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NOTES ON WILLIAM JAMES

In William James’s writing, definition and description coincide. They press against previous definition, previous description. There is little or no difference between description and definition, since what is essential from one point of view may be accidental from another, and even this distinction may have nothing to with it. All accounts are ad hoc, never exhaustive.

When James asks the pragmatic question, “What difference does it make?” he means, what does it make possible in addition to what it is, what it was, and what it will definitely already be, thus stated or put. He means, what possibility will it make? What right of supplement can I claim?

How can you tell a pragmatist? By his or her sentence openers: “It is nevertheless true that”; “the fact is”; “the truth is”; “it isn’t true to say”; “clearly”; “absolutely”; “for my purposes here”; “I confine myself for the time being”; “but that is another story.”

When James got tired of explaining and defending pragmatism’s theory of truth, in about 1906, he sought out earthquakes and spoke of wars “having their way.” He saw that when humanism hasn’t been making war, or justifying war, it has been a moral equivalent of war.

For James, the practical is always for the ideal. Passivity is sometimes practical, sometimes ideal. James insisted that any vocabulary of action and work existed in a world in which we are more acted on and worked on than acting and working—just as our cars spend more time parked than on the road.

James’s voice is plaintive, passionate, patient, passive.

The literal for James always figured something words couldn’t get at, the given.

Too much has been made of James’s influence on poets without taking into account what he wrote to C.E. Norton in 1907: “I had always supposed myself to ‘hate’ English poetry, because I had never been able to finish reading a poem. You have shown me that the fault lies with the poets, and not with me—they can’t finish their own poems. That lets me out, and I agree with you perfectly! I don’t know Qullier-Couch’s collection, but I think the Golden Treasury a dreadful thing in the main (I don’t mean that there is no good in it!)—it is so inhuman. Have you seen a little book, Les cent meilleurs poemes francais? It seems to me, objectively speaking, superior to any English collection. . . . But I have to admit at the outset that I am poetry-deaf.

The higher, the better, the more: these are the pieties of William James; these are his values. He makes them outstanding through repetition. He likes the figure of polyptoton in particular, the repetition of words derived from the same root. He repeats by typography and punctuation. He further repeats by varying prepositions. He repeats different verbs in the same syntactical position—all for the more, the better, the higher of the same.

James blamed the writing act itself for uneasiness, distortion, falsification, omission, obscurity, hollowness, haste, and incompetence. James could not separate the writing act from vehemence. He was an animal about writing, by turns ant, cuttlefish, coyote, crab, bird. “Our mental life,” he wrote, “like a bird’s life, seems to be made of an alternation of flights and perchings. The rhythm of language expresses this, where every thought is expressed in a sentence, and every sentence closed by a period.” This view of language is practically obscured by everything outside of the essay it’s expressed in, and refuted by what James goes on to say in “On Some Omissions from Introspective Psychology,” where his view of grammar is fairly traditional. Alexander Bain: “Speech is made up of separate sayings, each complete in itself, and containing several words; and these sayings are SENTENCES.” James’s idea in “On Some Omissions” is that “immense tracts” of our bird’s life have not been expressed in sentences by the people who attend to such things, “our most approved psychological authorities.” They overlook, and falsify in doing so our mental life.

James took his image of “the stream of thought” from Bain’s The Emotions and the Will. But Bain’s interest is in the “number . . . of distinct ideas that pass through the mind at any given time.” James looks at the entire stream as it seems to rest or run, wade in itself or wash itself away, pool, float, rip, run counter to itself, or seem to.

Isn’t everyone a pragmatist in literary criticism? Doesn’t the critic come out saying how it works and what it’s known as and what it amounts to—practically, but not quite? Ideally, ideas are actually true and literally endless wellsprings of properties. In practice, practically, ideas terminate in us; we are the tone they take; they are the phantom of an attitude of ours. (Hume said that “all probable reasoning is nothing but a species of sensation.”) Pragmatism, James said in 1904, is “a method of conducting discussions,” nothing more or less. But this is what he didn’t say in 1904: that he liked to end discussions; liked to say the word that came home, went home, drove home, hit home, struck home—the last word.

 
   

 

A BEDROOM OCCUPATION BY MARK SCOTT

Paperback: 86 pages
Publisher: Lumen Books
(June 1, 2007)
ISBN: 0930829646

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TACTILE VALUES BY MARK SCOTT

Paperback: 86 pages
Publisher:
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Poetry Series
ISBN: 0932826911

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