William James.

A Pluralistic Universe Hibbert Lectures at Manchester College on the Present Situation in Philosophy online

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least three dots stand for our sensible experience. Then the conceived
changes of the sensible experience can be symbolized by sliding the
ruler along the line of dots. One concept after another will apply to
it, one after another drop away, but it will always cover at least two
of them, and no dots less than three will ever adequately cover _it_.
You falsify it if you treat it conceptually, or by the law of dots.

What is true here of successive states must also be true of
simultaneous characters. They also overlap each other with their
being. My present field of consciousness is a centre surrounded by a
fringe that shades insensibly into a subconscious more. I use three
separate terms here to describe, this fact; but I might as well use
three hundred, for the fact is all shades and no boundaries. Which
part of it properly is in my consciousness, which out? If I name what
is out, it already has come in. The centre works in one way while the
margins work in another, and presently overpower the centre and are
central themselves. What we conceptually identify ourselves with and
say we are thinking of at any time is the centre; but our _full_ self
is the whole field, with all those indefinitely radiating subconscious
possibilities of increase that we can only feel without conceiving,
and can hardly begin to analyze. The collective and the distributive
ways of being coexist here, for each part functions distinctly, makes
connexion with its own peculiar region in the still wider rest of
experience and tends to draw us into that line, and yet the whole is
somehow felt as one pulse of our life, - not conceived so, but felt so.

In principle, then, as I said, intellectualism's edge is broken; it
can only approximate to reality, and its logic is inapplicable to our
inner life, which spurns its vetoes and mocks at its impossibilities.
Every bit of us at every moment is part and parcel of a wider self, it
quivers along various radii like the wind-rose on a compass, and the
actual in it is continuously one with possibles not yet in our present
sight.[8] And just as we are co-conscious with our own momentary
margin, may not we ourselves form the margin of some more really
central self in things which is co-conscious with the whole of us? May
not you and I be confluent in a higher consciousness, and confluently
active there, tho we now know it not?

I am tiring myself and you, I know, by vainly seeking to describe
by concepts and words what I say at the same time exceeds either
conceptualization or verbalization. As long as one continues
_talking_, intellectualism remains in undisturbed possession of the
field. The return to life can't come about by talking. It is an _act_;
to make you return to life, I must set an example for your imitation,
I must deafen you to talk, or to the importance of talk, by showing
you, as Bergson does, that the concepts we talk with are made for
purposes of _practice_ and not for purposes of insight. Or I must
_point_, point to the mere _that_ of life, and you by inner sympathy
must fill out the _what_ for yourselves. The minds of some of you,
I know, will absolutely refuse to do so, refuse to think in
non-conceptualized terms. I myself absolutely refused to do so
for years together, even after I knew that the denial of
manyness-in-oneness by intellectualism must be false, for the same
reality does perform the most various functions at once. But I hoped
ever for a revised intellectualist way round the difficulty, and it
was only after reading Bergson that I saw that to continue using the
intellectualist method was itself the fault. I saw that philosophy had
been on a false scent ever since the days of Socrates and Plato, that
an _intellectual_ answer to the intellectualist's difficulties will
never come, and that the real way out of them, far from consisting in
the discovery of such an answer, consists in simply closing one's ears
to the question. When conceptualism summons life to justify itself
in conceptual terms, it is like a challenge addressed in a foreign
language to some one who is absorbed in his own business; it is
irrelevant to him altogether - he may let it lie unnoticed. I went thus
through the 'inner catastrophe' of which I spoke in the last lecture;
I had literally come to the end of my conceptual stock-in-trade, I was
bankrupt intellectualistically, and had to change my base. No words
of mine will probably convert you, for words can be the names only of
concepts. But if any of you try sincerely and pertinaciously on your
own separate accounts to intellectualize reality, you may be similarly
driven to a change of front. I say no more: I must leave life to teach
the lesson.

We have now reached a point of view from which the self-compounding of
mind in its smaller and more accessible portions seems a certain
fact, and in which the speculative assumption of a similar but wider
compounding in remoter regions must be reckoned with as a legitimate
hypothesis. The absolute is not the impossible being I once thought
it. Mental facts do function both singly and together, at once, and we
finite minds may simultaneously be co-conscious with one another in a
superhuman intelligence. It is only the extravagant claims of coercive
necessity on the absolute's part that have to be denied by _a priori_
logic. As an hypothesis trying to make itself probable on analogical
and inductive grounds, the absolute is entitled to a patient hearing.
Which is as much as to say that our serious business from now onward
lies with Fechner and his method, rather than with Hegel, Royce, or
Bradley. Fechner treats the superhuman consciousness he so fervently
believes in as an hypothesis only, which he then recommends by all the
resources of induction and persuasion.

It is true that Fechner himself is an absolutist in his books, not
actively but passively, if I may say so. He talks not only of the
earth-soul and of the star-souls, but of an integrated soul of all
things in the cosmos without exception, and this he calls God just
as others call it the absolute. Nevertheless he _thinks_ only of
the subordinate superhuman souls, and content with having made his
obeisance once for all to the august total soul of the cosmos, he
leaves it in its lonely sublimity with no attempt to define its
nature. Like the absolute, it is 'out of range,' and not an object for
distincter vision. Psychologically, it seems to me that Fechner's
God is a lazy postulate of his, rather than a part of his system
positively thought out. As we envelop our sight and hearing, so the
earth-soul envelops us, and the star-soul the earth-soul, until - what?
Envelopment can't go on forever; it must have an _abschluss_, a total
envelope must terminate the series, so God is the name that Fechner
gives to this last all-enveloper. But if nothing escapes this
all-enveloper, he is responsible for everything, including evil, and
all the paradoxes and difficulties which I found in the absolute
at the end of our third lecture recur undiminished. Fechner tries
sincerely to grapple with the problem of evil, but he always solves it
in the leibnitzian fashion by making his God non-absolute, placing
him under conditions of 'metaphysical necessity' which even his
omnipotence cannot violate. His will has to struggle with conditions
not imposed on that will by itself. He tolerates provisionally what he
has not created, and then with endless patience tries to overcome it
and live it down. He has, in short, a history. Whenever Fechner tries
to represent him clearly, his God becomes the ordinary God of theism,
and ceases to be the absolutely totalized all-enveloper.[9] In this
shape, he represents the ideal element in things solely, and is our
champion and our helper and we his helpers, against the bad parts of
the universe.

Fechner was in fact too little of a metaphysician to care for perfect
formal consistency in these abstract regions. He believed in God in
the pluralistic manner, but partly from convention and partly from
what I should call intellectual laziness, if laziness of any kind
could be imputed to a Fechner, he let the usual monistic talk about
him pass unchallenged. I propose to you that we should discuss the
question of God without entangling ourselves in advance in the
monistic assumption. Is it probable that there is any superhuman
consciousness at all, in the first place? When that is settled, the
further question whether its form be monistic or pluralistic is in

Before advancing to either question, however, and I shall have to deal
with both but very briefly after what has been said already, let me
finish our retrospective survey by one more remark about the curious
logical situation of the absolutists. For what have they invoked the
absolute except as a being the peculiar inner form of which shall
enable it to overcome the contradictions with which intellectualism
has found the finite many as such to be infected? The many-in-one
character that, as we have seen, every smallest tract of finite
experience offers, is considered by intellectualism to be fatal to the
reality of finite experience. What can be distinguished, it tells us,
is separate; and what is separate is unrelated, for a relation, being
a 'between,' would bring only a twofold separation. Hegel, Royce,
Bradley, and the Oxford absolutists in general seem to agree about
this logical absurdity of manyness-in-oneness in the only places where
it is empirically found. But see the curious tactics! Is the absurdity
_reduced_ in the absolute being whom they call in to relieve it? Quite
otherwise, for that being shows it on an infinitely greater scale, and
flaunts it in its very definition. The fact of its not being related
to any outward environment, the fact that all relations are inside of
itself, doesn't save it, for Mr. Bradley's great argument against the
finite is that _in_ any given bit of it (a bit of sugar, for instance)
the presence of a plurality of characters (whiteness and sweetness,
for example) is self-contradictory; so that in the final end all that
the absolute's name appears to stand for is the persistent claim of
outraged human nature that reality _shall_ not be called
absurd. _Somewhere_ there must be an aspect of it guiltless of
self-contradiction. All we can see of the absolute, meanwhile, is
guilty in the same way in which the finite is. Intellectualism sees
what it calls the guilt, when comminuted in the finite object; but
is too near-sighted to see it in the more enormous object. Yet the
absolute's constitution, if imagined at all, has to be imagined after
the analogy of some bit of finite experience. Take any _real_ bit,
suppress its environment and then magnify it to monstrosity, and you
get identically the type of structure of the absolute. It is obvious
that all your difficulties here remain and go with you. If the
relative experience was inwardly absurd, the absolute experience is
infinitely more so. Intellectualism, in short, strains off the gnat,
but swallows the whole camel. But this polemic against the absolute
is as odious to me as it is to you, so I will say no more about that
being. It is only one of those wills of the wisp, those lights that
do mislead the morn, that have so often impeded the clear progress of
philosophy, so I will turn to the more general positive question of
whether superhuman unities of consciousness should be considered as
more probable or more improbable.

In a former lecture I went over some of the fechnerian reasons for
their plausibility, or reasons that at least replied to our more
obvious grounds of doubt concerning them. The numerous facts of
divided or split human personality which the genius of certain medical
men, as Janet, Freud, Prince, Sidis, and others, have unearthed were
unknown in Fechner's time, and neither the phenomena of automatic
writing and speech, nor of mediumship and 'possession' generally, had
been recognized or studied as we now study them, so Fechner's stock of
analogies is scant compared with our present one. He did the best with
what he had, however. For my own part I find in some of these abnormal
or supernormal facts the strongest suggestions in favor of a superior
co-consciousness being possible. I doubt whether we shall ever
understand some of them without using the very letter of Fechner's
conception of a great reservoir in which the memories of earth's
inhabitants are pooled and preserved, and from which, when the
threshold lowers or the valve opens, information ordinarily shut out
leaks into the mind of exceptional individuals among us. But those
regions of inquiry are perhaps too spook-haunted to interest an
academic audience, and the only evidence I feel it now decorous to
bring to the support of Fechner is drawn from ordinary religious
experience. I think it may be asserted that there _are_ religious
experiences of a specific nature, not deducible by analogy or
psychological reasoning from our other sorts of experience. I think
that they point with reasonable probability to the continuity of
our consciousness with a wider spiritual environment from which
the ordinary prudential man (who is the only man that scientific
psychology, so called, takes cognizance of) is shut off. I shall begin
my final lecture by referring to them again briefly.



At the close of my last lecture I referred to the existence of
religious experiences of a specific nature. I must now explain just
what I mean by such a claim. Briefly, the facts I have in mind may
all be described as experiences of an unexpected life succeeding upon
death. By this I don't mean immortality, or the death of the body. I
mean the deathlike termination of certain mental processes within the
individual's experience, processes that run to failure, and in some
individuals, at least, eventuate in despair. Just as romantic love
seems a comparatively recent literary invention, so these experiences
of a life that supervenes upon despair seem to have played no great
part in official theology till Luther's time; and possibly the best
way to indicate their character will be to point to a certain contrast
between the inner life of ourselves and of the ancient Greeks and

Mr. Chesterton, I think, says somewhere, that the Greeks and Romans,
in all that concerned their moral life, were an extraordinarily solemn
set of folks. The Athenians thought that the very gods must admire the
rectitude of Phocion and Aristides; and those gentlemen themselves
were apparently of much the same opinion. Cato's veracity was so
impeccable that the extremest incredulity a Roman could express of
anything was to say, 'I would not believe it even if Cato had told
me.' Good was good, and bad was bad, for these people. Hypocrisy,
which church-Christianity brought in, hardly existed; the naturalistic
system held firm; its values showed no hollowness and brooked no
irony. The individual, if virtuous enough, could meet all possible
requirements. The pagan pride had never crumbled. Luther was the first
moralist who broke with any effectiveness through the crust of all
this naturalistic self-sufficiency, thinking (and possibly he was
right) that Saint Paul had done it already. Religious experience of
the lutheran type brings all our naturalistic standards to bankruptcy.
You are strong only by being weak, it shows. You cannot live on pride
or self-sufficingness. There is a light in which all the naturally
founded and currently accepted distinctions, excellences, and
safeguards of our characters appear as utter childishness. Sincerely
to give up one's conceit or hope of being good in one's own right is
the only door to the universe's deeper reaches.

These deeper reaches are familiar to evangelical Christianity and
to what is nowadays becoming known as 'mind-cure' religion or 'new
thought.' The phenomenon is that of new ranges of life succeeding on
our most despairing moments. There are resources in us that naturalism
with its literal and legal virtues never recks of, possibilities that
take our breath away, of another kind of happiness and power, based on
giving up our own will and letting something higher work for us, and
these seem to show a world wider than either physics or philistine
ethics can imagine. Here is a world in which all is well, in _spite_
of certain forms of death, indeed _because_ of certain forms of
death - death of hope, death of strength, death of responsibility,
of fear and worry, competency and desert, death of everything that
paganism, naturalism, and legalism pin their faith on and tie their
trust to.

Reason, operating on our other experiences, even our psychological
experiences, would never have inferred these specifically religious
experiences in advance of their actual coming. She could not suspect
their existence, for they are discontinuous with the 'natural'
experiences they succeed upon and invert their values. But as they
actually come and are given, creation widens to the view of their
recipients. They suggest that our natural experience, our strictly
moralistic and prudential experience, may be only a fragment of real
human experience. They soften nature's outlines and open out the
strangest possibilities and perspectives.

This is why it seems to me that the logical understanding, working in
abstraction from such specifically religious experiences, will always
omit something, and fail to reach completely adequate conclusions.
Death and failure, it will always say, _are_ death and failure
simply, and can nevermore be one with life; so religious experience,
peculiarly so called, needs, in my opinion, to be carefully considered
and interpreted by every one who aspires to reason out a more complete

The sort of belief that religious experience of this type naturally
engenders in those who have it is fully in accord with Fechner's
theories. To quote words which I have used elsewhere, the believer
finds that the tenderer parts of his personal life are continuous
with a _more_ of the same quality which is operative in the universe
outside of him and which he can keep in working touch with, and in a
fashion get on board of and save himself, when all his lower being has
gone to pieces in the wreck. In a word, the believer is continuous,
to his own consciousness, at any rate, with a wider self from which
saving experiences flow in. Those who have such experiences distinctly
enough and often enough to live in the light of them remain quite
unmoved by criticism, from whatever quarter it may come, be it
academic or scientific, or be it merely the voice of logical
common sense. They have had their vision and they _know_ - that is
enough - that we inhabit an invisible spiritual environment from which
help comes, our soul being mysteriously one with a larger soul whose
instruments we are.

One may therefore plead, I think, that Fechner's ideas are not without
direct empirical verification. There is at any rate one side of life
which would be easily explicable if those ideas were true, but of
which there appears no clear explanation so long as we assume either
with naturalism that human consciousness is the highest consciousness
there is, or with dualistic theism that there is a higher mind in the
cosmos, but that it is discontinuous with our own. It has always been
a matter of surprise with me that philosophers of the absolute should
have shown so little interest in this department of life, and so
seldom put its phenomena in evidence, even when it seemed obvious that
personal experience of some kind must have made their confidence in
their own vision so strong. The logician's bias has always been too
much with them. They have preferred the thinner to the thicker method,
dialectical abstraction being so much more dignified and academic than
the confused and unwholesome facts of personal biography.

In spite of rationalism's disdain for the particular, the personal,
and the unwholesome, the drift of all the evidence we have seems to
me to sweep us very strongly towards the belief in some form
of superhuman life with which we may, unknown to ourselves, be
co-conscious. We may be in the universe as dogs and cats are in our
libraries, seeing the books and hearing the conversation, but having
no inkling of the meaning of it all. The intellectualist objections
to this fall away when the authority of intellectualist logic is
undermined by criticism, and then the positive empirical evidence
remains. The analogies with ordinary psychology and with the facts of
pathology, with those of psychical research, so called, and with those
of religious experience, establish, when taken together, a decidedly
_formidable_ probability in favor of a general view of the world
almost identical with Fechner's. The outlines of the superhuman
consciousness thus made probable must remain, however, very vague, and
the number of functionally distinct 'selves' it comports and carries
has to be left entirely problematic. It may be polytheistically or
it may be monotheistically conceived of. Fechner, with his distinct
earth-soul functioning as our guardian angel, seems to me clearly
polytheistic; but the word 'polytheism' usually gives offence, so
perhaps it is better not to use it. Only one thing is certain, and
that is the result of our criticism of the absolute: the only way
to escape from the paradoxes and perplexities that a consistently
thought-out monistic universe suffers from as from a species of
auto-intoxication - the mystery of the 'fall' namely, of reality
lapsing into appearance, truth into error, perfection into
imperfection; of evil, in short; the mystery of universal determinism,
of the block-universe eternal and without a history, etc.; - the only
way of escape, I say, from all this is to be frankly pluralistic and
assume that the superhuman consciousness, however vast it may be, has
itself an external environment, and consequently is finite. Present
day monism carefully repudiates complicity with spinozistic monism. In
that, it explains, the many get dissolved in the one and lost, whereas
in the improved idealistic form they get preserved in all their
manyness as the one's eternal object. The absolute itself is thus
represented by absolutists as having a pluralistic object. But if even
the absolute has to have a pluralistic vision, why should we ourselves
hesitate to be pluralists on our own sole account? Why should we
envelop our many with the 'one' that brings so much poison in its

The line of least resistance, then, as it seems to me, both in
theology and in philosophy, is to accept, along with the superhuman
consciousness, the notion that it is not all-embracing, the notion,
in other words, that there is a God, but that he is finite, either in
power or in knowledge, or in both at once. These, I need hardly tell
you, are the terms in which common men have usually carried on their
active commerce with God; and the monistic perfections that make the
notion of him so paradoxical practically and morally are the colder
addition of remote professorial minds operating _in distans_ upon
conceptual substitutes for him alone.

Why cannot 'experience' and 'reason' meet on this common ground? Why
cannot they compromise? May not the godlessness usually but needlessly
associated with the philosophy of immediate experience give way to a
theism now seen to follow directly from that experience more widely
taken? and may not rationalism, satisfied with seeing her _a priori_
proofs of God so effectively replaced by empirical evidence, abate
something of her absolutist claims? Let God but have the least
infinitesimal _other_ of any kind beside him, and empiricism and
rationalism might strike hands in a lasting treaty of peace. Both
might then leave abstract thinness behind them, and seek together, as
scientific men seek, by using all the analogies and data within reach,
to build up the most probable approximate idea of what the divine
consciousness concretely may be like. I venture to beg the younger
Oxford idealists to consider seriously this alternative. Few men are
as qualified by their intellectual gifts to reap the harvests that
seem certain to any one who, like Fechner and Bergson, will leave the
thinner for the thicker path.

Compromise and mediation are inseparable from the pluralistic
philosophy. Only monistic dogmatism can say of any of its hypotheses,
'It is either that or nothing; take it or leave it just as it stands.'
The type of monism prevalent at Oxford has kept this steep and brittle
attitude, partly through the proverbial academic preference for thin

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Online LibraryWilliam JamesA Pluralistic Universe Hibbert Lectures at Manchester College on the Present Situation in Philosophy → online text (page 13 of 19)