William James and The Absolute

Jeff Carreira Blog Posts 10 Comments

In my last post I tried to evoke a sense of how far personally and culturally human beings might have to go in our own evolution in order to be able to overcome our global challenges and ultimately evolve into higher possibilities.  In a similar vein in the last chapter of his book “Pragmatism” William James attempts to evoke a sense of how far human beings might be from any Absolute Knowledge of the universe (or as Bateson put it “the way nature works”). In James’s quote he refers to his book “On the Varieties of Religious Experience.” The metaphor he uses to depict how far human understanding might be from any Absolute understanding of Truth is an evocative one.

 

“I firmly disbelieve, myself, that our human experience is the highest form of experience extant in the universe. I believe rather that we stand in much the same relation to the whole of the universe as our canine and feline pets do to the whole of human life. They inhabit our drawing-rooms and libraries. They take part in scenes of whose significance they have no inkling. They are merely tangent to curves of history the beginnings and ends and forms of which pass wholly beyond their ken. So we are tangents to the wider life of things. But, just as many of the dog's and cat's ideals coincide with our ideals, and the dogs and cats have daily living proof of the fact, so we may well believe, on the proofs that religious experience affords, that higher powers exist and are at work to save the world on ideal lines similar to our own.”

 

 

James wasn’t writing this in order to lead us to give up on Absolute Truth and lead us toward a nihilistic or materialistic worldview. He simply felt that the effort to “know” Truth Absolute was fruitless. He saw the arguments over the nature of Truth that had ensued for centuries in religious and philosophic circles were ultimately unproductive. Similarly any arguments our pets might have over our human affairs would also most certainly lead nowhere. James wasn’t a disbeliever though; he simply thought there were better justifications for our conviction in Absolute Truth than being able to prove its reality.

 

I find the image he presents worth some consideration and it relates in a sanse to what I have tried to develop in my last two posts regarding what Gregory Bateson spoke of as the gap between “The way we think” and “the way nature works.” If you think of our pets and the life they live in as tangent to the human life you see that they occupy the same world that we do. They live in the same rooms, they watch the same television programs, listen to the same music, and participate in the same conversations that we do. But there is a whole layer of our world – the conceptual layer of meaning – which they are not privy to.

 

They may sit on our laps during the evening news program and their eyes may rest on the same images on the screen, their ears vibrate to the same sound waves coming from the speaker. They are sharing our experience, but they do not understand the words being spoken, they do not know that the image on the screen is of a street in New York City and the woman looking at us and telling us about the most recent stock market results is actually located hundreds of miles away and is currently being viewed by millions of people throughout the world.

Our pets share our world, but they don’t share our worldview. They may draw conclusions about the images that flicker on the screen. They may even, in moments of profound revelation, recognize that there is a relationship between those images and the sounds they hear, but any argument they get into as to what those sounds mean is not the best way to spend their time.

 

James didn’t use this analogy to express the futility of religious belief or mystical experience. He simply felt that the Mystery was in fact a Mystery and it was best to leave it that way. Rather than trying to nail that Mystery down into knowledge about the Mystery, he advocated a different kind of thinking, a pragmatic thinking, in which we examine not our beliefs about what is true, but the realities about how our beliefs lead us to act and what the results of those actions actually are.

 

In the meandering movement of American Philosophy (as in philosophy in general) there has always been a tension between opposing poles; pragmatic thinking and romantic thinking, empiricism and idealism, scientific and traditional, Plato and Aristotle etc. The history of American thinking has tended to result in the carving out of an alternative possibility between these two poles. Exploring these alternatives, or the path of one developing alternative, is what this blog is devoted to.   

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Brian Fleming
Brian Fleming
11 years ago

James: “…that higher powers exist and are at work to save the world on ideal lines similar to our own.”

Does this call out our anthropomorphic tendency to infer purposes in natural phenomena where there are none (i.e. evolutionary telos)?

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
11 years ago

It might. My understanding of James is that he would say that if a person’s inferences about life lead to actions that have more beneficial result then they are true. They are not true because that reflect some absolute truth, but because actions based on them are of benefit. On the other hand if believing that there are no such inferences to be made is beneficial then that is true. Some might complain that this could lead to a situation in which something was true for one person and not true for another. James wanted to call the place we… Read more »

Barry Vennard
Barry Vennard
11 years ago

James seems to compare the comprehension that dogs and cats have of human beings and their activities as an example of the comprehension human beings have of the universe. The dog and cat example seems based on a fairly stable, unchanging comprehension capacity of animals. As you say, Jeff, they will likely never increase their understanding of the TV. Spiral dynamics seems to reveal a very different kind of comprehension capacity for human beings. It ‘s likely that humans comprehension will continue to unfold and expand. That makes me question the validity of his comparison. I would also agree with… Read more »

imants
imants
11 years ago

William Wordsworth in the 18 th century wrote so beautifully about the ‘ Mystery of man ” meaning the mystery of life and that we human beings are but vehicles of the One Mind, the One intelligence of the Universe and wrote ” Now too, while o’er the heart we feel A tender twilight softly steal… The heart, when pass’d the Vision by. Dissolves, nor knows for whom or why.” In another poem “Lines” he says, “While with an eye made quiet by the power Of harmony, and the deep power of joy, We see into the life of things.”… Read more »

imants
imants
11 years ago

Continuation of my blog..
Wordsworth would from my almost life long reading of his poems and his life story agree with you Jeff that we must aspire to a conscious higher order of integrity and spirit to create a new and evolutionary spirit based worldview that filters all our experiences and leads to wholesome action. .

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
11 years ago

Barry: as you rightly point out James’s metaphor (as with all metaphors) breaks down pretty quickly. If James were teaching today it is likely that he would be teaching something completely different. What he felt strongly about was that very brilliant people were engaged is what he felt were arguements that could go nowhere, when they could be engaged in the pursuit of the creation of a real and immediate new and better future. This progressive attitude carries through to John Dewey, but is challenged after the first and then second World Wars when faith in “progress” began to diminish… Read more »

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
11 years ago

Imants, Emerson was part of the movement in America which grew out of the English Romanticism that Wordsworth was a leading figure of. Thank you for bringing his genius into this conversation.

Dave Pendle
11 years ago

Jeff This my first read of your blog and I find it very educational!! I have long since felt an unfulfilled need to have more in depth knowledge of the philosophical and cultural underpinnings of an evolutionary world view. Not having time to read all the materials is a huge barrier, however informed and critcal perspectives as portrayed in this blog are essential, as we can educate each other without having to read every book especially as you’re reading these ones!! The example of the animals draws to mind the recent debate/discussion in London between Rupert Sheldrake and Andrew Cohen… Read more »

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
10 years ago

Anyone who observes animals knows they display a lot of wisdom that we humans may be tempted to be impressed with and give more credit than is given. Being higher up in evolutionary development, the love and respect we give to the forms lower on the chain of development is all fine and good but with due respect to them, I feel humans shouldn’t be too sentimental or read too much in their abilities. Yes, we can learn from animals but shouldn’t feel our capacities when developed are lacking.

Ray
Ray
6 years ago

I started thinking about James and his “dogs and cats” quote after the recent death of my longtime friend, my dog. Maybe we humans — maybe as James suggests and maybe James was — are a bit arrogant in conceiving that our capacity to conceptualize, to frame reality in some sense that we “feel” actually approaches that reality, makes us that much superior. I wonder if my dog’s barks and whimpers were that much less “meaningful” than my words, if my dog’s mental world was really any less vivid than my own. I mean, just because she was so nose-centric… Read more »