Saturday, April 9, 2022

The Varieties of William James Scholarship

I started reading James after I finished the rough draft of my dissertation, but before I defended. No one had ever taught me James in any class, and seldom brought up his name. I had no close friends in school who worked on James or the American Pragmatists. I basically started reading James because of the Whitehead resurgence created by Stengers & Co. Because of this, what little secondary literature I knew about James was either from French thinkers, or what could be understood as French-influenced Deleuzians. So it is only after I had been reading and thinking alongside James for a few years that I started to understand his reputation in other intellectual circles, including standard American philosophy ones. Some, like the persistent charge that sees James as a Dale Carnegie figure are completely baffling. One of the things that attracted me to William James is how he frequently makes central depression, sickliness, and failure as parts of the human condition that we need philosophy for. Philosophy is an existential enterprise to make life livable. His work often serves as a rejoinder by the attempts to gas-light us in the world around us, and instead to affirm our experience. James, more than most, is the thinker that has connected the metaphysical to our lived reality. Other charges, like that he is a subjectivist, I disagree with, but I get where it is coming from, and it is a serious claim. Then there is the emphasis that is normal in the French and French inspired readings that are not as common in the American and Anglo-American interpretation of James. Most particularly is that James' pluralism tends to be emphasized (indeed, Jean Wahl basically saw the question of pluralism as the question of American and British philosophy), and the rest of his work is often seen as an engagement with his pluralism. His radical empiricism is often interpreted in ways that relate heavily to both Bergson and Whitehead's critique of a bifurcation of nature (I was basically lost the first time I read a Jamesian explaining radical empiricism in a way that was clearly not Bergsonian and Whiteheadian). Lastly, of course, there are the turf wars between various schools of classical American Pragmatists. There are the Piercians who believe that James is basically not a real philosopher but a stylist, and a deeply sloppy thinker. And the Deweyians in political theory and especially communication theory, who believe that James is an important precursor to the mature understandings of Dewey. (though in general my personal experience with Piercians and Deweyians is not this way). Basically, there is no thinker I have invested my time in that running across the common interpretative framing is a source of constant surprise. But I am always surprised by the secondary literature on James. So here is a little primer on the secondary readings that really have shaped my understanding of William James. In order to not be here forever, I am going to do 10 things, 5 books and 5 articles or chapters. Though I am going to cheat a little.




My initiation into William James

1. Isabelle Stengers- "William James: An Ethics of Thought"(2009): This is one of the first, if not the first, things I ever read on William James. I was busy consuming all the random things by Stengers I could read. I often joke that I finally came to the conclusion that I wouldn't ever be good enough in French to be considered a Deleuze scholar, so I thought, What about this Whitehead guy that everyone is talking about? But then I went and tried to read Process and Reality. That book is hard. Anyway, much like Goldilocks, discovering William James was just right.

2. Kennan Ferguson- William James: Politics in the Pluriverse (2007). I'm not really sure how I came across this book. I had read and taught Kennan's "I <3 My Dog," and I read his book on William James around the same time I read Stengers. Indeed, really, Stengers and Ferguson were my initiation into William James.

My understanding of James' Politics

3. Deborah J. Coon- "One Moment in the World's Salvation: Anarchism and the Radicalization of William James" (1996). This essay is a classic, and for good reason. There is a tendency to see William James as apolitical. Indeed, for many of his immediate promotors after his death, there was a desire to make him apolitical so he was more acceptable. And many Deweyians were happy to see James' politics as something that was expressed in the more mature works of Dewey. But as Coon and later Livingston argue, James was radicalized by anti-imperialism. Indeed, his politics were first and foremost against imperialism, against bigness in business and government and metaphysics. Coon follows this up, with an argument of seeing James influenced by the anarchist tradition. Indeed, there is a way to see James' individualism as being deeply connected to his anarchism.

4. Alexander Livingston- Damn Great Empires! William James and the Politics of Pragmatism (2016). Like Coon, Livingston is interested in articulating James' own politics, and is directly inspired by his anti-imperialism. Livingston shows how the anti-imperialism is woven throughout James' pluralism and pragmatism. He also has a fascinating chapter on the rhetoric of William James on toughness. It is something that has always bothered me, and Livingston manages to have real insight into what is going on there. It's also just a well-written book. It is the first non-fiction book I read after my first son was born, and I was too exhausted to get into much.

Connecting James to contemporary theory.

5. Brian Massumi's "Too-Blue: Color-Patch for an Expanded Empiricism" (2000). I originally read it in his Parables for the Virtual (which I just saw has gotten the 20th anniversary treatment). Massumi connects James to the study of affect. And here is where I will just completely cheat, because there is a wealth of great works on William James and affect. There is Donovan Schaefer's "The Wild Experiment" (which is also the title of his forthcoming book), Shannon Sullivan's "James and Feminist Philosophy of Emotion," (from Feminist Interpretations of William James), and Vinciane Despret's chapter on William James from her Our Emotional Makeup. But I want to draw your attention to two articles in particular, Lauren Guilmette's "Teresa Brennan, William James, and the Energetic Demands of Ethics" and Kate Stanley's "Affect and Emotion: James, Dewey, Tomkins, Damasio, Massumi, Spinoza." In these articles, William James is tied into a tradition of embodied affect studies from Tomkins and Brennan, where he is usually associated more with the Deleuzian strain of affect studies because of Massumi's connections.

6. David Lapoujade- William James: Empiricism and Pragmatism (2020). Lapoudade's first version of this book came out in French in 1997, and then again in 2007. His work is in the background of all the Stengers and Latour uptake of William James. Lapoujade would go on to write books on Bergson, Deleuze, and most recently, Souriau. And so you get a sense of the sort of intellectual trajectory that he sees James starting. It's an important book for connecting James to thinkers of French pluralism like Deleuze.

Connecting James to lived experiences.

7. Paul Stob- ""Terministic Screens," Social Constructionism, and the Language of Experience: Kenneth Burke's Utilization of William James (2008)". Stob has a great book on William James' rhetoric entitled William James and the Art of Popular Statement, but I want to focus on this earlier work by Stob. In this essay Stob connects William James' psychological work to Kenneth Burke's famous terministic screens. In short, just as James understands the too muchness of the world (the "blooming, buzzing confusion") and the psychological need to choose and ignore parts of the world, Burke makes a similar point with rhetoric. That use rhetoric to choose and ignore parts of the world, because the world is too much for representation and understanding (something like this is going on in Whitehead's short work Symbolism).

8. Hilary and Ruth Anna Putnam- Pragmatism as a Way of Life: The Lasting Legacy of William James and John Dewey (2017). This is a collection of essays from Hilary Putnam and Ruth Anna, some co-authored, over the course of their career, on pragmatism (and mostly William James). Ruth Anna Putnam is a serious scholar of William James, and both Putnams are trying to understand pragmatism as a kind of existential philosophy, connected to our lived experiences and our decisions about what sort of beings and world we want to make. It briefly confused, and I tried to read some other analytic thinkers on James. I'm sure there are other good things out there, but without knowing how to look for it, I was mostly wasting my time. But while not every essay here is worth it, most of the essays are good to very good.

Recent things I have read on James

9. Erin McKenna "What Makes the Lives of Lifestock Significant?" in Pragmatism Applied: William James and the Challenges of Contemporary Life (2019). McKenna has frequently written on the overlap of pragmatism and animal philosophy (though I tend to associate her more with Dewey). Her most recent book is Livestock: Food, Fiber, and Friends. But in this essay she surveys William James' somewhat ambigious relationships to other animals, focusing particularly on some asides in James' "What Makes a Life Significant?" From James, “When you and I, for instance, realize how many innocent beasts have had to suffer in cattle-cars and slaughter-pens and lay down their lives that we might grow up, all fattened and clad, to sit together here in comfort and carry on this discourse, it does, indeed, put our relation to the universe in a more solemn light.”

10. Martin Savransky - Around the Day in Eighty Worlds: Politics of the Pluriverse (2021). Here Savransky draws upon James to develop a pluralistic realism. It very much continues the project of his previous book, The Adventure of Relevance, but this one centers the work of James even more. I think it's great if you want to get a sense why Jamesian pluralism matters for social analysis.

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Reading A Thousand Plateaus

 Today would have been Deleuze's 97th birthday. Here is a short homage of him I wrote several years ago. Today I also got in a new copy of A Thousand Plateaus. I got my first copy, and until now my only copy, May of 2001. So, that copy is now old enough to drink. And it is falling apart, tons of notes and underlinings. It has seen things. Cameron Kunzelman told me that the Bloomsbury editions were nice sizes, good font size, etc. (actually, seems he told the world!) So I ordered one from the UK, and waited for it to randomly appear. Today is the day! I got the new copy because I decided I wanted to read the book again from cover to cover. Despite being a book that has inspired me a lot, I haven't read it cover to cover since early in grad school. There are chapters I return to again and again, and a few I have barely touched. So, I am going to move through it. Nothing special, about a chapter a week. My goal right now is to post reflections and impressions on each chapter as I go through. Maybe you will want to read along. 



Sunday, January 9, 2022

The Truth Is Not Out There: William James and the verification of truth


Over at his blog, Michael Huemer has a recent post dealing with, among other things, pragmatism and its conception of truth. I don't know Huemer's work in general, but I am familiar with his writings on ethical vegetarianism and veganism, but most likely some of his other work might provide better background here. So I am going into this ignorant of any of his arguments about epistemology or metaphysics, sadly. 

Okay, so Huemer argues that pragmatists like William James and Piecer get the concept of truth wrong. He argues that concept of truth is trivial, and that is basically the correspondence theory of truth. So, as he points out in a pervious blog post:

The correct theory of truth is the correspondence theory: truth is correspondence with reality. I.e., if a sentence or belief represents the world to be a certain way, and the world is actually that way, then the sentence/belief is true. If the world isn’t that way, the sentence/belief is false.
I think this is trivial, but somehow people have managed to have big debates about it.

This leads him to point on the first blog post I linked to,

Some smart and important philosophers have held what I would describe as complete non-starter theories about “truth”. (These theories are so far off that I refuse to recognize them as actually being about truth; hence the quotation marks.) For example, “truth is what is useful”. [...] Sometimes people say things. When you say things, sometimes stuff is the way that you say it is. Other times, it isn’t. When stuff is the way that you say it is, we call your statements “true”. When stuff is not the way that you say it is, we call your statements “false”. For instance, if you say that all cats are green, then your statement is “true” if and only if all cats are green.

So let's talk about William James. First of all, James agrees. Sorta. As he says in ch. 6 of Pragmatism:

Truth, as any dictionary will tell you, is a property of certain of our ideas. It means their 'agreement,' as falsity means their disagreement, with 'reality.' Pragmatists and intellectualists both accept this definition as a matter of course. They begin to quarrel only after the question is raised as to what may precisely be meant by the term 'agreement,' and what by the term 'reality,' when reality is taken as something for our ideas to agree with. .

Okay, so we agree that reality and our ideas have to be in agreement, but, uhm, we are actually going to disagree about all those terms and how we do that. So, James argues a little further down in the same chapter his famous claim that truth is verification and validation:

The moment pragmatism asks this question, it sees the answer: True ideas are those that we can assimilate, validate, corroborate and verify. False ideas are those that we cannot. That is the practical difference it makes to us to have true ideas; that, therefore, is the meaning of truth, for it is all that truth is known-as.
This thesis is what I have to defend. The truth of an idea is not a stagnant property inherent in it. Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events. Its verity is in fact an event, a process: the process namely of its verifying itself, its veri-fication. Its validity is the process of its valid-ation.  

So when Huemer says your statement that all cats are green if, and only if, all cats are actually green, we have to take a step back and figure out what it means to say something is green in reality? Remember this?


Is the dress blue and black or white and gold? The correspondence theory of truth might say something like: if you went and saw this dress in the original, it is clearly white and gold, so it is true to say it is white and gold, and false to say it is blue and black. But, to paraphrase Magritte, ceci n'est pas une robe. The question is not what color is the original dress itself, but what color is the dress in this picture. Is color in the eye of the beholder? Does it belong solely to the image? Is color produced through some sort of interpretative community? The pragmatist, under the right conditions, could accept the as true that this image of the dress is white and gold, or blue and black, or even both. The condition for the answer requires us to first decide what processes of verification and validation we are engaging in. James again:

Pragmatism, on the other hand, asks its usual question. "Grant an idea or belief to be true," it says, "what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone's actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false?

Now when we get to issues of verification, or what beliefs make different, we are no longer according to Huemer, really talking about truth.

Another possibility is that people confuse the idea of the meaning of “truth” with the idea of a criterion for telling when something is true. Hence you get coherence or ideal inquiry theories of truth.
I’m fine with asking these other questions. “What beliefs do you approve of?” and “How can you tell when something is true?” are better discussion questions than “What is truth?” But you shouldn’t just reinterpret the latter question as meaning one of the former. Making huge confusions like this just makes it hard to get the right answers to anything. If you want to answer one of the more profound questions, instead of claiming to be giving an account of truth, just say, “Look, the nature of truth is a boring question. Instead, let’s talk about what beliefs one should approve of …”

But for the Jamesian pragmatist believes if you don't answer what we are corresponding to in the correspondence theory of truth, the whole thing is question begging. Let me give one of my favorite examples, the placebo. Does a placebo work? As I argued in that previous post, if you are a patient, and you are given the placebo, and the placebo works, in what way can we say that the placebo didn't make you feel better? Did that not happen in reality? Is that not true? But what if you are working to create a drug trial, there is another mode and experience of the placebo. Another process of verification and validation. Then, of course, we can say the placebo does not work, it does not treat. So the mode within which you are engaging the placebo matters dramatically about whether it is true, or not. This why James says that truth happens to an idea, that it is an event. We can't simply say, is an idea true or false until we also say under which processes of verification. Let's take a different example. We are beset by various problems that large parts of both our country and the world are simply in denial about. And it is common in certain Democratic discusses of global warming or covid to say something like, we should do what the science tells us. This statement is baffling, because it basically combines at least two different processes of verification. Science, including perhaps social sciences, can tell us things like how big of a potential problem we are facing, what are some of the possible solutions, maybe what some of the solutions are. What science cannot do is to tell us what to do, how much risk we should take, what trade offs we are okay with. You can affirm these second set of questions are about truth without undermining the first set of truths (the scientific ones), because are just dealing with two different processes of verification and validation. This is why James might something like (though not exactly) usefulness matters to truth. Usefulness is one of the ways we can figure out what process of verification we are engaging in. James' committed pluralism is on full display here. This not a position where anything gets to be true, but there are as many truths as there are processes of verification. The Truth Is Not Out There