Philosophies of Disconnection: Cynicism and the Failure of Critique

This paper seeks to examine the notion of critique from the standpoint of a Jamesian philosophy of relations.  Elaborating upon insights found in James's philosophy, I hope to develop a response to contemporary cynicism about personal, social, and political possibilities.  I will maintain that James's later philosophy of radical empiricism, when viewed more as a way of living than as an answer to a narrow set of epistemological questions, can provide ameliorative ways of engaging in the critique of ourselves, our personal relations, and our institutions.

I will focus on James's metaphysical work in his Essays in Radical Empiricism, supplementing this published work with a brief examination of the "field theory" expounded in his earlier lecture notes.  The guiding concern here shall be to discern what problems James's metaphysics was designed to expose and/or resolve.  I will show that James's ongoing disdain for the abstract, lifeless qualities of the philosophical alternatives presented to him combines with his sense of the concrete urgency of philosophical inquiry to induce him to formulate a new metaphysical hypothesis, one which emphasizes continuities, possibilities, and relation over and against unity, essence, and dualism.

The first section of the paper will examine some of the many varieties of cynical responses to the vicissitudes of living in an attempt to get clear on the meaning, or meanings, of the notion of cynicism.  After briefly addressing the origins of cynicism in Greek thought, I will turn to America in James's time, surveying the political and social landscape through his eyes and through the eyes of other cultural commentators.  Here I will portray James's quest for a "moral life" as a search for meaningful individuality in a world caught between supernaturalism, and its cynicism concerning the mortal life, and materialism, with its cynicism concerning the efficacy of human will.  Lastly, I will examine contemporary cynical attitudes, especially those evident in the excesses of both scientism and religious fundamentalism which, in their extreme (but widely held) forms, tell us in innumerable ways that most of our experience is quite simply a sham.

In the second section, I will attempt something of an etiology of cynicism. Employing James's contention that "the whole function of philosophy ought to be to find out what definite difference it will make to you and me, at definite instants of our life, if this world-formula or that world-formula be the true one," and the corresponding belief that "there can be no difference anywhere that doesn't make a difference elsewhere,"[i] I will treat the attitude of cynicism as a consequence of certain philosophies. Working from the Jamesian conviction that our philosophies have real effects for personal and social life, I will explore the beliefs common to a variety of cynical attitudes.  I will contend that behind each of these forms lies a philosophy that has at its heart a non-relational approach to the natural and/or social world.  Employing James's diagnosis of the spectrum of philosophical positions whose poles may be roughly categorized as idealism and materialism, I will offer that the cynical attitude is a consequence of philosophies of disconnection.  Whether it be the disconnection of body and mind, subject and object, or the diremption of intersubjectivity, I will demonstrate that the failure of these philosophies to provide an account of the reality of relations, the reality of temporal change, and the reality of possibilities, manifests itself in varying degrees and types of cynicism.

The final section is concerned with the consequences of these cynical attitudes for the notion of critique.  Some of the topics of concern here are political apathy, anti-intellectualism, and personal isolation and alienation as they are tied to various forms of cynical disbelief in the power of human experience to find, fashion, and critique meanings. Elaborating upon James's insight that experience is relational, I seek to show that those philosophies which overlook or deny this relationality undermine their ability to provide adequate means for critique.  Specifically, I hold that a major obstacle to effective critical activity lies in the propagation of cynical attitudes via various philosophies which have at their heart a commitment to disconnection, be it disconnection from the social or the natural world.  I offer that the cynical response to personal and social problems is ineffective precisely because it proposes to disengage itself from the affairs it wishes to critique.

[i] William James, Pragmatism, The Works of William James, Frederick Burkhardt, and Fredson Bowers, eds. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978), p.30.