William James Presidential Address: Philadelphia December 2002

William James Presidential Address Philadelphia: December 2002

John J. McDermott

Abstract. This, the first Presidential Address, was presented at a meeting of the William James Society. Its intent and style is more gently hortatory than strictly academic. Since the date of this “Address,” 2002, The Correspondence, has been completed, in 2004, which yields 31 volumes of critically edited published and unpublished writings of William James.
I. Historical Preamblings
    My introduction to William James occurred in the early 1950’s and came ‘serendipitously’ and through the back door.

R. C. Pollock: McDermott, your head is in German Phenomenology (Max Scheler) and your heart is in the subway—that is, America.

McDermott: What should I do about that?

Pollock: Read William James.

    So I picked up the one-volume edition of R. B. Perry and read it on a bench in the sweat-stenched locker room in the gymnasium of an up-the downstairs school in the hard-tack neighborhood of Long Island City, New York.  2
    When reading this book on William James, I recall saying to myself—I can understand this as in Verstehen or as in James himself, knowledge by acquaintance. So I wrote a dissertation on the history of the notion of experience in American thought so as to figure out what James meant by his cardinal devotion to a philosophy of experience. (From that day to this, with many interstices, permutations and seeming—though not actually so—detours, the meaning of experience is still my personal and philosophical focus.)
    Some years later, in a second event of good fortune, I was to meet Herman Shapiro, who in turn, set up an appointment with Morris Philipson, Senior Editor at Knopf and the Modern Library. I brought a prospectus for an historical, multi-cultural, multi-discipline reader in American thought. As this was the mid 1960’s, he did not bite. This book was to begin with the Indians and the Puritans. We were 20 years ahead of receptivity. Philipson said do you have anything else. In the first of two ‘blurts’ that are central to the publication of the Critical Editions, I said, William James, I can do that. Now what ‘that’ was, I did not have the slightest idea, nor of what was ahead—namely, Big problems. 4
    First, upon scouring the extant editions of James, I found only a rag-tag, poorly edited, disconnected series of odds and ends. In 1953-1954 when I was the night reference librarian at the Duane Library of Fordham University, I was struck by the ‘girth’ present in the philosophy section. Many of the European philosophers had collected editions, some multi-volume, for example, Descartes, Kant, Ortega, and many in preparation, for example Husserl. The American philosophers, by contrast, presented themselves as if they were at a fire sale in Filene’s basement, or for New Yorkers, the bottom of the escalator in Gimbels. This impression of textual shabbiness and the complete absence of girth was a lasting impression on me and served to fuel decisions that resulted in the publication of the scholarly editions of James, Dewey and Royce and my early involvement with Jo-Ann Boydston for the Critical Edition of Dewey, with Max Fisch for the Critical Edition of Peirce and with Herman Saatkamp for the Critical Edition of George Santayana. Also, more directly, this impression was active in my co-founding with Frederick Burkhardt the Critical Edition of The Works of William James. So too, more recently, with the Critical Edition of The Correspondence of William James. 5
    Second, having decided that in terms of textual presence, the thought of James had been obsolete, I set out to create a comprehensive edition which would signal both the depth and the range of his work. But before proceeding, I had to secure permissions. Only those of us who have had to maneuver in this hoary underworld know its perils. I tracked the rights to an independent literary agency. In a bizarre telephone call, this person said OK—you can have the rights for $3,000. Not having $3,000, I said I’ll take it.
    Third, when I took the manuscript to the Modern Library, the new editor Berenice Hoffman was horrified by its size and by the printing expense of the Annotated Bibliography which I rescued from a long out-of-print edition by R.B. Perry in 1920. Corrected and adumbrated until 1967, this was a formidable publication by itself. When Berenice looked aghast at the suitcase size of this manuscript, I thought of Henry Holt confronting the gigantic manuscript of The Principles of Psychology when all he expected was a small book in the American Century Science Series. Nonetheless, to the undying gratitude of all students of William James, she not only decided to publish this manuscript but arranged for the first edition to be in the famous Random House series: Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, Augustine, Aquinas—and finally James. 7
    We move now to the founding of the two Critical Editions of James, The Works and The Correspondence. In 1971, I was one of three faculty members of a search committee for the presidency of Queens College, C.U.N.Y. The Chair was Frederick Burkhardt, chairman of the Board of Higher Education for New York City. After the first meeting, Burkhardt leaned over the conference table and said how much he enjoyed and appreciated The Writings of William James. Without forethought, obviously, for I again ‘blurted’, Let’s do all of it—that is, all the published and unpublished writings in a Critical Edition. Burkhardt responded, Yes, let’s do it. We met subsequently at The Century Club to plan the edition. (The only other time I had been invited to The Century Club was also due to William James. In 1967, after the publication of The Writings of William James, I had a note from Julius Bixler, then the President of Colby College in Maine. The library at Colby, incidentally, was a repository of many letters in James’s corresponding history, which I read in a major blizzard. The reason for the note from Bixler was not only praise for the Writings but gratitude that I cited his long-forgotten work, Religion in the Philosophy of William James (1926). It is of note also, that Bixler is the original author of the cited observation, mutatis mutandis: “The isolated reference from James is always unreliable.” As instance, Of course I am a realist, over against, I am a realist except for my radical empiricism, wherein I “squint towards Idealism” (Corr. vol. 11, p. 455).)
    Returning to the conversation with Burkhardt, my insistence on a Critical Edition, appropriately sealed by the Center for Editions of American Authors, Modern Language Association of America, had two beddings for the fons et origo. First, just a year prior, in 1969, appeared the first volume of the Critical Edition of The Works of John Dewey. I was very taken with the importance of such extraordinary scholarly care for every possibility extant in providing for an accurate rendition of the originating holograph, or whatever textual source remained for scouring, verifying, correcting and locating within the full corpus. Second, when doing research in the mid 1960’s at the Houghton Library of Harvard University, wherein most of James’s papers are located, I stumbled on a small but symbolically and philosophically major editorial intrusion as set between holograph and text. 9
    In a notebook entry, written when William James was 61 in 1903, James discusses Naturalism. I had known of this text from Perry, Thought and Character, Volume II, 699 ff. While reading the original, hand written entry in the Houghton Library, I was astonished by the first line. In Perry, it reads “How can I . . . justify the strong antithesis I feel,” followed by a discussion of the tension between an epistemological constructivism and the objectivity given in the “Temperament of Nature.” In fact, holographically the opening reads, “How can I, being a Deweyite,” and then continues as above. Obviously Perry, no fan of Dewey and with an advanced philosophical agenda of his own could not abide William James’s fealty to Dewey. There is another omission later in the line, where James states that ‘nature itself’ and subjective constructivism are radically opposed, but then adds that “one’s higher indignations are nourished by the opposition.” This is vintage James and in concert with what some of us take to be his not so covert epistemological relativism or euphemistically his pragmatic idealism. 10
    I thought to myself, How many more of these editorially invasive elisions exist? And how many of his letters have been bowdlerized or simply hidden from view? It became clear—the edition has to be critically edited with no written stone unturned. 11
    The second issue was whether to do all of it. When moving through the archival collection, bMS 1092, as I did with only a pencil allowed for taking notes, I was struck by the extensive number of manuscript drafts, unpublished lectures and very detailed written reflections on philosophical issues, witness here the notebooks known as the “Miller-Bode Objections.” This material made it clear that behind the often breezy prose of much of William James’s published work, there remained a bedding, a working structure that served as the granite behind his inimitable metaphorical philosophical language. So, we decided to publish ‘all of it’ (for example, Manuscript Essays and Notes, Vol 18 of the Works, wherein the “Miller-Bode Objections” take up 64 pages of published text as well as many pages of “Textual Apparatus”.) 12
   The first step we took turned out to be deflating. Burkhardt took the project to the Executive Board of the American Philosophical Association and requested financial support. Predictably, the result was a rousing rejection, with only one vote, that from Maurice Mandelbaum, coming our way. The reasons were also predictable, given the climate of the early 1970’s. William James was said to be antediluvian, bypassed, irrelevant and, on behalf to the then reigning clich, not mainstream. I explained to Burkhardt that this was a deadbeat route and we had to seek other sources of funding. He was not only shocked and dismayed, but angry as well. Consequently, he took fiduciary responsibility for the project into his own place of responsibility, the American Council of Learned Societies, of which he was the President. The illustrious Fredson Bowers was chosen as the Textual Editor and I brought Ignas Skruskelis to the project as Associate Editor. We chose an Advisory Board, whose primary role was to choose and vet the introductions. Frederick Burkhardt, as General Editor, began to request funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities. 13
    In 1974, the first grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities was awarded. Also, we received a grant-in-aid from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. In 1975, publication began with the Critical Editions of Pragmatism and The Meaning of Truth. The nineteen volumes of the Edition were completed with the publication of Manuscript Lectures in 1988. 14
    One last issue here. It was decided to publish the Edition with the major published works coming first, the gathering of loose essays second and the unpublished material last. Consequently, this was not done chronologically, for which some scholars have chastised us. The Critical Edition of The Works of John Dewey was done chronologically and the Critical Edition of Charles Sanders Peirce is being done chronologically. In the case of Dewey, the evolution of his thought is remarkably apparent because of the chronology. But several classic volumes, for example, The Influence of Darwin, do not appear as such and the cohesive character of that signal work is rendered scattered. With regard to Peirce, the obstacles are formidable, for all extant material has to be found and dated before the project can be laid out chronologically. The Critical Edition of George Santayana is akin to that of William James, with several major published works coming out first, for example, The Last Puritan. In the middle of the Santayana project, the letters are being published chronologically. Each approach has both merit and demerit. 15
    I turn now to the Critical Edition of The Correspondence of William James. During the research for the Works, it became apparent that the extraordinary written quality of the letters written by William James was only hinted in the previous, truncated editions of his long and thick epistolary history. In conversation with the National Endowment for the Humanities, they made it clear that they would support only a Critical Edition, a stipulation with which I agreed. 16
    In consultation with the editorial staff of the Works, it was agreed that I would become General Editor, Project Director and Principal Investigator for a twelve-volume edition of The Correspondence. Ignas Skrupskelis was chosen as Editor and Elizabeth Berkeley became Associate Editor. In truth, it is they who are responsible for the ‘work’ of the Correspondence: transcriptions, database, editing, back matter and thousands of details which emerged seriatim. My task, primarily, was to oversee the introductions and to raise the money. 17
    I wrote the prospectus for the first grant which was prepared by Patricia McDermott with the technical computer section provided by the kindness of my colleague Herman Saatkamp. (It is of note that the Works were completed earlier without major computer assistance). The grant was awarded and the first volume was published in 1992. There was a tangle over the decision to make the first three volumes The Correspondence of William and Henry. I objected, because I wanted the entire twelve volumes to be chronological. I lost. But when the intention was to publish the next four volumes as family friends and professional correspondence, I objected again and this time prevailed. Consequently, volume four begins with a letter from William James in 1856, when he was fourteen, “to Edgar van Winkle, from and about London,” and continues chronologically through the twelfth and final volume, published in 2004. The last letter is from William James to Thomas Mitchell Shackelford on August 21, 1910, five days before his death. 18
    The need to sustain the Correspondence financially was not without its perils. As you know, NEH went through some very treacherous funding times and our project was rendered precarious on a number of occasions. At one very perilous time, we were rescued by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation who responded to our matching grant from NEH and enabled us not to lock the door to the project office. We also raised significant matching funds, directly or indirectly from several members of the Advisory Council. Our fiduciary home, the American Council of Learned Societies, our editorial home, the Alderman Library of the University of Virginia, and our publication home, the University Press of Virginia were each understanding, cooperative and supportive through some very lean periods. 19
    Over the decades there have been many cheering and depressing events, anecdotes, vignettes and running stories. I tell you just two small ones for reasons of flavor. 20
    The first is a story pertaining to a letter written from Chocorua, N.H., by William James to Maxim Gorky (1868-1936) on February 20, 1906. We knew the letter was written but did not have a copy. (In researching and transcribing correspondence one is led to many byways, names of persons, places and things had, once had, wanted to have, that is, in letters written but not within our possession.) After the collapse of the penultimate revolution in Russia, 1905, the anti-Tsarist activist, Maxim Gorky, was imprisoned for a time in the Fortress of Peter and Paul. Forced to leave Russia, Gorky came to America in the spring of 1906, hoping to raise funds for a subsequent revolution. He came with his ‘mistress’ and was summarily bounced out of a hotel in New York City. John and Alice Dewey learned of this affront and made a public announcement to wit: For those who are looking for Maxim Gorky and his ‘friend’, they are staying at the home of John and Alice Dewey, 431 Riverside Drive. Suffice to say that Dewey was egregiously pilloried for this magnanimity. 21
    In time, Gorky arranged a visit to Glenmore, New York, where he was scheduled to meet William James at the Martin residence. No cigar—James left the day before Gorky arrived. 22
    Now to the letter from William James to Maxim Gorky. After Boris Yeltsin stood on the tank and the curtain began to lift, the Gorky archives were accessible. A kind and willing professor of Soviet Studies at the University of Virginia offered to search for us. He told me to write a letter of request and sign it with as many official titles as are truthful. I did so. He found the letter, which is a hand-written, dictated seven pages of praise for Gorky—but no invitation at that time. A paraphrase, by John J. McDermott, emotively rendered, comes over as: wonderful Gorky, courageous Gorky, brilliant writer Gorky, you get America right Gorky and best to you and ‘Mrs. Gorky’ (that is, the Russian Actress Madame Andreeva), and in your next visit (mirabile dictu egad) drop by, Mrs. James and I would love to see you. 23
    The second anecdote involves money. Through the good effort of an Advisory Council member, we came upon an elderly woman whose family had known William James. She was, as they say, partial to his memory and offered to help us. And she did, writing a check for $5,000 which, as I trust you know, when matched by the NEH gave us $10,000. I was deeply grateful and to show that gratitude I sent her all of the nine volumes that had been published. There came back to me a cry of alarm. Tell that James man, that is McDermott, to stop sending these gigantic books. I have a very small apartment and since they arrived I can hardly walk around. Stop! 24
    Now some rhetorical questions: What is the future of these Textual Editions, for example Josiah Royce? Where is the funding? Where are the text editors? Where is the commitment to a project that takes virtually a life time? Where is the support from publishers, libraries and the mysterious, elusive intelligent public? Critical and difficult questions—I am not sanguine regarding answers. 25
    Yet, for us and I trust for you and for others, it has been worth doing and I can say that it has been done well. Praise for the Correspondence has been unstinting, glowing and planetary in scope. Volume six won the Morton N. Cohen Award from the Modern Language Association, holding that the Edition “is in itself a work of literature.” The citation reads that “the editorial apparatus is outstanding and includes a number of features that any scholar will greet with delight . . . This beautifully laid out edition enables readers to watch a fertile, brilliant and affectionate mind at work and play.” Were he to know, I trust that William James would be pleased at the rendition of his work. 26
II. On Reading William James
    Given that vastness of the publication enterprise just detailed, I offer a few aperï as a way into the text of William James. In the homage to William James upon his death in August of 1910, John Dewey wrote: “Our greatest act of piety to him to whom we owe so much is to accept from him some rekindling of a human faith in the human significance of philosophy.” Dewey’s choice of the word piety is instructive and telling for that is the word he used in the first edition of Experience and Nature to convey his urging upon us a ‘reconstruction of philosophy.’ Quite simply, Dewey wrote that ‘we should have piety toward experience.’ It is precisely the diagnosis of the ‘streams of experience’ which is so central to the bequest of William James. And it is due to James on experience that the line from Jonathan Edwards, through Emerson and on to Dewey has such vertebral strength, inverting a two-millennium long deprecation of the experiential as the point of departure for philosophical inquiry. 27
    William James lamented, publicly, his fidelity to the squashy popular lecture style, vowing to do something more strengwissenschaftlich. The publication of his notebooks and manuscript drafts fulfilled that vow, posthumously. Also, the spate of highly sophisticated monographs beginning with Gerald Myers, Charlene Seigfried, and on through David Lamberth, Wesley Cooper and Richard Gale among many others, has put to rest permanently the assumption that James was a casual or ‘just’ a popular philosopher. Of course, for those of us who long ago were familiar with the James-Bradley letters or the secondary literature appearing in the first two decades of the 20th century, focused on the complexity of James’s philosophy, this ‘popular appellation’ has always been a canard. 28
    Still, we have to be careful here, for James abhorred what I call ‘conceptual incest,’ that is words, concepts, or philosophical labels conjugating without embodiment, without feet, without grounding in our experiential flow. He wrote to a student who had finished a dissertation on his work, praising the industry but lamenting the disconnection from what he thought he was ‘up to,’ comparing it to an ant on top of an ant hill. To another student, he wrote “that the whole Ph.D. industry of building up an author’s meaning out of separate texts leads nowhere, unless you have first grasped his centre of vision, by an act of imagination.” I take these reproaches seriously and I believe that they sit behind his philosophical mantra: “Let me repeat once more that a person’s vision is the great fact about them” (gender edited). I note here that this ‘vision’ of James is not that of Descartes or of Husserl. Rather it is James the physiologist speaking, namely, to see is to be seen. Vision as all of the human senses for James, is double-barreled, like life, experience and history. The senses are interest oriented and they are prehensile. The question before us can be put as follows: if it is true that where there is no vision, the people perish, and I think that to be so, than James’s call for our gestating a vision as the ‘great fact’ about us becomes of paramount importance. 29
    On behalf of William James, I offer here, in cameo, a few of those philosophical DNA strands in the multiple helixing of our own vision. The text from which I take my departure is found in the aforementioned notebook (cf. McDermott, “Afterword,” Correspondence, vol. 12, p. 579). 30
    All neat schematisms with permanent and absolute distinctions, classifications with absolute pretensions, systems with pigeon-holes, etc., have this character. All ‘classic,’ clean, cut and dried, ‘noble,’ fixed, ‘eternal,’ weltanschauungen seem to me to violate the character with which life concretely comes and the expression which it bears of being, or at least involving, a muddle and a struggle, with an ‘ever not quite’ to all our formulas, and novelty and possibility leaking in. 31
    Last fall I was privileged to speak about William James to the Texas Chautauqua. My audience was mostly senior citizens and when I read this text to them, they glowed, nodded and, in effect, said, Yeah! In addition to James’s devastating dismissal of absolutes, clarity—that is, the baleful bequest of the Cartesian heritage—notice as well, his affirmation of novelty and possibility. Closure is verboten, whether it be personal or cosmic, and the vaunted claims of epistemological certitude are shrouded by an attitude made famous by Maria Montessori—all takes of importance have the character of ‘un tentativo.’ 32
    His aversion to closure is tied to his stress on possibility. Unacknowledged but nevertheless an inheritance from Emerson, possibility is not only potentially fructifying, it is also personally necessary. Without possibility the soul shrivels. Without possibility we live our lives, cornered, trapped and in time we become that person dangerous to ourselves and to others—that is, we become one of Royce’s ‘detached individuals.’ Put differently, possibility is what gives the “Will to Believe” its viability. In that essay, he calls possibility by the phrase, a ‘live option.’ I prefer to keep possibility for that entails the dreaded companion impossibility. The possibility of possibility requires that novelty can occur. Novelty here is not a trinket in Woolworth’s, nor is it a ‘gizmo’ on an automobile or a bicycle. For James, novelty is an eruption in the allegedly ascertained flow, one which forces us to reconnoiter, regather, regroup and reconstruct. Obviously, novelty can be for ill or for good or as yet to have its cash value, namely the consequences. He holds that novelty and possibility ‘leaks in,’ thereby stressing the subtly quotidian character of these eruptions, disruptions or more likely, slight but significant permutations in our stream of consciousness. 33
    Yet what of consequences. Because of the row over the bold claims of pragmatic epistemology and allied commitments to consequentialist ethics, James’s understanding of consequences has been blurred. For James propositions are not declarative sentences; they are probes. Percepts lead, concepts follow. Concepts function as blankets, mostly wet and stultifying. If James knew some medieval theology, he would have followed Scotus Erigena, holding that ideas were energies and not restricted to what he calls knowledge ‘about,’ involving rather ‘knowledge by acquaintance,’ that is, read experience. 34
    If you understand propositions to be probes and if you read novelty as surprise then I believe that you have what James means. In sticking out my neck, I come upon possibilities undreamt, heretofore unknown and given to me if and only if I take a chance. On the other hand, if I lead with any form of a categorical schema, the ‘surprises’ will show up in a familiar, preconceived garb and their bite will be lost to me, until it is too late. We then say, “who would have thought,” “how could that happen,” or revealingly, “I had no idea.” After all, for William James, ‘What has been concluded than can be concluded?’ 35
    Our last cameo is the first in importance and I trust that this audience is well apprised of its lineament, if not its etymology. None of James holds if we do not embrace his radical empiricism. This goes for The Will to Believe, Pragmatism and The Meaning of Truth. Quite simply, consciousness is not a container but a stream, objects are mock-ups, relations are not mere logical connectors but affectively undergone and the human self is an activity, in peril of disappearing at any time. By this I mean who I am is how I do. If I bury myself in names, concepts, clarity, devotion and salutes to the obvious, I am driven to living a second-hand life, that is, I become an imitatio of Ivan Ilych. 36
    Among the many reflective gifts bequeathed to us by William James, I regard the most signal of them to be his maxim that ‘philosophy is the habit of always seeking an alternative.’ If I follow that advice, then I am open to novelty, to possibility and, above all, to the juvenescing presence of surprise. With that attitude, I do not close down until the day I die. Following Dewey I continue to be a live creature and as a person I grow until cut off once and for all. Can we ask for any more than that? I do not! 37
Department of Philosophy
Texas A&M University

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