Varieties of Emotional Experience: Jamesís Radical Turn

Individuality is founded in feeling; and the recesses of feeling, the darker, blinder strata of character, are the only places in the world in which we catch real fact in the making, and directly perceive how events happen, and how work is actually done. --The Varieties of Religious Experience [1]

††††††††††††††† The centenary of William Jamesís epochal Varieties of Religious Experience, coinciding as it does with the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophyís conference theme focusing this year on the emotions, affords an auspicious opportunity for fresh perspective on that remarkable book. [2] On my reading, and as my title insinuates, it might as aptly have been called The Varieties of Emotional Experience. It signaled a crucial turn in Jamesís thinking about the philosophical importance of emotion, not so much a turn away from anything but towards a more explicit grasp of what was entailed in the view he would come to call radical empiricism. In this essay I contend that his incipient later view brought James to reframe his account of the emotions, and to recognize in them a kind of "fact in the making."

††††††††††††††† The James of Varieties, Pragmatism, A Pluralistic Universe, and the other major works of his final decade boldly trumpeted the view that our emotions are original creators of "real fact," world-makers of a sort and not mere collateral barometers of inconsequential inwardness, or epiphenomena. The experience of strong emotion Ė and it is important to emphasize experience here, to distinguish emotion as it enters, transforms, and emerges from an individualís conscious awareness from emotion regarded as an impressive but impersonal physio-psychological phenomenon, a laboratory specimen Ė the experience of strong emotion can create "new habitual centres of dynamic personal energy." [3] It can summon our interest, shape our perception of value, galvanize our resolve, direct our sense of purpose, and organize our effort. It may be the great catalyst of consciousness and creativity.

††††††††††††††† The experience of strong emotion can also herald depression or worse, of course. James knew all too well, at first hand and in the tales of perfervid spiritual ardor he collected for his Gifford lectures, the destructive potential of dysfunctional emotion. But that was not his dominant theme in Varieties, nor is it mine here. He was more compelled by what he found constructive and life-affirming in the human capacity for emotional experience and expression, and sympathetically more inclined to emphasize that dimension of the issue. He sought to illuminate the indispensable part played by the emotions in connecting each of us to our respective "springs of delight."

††††††††††††††† The younger James, however, the James of James-Lange, "What is an Emotion?" (1884), and Principles of Psychology (1890), was evidently more concerned to establish "the priority of the bodily symptoms to the felt emotion" and so to block the airy abstraction of "a purely disembodied human emotion . . . dissociated from all bodily feeling." [4] The bodily priority in question is not meant to be understood as chronological: we do not first encounter our "symptoms" and then turn to our feelings, but experience them in practical synchrony.

††††††††††††††† Nor is the priority of bodily symptoms phenomenological: at this stage of our bio-cultural evolution, most of us are more attuned to the running monologue of conscious thought than we are to what our bodies as such may have to "tell" us. This may be deplorable , and there is substantial reason to suppose that James thought so. But his primary point, which he never renounced, was just that emotion as we know it is embodied and differentiated in our respective persons. His later project built on that insight and expanded it. I do not here allege any compatibility problem between these successive phases of emphasis in an extraordinarily rich intellectual odyssey.

††††††††††††††† But the later James is different, pressing a larger agenda, focusing on "the felt emotion" as a fount of constructive personal energy, inspiration, and engagement with the world. The palpably physiological mediation of the mental remains, though partially veiled by the intended neutrality of "pure experience" and re-prioritized with a critique of reductionist "medical materialism" that opposes an impulse Ė already popular in Jamesís day Ė to diagnose the felt emotion of personal experience as nothing but this or that configured derangement of oneís neurochemistry.† In Varieties James contends: "whatever be our organismís peculiarities, our mental states have their substantive value as revelations of living truth." [5]

††††††††††††††† This formulation does not reverse but does significantly refine the earlier position, embracing and elaborating its concession that our emotions "carry their own inner measure of worth" and cannot be appreciated or correctly evaluated by exterior description. [6] † James the empirical psychologist quietly acknowledged what James the radical empiricist philosopher would later proclaim loudly: "the merely descriptive literature of the emotions is one of the most tedious parts of psychology." [7] † He always deplored the reductive sterility of any "scientific psychology of the emotions" that would claim completeness in its generality. Emotions do their work in particular, person by person.

††††††††††††††† In brief, the later account is complicated by Jamesís more explicit and more radically empirical sensitivity to all the nuances of feeling that suffuse the streams and springs of human consciousness. In this vein, as our contemporary Antonio Damasio has recently suggested, we need to distinguish nonconscious, behaviorally externalized emotion from conscious inner feeling, and also to recognize that feelings too can impinge on our organism without always rising to a level of conscious awareness. [8] Such complications are perfectly in keeping with the spirit of Jamesís larger and later agenda. For expository purposes, though, not to deny complexity but to make it more navigable in this context, I will here continue to use the terms "feeling" and "emotion" pretty much interchangeably.†

††††††††††††††† Physiological mediation and the corporeal embodiment of experience, as noted,† never stopped being important to James. They anchor his metaphysics and philosophy of mind Ė thought by some too spookily sympathetic to too many varieties of religious, mystical, and "psychical" experience Ė in nature. James, though no enemy of supernaturalism, was a naturalist. Jamesian naturalism may be extravagant, and as spooky as Nature herself in the larger scheme, but it is not simply spooky. [9]

††††††††††††††† The earlier approach does appear more narrowly psychological, though, less conducive to the open, pluralistic, humanistic temper of its authorís philosophical maturity. It seems more overtly wedded to a static account of the emotions as registering our perception of organic commotion but not instigating new motion. It highlights the facts of biology, which are general, while seeming to neglect the highly variable and specific facts of personal and subjective attachment, and emotional particularity. It is relatively unconcerned with the question of how our emotions might elicit and enable us to enact our values Ė with how "our deepest organ of communication with the nature of things" [10] can speak to each of us with a clarity and singularity unknown to verbal discourse. The later James has no greater preoccupation.

††††††††††††††† It was the slightly younger James who underscored the human spiritís state of recurrent dependency on the bodyís sometimes-coarse urgencies and attractions. "How at the mercy of bodily happenings our spirit is," he wrote. "A cup of strong coffee at the proper moment will entirely overturn for the time a man's view of life. Our moods and resolutions are more determined by the condition of our circulation than by our logical grounds. [11] James would not later back away from this observation, which commends itself emphatically to coffee-drinkers for whom the "proper moment" dawns daily.

††††††††††††††† But he did recontextualize it, finding something more crucial than "logical grounds" and circulation to relate to our moods and resolutions. He found constructive emotion. The causal antecedents, and the evidently corporeal origin, of our states of mind do not displace personally felt emotion as the centerpiece of consciousness. The relation between mental life and the brain's neuro-physiological activity is in some fairly straightforward sense that of effect to cause, for James, but with a significant field of still-unanswered (and maybe unanswerable) questions about how that relation is actually effected and realized in general.

††††††††††††††† In particular, though, each of us has a front-row seat in the theater of our own conscious, emotional experience. And if we have soaring, emotionally-elevated personal moments, their experiential quality must be such as to insure their own validation if anything does. They are "real as experienced," to an extent; that is, if we do not experience them as caused in this or that respect, do not know them as experiences of joyous insight or delight caused by X -- where X might be neural network static, the brain's timing mechanisms, protein microtubules, or whatever else happens to be the reigning theory of consciousness of the month -- then X will be largely beside the point of understanding our emotions as ours. Understanding them in relation to othersí emotions, to emotion in general, and to life, is a wider project but not a greater one.

††††††††††††††† For James, the affective life is ineradicably rooted in what he calls the mystery of subjectivity. This is not the kind of mystery that can be treated as a candidate for computational modeling, in the fashion of contemporary studies of consciousness and cognition. Subjectivity is a mystery for James not simply because personal feelings are in the first instance always private and unavailable to intersubjective scrutiny, but because the unique constellations of feeling that individuate each of us form holistic, incommensurably qualitative, largely inexpressible chunks of reality. These are the "facts" James says (as in our opening epigraph) we find gestating in the "recesses of feeling," facts somehow prior to speech and the "verbal pictures of what we have already in concrete form in our own breasts." [12] Subjectivity, which regulates the aforementioned "springs of delight" that flow so variously for different persons, is on this controversial view substantially beyond the reach of words. Language does not go all the way down: it cannot excavate "the unsharable feeling which each one of us has of the pinch of his individual destiny." [13]

††††††††††††††† Novelist David Lodge has written a clever parody of the academic Consciousness Studies industry, in which a character toys with the notion that the mystery of subjectivity might actually unravel if only more researchers would "dar[e] to bring the third person discourse of science to bear on the first-person phenomenology of their own consciousness..." [14] The particular form of daring this character proposes is to swap incriminating diary journals with a woman who happens to be an object of his amorous obsession. But the problem of consciousness is not one of nerve or "daring," it is the stubborn and (for consciousness researchers) inconvenient truth that first-person phenomenology simply does not translate into third person discourse. Besides, written journals Ė no matter how revealing Ė do not leave the plane of language.

††††††††††††††† The Jamesian mystery of subjectivity is bound up with this notion that our most vital facts reside on a different plane, that of unique, personal, pre-verbal feeling. This is not a "problem" for James, but an acknowledgment of our condition. It is something he celebrates. The mystery is not an absence of research data that we can be confident will be gathered eventually, but is rather a cornerstone of our humanity: the recognition that personal subjectivity outruns descriptive generality. The fine details of what it is like to be uniquely oneself are lodged securely in those remote recesses of feeling. Some temperaments may recoil at this, but Jamesians do not.

††††††††††††††† This is not to deny the deeply problematic character of "pre-verbal feeling." Jamesians should concede the point that our language is in many respects "more like oneís skin than oneís coat." [15] Skin does not go all the way down either, after all, and it is not the sort of thing we can literally step out of; nor, probably, is language. But there may yet be an imaginative and metaphorical kind of "stepping out," or stepping into the hot center of oneís own personal energy; and I suspect that is all Jamesians need in the way of "pure experience." Similarly, Jamesís later emphasis on emotions as centers of constructive personal energy need not renounce the physiology of emotion.

††††††††††††††† What does it mean to occupy the "hot place" in oneís own consciousness? In part it is to gain a kind of self-possession by discovery: in identifying and then nurturing our "springs of delight," or personal enthusiasms and predilections rooted in the distinctive biographical soil of subjectivity, we uncover the emotional preconditions of voluntary attachment and purpose. Life becomes "significant" when we learn to recognize our own spontaneous sources of delight in living. When those sources get blocked, for whatever reason, the "worm at the core of our usual springs of delight" supplants spontaneity. Then we must summon the resources of intelligence, memory, will, and especially feeling if we are to recover that sense of personal equilibrium and joie de vivre that James calls the† "return to life."

††††††††††††††† It is a commonplace of James biographia that he was an emotional man who did not avoid confrontations with the melancholic side of his own nature. Not uncommonly for a thoughtful and sensitive person of his time, he recognized tendencies in himself toward what then was called "neurasthenia" (what we are more likely to diagnose as depression). An early diary entry from 1870 recorded the 28-year old Jamesís despondency over having "touched bottom" but also presaged his mature view that willful self-recovery requires an enthusiasm transcending intellectualism. "The return to life canít come about by talking. It is an act; to make you return to life . . . . I must point, point to the mere that of life, and you by inner sympathy must fill out the what for yourselves." [16] The what, for James, always involves a deeply felt, and at depths profoundly inarticulate, emotional element of attachment to some aspect of living. He likens it to a pinch or a push, something solid, palpable, and unavoidable in our own perception that others canít quite see; but they can readily infer it, and they can discover its analogue in their own perception, if they will.

††††††††††††††† In some ways, the return to life is also a recovery of what is best about a healthy childhood: its receptivity to novelty, openness to new relationships, instinctive capacity for enjoying (and not rushing to analyze) our days. But analysis and thinking have their place in a full life devoted to breadth and balance. A Jamesian is not intrinsically hostile to intellect and its sometimes-plodding ways, only to "intellectualism" that forgets to look beyond itself, that fails to acknowledge the possibility of fresh perception and novel experiences. Much was made by James,† and is made by those of us who are impressed by his example, of the importance of immediacy in rescuing us from the excesses of too much thinking. The "worm at the core" is largely a creature of solemn, unremitting cerebration.

††††††††††††††† But it is also possible to enjoy an immediacy of thought. If one happens to harbor an enthusiasm for discursive thinking, as some philosophers do, the Jamesian moral is not to stop thinking but to think some more, and to think about what it is in the experience of thinking that registers for one in a distinctively personal way. The tendency of some to distinguish eastern and western styles of philosophizing in terms of our western traditionís greater attachment to critical and discursive thought, to counter the zen masterís admonition to "Look, donít think" with an occidental insistence to the contrary, leaves James fitting neither caricature. He is famously scornful of rationalism, stubbornly devoted to philosophy, and distrustful of "talk". . . but not distrustful enough to stop talking and philosophizing.

††††††††††††††† Again, though I have asserted an important shift of emphasis in Jamesís intellectual career I do not think there were two Jameses. The continuity is strong enough to discredit any sharply-drawn line between James the physiological psychologist and James the radical empiricist/pluralist. But if I were forced to suggest a pivotal document in my own reading of James, and the surest foreshadowing of his radical turn, it would be the 1899 essay "On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings."

††††† James begins the essay with an observation that echoes Principles in linking our determinations of "the worth of things" with our feelings (as distinct from intellectual judgments). Interest and importance guide our perception of reality; and, our perception of worth being closely allied with our sense of reality, feelings are necessary if anything is to seize our interest: "If we were radically feelingless, and if ideas were the only things our mind could entertain, we should lose all our likes and dislikes at a stroke, and be unable to point to any one situation or experience in life more valuable or significant than any other." [17]

††††††††††††††† This is a crucial first step in the development of James's position on subjectivity: he rules out the possibility that preferences of value might in the first instance be objectively founded, for they would not exist at all to a thoroughly objectivist sensibility (whatever that might be like). Notice that he is not saying that preferences cannot be defended or ranked in an objectivist manner, in something like a rational reconstruction of value; he is saying, emphatically, that they do not first recommend themselves to our intelligence and then pass over into active expression as our actual values. This order is precisely reversed from what he thinks is the actual and necessary direction of our lives as thinking and feeling creatures.

††††††††††††††† A feeling, thinking organism is one whose normal commerce with the world begins from a profoundly egocentric orientation. A pure res cogitans would not be a particular person at all, but a particular person is inescapably caught up in a variety of relations having to do with much more than pure intellection. It may be that our normal egocentrism reinforces and rewards a tendency to be preoccupied with our own feelings, to the exclusion of the feelings of others, and that our long, unsteady ascent toward civilization and civility has been purchased only at the price of some part of our instinctive self-regard (which is not at all the same as self consciousness). If so, James thinks, it is a price well paid. The alternative is surrender to the "blindness with which we all are afflicted in regard to the feelings of creatures and people different from ourselves." [18] We are naturally inclined to take up an external vantage when we think about others, and really we have no other way of relating ourselves to them: my inwardness, unless we believe in a kind of spiritual migration usually found only in imaginative works of science fiction, is not available to you; nor is yours to me. We can of course exchange information about ourselves (our Selves), but nothing you say will ever convey a real and living sense of what it is like to be you (or vice versa). Even the most intimate of couples must confess a barrier to complete mutual understanding. We may speak of true love as the merger of disparate identities into one, and perhaps this kind of love is best defined as the willingness and desire to accomplish some such merger. But in the end this is not an option for beings like ourselves. We are limited to one consciousness, one self-apprehending Self, per person.

††††††††††††††† Still, there are alternatives. We can either allow our blindness to insulate us from our fellows and set us in opposition to them, or we can attempt to grasp the inwardness of others, not at first hand but through an extension of empathy that accords others a full measure of recognition as similar to ourselves, not in the specific quality of their inwardness but rather in the simple fact of it. If I concede your humanity, I must also concede that you have an internal life as rich and complicated, and as inaccessible to others, as my own. If "others are too much absorbed in their own vital secrets to take an interest in ours," [19] it is, nevertheless, not too much to ask that they acknowledge our absorption as possessing the same urgency for us as theirs does for them; and in our mutual acknowledgment lies the beginning of mutual tolerance and respect.

††††††††††††††† James is by no means original in calling attention to the extraordinary difficulty of establishing and sustaining a genuine marriage of minds and to our inveterate habit of missing the inner springs of others' words and deeds; but he places a distinctively humane stamp upon these observations by finding human "blindness" not simply deplorable but also emblematic of the deepest spring of our shared humanity, our subjectivity. And for James subjectivity is to be embraced, as the emotional ground of attachment and purpose in our lives; and reflection on the moral implications of subjectivity leads to a principle of caution whereby we refrain from denigrating and dismissing any process of life whose subjective springs we cannot comprehend. James's account of subjectivity has, then, profound implications not only for metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and political life, but also Ė as The Varieties of Religious Experience has testified for a century nowĖ for our appreciation of what it can mean to experience a human emotion.

--Phil Oliver,

August 2001

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Varieties of Emotional Experience: Jamesís Radical Turn

††††††††† William Jamesís epochal Varieties of Religious Experience was published 100 years ago this June. It signaled a crucial turn in Jamesís thinking about the philosophical importance of emotion, not so much a turn away from anything but towards a more explicit grasp of what was entailed in the view he would come to call radical empiricism.

††††††††††††††† In his final decade James boldly trumpeted the view that our emotions are original creators of "real fact." The James of† What is an Emotion? (1884) was evidently more concerned to establish "the priority of the bodily symptoms to the felt emotion" and so to block the airy abstraction of "a purely disembodied human emotion." I do not here allege any compatibility problem between these successive phases of emphasis in an extraordinarily rich intellectual odyssey.

††††††††††††††† But the later James is different, focusing on "the felt emotion" as a fount of constructive personal energy and engagement with the world. James the empirical psychologist quietly acknowledged what James the radical empiricist philosopher would later proclaim loudly: "the merely descriptive literature of the emotions is one of the most tedious parts of psychology."† But he always deplored the reductive sterility of any "scientific psychology of the emotions" that would claim completeness in its generality. Emotions do their work in particular, person by person.

Author infoĖ

Phil Oliver holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Vanderbilt University. He is the author of William Jamesís "Springs of Delight": The Return to Life (Vanderbilt University Press, 2001). He serves on the Executive Committee of the William James Society, and is a member of the American Philosophical Associationís committee on non-academic careers. He is presently at work on a book about childhood, parenting, and American philosophy. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee with his wife and two daughters.

[1] William James: Writings 1902-1910 (New York: Library of America, 1987), 448-49.

[2] Jamesís Gifford lectures were delivered in Edinburgh in May and June of 1901, and published in June, 1902.

[3] Writings, 183.

[4] The Principles of Psychology (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983), 1068.

[5] Writings 1902-1910, 20.

[6] Principles, 1069.

[7] Principles, 1064.

[8] Antonio Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1999), 37. Damasio notes that the Jamesian view of consciousness as fundamentally an inner state of feeling is not "mainstream" nowadays. Gerald Edelman and Giulio Tononi, however, praise and seek to extend Jamesís "prescient notion of consciousness as a process" in A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination (New York: Basic Books, 2000), 18.

[9] I have begun to make the case for attributing to James a kind of global naturalism in William Jamesís Springs of Delight: The Return to Life (Vanderbilt University Press, 2001).

[10] The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy ("Is Life Worth Living?"), The Works of William James, ed. F.H. Burkhardt, F. Bowers, and I. Skrupskelis (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979), 55.

[11] Psychology: Briefer Course. Works (1984), 13.

[12] Essays in Radical Empiricism, Works (1976), 83.

[13] Writings, 447.

[14] David Lodge, Thinks . . . (New York: Viking Penguin, 2001), 187.

[15] William Gavin, Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy newsletter, no. 89 (June 2001), 58.

[16] A Pluralistic Universe, Works (1977), 131.

[17] "On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings," in Talks to Teachers on Psychology and to Students on Some of Lifeís Ideals, Works (1983), 132.

[18] ibid.

[19] ibid.