The Growth of Moral Agency
Varieties of Presence

The Universal Perspective of the Eternal


William James was one of the founders of psychology, most significantly contributing the idea that consciousness is a stream and not a series of discrete moments, as had been the common view of the early moderns.  Kittlestrom writes that James' introspection had a venerable tradition--the spiritual practice of mental self-observation which dated back to Puritan New England.  Modern psychology born of a spiritual practice.

James' two great contributions to the religion of democracy (besides being the one to use that particular term) was to translate the language of modern science in a way that was open to religious belief and to advocate for pluralism.

On the first topic there is the famous point at which James experienced a crisis over his fear that scientific determinism meant his will was not free and how, reading Renouvier, he came to the decision that he would simply believe in a free will without proof and see how the idea worked in practice.  This experience of the young man contributed so much to his later philosophical views.

Kittelstrom places the moment in its religious context.  New England liberals had a century before rejected Calvinism in favor of liberty.  James was simply repeating the process in the 19th century, this time with modern scientific determinism playing the role of the Calvinist God.

Evolution was not a threat to liberals.  "Religious liberals believed in the malleability of human character for a hundred years before Darwin came along, so rather than destabilizing their sense of cosmic order, the theory of natural selection gave them a language and a logic for progressive change, providing reason to hope that given how far human beings had advanced from their primate origins, there was no telling how much further they could yet progress."

James, Kittelstrom notes, was not so completely optimistic about Darwinian theory--"he was too good a scientific thinker himself to misconceive evolution as somehow progressive."  Rather he concluded that it was possible that nothing was guiding development other than our own choices and actions.  I've always admired his ethical impulse to adventure--the world is not destined for either good or bad but only what we collectively make of it.

This was a religious impulse for him.  Kittelstrom writes:

Yet to strain toward universal human equality was to act religiously, which is to say, to act in reference to the infinite rather than the particular, the ultimate rather than the conventional, the divine rather than the merely natural.  And the religious act involved both believing in one's own cosmic significance, because such a belief aids moral effort, and imagining the equal inner divinity of others. Then one must act on the basis of this creative imagination.

Which brings us now to James' pluralism.  In her chapter on William Ellery Channing she pointed out that for the American liberals the canon expanded to include the writings of other cultures and religions--for example, the first Buddhist writings were published in the United States.  James embraced a religious pluralism most eloquently stated in his masterpiece The Varieties of Religious Experience.  When I teach James I point out that the issue of how a pluralistic democracy works is the issue of our times.

The more diverse viewpoints on reality were respected and taken into consideration, James argued, the more the bounds of cultural hides might burst by attention to difference rather than mere tolerance.  The more all individuals are seen as fellow strivers after the divine bearing their own hidden chips of the divine, the more social progress is possible because the more reality is comprehended.  In a crude but pathbreaking way, James attempted to teach his fellow Anglo-Protestant members of the American educated elite to view laborers, the Chinese, women, African Americans, Filipinos, and immigrants from the universal perspective of the eternal rather than the limited perspective of their own cultural particular, for in this way "the world does get more humane."  This pluralism, with invisible roots in that of Channing and visible shoots in twentieth-century social thought, James developed over his career without ever feeling he had mastered it.  He called it "the religion of democracy."

She writes that for James it was this pluralism which defined American exceptionalism, an idea he had inherited from the Puritans.  But he lost his faith in that exceptionalism when the McKinley administration acted barbarically in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War.  He wrote that the administration had induced the nation to "puke up its ancient soul, and the only things that give [the nation] eminence among other nations, in five minutes without a wink of squeamishness."  America had proven to be as corrupt as any other nation because of its imperialism.  In response he felt, according to Kittelstrom, that "liberal intellectuals had to produce ideas that would work like habits on public opinion."  

Wise words for our own crisis of intellect, virtue, and faith in the advent of the Trump era.


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