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William James as Artist

What has always been hard for James’s professional colleagues to swallow is that he was a pluralist as well as a philosopher. Traditionally, the aim of philosophy has been to unify, to reduce diversity to one, or at most two, principles by which all other things, known or suspected, might be explained. This is only another way of saying that philosophers have usually leaned toward the religious and scientific temperament, which seeks oneness, or toward the moralist’s, which demands the duality of good and evil.

James was in many ways a moralist too, and in a recent volume of commemorative essays, H. W. Schneider has brilliantly assessed this phase of his thought. But the inclusive pattern of the Jamesian philosophy has manyness for its principal feature. Hence in the eyes of strict monists and dualists he seems to leave undone the task he professes to undertake. Assuming that on the contrary James did fulfill his task, in virtue of what other bent or bias does he espouse pluralism? The answer is, I think, the esthetic bent, the bias of the artist.

It is nothing new to say that James possessed an artistic nature, and Perry’s great biography furnishes all the facts that one could want to document the assertion. In youth he thought of becoming a painter; as a mature man he developed by dint of hard work a superb prose style; and throughout his life he was responsive to literature and the arts, very astute as a critic, and remarkably so when it came to works as yet little regarded by men of his own generation.

In short, unlike many or most philosophers, he was a cultured and a traveled man. So much is common knowledge. But the more intimate relation between James’s esthetic sensitivity and his philosophic outlook deserve wider notice, both as helping to an understanding of the system and as supplying a link in the history of ideas.

Consider first James’s lifelong battle against the Absolute. What was the basis of his objection to that Encyclopedic Knower which was the solace of his confreres and the backstop of their systems? His objection was the inescapable reality of the “point of view,” the fact, namely, that no human being can obtain more than a partial vision of experience, and is therefore in no position to expound what the Absolute sees and thinks. It follows from this that any unity in the world of things is made or created by a combination of human efforts. Unity comes also through the work of specially sensitive minds, by inspiration: “Only in some . . . philosopher, poet, or romancer, or when the common practical man becomes a lover, does the hard externality give way, and a gleam of insight into . . . the vast world of inner life beyond us . . . illuminate the mind.”

Note the conjunction of philosopher and poet. But whatever its extent or quality, the human point of view, according to James, is controlled by subjective interests, instinctive or emotional in origin, and out of which all rationality grows. The degree to which these interests are coordinated squared with fact and truly expressed measures the success of the individual’s reason, or if he is a philosopher of his system. Experience is thus carved out by each man in accordance with his temperament, and his vision has the shape of his imaginative powers. All these statements need but slight translation to turn them into the creed of the artist, whose work grows out of his instinctive and emotional resources, and seeks to express in adequate form something that will have the status of truth.

Emotion may of course breed error and illusion so James insists on due regard being paid to sensation, to the concrete fact given by experience, apart from all preconceived ideas and ingrained habits. This is what made him hospitable to a great variety of ideas and persons—a hospitality which caused him always to stretch his philosophical formulas to include all the irreducible data before him. James’s systematic pluralism was thus the result of a strong desire for concreteness and diversity, combined with the philosopher’s usual desire for order. But he would not purchase order by explaining away the thing he saw, or the thing he felt sure someone else saw. Even illusion has a place among realities and it must be accounted for, not dismissed. As he exclaimed impatiently about some of his fellow psychologists, “Can serious men take facts in these verbal ways?” To say all this is to say that James was a very definite kind of artist. For the starting point of a work of art is a concrete perception; the recognition of the diversity of points of view, with the interests that motivate them, is the first requisite of the dramatist; and the desire for coordination of parts is the goal of creation in art no less than in philosophy.

The word “creation” is itself a symptomatic Jamesian word. The path that James took to reach philosophy, we must remember, was through psychology, after a fruitless attempt at an artistic career and a very fair start in the biological sciences. But both in biology and psychology, pure collecting and classifying was hardly James’s forte; his mind was truly inductive but not statistical. He was interested inmeanings, and psychology gave him an opportunity to exercise at once his experimental and his interpretative and metaphysical gifts. The result is well known: he revolutionized psychology by freeing it from both materialism and idealism. The mind was no longer a machine nor did it do any “copying” of a preestablished order. The stream of thought revealed its objects with complete vividness, immediacy and continuity, for, like an artist, the mind had created its order.

It may occur to someone at this point that there are many artists, particularly today, who would deny this view of experience and this parallel with artistic creation. Indeed, not a few moderns directly repudiate what they conceive to be James’s outlook. That is why I said earlier that James’s philosophy expresses the insights of a certain kind of artist, the romantic artist, by which I mean the historic romanticist of the Elizabethan age or the nineteenth century The principles common to them and to James are: inclusive realism and concreteness, the dramatic view of the human mind, the belief that novelty and creation are facts, and the valuing of will, energy and risk, which is to say also, respect for the irrational source of human powers. In proof of which here is a passage written by James with A philosophical purpose, but which admirably fits the case; it sounds as if written to denounce classicism in art: “Just so… when we condemn all noble, clean cut, fixed, eternal rational, temple-like systems of philosophy. These contradict the dramatic temperament of our nature, as our dealings with nature and our habits of thinking have so far brought us to conceive it. They seem oddly personal and artificial, even when not bureaucratic and professional in an absurd degree. We turn from them to the great unpent and unstayed wilderness of truth as we feel it to be constituted, with as good a conscience as rationalists are moved bywhen they turn from our wilderness into their neater and cleaner intellectual abodes.”

To my thesis it may none the less be objected that James once or twice denounced “romanticism” at considerable length. This is literally true, but the word romanticism needs interpretation and James’s context provides it in full. He follows in part the vulgar usage that makes romantic synonymous with sentimental and weak-willed, and in part his own definition, which would make romanticism the philosophy of the spectator, the dilettante who throbs on the side-lines but takes no part in life—aneo-romanticism, perhaps, rather than the original brand. For what was repellant to James in dilettantism was equally so to the greater part of the genuine romanticists. Some—and we think of Wordsworth and Hugo—were strong moralists; others, such as Goethe, Carlyle or Stendhal, relied like James on the energies of men. A historical and critical definition of romanticism would certainly find James eligible for inclusion, and his kinship with Nietzsche would be corroborative evidence, since both are pro- and anti-romantic in the same senses. James’s own label for the view of the mind which he supported in F. W. H. Myers and Freud is “romantic,” and he contrasts it with the rectilinear, static and trimmed-up view, which he terms “classical.”

Nor was that all. James’s function in philosophy was to make its discoveries available for the purposes of life, which is an exact parallel to the romanticists’ consciousness of the individual and social function of art. However often we mistake “romantic” for “escapist,” the fact is otherwise. I can only refer doubters to the latest works on Shelley, Byron, Coleridge, Victor Hugo, Weber or Mazzini. Both in James and in the romantic artists, it was a sense of history, that is, a sense of things-in-their-context, which made them oppose the classic taste for abstractions, on the one hand, and the pseudo-realistic taste for “reduction,” on the other. This is the one principle which brought James and Hegel together—Hegel’s sense of the original chaotic sweep of things, the interpenetration of contraries, and the role of the idea in organizing meanings. And it is owing to this vision that fifty years after Hegel, James led philosophy back to the inclusive realism of the romanticists, after the reactionary interlude of Realism with a capital R had narrowed down reality to matter.

Since both the classical and the “realistic” views suppose Nature to be there, ready to be copied, and the Jamesian romanticist believes in its partial creation by the mind, the latter is faced with the problem of what test to apply for knowing a true insight. If no preestablished norms are furnished, what will rein in the rabid imagination of the poet or the extravagant intellectual parturition of the philosopher? James answers for both: the pragmatic test. This means that the product, whatever it be, an artistic form or a truth, is to be judged, not by its origin or formal copying of its antecedents, but by its consequences, its tangible fruits. In the Preface to the “Lyrical Ballads,” Wordsworth had already suggested that if poetry was to use simple words, it must be distinguished from prosaic nonsense by the fact that it was “interesting in itself or led to something interesting.” Blake’s whole philosophy of poetry rests on the same assumption, which in its furthest form rejoins what James called the Will to Believe and the Sentiment of Rationality. Says Blake: “Does a firm persuasion that a thing is so, make it so?—All poets believe that it does . . . but many are not capable of a firm persuasion of anything.”

Stendhal applied the same criterion of belief to justify Shakespeare and the romantics, and even among the moderns who avowedly oppose James, one finds Mr. Allen Tate saying, most pragmatically, “a poet is interested in results.” Needless to say, Blake’s “firm persuasion” and Mr. Tate’s “results” are not to be taken as “crude results” or “foolish persuasion.” Earlier, Blake had written, in a Jamesian spirit, “A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.” The wise man is presumably fastidious about his beliefs and searching as to the sentiment that convinces him he has achieved rationality. Hence the “satisfaction” which is in James the pragmatic test of thought is to be applied to it with as much conscience and precision as are usually shown in applying the similar test of pleasure to art.

The further consequence of James’s pragmatism is his refusal to make thought or art end with itself. The passage is well known in which he suggests that if one’s ego has been elevated into a sense of Olympian power by an artistic experience, one should try to discharge the feeling into some action—even if it be as slight as speaking a kind word to one’s aunt. He thus defines the antidote to sentimentality and reminds us again of the romanticists who, having to purge themselves of the sentimentalist legacy of the eighteenth century, grappled with the habit by analyzing it pitilessly, as in “Werther,” or diagnosed its hold upon them by showing in their confessions that its evil was not in the feeling itself but in the paralysis of the will.

It is perhaps unnecessary to go farther and show that James shared a number of personal traits with the very artists who first made the “man of genius” known through their autobiographies. He too was a master of introspection, as the willingness to admit the determinant of “interest” in perception suggests; he was a man of faith, adventurous in thought and deed, who could discover the infinite amid the homely and concrete not only in Walt Whitman but in Homer; he had a tenacious love of life, punctuated by spells of depression, inaction and irritability, yet his total output of energy was remarkable for both quantity and quality; he enjoyed and often indulged ah impish desire to make fun of professional gravity—and suffered for it; he was no friend to philistine values, and hated massive success of a commercial leveling sort almost as much as he did the pale virginal aspirations of Chautauqua to “the higher things.” He was, in short, like all conscious democrats and true romanticists, an aristocrat of the feelings.

Did he then add nothing to the conceptions that the romantics had already embodied fifty years before him? One might reply that it is a great deal to have recovered these insights after their eclipse under the realistic and idealistic palls of the mid-century. Yet I think James did something more by his unpremeditated translation of artistic notions into both psychology and philosophy. He did not simply restate them; he argued them in a great variety of forms, giving them the status of rules rather than what they had been exceptions. He showed, even more fully than Freud, that thought is symbolic and life a work of art. For the criticism of art itself he furnished materials ready-mined and still to be used by anyone who will pick them up. James was the first to regret having formally neglected esthetics in his “Psychology.” But he made up for it by the liberality with which he scattered nuggets of artistic experience. None of his conclusions was the work of an onlooker. As Perry justly remarks in comparing him with Dewey, “While James is percipient, artistic, religious, Dewey elaborates ideas about perception, art and religion.” James the artist thus showed not simply what could be done with a philosophy grounded in science and ethics and enlarged to the scope of art, but what could be done by a philosopher who acted it out. Equally bent on action, the romanticists variously failed and succeeded, but the most thoughtful of them still believed that their systems must imitate the pattern of unity set by the classical models. They felt but they did not dare say with James and in the plural: “It seems to me that all sorts of realities and completenesses are possible in philosophy, hitherto stiffened and cramped by the silly littlenesses of the upper and lower dogmatisms, alternating their petty rationalistic and naturalistic idols of the shop….”