FIRST ACT OF FREE WILL

William James in 1858, age 16
From William James Page

Henry James, age 20-21,
app. 1863
From William James Page

On April 29, 1870 William James, after reading an essay by French philosopher Charles Renouvier, decided that “My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.” This brought an end to a personal crisis of depression and marked the beginning of James’s own brand of psychology. Some Problems of Philosophy, is his start on a systematic treatise for metaphysics which offered his own unique philosophical perspectives.
Horace M. Kallen, a student of James and another young philosopher, Ralph Barton Perry edited this last work of James.
James begins, The progress of society is due to the fact that individuals vary from the human average in all sorts of directions, and that the originality is often so attractive or useful that they are recognized by their tribes as leaders, and become objects of envy or admiration, and setters of new ideals.
The problem convenient to take up next in order will be that of the difference between thoughts and things. ‘Things’ are known to us by our senses, and are called ‘presentations’ by some authors, to distinguish them from the ideas or ‘representations’ which we may have when our senses are closed. Sensation and thought in man are mingled, but they vary independently.
James quoted Malebranche, Nicholas (1638-1715), Cartesian Philosopher, Platonic Idealist, “Your sensational modalities, writes one of these, are but darkness, remember that. Mount higher, up to reason, and you will see light. Impose silence on your senses, your imagination, and your passions, and you will then hear the pure voice of interior truth, the clear and evident replies of our common mistress (reason). …. We must follow reason despite the caresses, the threats and the insults of the body to which we are conjoined, despite the action of the objects that surround us…. I exhort you to recognize the difference there is between knowing and feeling, between our clear ideas, and our sensations always obscure and confused.”
James goes on to say, No real thing can be in two relations at once; the same moon, for example, cannot be seen both by you and by me. For the concept ‘seen by you’ is not the concept ‘seen by me’; and if, taking the moon as a grammatical subject and, predicating one of these concepts of it, you then predicate the other also, you become guilty of the logical sin of saying that a thing can both be A and not A at once. Learned trifling again; for clear though the conceptual contradictions be, nobody sincerely disbelieves that two men see the same thing.
Black in the coat and black in the shoe are the same in so far forth as both shoe and coat are called black — the fact that on this view the name can never twice be the ‘same’ being quite overlooked. What now does the concept ‘same’ signify? Applying, as usual, the pragmatic rule, we find that when we call two objects the same we mean either (a) that no difference can be found between them when compared, or (b) that we can substitute the one for the other in certain operations without changing the result. If we are to discuss sameness profitably we must bear these pragmatic meanings in mind.
Do then the snow and the paper show no difference in color? And can we use them indifferently in operations? They may certainly replace each other for reflecting light, or be used indifferently as backgrounds to set off anything dark, or serve as equally good samples of what the word ‘white’ signifies. But the snow may be dirty, and the paper pinkish or yellowish without ceasing to be called ‘white’; or both snow and paper in one light may differ from their own selves in another and still be ‘white,’ — so the no-difference criterion seems to be at fault. This physical difficulty (which all house painters know) of matching two tints so exactly as to show no difference seems to be the sort of fact that nominalists have in mind when they say that our ideal meanings are never twice the same. Must we therefore admit that such a concept as ‘white’ can never keep exactly the same meaning?
Even if our desires be an unconditional causal factor in the only part of the universe where we are intimately acquainted with the way creative work is done, desire is anything but a close factor, even there. The part of the world to which our desires lie closest is, by the consent of physiologists, the cortex of the brain. If they act causally, their first effect is there, and only through innumerable neural, muscular, and instrumental intermediaries is that last effect which they consciously aimed at brought to birth. Our trust in the face-value of perception was apparently misleading.
(Some Problems of Philosophy, 1911, with review by Doug Renselle at Quantonics, Inc.)

 

William James,
photograph taken by Mrs. Montgomery Sears,
circa 1894-95
From William James Page

William James in 1907
Photo taken for Harvard University
m ’69 denotes that he received his medical degree in 1869
From William James Page

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