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Thursday
Jan212010

Bergson, "On the Pragmatism of William James" (part 1)

The first part to an essay by this philosopher and man of letters which served as the introduction to the French translation of this book.  You can read the original as part of this collection.

How can one speak about pragmatism after William James?  And what would we be able to say that has not been already said, and said better, in that enthralling and charming book of which we have here such a faithful translation?  We would hesitate to speak at all if James's thoughts were not so often diminished, or altered, or distorted by the interpretations we impute to them.  Surely many ideas that circulate risk interference between the reader and the book, as well as the imposition of an artificial obscurity upon a work that is the epitome of clarity.

We would poorly understand James's pragmatism if we didn't begin by modifying the current notion that we have of reality in general.  We speak of the "world" or the "cosmos," and those words, according to their origin, indicate something simple, more or less well-structured.  We say "universe," and the word makes us think of the possible unification of things.  We could be spiritualists, materialists, pantheists just as easily as we could be indifferent to philosophy and satisfied in the common sense of the word: we always imagine many simple principles through which the set of material and moral things could be explained.

Our intelligence has become enamored with simplicity.  It economizes effort and wishes for nature to be arranged in such a way so as not to draw our attention; to be thought of should require the smallest possible amount of work.  It is present up until that point at which we need elements or principles to reconstruct its indefinite series of objects and events.      

But if, instead of ideally reconstructing things to give our reason supreme satisfaction we were to grasp these things purely and simply based on what experience permits, we would think and express ourselves in a wholly different manner.  Whereas our intelligence, with its habits of economy, imagines effects in strict proportion to their causes, prodigious nature places in the cause much more than required to produce its effect.  Whereas our motto is Only what we need, nature's motto is More than what is needed – too much of this, too much of that, too much of everything.  Reality, in James's view, is redundant and superabundant.  I think that the same relationship has been established between this reality and the reality reconstructed by philosophers as between the life we live every day and the life that actors portray every evening on the stage.  In the theater, every person does not say what he needs to say nor does what he needs to do; scenes have clear divisions – each play has a beginning, a middle and an end; and all of this is most parsimoniously distributed with a view to a dénouement that may be happy or tragic.  But, in life, we utter an endless array of useless things, we undertake an endless array of useless acts; there are rarely neat and streamlined situations.  Nothing really happens with such simplicity or as completely or beautifully as we might like.  Scenes encroach upon one another; things never begin or end; there is never an entirely satisfying dénouement or an absolutely decisive act.  All the concomitant effects are therefore ruined.  Such is human life.  And such is also what James undoubtedly thinks of reality in general. 

Certainly, our experience is not incoherent.  At the same time as it presents to us things and facts, it shows us the connections between things and the relationships between facts.  These relationships, according to James, are just as real and directly observable as the things and facts themselves.  But relationships fluctuate and things are fluid.  It is well beyond this dry universe in which philosophers compose well-divided and well-constructed elements, and where each part is no longer only connected to another part, as experience tries to suggest, but is coordinated with Everything – which is what is suggested by reason.

James's "pluralism" has no other meaning than this.  Antiquity was represented as a closed, halted, finite world, a hypothesis that corresponds to certain demands of our reason.  Modern people tend to think of the infinite, which is another hypothesis that satisfies other demands of our reason.  From the point of view that James assumes, which is of pure experience or "radical empiricism," reality no longer appears to be finite or infinite, but simply indefinite.  It flows without our being able to ascertain whether it flows in one direction, nor whether it is always the same river flowing past.

Our reason is less satisfied.  It feels less at ease in a world where it can no longer find, as in a mirror, its own image.  And, doubtless, the importance of human reason is diminished.  But to what degree will the importance of man himself – of man in his entirety, in his willfulness and sensibility as well as in his intelligence – then find itself increased!

The universe conceived by our reason is, as it were, a universe that infinitely surpasses human experience.  The peculiar thing about reason is that it prolongs the data of experience, extending them by means of generalization, with the aim of having us conceive of things far past what we will ever glimpse.  In such a universe man is supposed to do few things and occupy little space: what he attributes to his intelligence he will take from his will.  Most of all, having accorded his mind the power of encompassing everything, he is then obliged to imagine all things in terms of thought: of his aspirations, his desires, and his enthusiasm he can hardly ask for clarification in a world where everything is accessible to be considered by him in advance, as if translatable into pure ideas.  His sensibility would never know how to clarify his intelligence, whose enlightenment was his own doing.

Most philosophies, therefore, shrink our experience with regard to emotion and willpower while at the same time prolonging this experience indefinitely in terms of thought.  What James asks of us is not to add too much to experience from hypothetical views, nor to mutilate something that is already solid.  We are not at all sure about what experience offers us; but we have to accept experience integrally, and our feelings provide this experience to the same extent as our perceptions do, to the same extent, consequently, as "things" do.  In the eyes of William James, complete man counts for something.

He counts for even more in a world that does not squash him by its immensity.  We are surprised by the importance that James, in one of his books, attributes to Fechner's curious theory that states Earth is an independent being blessed with a divine soul.  It may be that he sees in this a convenient means to symbolize – perhaps even to express – his own thinking.  The things and facts that comprise our experience constitute for us a human world, connected undoubtedly to others, but so distanced from them and so close to us that we have to consider it, in practice, both sufficient for man and self-sufficient.  With things and events we create a body – we meaning everything of which we are conscious of being, everything we experience.  The powerful feelings that stir our souls at certain, privileged moments are forces just as real as those which interest a physicist: man creates them no more than he creates heat or light.  According to James, we bathe in an atmosphere which cuts across large spiritual currents.  If many among us grow rigid, others allow themselves to be carried off.  And he is one of those souls who open themselves as widely as possible to these salubrious airs.  Such people are those with the souls of mystics.  We know how sympathetically James studied these people.  When his book The Varieties of Religious Experience appeared, many saw in it only a series of very vivid descriptions and penetrating analyses – psychology, they said, of religious feeling.  How wrong they were about the author's mentality!  The truth is that James studied the mystic soul in the same way that we study the weather on a fine spring day to feel the caress of the breeze, or how, on the seashore, we survey the comings and goings of ships and the filling of their sails so as to learn in which direction the wind is blowing.  Souls filled with religious enthusiasm are truly lifted and transported: how could they not make us extract from real life, as if it were a scientific experiment, that force that lifts and transports?  There we have, without a doubt, the origin; there lies the idea that inspired the "pragmatism" of William James.  In his opinion, the most important truths for us to know are the truths that have been felt or lived before having been thought.

All this time we have said that there are truths that result from feeling as much as from reason.  And all this time we have also said that apart from the ready truths we have found, there are other truths that we assist in making which depend in part on our willpower.  Yet it should be noted that, in James's work, this idea takes on new meaning and force.  It blooms thanks to the conception of reality which is peculiar to his philosophy in a general theory of truth.

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