William James and the Case of the Epileptic Patient 10

In fact, for James the two experiences represented eternally op¬posed responses to life. He made himself clear on the matter in an odd corner of his work—in the introduction he wrote to his father’s Literary Remains, a memorial anthology which was published in 1884 and promptly sank without a trace. Most people who believe in God, William says there, are really pluralists. God for them is just one force in the universe, “a concrete being whom it does not take a scholar to love and make sacrifices and die for.” It is hard to feel af-fection for an omnipotent God, a God defined as Universal Sub¬stance, or as First Principle. And pluralism, says James, is anyway “a view to which we all practically incline when in the full and suc¬cessful exercise of our moral energy.” For when we feel healthy, our will seems a match for the forces we confront; life, as James put it elsewhere, “feels like a real fight,” whose outcome is still in doubt.
But, he continues, there are also times when life feels like a me¬chanical and predetermined process whose outcome we are power¬less to change; and at these times, trying to buck ourselves up with the thought that we, too, can make a difference, that we get a vote, is futile. In his description of this fatalistic state of mind, he evokes the epileptic:
To suggest personal will and effort to one “all sicklied o’er” with the sense of weakness, of helpless failure, and of fear, is to suggest the most horrible of things to him. What he craves is to be consoled in his very impotence, to feel that the Powers of the Universe recog¬nize and secure him, all passive and failing as he is. Well, we are all ;potentially such sick men. The sanest and best of us are of one clay with lunatics and prison-inmates. And whenever we feel this, such a sense of the vanity of our voluntary career comes over us, that all our morality appears but a plaster hiding a sore it can never cure, and all our well-doing as the hollowest substitute for that well¬being that our lives ought to be grounded in, but, alas! are not. This well-being is the object of the religious demand,—a demand so penetrating and unassuageable that no consciousness of such occasional and outward well-doing as befalls the human lot can ever give it satisfaction. On the other hand, to satisfy the religious de¬mand is to deny the demands of the moralist…. So that of religion and moralism, the morbid and the healthy view, it may be said that what is meat to the one is the other’s poison. Any absolute moral¬ism is a pluralism; any absolute religion is a monism. . . . The ac¬cord of moralism and religion is superficial, their discord radical. Only the deepest thinkers on both sides see that one must go.
James was a moralist who gave a great deal of his time and intel¬lectual energy to the business of trying to understand religion. But although he believed in the legitimacy of the religious response to the universe, he was never able to attain its consolation for himself. All his efforts to make contact with God, or to enter into what he could regard as a spiritual state of mind, were unsuccessful. “My personal position is simple,” he wrote two years after the publica¬tion of The Varieties of Religious Experience to one of the book’s crit¬ics. “I have no living sense of commerce with God.” And then, in an understatement: “I envy those who have, for I know that the addi¬tion of such a sense would help me greatly.”
This is why treating the Renouvier episode as a response to a spiritual crisis is a disservice to James. James thought that philoso¬phy could never be an adequate response to despair, because he thought that philosophy begins and ends with the recognition of its own inadequacy. Philosophy is a moralism: it is for people who feel strong enough to face the universe on its own terms, knowing that there is, in the end, nothing to back them up, nothing to guarantee that their vote will be counted. “A philosopher has publicly re¬nounced the privilege of trusting blindly which every simple man owns as a right,” James wrote in 1873, in the final entry in his diary, “—and my sight is not always clear enough for such constant duty.” He went on, of course, to write a great deal of philosophy, but he could do it only when he felt healthy enough to face the abyss, and he always expressed pleasure when he could take a break from it. Gertrude Stein’s anecdote about the final exam she took in James’s course when she was his student at Harvard is well known. “Dear Professor James,” she claims she wrote on the exam, “I am so sorry but I really do not feel a bit like an examination paper in phi¬losophy to-day.” The next day, she says, she received a note from James. “Dear Miss Stein,” he wrote, “I understand perfectly how you feel I often feel like that myself,” and he gave her the highest mark in the course. Gertrude Stein was not above autobiographi¬cal embellishment, but this story is probably truer than it seems. She had understood the lesson. James knew that philosophy was not enough. But it was all he had.
James was a beloved figure—not just a man whose writings other people found inspiring, but someone more personally affecting than that. He was adored even by people, such as Bertrand Russell, who detested his philosophical views. After James’s death, many of these people, both the inspired and the uninspired, struggled to explain what it was about James that had made him such a genuine and irresistible character. For there was a side of James that is not captured in his writing, as colloquial and highly inflected with per¬sonality as it is.
In his work, James can sometimes seem to be expounding, with too much bravado, a kind of can-do, self-help attitude toward life, to be suggesting that the answer to most of our problems is just to drop our philosophical worry-bones and get on with the business of mak¬ing and doing. Many readers since James’s time have complained that the pragmatism and pluralism he promoted are not enough, that life confronts us with some situations that call for a different sort of response. But no one knew this better than James. It is the poignancy of his life that he never found, for himself, that other sort of response. He created a philosophy of hope expressly premised on the understanding that there is, finally, no reason for hope. This is why reading Renouvier was not a cure, and it is why the experience with the epileptic patient is attributed to someone else. James was too wise to believe that true melancholy can ever be overcome by a theory, and he was too honest to pretend to a spiritual satisfaction he was never able to feel.
John Jay Chapman was one of the readers whom James’s writ¬ings failed to inspire, but he loved James anyway, and in his memoir he put into words the quality others searched for: “There was, in spite of his playfulness, a deep sadness about James. You felt that he had just stepped out of this sadness in order to meet you, and was to go back in the moment you left him.” What lends authenticity to his philosophy is not its triumph over the unhappiness in his own life, but its failure.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*