William James and Philosophy

There are at least two things you should know about William James’s philosophical views.  The first concerns his so-called “thoroughgoing dualism” in the Principles of Psychology.  At times James is an epistemological dualist, with the aim of psychology to explain the cognitive relation between a knower and what it knows.  But at other times James appears to be a metaphysical dualist, with psychology aiming to explain the causal relation between physical things and mental (brain) states.  The Stream of Thought chapter from the Principles, the best example of how contrary James’s observations of consciousness run against positivism, makes much more sense in the context of epistemological, and not metaphysical, dualism.  To understand the Principles you need to understand how psychology-as-epistemology differs from psychology-as-metaphysics.

Secondly, does James regard psychology as an exclusively “person-centered” science?  Now it’s only in maybe the past fifty years that philosophers began to widen their view of consciousness beyond its purely “cognitive” content by recognizing emotions, desires, etc.  James, quite purposely I think, blurred the usual distinctions between thoughts and feelings, so that we might not identify “thought” solely with the cognitive, or “feeling” with the noncognitive, aspects of conscious awareness.  We have cognitive feelings, too – feelings of ‘if,’ of ‘and,’ of ‘with’ – not unlike our sensory awareness of, say, a patch of blue.  So it’s important to not misconstrue James’s term “feeling” in an exclusively emotive way.  Consider what sort of notion of person is at work in the Principles.  Clearly, any adequate science must be “subjective” or “personal” to believe in its hypotheses, at least enough if for no other reason than to be able to test them.  But to what extent?  The “cure,” if you will, is not simply to give ourselves over to the subjective pole of experience once and for all, but to provide an account that accommodates both subject and object poles of experience.  James’s radical empiricism sets out to do precisely this.  If the intent of a “person-centered” science is only to discard one pole of experience for the other, then it makes the same mistake positivism makes – just in the opposite direction.

That “More-Than-Me” Feeling

It happened one day on the bus coming home from work.  We’re barreling northbound on Lake Shore Drive, a pleasant spring day, a mass of eighty folks give or take, sitting, standing, or otherwise occupying the crowded articulated bus.

While not diagnosed as “borderline autistic,” I am intensely introverted; it feels like I’m imprisoned within myself every waking moment of my existence.  It doesn’t help that I don’t have a lot of folks to interact with, but even when I do, often I’m still overly self-conscious, unable to let my guard down enough for other individuals to register upon my awareness.

On this particular ride I was standing fairly close to the very back of the bus, for the longest time just looking west out the window, at the parks and the buildings rushing by.  I was bound up solely within my own awareness – had you been in my head, you wouldn’t have known that anyone was anywhere in any direction – that’s just how tunnel-like my awareness usually is.

For some reason, I recalled a conversation I had a long time ago with one of my grad school mentors, a very likeable, gregarious individual, an extrovert’s extrovert, with the capacity to relate to others not so gifted in the social graces.  I was preparing to teach my first class the following term, going over strategies of how to keep students’ attention for seventy-five minutes at a time twice a week.

I was irked that we spent any time talking about this.  It’s the student’s job to pay attention – entirely up to them, not me.  Whereupon my mentor offered this small but memorable nugget of truth:  “each of us is the star of our own show.”  This gave me a lifeline to get out of my own head; I knew that I was the star of my show – but it had never occurred to me that the exact same thing is going on again and again and again, with every single person on the planet:  each one of us living our lives, each one of us the lead actor on the stage of our own conscious awareness.

“Each of us is the star of our own show.”  I shifted my glance northward, looking up the long aisle of riders, and seeing – everyone, experienced all at once, each bound up in their own show, and now a seamless, single piece of cloth, an “all-at-once” that I never experienced before.  And it wasn’t a “we” or an “us” feeling – any sense of selves, singular, plural, or otherwise, just wasn’t part of the experience.

It was a “more-than-me” feeling.

What Is Your Intention?

When I meditate, I’m asked to notice sensation (“what is your body telling you right now?”), emotion (“what feelings are you experiencing right now?”), and intention (“why are you doing this?”)

The “intention” question strikes at the heart of my Catholic-upbringing, seminary-reinforced idea of meditation.  Within that context, meditation is solely a spiritual exercise, a practice one develops to recognize the larger world oozing and overflowing with God’s joy, love and happiness.

Since then I’ve re-imagined meditation in more exclusively “secular” or “humanistic” ways.  Spiritual meditation is a whole lot like secular “meditation,” although the latter is probably better cast under the term “reflection.”

Reflection, I believe, is a common arena shared by this world and the more-than-this world, where the immanent and the transcendent picnic together, get to know one another.  My move from seminary to philosophy shifted my attention from what it must be like for the other-world picnickers to what it’s like for the picnickers here and now.

But the reflection involved in critical analysis aims to be a purely cognitive activity; noncognitive elements such as joy, pain, suffering, passion, and love are impurities that contaminate thinking.  You could recognize them as variables, but only as other phenomena or experience to bracket, to set aside, so that the horse of reason has full throttle of your investigations.

Daily meditations have allowed me to accept these other aspects of my experience, to value them as much as thinking.  One of meditation’s key assumptions is that the mind tends to be so agitated, so intent on ignoring the emotional AND the physical, that we lose contact with these other core parts of being human.

The person leading the meditations said, “Keep in mind the others in your life; your intention will help you that much more when you want to do this not only for yourself but also for them.”  But not in another “self” way, as if you’re there for a bunch of selves.  What you’re there for is to become more aware of the connections between those selves, between you and your friend, between that friend and her husband, between that husband and his job, between … again and again and again.

The aim to be more mindful of these connections (rather than who or what they connect) for me proved to be a huge help in coping with, dealing with, managing my existence just a little better.

The other caveat I picked up from meditation is that, in becoming more mindful of these connections, it helps to not see yourself at the center of this vast network of connections.  Think of the solar system in relation to the Milky Way galaxy – it’s not at the center of things:  it’s a tiny dot among billions of tiny dots of a starfish swirling around a center defined by the collection of the dots.

That’s what I visualize when I’m asked, “what is your intention?”  My intention, I tell myself, is to become more mindful of the connections that make up this huge galaxy of awareness, human and more than human, me a dot among billions and billions of dots that make the swirling starfish possible in the first place.