The Democratic Importance of William James (a dialogue with T. Gerber)
Timofei’s Gerber’s essay published in the July issue of Epoché, “The Pragmatism of William James,” captures the intended spirit of James all too well, and there are no flaws either in his exposition concerning James or just how much James’s philosophy should be more relevant to both the institutionalization of academic philosophy and a revitalization of philosophy’s purpose to connect problems of life and choice with vital questions of philosophy’s subject matter. It’s clear that Gerber’s phrasing of vital questions should include within it existential questions, and I would have exploited that connection more readily to enrich, perhaps, the scholarly connections possible between American pragmatism and French and German existentialism. However, I am not writing for this point. Instead, I want to draw the readers of Epoché to a wonderful tiny passage that needs unpacking. In the passage below, these are points left underdeveloped because an essay cannot address everything mentioned. Let me cite the passage I wish to emphasize from Gerber’s essay:
“Contrary to empiricism, [Jamesian pragmatism] doesn’t exclusively accept sensory data, and contrary to rationalism, it does not exclusively accept logic. It can integrate personal and mystic experience because each one of them has something to offer: it is about enriching our experience, and all that opens ourselves up to the world and others enriches us. This is the democratic aspect of pragmatism that James underlines on many occasions.1placeholder”
Gerber is right that James is weaving a middle path in his Pragmatism lectures. He is weaving between, on the one hand, an empiricism that sees discrete objects as static and reported in terms of their ontological separation in sense datum to an isolated perceiving subject and, on the other, a rationalism that prejudges an enchanted whole where all difference of what is experienced is absorbed into the unity of a type of transcendental idea like the Absolute Mind of British Hegelianism. In the first, all things are separate and not in relation except through sense datum and the second ignores the relative separation to ignore any creative novelty in experience. Thus, James wants to be a type of empiricist that can aim to ignore the mechanistic vision and ontological separation of objects on the one hand and preserve the range of possible experiences without absorbing them into a unity that eradicates difference. A unity that eradicates difference is imposed through the logic of some transcendental idea. The world’s differences become fixed by being versions of the Absolute Mind. One might say that the attendant philosophy of James’s metaphysics of experience—what he called radical empiricism—posits an experiencing subject who is an individual, but an individual in relation to others and the world. In effect, we might call this a person-in-community.
So when we mine mystical experience for some purpose of enriching experience, mystical experience reveals fleeting glimpses into a dynamic whole James calls the much-at-onceness. The much-at-onceness is the totality of all relations at any one time. In the much-at-onceness, the position of all relata, persons and objects, enter into within experience as relations only. Other terms relate to other terms in relations independently of me and the ones that I experience are in relation to me. Right now, a process at the heart of the sun heats my planet. Somewhere in the distant cosmos, a star goes supernova or a flower blooms on Earth. James will call these aspects the quasi-chaos of nature, and it is, as Gerber described, “a world of relations.” Of course, I am giving examples of relation in a scientific register of experience. There are implications for describing our human social reality through this relational ontology of radical empiricism.
The deepest effect this relational ontology of radical empiricism implicates is that there are none of those atomic individuals that we see in either the blank slates of John Locke’s empiricism or the self-contained souls of Cartesian metaphysics—what became the default philosophies in which libertarians and Christians swim. The person can never be an isolated atomic individual as perhaps some libertarians embrace, or as some Abrahamic religious believers may posit (the individual as a completely-formed soul). Instead, James posits a relational person who is in constant relation to aspects of her experience and the experience of others. In this way, James’s theory of experience is connected to, in Gerber’s words, the “democratic aspect of pragmatism.” James’s metaphysics of experience foregrounds an optimistic belief in the way human relations obtain between other human beings and offers a conception of experience for the possibility of democratic living.
A democratic society is inherently pluralistic. There are many contentious interpretations of ways a policy or policies may generate consequences and pose remedy or difficulty for the way in which persons can be enriched or impoverished. Persistent conflict follows from the pluralism of experience itself. At the heart of democracy is a belief in the creative potential in persons as experiencers and the novelty they may enact within experience. There is hope for solutions that may generate consensus and even partial consensus. All this optimism is an embrace of James’s meliorism, which cannot be conceived if we do not embrace how others with whom I am in relation can produce and add to my experience and how I, in turn, might add to your experience. For this reason, pragmatism’s implicit optimism and simultaneous embrace of what Gerber called interconnectedness cannot be overstated.
The pragmatic upshot of this metaphysical vision is more important than ever. The very foundation of the American Constitutional Republic is at stake in either thinking of social reality as including the perspectives, relations, or experiences of others or insisting upon one absolute vision of how the United States ought to be governed. As it stands now, our two political parties are choosing vastly different political ideas, and while the Democratic party remains too centered in the prospects of its economic vision (what I call multicultural capitalism), the social vision of the Democrats includes within it some tolerance (and regrettably not enough) for how others might choose to relate to others. The Republican Party has abandoned any civic efforts of honoring the right of conscience for Evangelical Christianity and its unrestrained populism. According to most Republicans, the American people should accept only their conservative way of life and the social, political, and economic imaginary of Americans is, then, subjected to power of this one tyrannous vision that cloaks authoritarian impulse through the exercise of power-only politics that have become nihilistic while dressed in the appearance of Christianity. President Trump’s affair with the adult film star, Stormy Daniels, had no large impact on his support from Evangelical Christians despite undermining the sanctity of marriage.
As we move towards the future, a relational ontology that envisions persons as persons-in-community is crucial, because a person can never be without being in relation to other terms and persons in the world. If I live in a city that makes it illegal for a tent city to be on public land (as my city of Baton Rouge recently did here in Louisiana), then the city is trying to make poverty illegal. Poverty is an ever-present result of designing social and economic hierarchies as we do, and so it becomes a performative contradiction to make the result of our economic relations illegal (in the form of tent encampments in parks and under highway overpasses, in this example) despite the processes and relations sorting a spectrum of haves from have-nots. We design and participate and thereby renew practices that result in degrees of wealth and poverty. And yet if we acknowledge that this is how we envision these social and economic institutions, should we renew, participate, and reconstitute this as our vision for what economies should do? For these institutions deflect any talk of reform under the guise of individual freedom, and that freedom is never reflected in the relational way we experience our world, but in the interpretation of human beings that emphasizes the atomic individual only—the atomic individual devoid of standing in relation to any one person. According to James, the individual is merely a reification of a set of unfolding relations at a specific time.
A person is the result and response to the relations of others and the ready-made interpretations of meaning that are part of the world prior to our arrival. In this way, a person-in-community emphasizes just how every person is implicated in relation to others. If I engage in a practice that is harming the environment and contributing to the suffering of others, then I may be more convinced of that harm if I can understand how I am in a nexus, a Kingian “garment of destiny” that shares in relation to others what will be true for all of us. What’s more, I may regard the madness of the January 6th conservative simpletons as embracing an ideology that they do not want to share the world with others. This lack of sharing the world with difference is seen when these insurrectionists are pictured wearing shirts that say “6 million is not enough” and donning confederate flags for a white nationalist America. They trade in white supremacy resulting in both antiblack racism and antisemitism, and they insist often that women should be subordinate to them. These people now command large attention in the base of the Republican Party. They utilize the aesthetics of Christianity, the resources of an angry and wrathful God bent on hell to achieve purity of politics, and the wealth of their Protestant majority.
The lesson is simple. Unless we can see how deeply connected we are in relation to each other, the prospect of what little value our democratic institutions possess may be all but obliterated for an ethic that squashes difference wherever it rears its head. If we take James seriously, people will always disagree and experience the world differently. Since the relations of our social reality are implicated by being in relation to all, we should choose politics that take seriously the depth of pluralism and significance of these relations. When we do, we see that the freedom to experience novelty is entirely possible. What’s more, we can experiment with how these relations are unfolding, and if we find we are doing more harm than good, we can experiment in some new way to bring about a new set of relations. Thus, a democratic mindset is possible if we see the deep interconnected world of relations and just how contingently constructed our world is.
When we respond to the world of relations, we can bring about new ones and if in our response the idea is so good, it can become a habit. If a habit, it can become an institution. However, such a democratic world must embrace the relational ontology as the underlying way in which meanings are formed out of our practices. We can only do this in a world that respects persons enough to sustain a vision of interconnection with them and we can only be responsive to a world of problem-solving if we honor a commitment to value the experience of others, especially with those who experience a world in a problematic way we cannot see. By respecting difference and the possible insights of another’s completely different experience, I protect myself from universalizing aspects of my own experience unnecessarily, which would hinder the expression of another person’s freedom to relate to the world in a novel way. At the same time, we soften the blow of absolute dogmatisms that eradicate difference by being reminded that not all people value and share in our own vision. Thus, Jamesian pragmatism suggests that we cannot be blind to the perspectives of others, and we must humble ourselves before all the ways the world can be valued. If we do not accept these limitations and embrace the relational ontology of human experience, democracy may not be possible as a set of freedoms and practices governing our politics or the mindset to address all systemic failures.
Gerber, T., (2022) “The Pragmatism of William James“, Epoché Magazine, #54 July.