Category Archives: William James

William James

[O]ur normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.

William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, London, 1902, p. 388

William James

Perhaps the commonest expression of this assumption that spiritual value is undone if lowly origin be asserted is seen in those comments which unsentimental people so often pass on their more sentimental acquaintances. Alfred believes in immortality so strongly because his temperament is so emotional. Fanny’s extraordinary conscientiousness is merely a matter of over-instigated nerves. William’s melancholy about the universe is due to bad digestion — probably his liver is torpid. Eliza’s delight in her church is a symptom of her hysterical constitution. Peter would be less troubled about his soul if he would take more exercise in the open air, etc. A more fully developed example of the same kind of reasoning is the fashion, quite common nowadays among certain writers, of criticising the religious emotions by showing a connection between them and the sexual life. Conversion is a crisis of puberty and adolescence. The macerations of saints, and the devotion of missionaries, are only instances of the parental instinct of self-sacrifice gone astray. For the hysterical nun, starving for natural life, Christ is but an imaginary substitute for a more earthly object of affection. And the like.

We are surely all familiar in a general way with this method of discrediting states of mind for which we have an antipathy. We all use it to some degree in criticising persons whose states of mind we regard as overstrained. But when other people criticise our own more exalted soul-flights by calling them “nothing but” expressions of our organic disposition, we feel outraged and hurt, for we know that, whatever be our organism’s peculiarities, our mental states have their substantive value as revelations of the living truth; and we wish that all this medical materialism could be made to hold its tongue.

Medical materialism seems indeed a good appellation for the too simple-minded system of thought which we are considering. Medical materialism finishes up Saint Paul by calling his vision on the road to Damascus a discharging lesion of the occipital cortex, he being an epileptic. It snuffs out Saint Teresa as an hysteric, Saint Francis of Assisi as an hereditary degenerate. George Fox’s discontent with the shams of his age, and his pining for spiritual veracity, it treats as a symptom of a disordered colon. Carlyle’s organ-tones of misery it accounts for by a gastro-duodenal catarrh. All such mental over- tensions, it says, are, when you come to the bottom of the matter, mere affairs of diathesis (auto-intoxications most probably), due to the perverted action of various glands which physiology will yet discover.

And medical materialism then thinks that the spiritual authority of all such personages is successfully undermined.

Let us ourselves look at the matter in the largest possible way. Modern psychology, finding definite psycho-physical connections to hold good, assumes as a convenient hypothesis that the dependence of mental states upon bodily conditions must be thorough- going and complete. If we adopt the assumption, then of course what medical materialism insists on must be true in a general way, if not in every detail: Saint Paul certainly had once an epileptoid, if not an epileptic seizure; George Fox was an hereditary degenerate; Carlyle was undoubtedly auto-intoxicated by some organ or other, no matter which, — and the rest. But now, I ask you, how can such an existential account of facts of mental history decide in one way or another upon their spiritual significance? According to the general postulate of psychology just referred to, there is not a single one of our states of mind, high or low, healthy or morbid, that has not some organic process as its condition. Scientific theories are organically conditioned just as much as religious emotions are; and if we only knew the facts intimately enough, we should doubtless see “the liver” determining the dicta of the sturdy atheist as decisively as it does those of the Methodist under conviction anxious about his soul. When it alters in one way the blood that percolates it, we get the methodist, when in another way, we get the atheist form of mind. So of all our raptures and our drynesses, our longings and pantings, our questions and beliefs. They are equally organically founded, be they of religious or of non-religious content.

To plead the organic causation of a religious state of mind, then, in refutation of its claim to possess superior spiritual value, is quite illogical and arbitrary, unless one have already worked out in advance some psycho-physical theory connecting spiritual values in general with determinate sorts of physiological change. Otherwise none of our thoughts and feelings, not even our scientific doctrines, not even our dis-beliefs, could retain any value as revelations of the truth, for every one of them without exception flows from the state of their possessor’s body at the time.

William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, London, 1902, lecture 1

William James

I have just read your letter over again, and am grieved afresh at your melancholy tone about yourself. You ask why I am quiet, while you are so restless. Partly from the original constitution of things, I suppose; partly because I am less quiet than you suppose; only I once heard a proverb about a man consuming his own smoke, and I do so particularly in your presence because you, being so much more turbid, produce a reaction in me; partly because I am a few years older than you, and have not solved, but grown callous (I hear your sneer) to, many of the problems that now torture you. The chief reason is the original constitution of things, which generated me with fewer sympathies and wants than you, and also perhaps with a certain tranquil confidence in the right ordering of the Whole, which makes me indifferent in some circumstances where you would fret. Yours the nobler, mine the happier part! I think, too, that much of your uneasiness comes from that to which you allude in your letter your oscillatoriness, and your regarding each oscillation as something final as long as it lasts. There is nothing more certain than that every man’s life (except perhaps Harry Quincy’s) is a line that continuously oscillates on every side of its direction; and if you would be more confident that any state of tension you may at any time find yourself in will inevitably relieve itself, sooner or later, you would spare yourself much anxiety. I myself have felt in the last six months more and more certain that each man s constitution limits him to a certain amount of emotion and action, and that, if he insists on going under a higher pressure than normal for three months, for instance, he will pay for it by passing the next three months below par. So the best way is to keep moving steadily and regularly, as your mind becomes thus deliciously appeased (as you imagine mine to be; ah! Tom, what damned fools we are!). If you feel below par now, don t think your life is deserting you forever. You are just as sure to be up again as you are, when elated, sure to be down again. Six months, or any given cycle of time, is sure to see you produce a certain amount, and your fretful anxiety when in a stagnant mood is frivolous. The good time will come again, as it has come; and go too. I think we ought to be independent of our moods, look on them as external, for they come to us unbidden, and feel if possible neither elated nor depressed, but keep our eyes upon our work and, if we have done the best we could in that given condition, be satisfied.

William James, letter to Thomas Ward, June 8, 1866

William James

Two great maxims emerge from his treatment. The first is that in the acquisition of a new habit, or the leaving off of an old one, we must take care to launch ourselves with as strong and decided an initiative as possible. Accumulate all the possible circumstances which shall reenforce the right motives; put yourself assiduously in conditions that encourage the new way; make engagements incompatible with the old; take a public pledge, if the case allows; in short, envelop your resolution with every aid you know. This will give your new beginning such a momentum that the temptation to break down will not occur as soon as it otherwise might; and every day during which a breakdown is postponed adds to the chances of its not occurring at all.

The second maxim is: Never suffer an exception to occur till the new habit is securely rooted in your life. Each lapse is like the letting fall of a ball of string which one is carefully winding up; a single slip undoes more than a great many turns will wind again. Continuity of training is the great means of making the nervous system act infallibly right. […]

A third maxim may be added to the preceding pair: Seize the Very first possible opportunity to act on every resolution you make, and on every emotional prompting you may experience in the direction of the habits you aspire to gain. It is not in the moment of their forming, but in the moment of their producing motor effects, that resolves and aspirations communicate the new ‘set’ to the brain.

William James, Habit, New York, 1914, pp. 55-56, 60

William James

It takes […] what Berkeley calls a mind debauched by learning to carry the process of making the natural seem strange, so far as to ask for the why of any instinctive human act. To the metaphysician alone can such questions occur as: Why do we smile, when pleased, and not scowl? Why are we unable to talk to a crowd as we talk to a single friend? Why does a particular maiden turn our wits so upside-down? The common man can only say, “Of course we smile, of course our heart palpitates at the sight of the crowd, of course we love the maiden, that beautiful soul clad in that perfect form, so palpably and flagrantly made from all eternity to be loved!”

William James, The Principles of Psychology, vol. 2, New York, 1890, pp. 386-387

William James

Old-fashioned determinism was what we may call hard determinism. It did not shrink from such words as fatality, bondage of the will, necessitation, and the like. Nowadays, we have a soft determinism which abhors harsh words, and, repudiating fatality, necessity, and even determinism, says that its real Dame is freedom; for freedom is only necessity understood, and bondage to the highest is identical with true freedom. Even a writer as little used to making capital out of soft words as Mr. Hodgson hesitates not to call himself a “free-will determinist.”

Now, this is all a quagmire of evasion under which the real issue of fact has got entirely smothered up. Freedom in all these senses presents simply no problem at all. No matter what the soft determinist mean by it, whether he, mean the acting without external constraint, whether he mean the acting rightly, or whether he mean the acquiescing in the law of the whole, who cannot answer him that sometimes we are free and sometimes we are not? But there is, a problem, an issue of fact and not of words, an issue of the most momentous importance, which is often decided without discussion in one sentence, nay, in one clause of a sentence, by those very writers who spin out whole chapters in their efforts to show what “true” freedom is[.]

William James, ‘The Dilemma of Determinism’, Unitarian Review and Religious Magazine, Vol. 22, No. 8. (September, 1884), pp. 197-198

William James

It is mere prejudice to assume that it is harder for the great than for the little to be, and that easiest of all it is to be nothing. What makes things difficult in any line is the alien obstructions that are met with, and the smaller and weaker the thing the more powerful over it these become.

William James, Some Problems of Philosophy: a Beginning of an Introduction to Philosophy, New York, 1911, pp. 42-43