William James, 100 years ago

from “The Present Dilemma in Philosophy“. Lecture I in Pragmatism: A new name for some old ways of thinking. New York: Longman Green and Co (1907):

The history of philosophy is to a great extent that of a certain clash of human temperaments. Undignified as such a treatment may seem to some of my colleagues, I shall have to take account of this clash and explain a good many of the divergencies of philosophers by it. Of whatever temperament a professional philosopher is, he tries when philosophizing to sink the fact of his temperament. Temperament is no conventionally recognized reason, so he urges impersonal reasons only for his conclusions. Yet his temperament really gives him a stronger bias than any of his more strictly objective premises. It loads the evidence for him one way or the other, making for a more sentimental or a more hard-hearted view of the universe, just as this fact or that principle would. He trusts his temperament. Wanting a universe that suits it, he believes in any representation of the universe that does suit it. He feels men of opposite temper to be out of key with the world’s character, and in his heart considers them incompetent and ‘not in it,’ in the philosophic business, even tho they may far excel him in dialectical ability….

I am talking here of very positively marked men, men of radical idiosyncracy, who have set their stamp and likeness on philosophy and figure in its history. Plato, Locke, Hegel, Spencer, are such temperamental thinkers. Most of us have, of course, no very definite intellectual temperament, we are a mixture of opposite ingredients, each one present very moderately. We hardly know our own preferences in abstract matters; some of us are easily talked out of them, and end by following the fashion or taking up with the beliefs of the most impressive philosopher in our neighborhood, whoever he may be. But the one thing that has counted so far in philosophy is that a man should see things, see them straight in his own peculiar way, and be dissatisfied with any opposite way of seeing them.”

In this lecture James quotes Morrison Swift’s pamphlet ‘Human Submission’, as an example of a radically tough-minded empiricist:

“This Cleveland workingman, killing his children and himself [another of the cited cases], is one of the elemental, stupendous facts of this modern world and of this universe. It cannot be glozed over or minimized away by all the treatises on God, and Love, and Being, helplessly existing in their haughty monumental vacuity. This is one of the simple irreducible elements of this world’s life after millions of years of divine opportunity and twenty centuries of Christ. It is in the moral world like atoms or sub-atoms in the physical, primary, indestructible. And what it blazons to man is the … imposture of all philosophy which does not see in such events the consummate factor of conscious experience. These facts invincibly prove religion a nullity. Man will not give religion two thousand centuries or twenty centuries more to try itself and waste human time, its time is up, its probation is ended. Its own record ends it. Mankind has not aeons and eternities to spare for trying out discredited systems.

Swift’s words remind me very much of Dawkins’, Dennett’s, and Harris’ attacks on religious beliefs. James continues:

“Not only Walt Whitman could write ‘who touches this book touches a man.’ The books of all the great philosophers are like so many men. Our sense of an essential personal flavor in each one of them, typical but indescribable, is the finest fruit of our own accomplished philosophic education. What the system pretends to be is a picture of the great universe of God. What it is – and oh so flagrantly! – is the revelation of how intensely odd the personal flavor of some fellow creature is.


5 thoughts on “William James, 100 years ago”

  1. Hey. Love your project, just read about it on Boing Boing. Was surfing your static genealogy and was surprised that Mohammed himself isn’t listed – big gap between Jesus and the several Islamic thinkers you mentioned. Even Dante’s vision of the ascent to Paradiso is thought to be influenced by Mohammed’s vision of the miraj.

  2. Muhammad (i use the wikipedia spellings for simplification) is listed already as an influence on Averroes but should probably link to many more. I will look into the Dante-Muhammad connection but can’t find anything at first glance on google.

  3. Wow. You have put a lot of work and thought into the genealogy of influence chart.
    You might want to think about adding Richard Wagner, too.

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