The Dynamic Individualism of William James. By James Pawelski

Book Review

The Dynamic Individualism of William James. By James Pawelski, Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2007, Pp.i-xiii, 1-185. $60.00.
    James Pawelski’s The Dynamic Individualism of William James is a refreshing invitation to read William James as a reasonable thinker interested in bringing the various features of human experience into working concert. Pawelski does not suggest that James attempts to “clean up the litter” found in his philosophical endeavors. The litter is, after all, an important feature of our experience itself. But he does resist the various attempts to fragment James’s thought—and James himself—into compartmentalized warring factions. The compartmentalized or “divided” James story has a long history and Pawelski addresses several of the prominent versions including those of Julius Bixler’s 1926 Religion in the Philosophy of William James and Richard Gale’s more recent The Divided Self of William James. In the former, Bixler insists that James is caught between what he calls “moralism” and genuine religious experience. In the latter, Gale argues that James is caught between trying to be a Promethean pragmatist and an experiential mystic. Ironically, as Pawelski notes, the divided, compartmentalized James stories are highly analytic and systematic, and are constructed out of the very sharp sorts of dividing lines whose deployment James routinely resisted.
    The virtue of Pawelski’s approach is his own receptivity to James’s texts and his willingness to take seriously James’s suggestion that philosophers seek to express a vision in their work, even when they do not articulate a carefully closed system of thought. In short, Pawelski listens carefully to James’s words before offering interpretation. Unlike Gale, Richard Rorty, and others, he does not set out on a mission to advise James concerning what he ought to have said or thought. In contrast, consider by way of example Gale’s claim that “James would be well advised to abandon this attempt to placate the realist and openly admit that his morally based analysis of epistemological concepts is highly revisionary of our common sense concepts and beliefs concerning belief-acceptance and truth” (Gale, p. 12). Indeed, the giving of the advice in this instance suggests a rather strong misreading of James’s quasi-Peircean understanding of truth as a developing relation. In Pawelski’s work there is less flippancy and more respectful consideration of the texts at hand. 2
    The structure of Pawelski’s argument is pretty straightforward. He takes the image of the psychological reflex action model, to which he believes James is committed, as a guide to his Jamesian story. The reflex model is constituted of three moments that stand in relations of reciprocal dependence to each other: perception, conception, and volition. Pawelski uses the model to argue that the various compartmentalized-James theses derive from attending to one or two of these moments to the exclusion of the others. Indeed, Pawelski acknowledges that, especially in his early work, James often focuses on one of these moments to a degree that the others might seem eliminable. For example, the will to believe angle seems to champion volition to the exclusion of intellectual, conceptual activity. In The Varieties of Religious Experience, on the other hand, we find a dramatic emphasis on the perceptual, where religious geniuses neither need to will their beliefs nor bother to conceptualize them. After establishing the various forms of opposition of the moments over the course of the middle chapters of the book, Pawelski turns to what he calls his “integrative thesis” of James’s individualism. Bringing a variety of texts to bear on the issue, he tries to show that especially in his later years James intentionally worked to bring the three moments of the reflex action model into a working relationship. Pawelski begins by rejecting the dichotomizing readings of James. Versus Gale’s “divided self blues” he suggests that “the interplay of the Promethean and the mystical . . . is not only possible but also necessary for human flourishing” (p. 130). He concludes by developing an exemplary story of how perception, conception, and will all play roles in mediating the real but distinct human experiences of epiphany—insightful instances of experience–and mundanity—habituated everyday conduct. The upshot is that Jamesian individualism is not perceptual solipsism, political rugged individualism, nor ontological isolationism. Rather, James’s radical empiricism and pluralistic panpsychism place the individual in a relational context that reaches out beyond the merely personal. This context includes history so that individuality is always dynamic and developing. But this relational context, in being pluralistic, falls short of the various forms of scientistic and religious absolutism that would consume the individual. Pawelski’s James, in short, is not bi-polar, but is contingently and fruitfully triadic and mediating. Not an absolute either/or, but a tentative and working both/and. “The individualism that arises from James’s integrated self,” he maintains, “brings together the volitional individualism of the Will to Believe and Principles and the perceptual individualism of Varieties” (p. 125). 3
    There are occasional moments in the text where Pawelski himself is tempted by the sorts of discrete categories proposed by Bixler and Gale. And there are moments when he stretches texts in directions he would like them to go. But on the whole he remains sensitive to James’s own sense of receptivity, and he does not try to dominate the Jamesian texts. The story he tells is not seamless, nor is it meant to be. He reveals the tensions with which James ultimately seems willing to live, but he does not let these tensions slide into bifurcations of a more radical sort in ways that James himself did not authorize. 4
    The Dynamic Individualism of William James starts off slowly—a bit mechanical and methodical. In the middle sections the prose becomes more animated as Pawelski takes on what he takes to be some serious misreadings of James. The final chapters are, I think, even livelier as Pawelski works to explicate and explore his own vision of Jamesian individualism. In the course of this exploration, he comes to his previously noted distinction between the epiphanic and the mundane. The distinction is useful for describing the kind of mediating position Pawelski has to offer. But it is suggestive of more. In working this distinction off-handedly through the history of western thought, Pawelski reveals that he has more to say in this direction and that James, at this juncture, is a vehicle for his own thinking. In showing the kind of work James’s individualism can achieve, Pawelski also suggests that one might take this individualism well beyond James into a variety of issues concerning the conduct of life. Thus, as good as this book is in carefully presenting a vision of James as integrating the strands of his work and interests, one hopes that Pawelski might, in some subsequent work, kick away the Jamesian ladder and develop his own mediation of the epiphanic and the mundane. 5
Work Cited

Gale, Richard M.. The Divided Self of William James. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Doug Anderson
Department of Philosophy
Southern Illinois University at Carbondale

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