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The Reign of James

ISSUE:  Summer 1984
A Stroll with William James. By Jacques Barzun. Harper & Row. $19. 95.

One of the country’s greatest teachers (until his retirement from Columbia in 1975), Jacques Barzun is our most notable critic of the cultural climate of the industrial revolution. His bete noir is mechanical materialism, the governing concept of a “block universe” or monistic deterministic system that reduces experience, both physical and mental, to the “fortuitous concourse of atoms” or of electromagnetic phenomena. He calls this scientism or the tyranny of science because it nullifies the palpable diversity of possible points of view, the inconsistencies of science, and the empirical reality of emotion, spirit, and the teleological function of consciousness. He is also hostile to the monism of idealistic metaphysics because that, too, is a form of determinism, an absolute view of reality. Thus William James is his cultural hero. The radical empiricism of James allows objectivity, utility, and scope to all varieties of experience or existence, while his pragmatism—an antidote to the arbitrary rule of conceptual or theoretical thinking—provides a human test of knowledge and our intuitions: does it work? and indeed how does it work for us?

Barzun’s main antagonist in the struggle to preserve or reanimate “vitalism” has been Darwin and especially the Darwinians, such as T.H. Huxley; Barzun notes that Darwin himself was equivocal on the subject of the inheritance of acquired characteristics. An admirer of Samuel Butler, who “drew up the full indictment of Natural Selection before 1890,” Barzun cogently quotes Henry Adams:

Forty years ago, our friends always explained things and had the cosmos down to a point, teste Darwin and Charles Lyell. Now they say that they don’t believe there is any explanation or that you can choose between half a dozen, all correct. . . . Every generalization that we settled on forty years ago is abandoned. The most completely thrown over is gentle Darwin’s survival of the fittest, which no longer has a leg to stand on.

Barzun ascribes to the period between 1890 and 1914 a sort of cultural renaissance tragically cut short by World War I; he views this period as the Reign of William and Henry James, since both are remarkable not only for their magnificent prose but for reinstating the point of view as a precondition of experience and indeed of moral or esthetic existence. The egalitarian implications of this attitude are obvious. Thus the two brothers contributed to the “permissive” or “enlightened” cultural and esthetic climate of this century, as well as to its “estheticism” as such—and hedonism.(The present reviewer has pointed out that Henry’s novels are in fact Hegelian in their perception of consciousness as a specious approximation to something ineffable or unknowable— thereby recalling William.)

The moral necessity of a perspective or point of view means, in Barzun’s terms, a restoration of that concreteness or immediacy—the matrix of factuality, the greater the better— upon which our opinions, if they are to be profitable and useful, must of course be based. Barzun, like James, belongs indeed to a tradition comprising the British empiricists, notably Berkeley (who advocated the creative view of mind), and including William Blake and Nietzsche, for both of whom experience in its concrete magnitude and scope implies vitalism, relativism, “functionalism”—the mythopoeic role of man in and of himself.(Barzun confesses his own belief in polytheism.) This “tradition” might be said to culminate in the work of men like Vaihinger, Poincaré, and Duhem—epistemological philosophers whose conventionalism paved the way for the profound liberation of imaginative theorizing that marks recent physics, for example. In all this Barzun is a deeply respectful admirer of technology and technique but not of the scientific attitude so far as it limits or indeed defines the magnitude of human nature.

Technically speaking, the problem that engages Barzun lies in the fact that once cognition or discrimination commences—perception, conceptualization, and the practical or theoretical organization of experience—antinomies or self-contradictions appear necessarily to ensue. This circumstance led Kant to postulate the realm of truth as transcendental.(Kant indeed adumbrates the prevalence of “paradox” in our current intellectual life.) For Whitehead, this is a state of affairs explicable in terms of “perspectivism,” the necessity of divergent perspectives because of the fundamentally dynamic, spontaneous or teleological nature of reality. Nor must we accept Whitehead’s view, cogent and impressive as it is; after all, as Santayana noted many years ago, the universe may be—at bottom—chaos!

The dilemma is that of the “One and the Many,” a phrase that has a childish ring in an age of multiplicity, conflict, and violence in which the “Many” (Pandora’s Box) connotes above all the possibility of personal fulfillment, however baleful. For the philosopher or mythmaker the “Many” are sometimes the necessary prelude to the narcissistic grace of “organic” unity. Whitehead, echoing F.H. Bradley, noted that every truth is a half-truth; thus the “whole” truth may lie in some scarcely imaginable totality of reciprocal identifications.(James’s perspectivism is echoed, as Barzun notes, by Whitehead’s theory of “prehensions,” the conative, conceptual, or teleological understanding of perception.) The point is that, as Barzun says, the truth as such in all circumstances remains a point of view.

Robert Alter recently described Stendhal as a “Lion for Love”; yet he implies that few writers were as misanthropic as Stendhal, both in his perception of peasant, bourgeois, and aristocrat and in his ongoing portrait of human nature as most engaging precisely in the degree of its self-transcendence. Barzun notes that the 19th century was above all the century of love; it was also—by the same token no doubt—an age of ambivalence. The famous formulation by Stendhal—Ce n’ est que ca? or Is that all it amounts to?—occurs on the battlefield of Waterloo, as Febrice del Dongo observes the earth being chewed up by bullets. The remark contains the germ of our modern awareness of perception as a product of conflict or repression—also foreshadowed by Hegel—in a social world of multiplicity and egoism. The grandiosity and glorification (or self-glorification) that we associate with Napoleon survives in our own day—terrorism, violence, and the so-called sadomasochistic personality. Intensive militarism and total war are part of our romantic heritage (and an expression of “mass” culture).

One mentions Stendhal because he is emblematic of the century that inspired William James.(Barzun attributes to the years between 1890 and 1914 the germinal culture, both material and intellectual, of this century, but his colossal erudition keeps him from underrating the influence of romanticism.) James of course was neither violent, grandiose, or egoistic, except perhaps in a technical or metaphorical sense; indeed, he succeeds in reducing to technical and moral terms some of the exaggerated cultural characteristics of an earlier, less self-conscious period. James’ philosophy might be viewed as an effort to moralize and contain—he wrote of “the moral equivalent of war”—an aggressive age of grossly intensified motivation.(Barzun recalls that, to Horace Kallen, James was above all a gentleman.) It is for this reason that psychology as a “science” comes of age in his immortal Principles of Psychology, published in 1890; and the theme of multiplicity, of multiple egoisms, no doubt, is expressed in his Varieties of Religious Experience. Whitehead knew James as an “adorable genius” and indeed James’ intense “spiritual” susceptibilities and ambitions are not without precedent in romantic culture. Nor is it too facile to say that James’ well-known nervous disorder, plus his distinction between tough- and tender-minded, reflect this cultural situation. A friend remembers that, to engage William James in conversation, was to see him emerge momentarily from a dark cloud of depression and then return into it.

The theme of multiplicity—of pluralism, as James called it—is profoundly American, though not exclusively so in the modern world. Indeed, the emergence of “organism” as a dominant scientific and philosophic concept reflects but one effort to “contain” and “express” the context of this diversity. Consider, for example, Walt Whitman. In addition, there is the contrast between James and Henry Adams, who propounded the antithesis of the Virgin and the Dynamo, symbols, respectively, of the 13th century (a period of “ferocious contentions,” as Barzun notes) and modernity. The imaginary unity of the medieval order consisted in social and personal integration, an all-powerful exaltation and moral perceptiveness, that has given way to fragmentation, impotence, and frustration, a chaos reflected not only in the desperate confusions of our prevalent violence but in the malady of our age, false and barbaric ideologies and systems. While for Adams multiplicity portends death, the inanition of vital energy, for James it meant growth and progress, not simply a fertilization by divergent points of view but moral advancement, a philosophy of live and let live. The point is not simply that James was an optimist and Adams a pessimist but that the tragic sense of life in James—older historically and more basic to existence than Adams’s religiosity—took the form of an energetic affirmation of experience in the most human and humane of its many aspects—pluralism!

This is Barzun’s best book since Darwin, Marx and Wagner (1941), containing as it does the central constructive thesis upon which its author’s profound reputation is based. It is, in itself, an education in the liberal arts.


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