Monday, December 24, 2007

Incidents from the Biography of William James

A Quality Analysis. Part I: Dynamic Quality in Thinking

Comments on: William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism, by Robert D. Richardson, Boston, 2006.


In 1884 William James published an article in the journal Mind, arguing for a "pluralistic, restless universe" which is not amenable to a single or unified perspective. In the issue that followed, J.S. Haldane, the biologist, offered a modernized version of the idea of entelechy, or design. [1] As Richardson summarized it, "Noting how some creatures can regrow lost limbs and how cut nerves can regenerate, Haldane argued that we should regard the body not as separate parts with separate functions but as a whole [which] operates ‘through and through’ an organism, affecting and directing every part of it." [p. 248]

In the next issue, James attacked this idea from Haldane’s article. In "Absolutism and Empiricism" he defended "irrationalism," or what he called "respect for fact before system." As Richardson puts it, it was "another way to register his opposition to what he saw as neo-scholastic rationalism. ‘Fact,’ he says, ‘sets a limit to the ‘through and though’ character of the world’s rationality."

I believe we can apply Quality analysis in two places here. The first instance deals with Quality in the sense of wholeness, to which Haldane was referring in the case of organisms, and the second analysis discusses the "fitting-ness" or appropriateness (Quality) of James’s response to Haldane.

We do not experience Quality as a ‘part’ of something. Quality implies the Whole in the sense of its characteristic or essential nature. [2] The whole-and-part issue is a long-standing and legitimate question in biology and relates to the question of how a potential life becomes actual and how, or if, there is an overall guiding form or idea. Darwinists imagined that they had put this question forever back in the trash bin of history, but such has not been the case, and entelechy or design has re-emerged with renewed strength in modern microbiology. The staggering complexity of life at the cellular and sub-cellular levels has shown up the simplifications of Darwinism and the Darwinist model is proving to be next to useless. [3]

In any case, the question of the entelechy or guiding form of an organism does not have a direct bearing on issues of consciousness or psychology, and these were James’s primary interests at the time. Only in the sense of the historical development of science would this issue be connected with classical metaphysics, something that James was very much opposed to. In that light he saw the Haldane piece as a threat, saying that "The one fundamental quarrel Empiricism has with Absolutism is the repudiation by Absolutism of the personal and esthetic factor in the construction of philosophy."

But what does "the personal or esthetic factor in the construction of philosophy" have to do with Haldane’s article? The "personal factor" is not a concern of a regenerating nerve, although it would be of major concern to a young person deciding upon a career or to a philosopher attempting to enunciate a new view of philosophy. The charge of absolutism is a strong one to make against the idea of the way an organism regenerates, achieves and maintains its integrity.

James was very interested in the relation of consciousness to the nervous system. He once pointed to the fact that consciousness is the means by which an organism that possesses a complex nervous system offsets the tendency of that system towards mechanism. Haldane was apparently discussing only that mechanism, i.e., an important aspect of Biological Quality.
James’s critique of Haldane thus seems to me an imposition of an analogy appropriate to the domain of Intellectual Quality onto the realm of Biological Quality.

By way of contrast, consider what James once said about the Grand Canyon—"it had a unity of design that makes it seem like an individual, an animated being." Why was James able to accept the design premise with the Grand Canyon and not with a biological organism?

This question would lead to a fascinating discourse on the history of Western thinking about Nature. Why was the sense of participating in an "animated being" true of the Grand Canyon but not true for an organism or biological being? Note how for James the Grand Canyon still possessed ‘Dynamic Quality,’ that is, it was participated. But this participated sense for Dynamic Quality once lived in mankind also in respect to the creatures and organisms of Nature. It comprises a large part of myth and folklore, it appears in legends the world over, most normal children even today experience a bit of it, and it existed as late as the Middle Ages in the West, where it was also an important element in philosophical reasoning. [5.] Barfield (see note below) remarks that St. Thomas Aquinas uses the world ‘participation’ on almost every page. It was such a common tool of his philosophical reasoning that he did not even feel the necessity of defining it.

The story of modern science is in many ways the story of the diminishing, dimming-down, or ousting of this participant relation to Nature. This is actually what we mean strictly by the "subject-object metaphysics." In this subject-object metaphysics the living world appears as ‘substance’ and living organisms have been, or are in the process of being, reduced to mere quantities of ‘atomic matter.’

That William James could feel something coherent, living and animated about the Grand Canyon, but not for the living organisms of Haldane’s examples, is a telling instance of just how far this atomization of Nature had become the common assumption in his day. In today’s world, where the integrity of the natural order is threatened on every side, and where the "mix ‘n match" attitude of modern scientists to the genetic inheritances of the earth’s creatures is cause for real alarm, this process of the de-cohering of the natural order is even more advanced. Indeed, the classical metaphysical notion of integral form may offer the only real possibility for restoring a stewardship attitude toward nature instead of the exploitative one that reigns today.

Reviving this way of looking at things will demand a more conscious awareness of human participation in nature. This more conscious participation would mean the cultivation of ‘Dynamic Quality’ in thinking. It would mean learning how to inform thinking with something of the life, coherence, and animated being of the living world . It is a "thinking-with" more than a "thinking-about."

I think William James would have been sympathetic to this, for in many ways his philosophy aims at the restoration of "Life in the form of Mind." [6] That he missed Haldane's point in this instance is a reminder of how often blind spots and personal preoccupations freighted with historical assumptions can cloud and confuse the enterprise of philosophy.

[1] Entelechy – that by which potential becomes actual; the form or perfection of something.
[2] Contrast with the quantitative, where the parts of something are merely external to one another (Aristotle). Living organisms, on the other hand, show a purposeful or coherent (qualitative) arrangement of parts ( Behe).
[3] See Michael Behe, Darwin’s Black Box (1996); The Edge of Evolution (2007); Michael Denton, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis (1985).
[5] See Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances (pub. 1959 in Great Britain). See my review, reposted in "From the Catacombs-Archives."
[6] S.T. Coleridge's characterization of the "I."