A Natural History of Pragmatism: The Fact of Feeling from Jonathan Edwards to Gertrude Stein.. By Joan Richardson

Book Review


A Natural History of Pragmatism: The Fact of Feeling from Jonathan Edwards to Gertrude Stein. By Joan Richardson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Pp. ix, 327. $28.99.
    Joan Richardson’s A Natural History of Pragmatismwill come as a revelation for many contemporary readers whose only acquaintance with Pragmatism stems from tracing its early course through the natural science inclinations of Pierce, James, and Dewey. Richardson centers her text on the reciprocal relationship of language and perception for American thinkers from Jonathan Edwards and Ralph Waldo Emerson to William and Henry James to Wallace Stevens and Gertrude Stein. She places this lineage in a doubly unsettling context of the untamed American landscape and the on-going scientific advances that impelled these thinkers to invent a new relationship between language and perception. These authors explore the new territory of their eras through experiments in speaking and writing aimed at finding ways to illuminate “the fact of feeling” as a vibratory membrane between embodied persons in the new world and the legacy of linguistically encoded meanings.
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    She examines selected works of each of these explorers of human experience, and drawing on some recent discussions in cognitive science, provocatively demonstrates the sense in which they worked the pragmatic vein. Central to her argument is the Vygotskian-inspired view that language, in addition to being a means for social exchange, is critical as a tool for thinking. The artist, at his or her best, gives form to dimly perceived structures in experience, and through linguistic devices (in case of the writers) brings those structures within reach of our conceptual grasp. In this way, language becomes a tool for perceiving and thinking. The authors Richardson examines take the scientific theories of their days, which have made the world strange to received modes of being, and they transmute them through imaginative language into ways of apprehending and living in that world.
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     Richardson proposes that the challenge of engagement with the structures of experience became particularly pressing for early settlers of the New World. The Old World categories of thought proved to be less than adequate to capture the novelties, change, and palpable uncertainties they confronted in North America. In this respect, Richardson views Jonathan Edwards’ writings as a concerted effort personally to come to grips with this discontinuity between old and new, while also attempting to develop forms of expression that would bind a community in the face of new beginnings. She shows that in his searching examination of experience in the New World, Edwards drew on Newton’s experiments with light as a model for “making the invisible visible.” Newton’s shuttered room admitting only a ray of light, which after passing through a prism reveals previously hidden properties, serves as a metaphor for Edwards who creates conceptually a “room of the idea” permitting close scrutiny of experience. This infusing of science, language, and aesthetics is seen simultaneously as an effort to take account of the natural order, while also serving a ministerial function for communities taking root in their new land. These dual purposes, to varying degrees, will mark the writings of all of the individuals examined.
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    Richardson describes Emerson as turning his focus outward to experiences of nature. From the opening line of his essay “Experience” (“Where do we find ourselves?”), Emerson is presented as trying to naturalize religion by transforming regnant categories of thought through new forms of expression. In this undertaking, he was inspired in part by discoveries in science, such as Faraday’s notions of electromagnetic fields, as signs of an underlying, undulating reality. His explorations were also leavened with a Swedenborgian aesthetic, which “gave to science a beating heart” inspired by the wonder and beauty of crystals, whose complexities and varieties arise from the repetitive, iterative growth from simpler structures. 4
    Richer understanding of self and world require forms of expression that incorporate the scientific imagination and in turn enable a fuller human experience of the world in which neither man nor god is the center. At the same time, language as a device for rendering experience more concrete can itself highlight subtler aspects of experience. In The Principles of Psychology, William James’s attention to language and to the stream of thought, and specifically, to the transitions between objects of experience, laid bare the foundational place of feelings in experience. 5
    “There is not a conjunction or a preposition, and hardly an adverbial phrase, syntactic form, or inflection of voice, in human speech that does not express some shading or other of relation which we at some moment actually feel to exist between the larger objects of our thoughts. . . . We ought to say a feeling of and, a feeling of if, a feeling of but, and a feeling of by, quite as readily as we say a feeling of blue or a feeling of cold.” (James, 1890, p. 238)
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    James’s insistence on the significance of the relations between objects of experience, developed more fully in his radical empiricism, critically contributes to the abandonment of old object and image-centered categories of thinking that are bleached of activity and feeling. While our concepts provide us with a second-hand, detached assessment of the world, immediate experience is of a world of dynamic structure, aesthetics, and feelings. The Varieties of Religious Experience is James’s exploration of the fact of feeling, and with that he carries forward the Emersonian project of naturalizing religion. The structure and style of his writing itself, Richardson argues, embodied his ideas as much as described them by involving the reader in the affect-laden work of having a particular thought, a project later taken up and vastly expanded by Gertrude Stein. Richardson’s analysis of language as a tool for exploration and discovery within experience gathers momentum in her treatment of Henry James, Wallace Stevens, and Gertrude Stein. The thread linking all of these individuals is the use of linguistic forms as a tool for rendering what is invisible in experience visible. Richardson’s principle focus in her treatment of Henry James is his novel, The Ambassadors, which he considered to be among his best. Her explication of the book’s title, that she suggests was inspired by Holbein’s painting of the same name, is intriguing. This painting is perhaps best known today for its exemplary use of anamorphic representation, which appears as a blurred image from a conventional viewing point and is only recognizable as a memento mori after adopting an eccentric angle to the canvas. Typically, the language and plot of Henry James’s fiction leads the reader to the proper elliptical vantage point from which narrative events can be understood. In doing so, James opens up new ways of comprehension in times of ever-emerging complexity in the face of modernity.
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    Wallace Steven’s often opaque and challenging poetry is understood as a linguistic effort to apprehend and convey the unstable and barely imaginable reality described by the physics of Einstein’s relativity principle, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, and other early 20th quantum physicists. Stevens’ use of language in part mirrors this unfamiliar realm and the feelings it engenders “to provide satisfactions of belief within paradox and perplexity” (p. 213). Gertrude Stein’s early exposure to biological thought, first at Harvard, where she encountered William James, and later at Johns Hopkins investigating morphological structure and the transmission of inherited traits, sensitized her to replicating processes and repetitive structures that underlay the variety and unity of life. The recursive, iterative quality of natural processes is mirrored by a prose style intended to capture the feeling of thinking — linguistic form as an homology of nature’s process of becoming. The result, as Richardson puts it referring to all three of these writers, “a new vulgate for experience in a post-Darwinian creation (p. 166).”
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    What is new and exciting about this work then is Richardson’s tracing out of a different path for pragmatism that leads the reader through the humanities rather than philosophy. In the process, the influence of the shifting scientific ground on the literary imaginations of these artists cannot be overstated. These connections between the sciences and the humanities have the effect of narrowing the gulf between them that was anticipated and lamented by William James. Richardson too is inspired by contemporary developments in cognitive and neuro-science; and those connections are vital for understanding why this study indeed is a “natural history of pragmatism.” Acts of writing, more than devices for communicating, are practices of exploration and discovery, the fruits of which may provide the reader with a temporary foothold for structures of reality as they become revealed and transformed in each age. 9
    On a slightly critical note, Richardson occasionally draws connections that without elaboration seem rather speculative, such as Edwards’ recursive style resembling the structure of Bach’s Art of the Fugue, and in turn anticipating the coding and transmission processes of RNA molecules. Her interdisciplinarity sometimes leads her to borrow ideas from fields when, within these fields, some of those ideas function at odds to her point. For example, when she borrows from recent psychology she uncritically uses language that splits apart cognition and feeling, vision and the other senses, and reinforces a sort of parsed and isolated version of psychological processes. Yet the gist of her argument unites them. As psychologists, we also found it jarring for her to cite the influence of James on evolutionary psychologists such as Tooby and Cosmides who seem influenced only by James’ chapter on instincts in The Principles, and little else. In general, she does not place her use and understanding of science in the empirical but anti-positivist tradition pioneered by the James, Peirce, and Dewey. However, she takes great pains to substantiate the influence of particular scientific theories on each of the authors she examines in detail. Here, the case for the role of specific scientific advances in “the natural history of pragmatism” is convincingly made. 10
    In many places, the writing seems to be unnecessarily dense and convoluted. Too many references to too many sources often impede rather than ground the development of an idea. In spite of this, we urge readers to push ahead, for many very worthwhile insights await them. Much in the spirit of William James, Richardson reminds us “that we feel things before we think them, and that following the complicated harmony that we make of what we think, back to what we feel, gives pleasure, the strain of being” (p. 231). 11
Harry Heft
Department of Psychology
Denison University
heft@denison.edu
Susan Saegert
Center for Human Environments
Graduate Center, CUNY
SSaegert@gc.cuny.edu

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