Friday, December 28, 2007

Bad Dreams

Note: This essay comments on William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism, by Robert D. Richardson (Boston, 2006) from the perspective of Robert M. Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality. [1] I have argued in the Initial Essay and in other posts on this site that I don’t think that the Metaphysics of Quality is a continuation or revival in any sense of James’s radical empiricism or pragmatism and that I think it is a mistake to see it in that light. It is true that both James and Pirsig see the subject-object division as an obstacle, discount it, and do not regard it as fundamental. The difference between James and Pirsig is that in Pirsig’s philosophy the subject-object division is in the rear-view mirror while in James’s philosophy it looms ahead in the glare of headlights announcing the collision with Pure Experience which is just about to take place. The subject-object issue occupies a different position in these respective philosophies because of their different relationship to Modernism and modernist premises. The Metaphysics of Quality values the coherent ordering of experience and may be seen as an important step on the way to this achievement. It is truly post-modernist in this sense, if we see Modernism as the attempt to break down and loosen constraining forms.


I could be bounded by a nutshell and count myself king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams. – Hamlet

Character is destiny. Heraclitus

The study of biography is a particular branch of the Metaphysics of Quality. If Quality, as Pirsig says, is the original experience which gives rise to subject and object, we may have a Quality feeling for biography when we see it as the total expression of the thoughts and circumstances of the individual. Sometimes we are able to discern in the events in someone’s life a kind of mirroring of that individual’s inner life of thought, a particular “fittingness” that Keats meant when he said the life of any man of worth is an allegory.

One of the incidents in the life of William James as recounted by his biographer expresses quite clearly this “allegorical” mirroring of thought and event. At least I believe that seeing it this way is warranted from the point of view of the Metaphysics of Quality. To read events in this way is to see them not as mere “happenstance” but more along the lines of traditionalist considerations of character as destiny, as Heraclitus put it. However, this view of happenstance or circumstance challenges the “psychologizing” of experience typical of subject-object metaphysics. Psychologized or subjectivized experience does not really take account of the domain of Quality. It does not see how thought has a structuring or formative influence on individual and social life, and in this sense it denies the objectivity of thought and how thought forms our circumstantial world. [2] Or on the other hand it can objectify too much and fail to see how thoughts are a result of our freedom to choose and how choice plays into the kinds of thoughts we have. Or it may yet take still another tack and exaggerate the factor of will, as if to reduce thought to willpower alone and thus return to Biological Quality (or less flatteringly, re-barbarization).

The point is that there are as many ways of doing philosophy as there are of interpreting the relation between thought and life – and all of them have all been tried! But basically any extreme polarization of thought-will vs. thing-event or subject-object makes it difficult to see why we should think at all, for the extremes are linked only in an external way, i.e. through control or helplessness. “Power over nature” has historically been a strong theme in the development of subject-object metaphysics. The opposite of this view is determinism. But neither of these alternatives expresses a possibility for thinking as Quality. Things happen to us without our control. That is the meaning of circumstances. Yet there must be an intrinsic relation between thought and life which enables us to perceive Quality. Do we think, or do we only think that we think? Events deliver a punch that no amount of rationalization can accomplish. Events reveal our thinking to us. The action in philosophy is not what philosophy does, it is what life does to us through our philosophy. I believe something like this unambiguous message from events came about in the life of William James.

The last ten years in the life of William James were a fruitful and fulfilling period, bringing many of his ideas into public recognition and appreciation. He gave his first set of Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh in 1901, at age 59, to much acclaim. These lectures were to form The Varieties of Religious Experience, James’ most popular book and the one about which, he said, he received more letters than all of his other works combined. There must have been something congenial in that late-Edwardian crest of civilized life with James’ favorable (if, as it seems to me at times, superficial) attitude toward religion, conversion, mysticism, healthy-mindedness. It was all very wonderful to hear that religion, after all, was basically a good thing when you get down to it.

I do not really mean to make light of James. For at the very high tide of philosophical materialism here was a most thoughtful and energetic American speaking to the late heirs of the Enlightenment about the mother-lode of mysticism in the soul as the fountainhead of religious experience. Although James might have benefited from a discourse on Dynamic and Static Quality – he didn’t have much use for static-quality manifestations like dogmatic theology and ecclesiastical institutions – still, it was a new opening on something that, for many modernists, is often a sore subject. The capstone of these lectures were the five lectures on saintliness, in which James put forth his view of the significance of Voluntary Poverty.

His biographer writes: “Nothing in William James’ life that we know about prepares us for this emphasis on voluntary poverty. Yet his language, his insistence on that word ‘mystery,’ convinces us that we are seeing as far into the real man as we ever can. His undisguised admiration for the inner strength and self-command of the person who voluntarily accepts poverty brings him back to the subject again at the very end of the five-lecture unit... where he makes a startling proposal: ‘What we now need to discover in the social realm is the moral equivalent of war... May not voluntarily accepted poverty be 'the strenuous life’ without the need of crushing weaker peoples?’” (p. 411-2)

Following the first of the Gifford Lectures, James was actively engaged in his project of Radical Empiricism, which one can call the attempt to put philosophy on pure Dynamic Quality alone. “All classic, clean, cut and dried, noble, fixed, eternal worldviews seem to me to violate the character which life concretely comes… and novelty and possibility forever leaking in.” Well, yes, but as Pirsig formidably and concisely remarked, it is impossible for life to exist on pure Dynamic Quality alone. The same must be true of philosophy, in which it would even be impossible to perceive such as thing as ‘novelty’ without some background of stability with which to compare it.

Radical Empiricism eventually took second place to pragmatism, but James was still working on it in connection with the idea of “Pure experience” before he took his trip to Stanford in late 1905 to deliver another set of lectures. The problem with Pure Experience as a philosophical doctrine is that it cannot explain how minds can arrive at a world in common. Also, how is experience experienced?– this just dissipates the act of thinking into an indefinite series of experiences, perhaps into a sort of infinite regress. These problems seem to have led to the abandonment of Radical Empiricism, although the biographer comments that Radical Empiricism’s main ideas – consciousness as a process, objects are bundles of relations, and all we have to go on is experience – were accepted as fundamental notions of pragmatism. But Radical Empiricism did not let go of James easily. It clawed its way into his dreams.

Upon his arrival in Stanford, James notes some problems sleeping. In February 12-13, 1906, he is assaulted by a series of strange and frightening dreams – interwoven yet disconnected, which left him thoroughly shaken. He wrote in his journal: “… I seemed thus to belong to three different dream-systems at once, no one of which would connect itself either with the others or my waking life. I began to feel curiously confused and scared, and tried to wake myself up wider, but I seemed already wide-awake.” As a testimony of pure experience without mediating structure, James’ description of his bad dreams is as good a definition of what Radical Empiricism actually feels like is as good as we can get. I don’t think James connected the dreams to his philosophy – if he did, his biographer doesn’t note it – and in fact his only way of assimilating the experience was to “psychologize” it. He was much taken with a psychology book that talked about “dissociated conscious states,” and later Erik Erikson speculated that James had had an episode of “acute identity confusion.” In the understanding of that time – and ours – few are likely to see in these bad dreams the symbolized expression of an inadequate metaphysics. But in Quality biography, no experience can be tossed outside the sphere of thought – just as no thought can be utterly divorced from experience.

But more to the point, could pragmatism deliver the goods – that is, do what it claimed to do – which is, understand an experience or an object by means of its effects, fruits, results? If it defines the truth as “what works,” what works as an account of these dreams, what is their pragmatic interpretation? [3] I don’t see that pragmatism is able to satisfy these questions. Bad dreams did not lead James to any radical questioning, second thoughts, deeper insights or new directions. They seem not to have provoked a crisis, and they did not lead to any permanent disability. What some might take as a warning from the gods, James, while admitting to being shook up, seemed to see in them no more than a momentary strangeness, a ripple in the process of consciousness. [4]

My reasons for believing that pragmatism is ultimately unable to win fruitfulness from experience do not lie solely in the area of “the interpretation of dreams.” I was quite struck to read that at age 68, in January, 1910, James published his essay, “The Moral Equivalent of War,” yet with an argument totally recast from his earlier version of it in The Varieties of Religious Experience. Not only did he drop the idea of Voluntary Poverty, this new essay advocated that young people should be universally conscripted to work in coal and iron mines, on roads and tunnel-building. The idea of asceticism or renunciation had wholly disappeared. It’s get with the program, onward and upward, all hands on deck, utopia’s around the corner, time to get down to business. Whatever you want to call it – and it’s not that this program is necessarily or logically bad, it’s just that it represents the complete opposite of his earlier view. Given the biographer’s own amazement at this earlier view and the fact that he felt the “real James” was present in it, how do we understand this turn-around? Is this new view of conscripted optimism the real James too? Where does this enthusiasm for coerced togetherness of youth in the cause of labor and conquest of the continent by will come from? I cannot read his words, especially in light of their complete contrast with his former ones, without a sort of shudder at the technological nightmares soon to be unleashed in the trenches of the First World War. The mania for building, consuming, using up and exploiting was, as it were, baptized by James in this utter betrayal of his earlier views. If the Devil got to him through his dreams, and bent his mind through philosophy, who in his inner pragmatic-empiricist circle or outer circle of acquaintances comprised of séance-sitters and New Thought enthusiasts, would even suggest it, much less take the idea seriously? Martin Luther was the last one to take the Devil seriously and threw his inkpot at him. But James didn’t throw even as much as an inkpot, and even compounded his complacency by taking pride that his Pragmatism was a new kind of protestant revolution.

I don’t know and can’t guess what place James’ bad dreams may have played in this “renunciation of renunciation.” But if, as a famous German proverb has it, “There is no culture without asceticism,”[5] James’s renouncing of his earlier view takes on a larger significance. In essence, apart from whatever it may be in religion, the act of renunciation or the path of asceticism is to leave an opening for Dynamic Quality. It is the refusal to consume experience, it is to make allowance for the future, the give a gift of inexperienced, chaste being, either for oneself or for others.

In any case, quite in contrast to subjectivist or psychologized interpretations, I see in William James’ “bad dreams” a spiritual crisis which he was in some sense unable to meet. Two months after James said No! to the angel of his dreams, the San Francisco region was struck by a powerful earthquake. Any connection? Any meaning? -- of course not! -- not to minds mired in subject-object literalism. Only on the level of parable – or Quality, does the whole series of inner and outer events begin to resemble another poet’s words: “In dreams begin responsibilities…” [6]

[1] As enunciated in his two books, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974) and Lila (1991)
[2] Richard Weaver had to write a whole book reminding us of an idea that Christianity was developing for two thousand years – the idea that Ideas Have Consequences (1930).
[3] “To attain perfect clearness in our thoughts of an object, then, we need only consider what conceivable effects of a practical kind the object may involve – what sensations we are to expect from it, and what reactions we must prepare. Our conception of these effects … is for us the whole of our conception of an object.”
Also: A pragmatist turns his back on “abstraction, insufficiency, verbal solutions, bad a priori reasons, fixed principles, closed systems, pretended absolutes and origins – and turns toward concreteness, adequacy, facts, action and power.”
[4] My objection to process philosophy is that it obscures the role of moral decision and action. I was thinking about this in connection with my own life. In 1963 my parents sent me away from Birmingham to attend a boarding school in Massachusetts. There was no particular reason that I should attend a fancy Northern prep school; the girls’ school in Birmingham that I attended was excellent. For the most part I have looked back on this boarding school episode as a mere part of the process of my life. But just through trying to think through some of James’s ideas on pragmatism, I looked back on this episode as a sort of mistake or misfortune. If I had been a little less willing to go along with the process I would have stayed in Birmingham throughout 1963-1965 and would not have missed these critical years in Birmingham's history and in the history of the civil rights era.
[5] Quoted in “Religion and the Environmental Crisis,” in The Essential Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Perennial Philosophy Series (World Wisdom) 2007. Nasr is a professor of Islamic philosophy at Georgetown and former Gifford lecturer.
[6] Line of W.B. Yeats.