America v. Cartesianism: William James’ Philosophy in the Poetry of Stevens and Frost
In the first part of this essay, we’ll investigate William James’ pragmatic conception of the mind, i.e., the “stream of thought,” by comparing it with René Descartes’ doctrine of the mind-body duality. Then, we will use James’ conception of the mind to interpret the poem “Not Ideas About the Thing but the Thing Itself” by Wallace Stevens.
In the second part, we will investigate “fallibilism,” the pragmatic concept of inquiry in the philosophy of William James, and compare it with Descartes’ theory of inquiry. However, in this case, we will turn our attention to Robert Frost and his famous poem “The Road Not Taken.”
The aim of this essay is to demonstrate (1) that the poetical themes in the work of Wallace Stevens and Robert Frost express some of the philosophical interests of William James, and (2) that, more in general, literary criticism and philosophical reflection can supplement each other’s gaps in knowledge.
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Descartes had a dualistic conception of reality. He thought that mind and body, sensation and thought, or inside and outside were fundamentally distinct from each other. We can imagine the Cartesian mind as a famous theater in which companies of actresses and musicians are constantly coming and going: the building, as the gathering place, would be the mind, while the companies who successively make their appearance on the stage would be the external bodily sensations.
In contrast, James reimagined the Cartesian mind theater. He thought that neither thought nor matter are the essential constituents of the world. Rather, everything emanates from more primitive stuff that he called “raw experience” (Goodman). In his own words: “Consciousness does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. Words like ‘chain’ or ‘train’ do not fitly describe mental experience. It is nothing jointed; it flows.” (James, 168) Thus, James blurred the sharply delineated Cartesian distinction between our sensations and our thoughts (inside/outside) by unifying them in what he called the stream of thought. James opened the theater’s doors and let everybody flow in and out, like the river and the sea flow into each other.
This unification between sensations and thought is prominent, also, in the poetry of Wallace Stevens; in particular, in his poem “Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself,” which reads as follows:
At the earliest ending of winter,
In March, a scrawny cry from outside
Seemed like a sound in his mind.
He knew that he heard it,
A bird’s cry, at daylight or before,
In the early March wind.
The sun was rising at six,
No longer a battered panache above snow . . .
It would have been outside.
It was not from the vast ventriloquism
Of sleep’s faded papier-mâché . . .
The sun was coming from outside.
That scrawny cry — it was
A chorister whose c preceded the choir.
It was part of the colossal sun,
Surrounded by its choral rings,
Still far away. It was like
A new knowledge of reality.
The poem is an exploration of the relationship between the initial “scrawny cry” and the subject who listened to it (2). In the words of Davis: “The identification of this cry and its source is the main concern of the poem and what he, speaker or listener, and we, reader, make of the cry, both in terms of its source and significance” (104).
In the poem, the ambiguity about the source of the subject’s perception is the first challenge to Cartesianism. For example, in line three, the sound comes “from outside”; in line four it “seemed like a sound in his mind,” namely, from inside, but, in the next stanza, the subject “knew he heard it…in the early March wind” (4, 6). The source alternates from outside to inside, to outside again, making it is impossible to know whether the sound is real, or whether it is just a product of the subject’s imagination.
In the next stanza, Stevens juggles also with visual perception in the form of the image of the sun, but, instead of clarifying the nature of the cry, it increases our uncertainty about the nature of perception in general. In line 7, for example, the speaker declares that “the sun was rising at six”. The use of the verb “to be” in the past progressive indicates certainty, but this certainty is quickly challenged by the use of the same verb in its conditional form in line 9, where the sun only “would have been outside” (9, my italics). In line 12, the speaker comes back to certainty and says that “the sun was coming from outside,” but we should remember that already since line 4 things only “seemed” to be the way they were.
It is clear that Stevens is rebelling against a clean-cut distinction between the mind and the body, but it will not be until the second part of the poem where the influence of James’ “stream of thought” becomes evident. By connecting the bird’s cry with the image of the sun, Stevens, like James, unified auditory and visual perceptions in a single phenomenon.
In line 15, he says that the bird’s cry was “part of the colossal sun”. Then, the sun was “surrounded by its coral rings” (16). And that the cry was “a chorister whose c preceded the choir” (14). We can interpret the choir as being all different types of natural sensations that interact with the subject. In this choir of sensations, the auditory cry was the first one by the subject, and the visual image of the sun might have been central; still, they all take part in the same structure, or in James’ jargon: the flow of raw experience. Moreover, Stevens’ harmonious jumps of the c and s sounds in the passage (from scrawny cry, preceded choir, colossal sun, to choral rings) also convey James’ unification of mental and bodily experience by linking our thoughts through the succession of the pure sounds in their names.
For Stevens, the subject can be at most a “ventriloquist” (10), and his voice pieces of paper and glue, a product “of sleep’s faded papier-mâché” (11).
Now, I will move away from the pragmatic conception of the mind, and investigate, instead, the pragmatic concept of fallibilism in order to interpret the poetry of Robert Frost. Fallibilism is the idea that human beliefs are always open to revision. In this view, the goal of inquiry is not to reach absolute certainty, but to get each time closer to the truth by testing our hypothesis in everyday experience. Fallibilism stands in direct opposition with the thought of René Descartes in two ways. First, because, for Descartes, thought is always more reliable than sensations. The moon, he would argue, looks like a perfect sphere to the eye, but is cratered when seen through a telescope. Second, because he thought he could be completely certain of at least one belief, his famous: “I think, therefore I am”. However, William James argued that, in the first place, there is no real reason to assume that you are being deceived by experience unless experience itself contradicts your beliefs. Even the “I think, therefore I am” is contingent upon the meaning of being, which we understand first and foremost through the flow of raw experience. We could say that, for James, every belief should be “innocent until proven guilty”.
Fallibilism thus tells us that we are justified in holding a belief until it is challenged in experience. But, what happens when we hold a belief that experience is not able to confirm or disconfirm, for example, God or the soul? Are we justified in holding it? In his essay, “The Will to Believe,” James suggested that there are situations in which we are justified in believing the truth of a hypothesis even if have no evidence to support it. In his own words: “Our passional nature not only lawfully may, but must, decide an option between propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds” (James, 233f., my italics).
This situation described by James, I claim, mirrors perfectly the situation described by Robert Frost in his poem “The Road Not Taken,” which reads as follows:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
The first step is showing that the option that the subject of the poem faced was genuine. For James, an option is genuine only if it is living, forced, and momentous. In this case, it is living because both of the roads that “diverged in a yellow wood” (1) appear as feasible possibilities for the traveler. There is no impediment to choose between either of them. Second, the option is forced because the possibility of going back is never mentioned in the poem. He must choose; it is unavoidable. Finally, it is momentous because somehow it “made all the difference” for the traveler (20).
The option is then genuine, but we also need to show why by its nature it could not have been decided on intellectual grounds. Descartes’ theory of inquiry fails because the traveler cannot have a clear and distinct idea of the difference between the two roads. We are told that the traveler “looked down one as far as [he] could” (4) but then “took the other, as just as fair” (6). Even though “long [he] stood” before them (3), he realized that “the passing there / had worn them really about the same / and both that morning equally lay” (11). The pragmatist criterion, however, also fails to decide between the two options. Savoie puts it in this way: “For both James and Frost, such [difference] is consummated not in the framing of a cognitive statement that chooses between possibilities but rather in practical action, in quite simply going on, in physically taking to the road” (21). The traveler is sorry he “could not travel both” (2), and doubts he “should ever come back” (15). Not only does this mean that he could not physically walk both at the same time, but that he will never have the same choice again, just like in life. If only it was possible to go back in time and see what would have been of ourselves if we had chosen a different road.
But, if the traveler could not find a difference between the roads using either Cartesian or pragmatic approaches, how can he so confidently say that it “has made all the difference” (20)? In fact, how does he even know that he took “the one less traveled by” (19)? Is Frost being ironic, or could the traveler be lying to himself? It is neither; the traveler is a pragmatist whose own passional nature has affirmed his own past choices, even at the cost of being wrong. Frost agrees with James in that we are entitled to believe that all our past choices were the best that we could have possibly taken. In other words, we walk in the skin of the best possible of our selves.
In conclusion, the poetry of Stevens and Frost stands in close relationship with the philosophy of William James. In particular, in “Not Ideas about the Thing But the Thing Itself” Stevens used James’ “stream of thought” conception of experience to challenge the Cartesian mind and body duality, and in “The Road Not Taken” Frost used James’ concept of “fallibilism” to challenge the Cartesian presumptions of certainty. Overall, though, all four thinkers share a concern to answer the question: How can I keep going, if I do not know where I am going? While Descartes proposes to suspend all belief until we have a clear idea of who we are, the American thinkers propose to discover the best path by trial and error. Yes, in the end, there will always be doubt, but doubt is the precursor of discovery for the pragmatist. I stand with James, and finish with his closing lines from “The Will to Believe”: “‘Be Strong and of good courage.’ Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes…If death ends all, we cannot meet death any better” (James 241).
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