the philosophy of James, but, at best, I only grasp bits and pieces, here and there, of his much praised profundities. I put the blame for this, not on me and the others that do not understand, but squarely at the feet of James himself. I do believe that most of us could understand, much more clearly, the meaning of James’ lectures if he had better communication skills. James’ word selection and sentence structure could radically be improved upon. George Orwell established six rules of writing that could easily be transposed to speaking.[1] William James violates at least three of these rules on a regular basis. I am quite sure that before he learned to speak in such a manner, he first learned to speak in a way and manner that was compatible with and conducive to advanced verbal communication. The Austrian born philosopher of the early twentieth century, Ludwig Wittgenstein, once said, “What can be said at all can be said clearly….” Technical jargon and philosophical vernacular notwithstanding, if Wittgenstein is correct, James has failed miserably. It is a tragedy that the philosophy of James cannot be communicated to an audience of average or above average people in a coherent way. It is our loss.


  1. Dear George,
    Thank you for your comment. I am sure that you are not alone. We are very fortunate to have Dr. Oliver as our professor since he did his dissertation on William James and has written a book, "Springs of Delight" about James. I also want to learn more about him. I have just begun reading Dr. Oliver's book and a book by Frederick Bauer, "William James on Common Sense." In it Bauer says "Therefore, if you had asked in 1963, 'What do you think of James?', my answer would have been simple. 'He's an excellent writer, but as a philosopher he's quite superficial.' Well slow forward twenty-seven years and this is what he had to say in 1990, "When I returned home and read the lengthy contrast James draws, in his concluding "Varieties" lecture, between the 'scientific' and the 'religious' views of the lone individual, I suddenly saw that here was the precise point where all of James' rich descriptions of individual streams of consciousness or fields of experience could be fruitfully integrated into my common-sense view of never-experienced or 'transcendent' human selves. For the first time in my life, I realized the James was anything but a superficial thinker.
    That is when I 'got serious' about James. I obtained and began reading "Essays in Radical Empiricism" and "A Pluralistic Universe. Bauer goes on to mention several other books that he and I'm sure Dr. Oliver will be glad to recommend. I doubt that I have twenty-seven years left, but I am thankful to know that there is a lot of reading and resource material available that will make me a better person just for having engaged my mind in trying to understand James's. Hang in their George, we can definitely help each other.

  2. James would be wounded by the charge of over-technical, jargon-laden writing. "Pragmatism" in particular was an attempt to reach a wide popular audience, and for it he has absorbed much criticism from more technically-oriented philosophers whose communications skills really do warrant your reprimand. His style is in fact more colloquial and familiar, more down-to-earth, than any other major philosopher I can think of.

    But maybe you'll like his hero Mill more. To each his own, as James himself would say.

    1. P.S. I'm also a fan of Orwell. But did Orwell praise ANY philosophers' writing? Maybe the issue is not with James in particular, but with the occupational hazard of philosophic abstraction in general. James also wrestled with that, and periodically expressed deep frustration with the whole enterprise. For instance, in "Varieties of Religious Experience he wrote:

      "Philosophy lives in words, but truth and fact well up into our lives in ways that exceed verbal formulation. There is in the living act of perception always something that glimmers and twinkles and will not be caught, and for which reflection comes too late. No one knows this as well as the philosopher. He must fire his volley of new vocables out of his conceptual shotgun, for his profession condemns him to this industry, but he secretly knows the hollowness and irrelevancy. His formulas are like stereoscopic or kinetoscopic photographs seen outside the instrument; they lack the depth, the motion, the vitality. In the religious sphere, in particular, belief that formulas are true can never wholly take the place of personal experience." True dat.