Metaphor as Method: Charlene Haddock Seigfried’s Radical Reconstruction

Metaphor as Method: Charlene Haddock Seigfried’s Radical Reconstruction

Megan Rust Mustain

    Charlene Haddock Seigfried’s elucidation of William James’s use of metaphor stands, to my mind, as her book’s greatest achievement. For once we understand James to be offering metaphorical explanations, his inconsistencies become much more philosophically bearable. Seigfried begins her book with an observation that lays bare the concerns of many of James’s critics, namely that “his writings cannot be read for long—five minutes will do—without encountering contradictions.”1 Once we view James as a creator of metaphor and analogy, his inconsistencies take on a new light. James seems to say with Whitman,

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)2

Indeed, Seigfried’s interpretation of William James as a creator of metaphors—a poet of sorts—allows us to see his imprecision and his inconsistency not as a failure of philosophical rigor, but rather as the chief success of what he thought to be his “message to the world in the way of philosophy.”3
     James did not merely express himself in analogies and metaphors. He did not merely offer metaphorical understanding as an alternative to traditional philosophizing. Rather, James did for philosophy what Seigfried did for James—recast complex, deeply held philosophical insights as metaphors more or less suited to addressing human problems and satisfying human needs. To better understand James’s radical remodeling of the philosophical enterprise along these lines, we must engage several questions. First, what is a metaphor and what does a metaphorical explanation do that an explanation in terms of propositions cannot? Second, once we take the hermeneutic path and begin to think of philosophical theories as metaphors we must ask, what makes for a good metaphor? Finally, we must ask what it means to adopt metaphor as a philosophical method—what assumptions do we make, how are we to proceed, what consequences must we endure, what are the limits of analogical thinking? I turn now to addressing each of these questions in turn.
What is a metaphor?
     In his lecture notes for an 1895 course on “The Feelings,” James takes his first concerted stab at articulating a metaphysics of experience. His notes show him wrestling with many of the same problems that would later be taken up in his formal statements of radical empiricism—objects and subjects, plurality and unity, among others. In his lecture course, James proposes to approach these issues through the notion of what he describes as “the phenomenon the datum ‘pure’ experience.”4 After examining this new notion over the course of sixteen pages of detailed handwritten notes, James abruptly changes tack. He drops the “datum” as his principle term, substituting for it the term “field.” Why this shift in terminology, we might ask. James’s marginal notes give us our answer: alongside the word datum on page sixteen, he scrawls, “use the word ‘field’ here for ‘datum’—it is conveniently ambiguous.”5 And, indeed, throughout the remainder of his notes he takes his own advice, privileging a terminology of ‘fields’ for the articulation of his insights. 4
    Here we have a fairly odd situation: a philosopher, in his role as teacher, has deliberately opted for ambiguity—over and against clarity—in selecting the terms with which he will explain his ideas to his students. (Not to say that obfuscation never happens in a philosophy classroom; however it is usually thought to be a failure of pedagogical forethought, not the product of a deliberate choice.) What, then, is James up to? 5
    In the act of exchanging one term (“datum”) for another (“field”), James is treating his most central concepts as somewhat arbitrary, i.e. not inextricably connected to their referent. We might, it seems, use any number of terms to describe the world’s character. (Indeed, James later drops the field terminology in favor of the notion of pure experience.) For James, how we choose our terms depends not on their one-to-one correspondence to some ulterior reality, but rather on their suitability to the task at hand. As such, our terms are better thought of as evocative—of responses, actions, and consequences—than as strictly denotative. Here we have caught James in the act of writing, explicitly choosing one term over another on account of its evocativeness, treating his most important explanatory concepts as metaphors.
    Seigfried writes that a metaphorical explanation works by asking us to reflect upon an experience in its “much-at-oneness,” in its contextuality.6 A metaphor is always insufficient, of course, never capturing a whole experience at one stroke. Experience always overflows the metaphors that the poet uses to provide her descriptions. A metaphor is explicitly a product of human interest; we choose our analogies to suit our purposes, be they aesthetic, moral, or practical. Yet analogies, unlike most propositions, reveal the limitations that come with selective interest; the author of a metaphor lays bare the fact that “the reality overflows these purposes at every pore.”7 Seigfried’s point, and James’s too, is that our experiences overflow all of our descriptions, be they metaphorical or propositional. The primary difference between a proposition and a metaphor, then, lies in the metaphor’s avowal of its origin in human interest, its acknowledgment of its status as an “ever not quite.” 7
    Philosophers, and particularly those who do metaphysics, are not wont to rest content with partial descriptions. The narrow scope of a metaphor, its piecemeal mode of apprehension, is precisely the reason that it is not presumed to suffice as a full-fledged philosophical description. “Ever not quite” simply doesn’t cut it in a discipline that seeks the “once and for all.” James’s reply to such an objection is rooted in his Principles: the desire for comprehensive, unambiguous, simple descriptions is itself a human interest by means of which we (or at least some of us) selectively attend to, order, and deal with our experiences. And as both propositional descriptions and metaphorical descriptions are the products of selective interest, we have as yet no grounds to discard one in favor of the other. Indeed, as Seigfried points out, we have good reason to privilege the metaphorical, for metaphors reveal their own limitations and do not affect the posture of fully transparent, “once and for all” sorts of description.8
What makes for a good metaphor?
    Once we admit the partiality of all our attempts to order the quasi-chaos of our experience, once we privilege the metaphor as our paradigmatic mode of thought and expression, we are left with the problem of determining which metaphors to use. By what criteria might we gauge the appropriateness of expressions that are so tightly bound to the transient, deeply personal interests of individuals? On a strictly personal level, we might use a simple pragmatic test, asking the questions of a poet: does my metaphor effectively deal with the aspects of this experience with which I am currently interested? Does this analogy help to satisfy my doubts? Does the order it gives to my experience allow me to do the things I want and need to do? 9
   But on an interpersonal level, when our metaphors are used as vehicles for communication, the pragmatic test becomes somewhat more complicated. The question is not merely one of satisfying my interests, but also of enriching the experiences and satisfying the interests of others. Here the experience to which the pragmatic test defers is taken in a much broader context; it is not merely my experience, but ours. Taken thus more broadly, the funded, multifaceted character of experience comes more prominently to the fore—my experiences overlap with yours, your conceptualizations work to remodel my world. To address the appropriateness of any given metaphor is now not simply to ask the question of whether or not it satisfies an interest, but to ask the question of which interests are worth satisfying and to what extent. James clearly acknowledges that the great systems of rationalist philosophy satisfy our compelling aesthetic interests in consistency and unity, and yet he seeks publicly “to destroy the notion of a monistic Absolute of any sort.”9 He does so on the grounds that dogmatic rationalism satisfies our aesthetic interests at the cost of all of our other interests, most notably our moral interest in affirming the efficacy of human action. Thus rationalism not only fails to satisfy James’s own sense of life; taken in its public form, as embodied in communities and institutions, it actively works against our individual and collective moral efforts to effect social change.10 James rejects wholesale rationalism insofar as it is a stultified metaphor, which evokes an aesthetic apprehension of the world only to leave the world behind. Rationalism, in short, forgets that it is a metaphor, and in so doing, it loses its transformative, evocative power. 10
   The test of a philosophical metaphor, then, is twofold. First, does the metaphor harmoniously satisfy our diverse interests? And second, to the extent that it does not fully satisfy the vast range of human interests, does the metaphor disclose its conditions and limitations, announcing itself as a metaphor? 11
    To witness this twofold test in action, let us return to James’s lecture notes for a moment. He begins by describing the experienced world as a neutral “datum” as yet undifferentiated into objects and subjects. After discussing briefly the diremption of the datum into units by common sense, he recognizes that his notion of datum is but a snapshot of the world at a particular time. He then recasts the datum as part of a continuous stream which “is immediately continued, becomes determined & qualified by what follows.”11 Treating the datum now retrospectively, James struggles to metaphorically construct an image of the connections between the past datum and the present one. He finds that his datum metaphor confines him to speaking in cross-sectional terms, in which the relations between successive data are primarily supplied by cognition. It is at this point that James proposes to shift his metaphor from “datum” to “field” for reasons of convenient ambiguity. Although the “datum” metaphor satisfies the demand for a certain degree of precision in its delineation of discrete units of data, James finds that its preciseness subverts the equally compelling aesthetic demand for unity through contiguity and connection. His field metaphor allows us to see ourselves as part of the developing field, cognizant of the field in which we find ourselves, and with “nothing postulated whose whatness is not of some nature given in fields, that is not of field stuff�.”12 The metaphor of a plurality of continuous fields, then, seeks to satisfy much of the aesthetic demand for unity without sacrificing the demand for discreteness. Thus, James’s metaphor passes (however tentatively) the first arm of the pragmatic test I offered earlier, which called for our metaphors to provide room for the satisfaction of the diversity of compelling human interests. 12
    And what of the second arm of the test? James is characteristically explicit in reminding his listeners that his philosophizing is a process of testing the viability of metaphors. He writes, “What have we gained by substituting mutual ‘fulfillment’ and ‘postulation’ of fields…for ‘knowing & known’� What by substituting ‘fields’ or ‘points of view’ for egos?” “We certainly have gained no stability,” he confesses. “But we have gained concreteness,”13 the demand for which had been all but dismissed by the philosophical systems of the past. Here James acknowledges the limitations of his metaphor in satisfying our demands for stability. But, he claims, the demand for stability has been overprivileged, dominating the philosophical enterprise to such an extent that it has become the sole mark of adequacy, so much so that the metaphors of stability—most notably those of rationalism—have quite forgotten their status as metaphors. Here, at least, James passes the second test with flying colors. 13
Metaphor as Method?
    There is then a sense in which the importance of metaphors to philosophy lies not primarily in what they do—capture our imaginations, engage our emotions—but rather what they do not do—namely, masquerade as essential. The good news, therefore, is that we needn’t all be professional poets in order to do philosophy. To adopt metaphor as a philosophical method does not require us to speak and write only in analogies, similes, and metaphors; but it does require us to rethink the roles and origins of our more prosaic language and the conceptual systems we build with it. As such, the metaphorical method asks us to loosen our notion of objective reference in the manner of the poet. It asks us to see the philosophical systems of the past and present as originating in and responding to real human needs—needs which may or may not be compelling in the current context. 14
    This is an Emersonian task wherein we must recognize that “the point of any pen can be an epitome of reality.”14 The various epistemologies, metaphysics, and political theories flow from such pens, each offering a vision of the world that inspires various types of feelings, beliefs, and actions: sympathy or animosity, engagement or cynicism, stability or restlessness, to name but a few. To read philosophy in a Jamesian way is to determine what responses an author evokes and what needs those responses satisfy. To do philosophy in a Jamesian way is to determine what needs currently require satisfaction and to craft philosophies that respond to them. To test our philosophies is to determine to what extent the needs chosen were the right ones, and to what extent the philosophies actually satisfy them. This test, James insists, can only be conducted experimentally, that is, in the living experiences of women and men. And where our philosophies fall short, as they almost surely will, our task is to reconstruct them in light of new evidence and previously unexamined human interests. 15
    James thus indeed undertakes a radical reconstruction of philosophy. His own metaphors—fields, pure experiences, streams of consciousness, among others—are, of course, insightful, inspiring, and revolutionary in their own ways. These metaphors are typically hailed as the prime philosophical contributions with which we, in our search for the center of James’s vision, must contend. And although no commentator on James’s work can afford to ignore the intricate inner-workings of his metaphors, I contend that the radical-ness of James’s reconstruction primarily lies not in the particular metaphors he offers, but rather in his insistence that we see the task of philosophy as the creation and reconstruction of metaphorical images of the world which better suit the needs and interests of human beings in their personal and collective lives. Seigfried’s detailed and vivid analysis of the centrality of metaphor in James’s philosophy allows us to see this concrete hermeneutics as the center of James’s unique vision, the thread that runs through most of his work, from the theory of selective attention in Principles of Psychology to his pluralistic metaphysics of radical empiricism. 16
    In his own time, James saw that the dominant philosophical metaphors of rationalism and materialism were working to demean, rather than enrich, the lives of men and women. Rejecting those metaphors on moral grounds, James offered what he called a “pluralistic description of the world” as a philosophical alternative, and his 1903-1904 lecture notes give his reasons for this preference. The passage is written as an outline but looks and reads more like a poem, a form which I think makes it a particularly appropriate way to conclude this discussion.

It means Anarchy in the good sense. [Hegel.]
It means individualism, personalism:
that the prototype of reality is here & now
   that there is genuine novelty;
that order is being won—incidentally reaped.
that the more universal is the more abstract
that the smaller & more intimate is the truer. The man more
than the home, the home more than the state, or the church.
It means tolerance, and respect. Skepticism
It means democracy as against systems which crush the individual.
Good systems always can be described in individualistic terms.
It means hero-worship & leadership.
It means the vital and the growing as against the fossilized & fixed,
in science, art, religion, custom, government.
It means faith and help.15

St. Mary’s University of San Antonio


1 Charlene Haddock Seigfried, William James’s Radical Reconstruction of Philosophy (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990), 8.

2 Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself,” in Floyd Stovall, ed., Walt Whitman (New York: American Book Company, 1939), 63.

3 William James, The Correspondence of William James, Vol. 8, Ed. Ignas K. Skrupskelis and Elizabeth Berkeley (Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 2000), 505. Henceforth cited as CWJ. The letter, written Mar. 2, 1899, reads: “Since I have shuffled off the mortal coil Psychology onto M�nsterberg, I even begin to feel as if I might end by doing something which might some day be called my message to the world in the way of philosophy, and it makes me look forward to the rest of life with a certain amount of interest. Surely the world needs messages of some sort in this deluge of militarism that is sweeping over it.”

4 William James, Manuscript Lectures, Ed. Frederick Burkhardt and Fredson Bowers (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988), 213. Henceforth cited as ML.

5 ML, 220.

6 Seigfried, 210.

7 William James, Principles of Psychology, Ed. Frederick Burkhardt and Fredson Bowers (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981), 961.

8 Seigfried, 210-211.

9 CWJ 9:526. Letter of August 6, 1901.

10 Hence James writes in his review of Sturt’s Personal Idealism: “Radical empiricism thus leads to the assumption of a collectivism of personal lives�variously cognitive of each other, variously conative and impulsive, genuinely evolving and changing by effort and trial, and by their cumulative achievements making up the world . . . I know of no more urgent philosophic desideratum of the present day.” [William James, Essays Comments, and Reviews, Ed. Frederick Burkhardt and Fredson Bowers (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987), 545.

11 ML, 214.

12 ML, 228.

13 ML, 228.

14 William James, Essays in Religion and Morality, Ed. Frederick Burkhardt and Fredson Bowers (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982), 115. My italics.

15 ML, 311.

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