Dr. James O. Pawelski
Department of Philosophy
Albright College
P.O. Box 15234
Reading, PA 19612-5234

††††††††††† William James is famous for his claim that the best way to understand a thinker is to catch his center of vision.† Clever readers have taken this as a suggestion for the best way to understand Jamesís own thought.† A variety of claims has been put forth in the years since Jamesís death as to what this center might be.† Ralph Barton Perry claims that at the center of Jamesís thought is the conflict between science and religion.† Julius Bixler contends that this conflict is actually between an active, risky moralism and a passive, reassuring religion.† Ellen Kappy Suckiel argues that the central themes of Jamesís philosophy are his teleological conception of human nature and his methodological commitment to the principle of experience.[1]† Stephen C. Rowe has it that the center of Jamesís vision is conversation.[2]† (An indication that he is more auditory than James wasóor perhaps more postmodern.)† Charlene Haddock Seigfried takes the organizing center of Jamesís thought to be "the establishment of a secure foundation in experience which would overcome both the nihilistic paralysis of action and the skeptical dissolution of certain knowledge brought on by the challenge of scientific positivism."[3]† I could go on, but I think this is sufficient to give an indication of both the number and the diversity of opinions regarding the precise nature of the center of Jamesís vision.†

This cacophony of opinion underscores the difficulty of identifying the center of Jamesís vision and has lead some readers to suspect there just isnít one.† They would hold that, like Emerson, James is to be valued more for his insights than for his systematic thought.

I have made what I think are some rather interesting observations in my reading of James, and have been tempted to think that I have, at long last, stumbled upon the elusive center of his vision.† Upon more careful consideration of the nature of my insights in light of the numerous claims regarding this long-sought center, however, I have decided to resist this temptation.

Had James not given up his artistic career, I imagine that each of his lectures and essays and reviews would have been a drawing or a painting or a sketch.† In which case, a talented connoisseur or historian of art would, by a close study of a number of Jamesís works, be able to recognize his characteristic style.† Looking at a piece she had never seen before, an art historian would be able to judge whether or not it was a work of Jamesís hand.† If we asked her to describe Jamesís style to us, she would likely give us some qualities of line, composition, or color that would tend to characterize his works.† Yet we would very likely find that none of Jamesís works contained all of these qualities and that some contained few of them.

But James did give up his artistic career, and he has left us, not paintings, but writings.† Yet in these writings, I believe there is a characteristic style that marks them as his.† I am not referring to Jamesís writing style.† A number of commentators have already made numerous helpful observations about Jamesís popular, literary writing style.† I am referring rather to Jamesís "thinking style," one aspect of which I would like to draw to your attention today.†

What I propose to do is to examine a number of Jamesís works in turn, pointing out what I mean by this characteristic thinking style.† James makes use of what I will call the Selection Model in dealing with a wide variety of issues, including, among others, social evolution, psychology, metaphysics, and epistemology.† There may be slight variations in his application of the model, and I am certainly not making the claim that it occurs in all of his writings.† Yet I believe it occurs with sufficient frequency to be counted, if not as the center of his vision, as at least belonging to the philosophical spectacles he wore.

"Great Men and Their Environment"

††††††††††† I will begin with an examination of Jamesís early essay "Great Men and Their Environment."† Written in 1880, this essay sets out to refute Herbert Spencerís view that social evolution is due exclusively to environmental causes.† James uses Darwinís theory of natural selection to argue that social evolution is due to "the accumulated influences of individuals" (218).

††††††††††† Just as Spencer argued that environmental influences alone are responsible for social evolution, so pre-Darwinian biologists had argued that environmental influences alone are responsible for the evolution of a species.† According to this Lamarckian view, the environment both produces and maintains evolutionary changes in a species.† Consider the standard example of giraffes.† The environment not only maintains such long-necked animals by the availability of digestible leaves on tall trees, it is argued, but the environment actually produced its long neck by requiring the giraffe and its ancestors to stretch their necks to reach those leaves.† Long necks are products of adaptation, the argument goes, just as strengthened muscles are adaptations to exercise and calluses to manual labor.

††††††††††† James points out that Darwinís great advance lay in his separation of the processes of production and maintenance, claiming that the latter but not the former are a function of the environment.† While the environment maintains peculiarities in an organism when those peculiarities are helpful for survival, the environment does not produce the peculiarities.† That is, the environment selects for helpful variations in a species, but it does not create them.† These variations arise "spontaneously," through mutation.

In Jamesís terms, the production of the mutation belongs to a "cycle of operation" different from that of its maintenance.† James illustrates what he means by different cycles of operation by referring to a ship at sea.† In Jamesís inimitable language,

The mould on the biscuit in the store-room of a man-of-war vegetates in absolute indifference to the nationality of the flag, the direction of the voyage, the weather, and the human dramas that may go on on board; and a mycologist may study it in complete abstraction from all these larger details.† Only by so studying it, in fact, is there any chance of the mental concentration by which alone he may hope to learn something of its nature.† On the other hand, the captain who in maneuvering the vessel through a naval fight should think it necessary to bring the moldy biscuit into his calculations would very likely lose the battle by reason of the excessive "thoroughness" of his mind. (220-1)

††††††††††† When Darwin describes mutations as "spontaneous variations," he is not, of course, claiming that they are not subject to natural law.† Rather, he is claiming, in effect, that they belong to a cycle of operation different from that of the environment.† A thorough knowledge of the laws governing the environment would not allow us to predict these spontaneous variations.† Nor would a thorough knowledge of the laws governing mutations allow us to predict which of them would be selected and maintained by the environment.

††††††††††† Although James admits, for the sake of argument, that an omniscient knower would be able to see the connection between the causes at work in these various cycles of operation, he argues that as human beings we must treat them "as disconnected and irrelevant to one another" (221).† That is, from the perspective of any particular cycle of operation, the causes and products of any other cycle must be treated as chance occurrences.

††††††††††† The general structure here involves two cycles of operation and their dynamic mediation.† The first cycle of operation is a particular state of affairs already in existence.† From the perspective of this first cycle of operation, the second cycle produces chance occurrences.† While these cycles of operation are disconnected, their products can interact.† A chance occurrence from the second cycle can be rejected by the first, in which case it will die out.† Or it can be taken up into the first, resulting in evolutionary progress.† Indeed, an examination of the contents of the first cycle shows it to be composed of chance occurrences that have been adopted in the past.† Thus, the first cycle of operation is a collective, the second an individual.† The interplay between them is the evolutionary process.

††††††††††† The most obvious application of this general structure is in "Great Men and Their Environment."† As I mentioned earlier, the reason James brings up Darwin in the first place is to attack Spencerís view that social evolution is due to the environment in which a society finds itself, and not to the individuals within the society.† James argues, instead, that social evolution is a product of the accumulated influences of individuals (218).

Spencerís view, in effect, is the same as that of the pre-Darwinian evolutionists who argued that the environment both creates and selects variations in a species.† According to Spencer, the changes that occur in a society are due entirely to the circumstances of their environmentótheir geographical surroundings, their climate, their ancestry, and the like.† James, on the other hand, argues, with Darwin, that the process of the creation of variation is very different from the process of its selection.† Social evolution occurs when a society is influenced by the acts or examples of individual geniuses.† These geniuses generate the new ideas or engage in new activities that the society at large subsequently adopts.† James argues, furthermore, that the origins of these geniuses are inscrutable from a merely sociological point of view.† A sociologist must accept the existence of a genius as a brute fact, like Darwin is prepared to accept the unexplained existence of a mutation.[4] [5]

According to James, then, social evolution follows the model described above.† The first cycle of operation, consists of the habitual beliefs and practices of a society, what we may call the community of non-geniuses.† The second cycle of operation consists of the new beliefs and practices developed by individual geniuses.† The society does not create the new ideas of geniuses, but it does decide whether or not to select them.† If a society adopts the suggestions of a genius, it will evolve in one way or another.† A closer examination of the habits of society shows them to be a collection of previously adopted suggestions of geniuses.[6]

At the end of "Great Men and Their Environment," James takes up the case of what he calls "mental evolution."† According to the empiricist psychology adopted by Spencer, the mind is a passive receptor of its environment.† It responds to this environment in accordance with the laws of memory, habit, and association by contiguity.† If this view is correct, it would seem that mental progress does not occur in the same way that biological and social progress do.

James, of course, rejects Spencerís view, claiming that, while brains of lower intelligence do seem to function within the confines of these mental laws, brains of higher intelligence do not.† Such brains are teaming with sudden insights and unexpected connections.† These flashes of insight function as spontaneous variations, which, if selected by the individual and the society, contribute to mental evolution.

Mental evolution can also occur in another way, according to James.† The "personal tone" of a particular mind might be selected for by its social environment.† James cites here the effects of St. Just and Marat on France in 1792, resulting in unstable foreign policy, and the impact of Humboldt and Stein on early 19th century Prussia, making possible its victories in the later part of that century.

Whether mental evolution be catalyzed by a flash of thought or by a "personal tone" of a particular mind, Jamesís description of it follows the Selection Model.† A society thinks in certain habitual ways; a genius has an insight or an unusual way of thinking; the society may reject what the genius has to offer, or it may accept it and evolve as a consequence.


††††††††††† Jamesís description of volitional action in the Principles of Psychology follows, if not exactly this same model, one that is quite similar.† In his chapter on the will, James argues that voluntary movements are secondary, not primary functions of our organism.† For me to will to perform some movement, I must already have a memory of that movement in my mind.† This memory arises through the primary, involuntary performances of my organism, such as reflex, instinctive, and emotional movements.† (It can also arise from watching others perform them, but as James does in the Principles, so I will do no more than mention this possibility here.)

††††††††††† Letís take an example illustrating the relation James sees between primary performances, which are involuntary, and secondary performances, which are voluntary.† Consider a newborn infant.† The infant is welcomed into the world with a spank, and the infantís instinctive response is to cry.† This is not a reflex that the infant can control, nor that it has learned from anyone else.† Given the challenges of life as an infant, this is not the last time the baby will cry.† As it continues to cry instinctively, it develops a memory of crying, until, some months down the road, it is able to cry volitionally.† We have all observed young children crying volitionally, pausing from time to time to look around to see what effect its crying is having on its caregivers and then commencing again.† Should the child eventually become an actor, she will continue to hone her skills for crying volitionally.† But Jamesís point is that she never would have been able to cry volitionally at all, unless she had first had the involuntary experience of crying instinctively.

††††††††††† The first time we experience a primary movement, James argues, we are spectators, as surprised, perhaps, by our behavior as anyone.† But once such a movement is in our memory, we can learn to select it at will.† It is crucial to keep in mind here that, for James, the will is not creative.† It is merely selective.† Freedom of the will is not the freedom to create an idea; rather, it is the freedom to attend to and act on one of a number of ideas that have come to us in a way that is beyond our conscious control.

At work here are two cycles of operation.† The first consists of memories of primary, impulsive movements; the second, of the primary movements themselves.† Note that from the standpoint of the first cycle, the contents of the second arise by chance, and that the first cycle is really a collective of events from the second.


††††††††††† In the fourth chapter of Pragmatism, James applies the pragmatic method to the metaphysical problem of the one and the many.† He considers this problem to be the most central of all philosophical problems.† Most central because the choice between monism and pluralism leads to a greater number of consequences than any other philosophical choice.

††††††††††† Monists, whether they are philosophical idealists or mystics, claim that the universe is fundamentally one.† In its more extreme forms, they deny that the many really exists at all.† Pluralists, by contrast, insist that, although it is possible to speak of the universe as a whole, the universe really consists of disconnected parts.† What sense would it make, for example, to try to find any but an arbitrary connection between your memories of your first grade teacher and a butterfly flapping its wings in Guangzhou?

James applies the pragmatic method to this problem and asks in what respects the world is one; in what respects, many.† Pragmatism, he argues, must in the end reject both absolute monism and absolute pluralism.† He writes, "The world is One just so far as its parts hang together by any definite connection.† It is many just so far as any definite connection fails to obtain" (105).† He then mediates between these two ways of viewing the world by noting a dynamic relation between the oneness and the manyness of the world.† He points out that the world is becoming more and more unified, at least in those respects in which human effort plays a role.† He suggests further that the unity we find in the universe may itself have grown through assimilation of what was once many.† In place of the Absolute of the idealists, he puts forth the notion of the Ultimate.† Instead of a static, timeless unity, a process by which the many is becoming one.†

Here again, we have a case of two cycles of operation and their dynamic mediation.† The first cycle of operation is the oneness of the world, the second its manyness.† On closer observation, we can seeóor at least suggestóthat the oneness is a collective result of past assimilations of manyness.

This process is very similar to that which James describes as the function of education in Talks to Teachers.† James there speaks of an "apperceiving mass" that takes up and interprets new experiences in accordance with our stock of old ideas.† But our stock of ideas is itself nothing but a collection of accretions from novel experiences we had in the past.† Thus the process by which we learn is precisely analogous to the way in which the universe approaches ultimate unification.† And both of these processes can be seen as cases of the dynamic mediation of two cycles of operation.

Closely related to these accounts, as well, is Jamesís pragmatic view of truth.† If we consider the way in which we arrive at new opinions, he argues, we will see that we have a store of old beliefs, which we would like to disturb as little as possible.† Yet we are continually having new experiences that our old beliefs must explain and assimilate.† This is especially challenging in cases where experiences bring with them new facts that are in conflict with our old beliefs.† Truth, for James, is a "marriage function," a tool or instrument, for reconciling new facts and old beliefs.† The goal here is to maximize the number of new facts explained while minimizing the number of old beliefs modified or discarded.† The process, once again, is one of dynamically mediating between two cycles of operation.

The Quest for Meaning

††††††††††† There is one final area in which I would like to show the importance of the Selection Model for Jamesís thought.† That is in his quest for meaning.† Jamesís early depression is sufficient evidence to show that the quest for meaning was of central importance in his life.† His scientific studies at Harvard very nearly proved the end of him.† Not because they were too difficult for him, but because the power of the deterministic, materialistic model of the universe seemed to leave no room for meaningful action on Jamesís part.† And life without the possibility of making real decisions and contributions did not seem to James to be worth living.

††††††††††† A crucial episode in Jamesís eventual overcoming of this depression was his reading of Renouvierís Essais and his consequent decision to believe in free will.† Freedom of the will, functioning as it does as Jamesís path for finding meaning in life, is a topic he takes up in a number of places, including his essay "The Dilemma of Determinism."† Although James does not explicitly take up the language of cycles of operation, he does describe chance in such a way that makes it clear he has the Selection Model in mind.

††††††††††† Important for the success of Jamesís argument is his ability to describe a non-deterministic world that does not degenerate into mere chaos.† Quite self-consciously, he uses the word "chance" to try to make his point.† He wants to use this word, he says, because it gives us "no information about that of which it is predicated, except that it happens to be disconnected with something else,--not controlled, secured, or necessitated by other things in advance of its own actual presence" (WTB 154).† That is, a chance event is merely one that is not predictable from a particular standpoint.† In terms of the Selection Model, the products of the second cycle of operation cannot be predicted by the laws governing the first.† But it does not follow that the processes of the second cycle of operation follow no laws.

††††††††††† But, we might ask, where is the freedom in such a universe?† If processes in each cycle follow natural laws, how can there be such a thing as freedom?† The freedom arises from two considerations.† First, the fact that the individual cycle of operation is not predictable from the collective cycle keeps it from being determined from the top down.† Second, the fact that, in human beings, at any rate, we have the ability to select what chance suggestions we will follow, guarantees that we will not be determined from the bottom up.† Put in Darwinian terms, no particular mutation is determined by the environment, since it arises in accordance with a different set of laws.† Nor is the environment determined by any particular mutation, since it selects which of them to maintain.† With respect to individual human freedom, the case is even clearer.† No individual is determined by its environment, since there are other factors, such as physiology, that are outside of its cycle of operation.† Nor is the individual determined by cycles of operation, such as physiology, of which it is a collective, since it selects which of these influences to attend to.

††††††††††† The picture of the universe that arises from such a model is one with a modest, but nonetheless real, amount of freedom.† It is a universe with wiggle room, whose parts do not fit together tightly.† Note that it is not a relativistic universe, where it is impossible to be wrong.† Nor is it a universe that any of us can dream up or modify in any way we choose.† It is not a universe of license.† It is a "plastic" universe, a compound, whose habits are modifiable.† In Jamesís sense of the term "plastic," it is a universe that possesses "a structure weak enough to yield to an influence, but strong enough not to yield all at once" (PP 105).

††††††††††† There is one further way in which Jamesís Selection Model applies to his quest for meaning.† Even if we grant Jamesís right to believe in a universe of freedom and thus to overcome determinism, materialism still stands between him and meaning.† However free my actions might be during my lifetime, if materialism is true, then not only will I die, but so will the entire human race and the universe as well.† In this way, no trace of my thoughts or actions will survive in the end.† Faced with such a future, it is difficult to find meaning in my choices, no matter how free they might be.† It is here that we can understand Jamesís religious overbeliefs in terms of the Selection Model.† James postulates a finite God whose existence and nature may be influenced by my life.† If God belongs to a first cycle of operation and I to a second, then it may be that I with my moral choices can influence God without running the risk either of determining God or of being determined by God.† The mechanism of the Selection Model gives us a way of understanding how our lives can strike a lasting blow for good in the universe.


This is where I will stop.† I believe continued analysis would reveal Jamesís use of this Selection Model elsewhere in his work, including his discussion of physiology, melioristic religion, ethics, and the good life.† I trust that the analysis I have carried out to this point is sufficient to indicate both the pervasiveness of this style of thinking in Jamesís writings and its importance, at least, for grasping whatever center there might be to his vision.

[1] Suckiel defines this principle of experience as the view that "philosophical inquiry is appropriately restricted to issues which are analyzable in terms of actual or possible experiences" (The Pragmatic Philosophy of William James, 4-5).

[2] The Vision of William James, 16.

[3] William Jamesís Radical Reconstruction of Philosophy, 2.

[4] Note that James is not here arguing for freedom. †Just as Darwin holds that mutations occur in accordance with natural laws, although he does not know what those laws are, so James is willing to admit for the sake of argument, that individuals are determined.† That they are determined exclusively by their environment, though, he is not willing to admit.† Spencer, for example, refuses to acknowledge the importance of human physiology in determining human behavior.† The importance of physiology in this regard, as well as its relative independence from the environment, is quite clear.

[5] James admits in a footnote that there is an asymmetry between the cases of zoological and social evolution.† In the latter case, the environment is responsible for the socialization† of the individual, and so does play some role in her or his formation.† But I would argue that the case is similar in zoological evolution.† While on that example, the educative influence of the environment does not come into play, the environment is responsible for the existence of the individual organism.† The existence of an individual organism is a sine qua non of mutation.

[6] This is why, in VRE, James chooses to focus on the experiences of religious geniuses.