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How Much?Why Some Things Should Not Be for SaleWisdom, Intuition and EthicsWithout ConscienceWomen and Borderline Personality DisorderWomen and MadnessWondergenesWould You Kill the Fat Man?Wrestling with Behavioral GeneticsWriting About PatientsYou Must Be DreamingYour Genetic DestinyYour Inner FishYouth Offending and Youth Justice Yuck!
This is a slim volume (149 pages,
including an index and introduction) that republishes a special issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies:
controversies in science & the humanities, Vol. 9, No. 9-10,
September/October 2002. It is an
appropriate tribute to William James's The
Varieties of Religious Experience that must be welcomed by all students of
James's works. Each of the
contributors has an agenda that is more or less separable from understanding Varieties, so their essays can be
appreciated for the agenda as well as for the light they shine on James's
Eugene Taylor's scholarly ''William
James and Depth Psychology'' presents James as committed to a school of depth
psychology, a different one from the psychoanalytic school of Freud and
others. Taylor refers to psychoanalysis
as ''the orphaned stepchild of the previous era'' and describes it as ''the
only language of depth psychology admitted into the flow of modern discourse''
(31). Because James's school died and
the surviving school ''has never been considered legitimate science,'' and also
because his 1896 Lowell Lecture on Exceptional Mental States was never
published as a book by itself, Taylor reckons that modern readers are likely to
fail to appreciate the influence of James's depth psychology on his Varieties.
Assessing this interpretation is
aided by a distinction between shallow
unconscious mental states and deep
ones. A shallow unconscious mental
state is simply a disposition of the central nervous system to give rise to
conscious mental states, comparable to the solubility of a sugar cube. A sugar cube's solubility does not consist
in internal, shadowy acts of dissolution, but merely in its dissolving when
immersed in water. Similarly a shallow
unconscious thought that such-and-such does not consist in an internal, shadowy
''version'' of that thought, but rather in one's being disposed to have the
conscious thought that such-and-such when awake, when asked appropriate
questions, etc. A deep unconscious
mental state on the other hand is allegedly an internal, shadowy version of the
conscious mental state, one that may be so suppressed that it is no more
capable of rising to consciousness than a stone is liable to dissolve in
water. It is arguable (I have argued it
in The Unity of William James's Thought
[Vanderbilt: Vanderbilt University Press, 2002]) that the sort of unconscious
mind that fits James's way of thinking is the shallow kind. If that's right, Taylor's depth-psychology
reading of James is sound to the extent that depth psychology is about shallow
unconscious mind. His essay does not
settle this issue.
Eleanor Rosch's interesting if unfortunately titled ''How to Catch
James's Mystic Germ'' does not exhibit a similar ambiguity in its elaboration
of James's view that there is more to mind and experience than is given by
''normal waking consciousness.'' She
dismisses ''traditional psychoanalysis'' as for theorizing the unconscious as
''a homunculus with the same kinds of goals and activities as the conscious''
(38). Nor is she impressed by the
unconscious as it figures in experimental psychology and cognitive science,
''brain processes and other low level cognitive phenomena denuded of human
experiential import'' (38), which she joins James in calling ''medical
materialism'' and making us feel, in James's words, ''menaced and negated in
the springs of our innermost life'' (38).
Her difference with James is that she wishes to locate the mystical in
ordinary experience, along lines laid out by Eastern religious and meditative
traditions, especially Buddhism. I
think she has a valid point. But is it
possible that the mystical has two
locations, one in ordinary experience understood as intimating the ineffable,
one in ''special states of mind'' that are different from normal waking
G. William Barnard's helpful ''The
Varieties of Religious Experience: Reflections On Its Enduring Value''
concerns itself with constructivism about mystical experience, which he
understands as the view that such experiences ''are always filtered through,
and formed by, the mystic's tacit, internalized cultural symbolic structures,
structures that are operative during the experience itself'' (58). He rejects ''complete constructivism,''
which interprets mystical experience as ''one hundred percent shaped,
determined, and provided by the mystic's cultural framework'' (58), from
''incomplete constructivism,'' which claims that some aspects of the mystical
experience are provided by something else, which Bernard explains by reference
to James's distinction between knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge-about. This seems on the right track, but it would
be worthwhile to consider whether the idea of knowledge-by-acquaintance fails
to separate consciousness of the
''something else'' from what James sometimes called ''sciousness,'' a state in
which one experiences things without internalizing them into the stream of
consciousness or externalizing them as physical objects. Arguably (See Cooper, cited above) the
latter is the kind of experience that James associates with mysticism. It's not clear that Barnard would accept
such a ''something else'' as figuring in incomplete constructivism, though his
definition of it can be read so that ''sciousness'' qualifies as such.
postmodernist-to-the-max ''Ineffable Experience'' interprets James through the
lens of the twentieth century's linguistic turn, particularly as wending its
way toward views that countenance no ontology ''beyond the text.'' So he writes, for instance, that ''From a
post-positivist perspective, we do not know 'facts' about reality,'' and ''it
is not reality that speaks to us, it is the documents of a consensus among a
community about what counts as real'' (83).
I don't think one needs to be a positivist to contest such views, but
one can appreciate how, given Brockmeier's twist on the linguistic turn,
James's radical empiricism, committed as it is to a world of pure experience
beyond our representations of it, must ''fail to capture a fundamental
dimension of the phenomena under examination'' (85).
Keith Oakley and Maja Djikic's
''Emotions and Transformation: Varieties of Experience of Identity'' argues
that ''the most original and far-reaching idea of James's 1902 book is that of
the functions of emotions. Not only are
emotions central to human motivation and personality, but changes of life from
one emotional centre to another are themselves fundamentally, and consciously,
emotional'' (101-2). They present this
idea as at odds with James's (the James-Lange) theory of emotion, according to
which, they say, ''an emotion is a perception, an outcome, not a mental cause''
(98). But it's arguable that this
diagnosis overstates the counter-intuitive implications of James's theory of
emotion. That we are angry because we
strike, and so on, changes a particular order of sequence that common sense
assumes, but it doesn't necessarily follow that emotions are thereby stripped
of causal powers beyond this sequence; they could bring about life-changing
transformations, in particular.
Michel Ferrari's poignant ''William
James and the Denial of Death'' replies persuasively on James's behalf to
several objections to his defense of immortality. As well, he brings the discussion up to current research into
artificial intelligence and cryogenics.
One appreciates the (bare) possibility that this work might achieve
something approaching immortality. But
his concluding suggestions, notably the view that "through artifacts like
books and photographs, people live on" (135), runs afoul of Woody Allen's
point, that one does not want to achieve immortality through one's children or
books, but by not dying. But anyone who
is familiar with James's ouvre has to sympathize with what Ferrari is trying to
say here. James fashioned a great gift
that speaks to us still.
2003 Wesley Cooper
Cooper, Ph.D., Dept Philosophy, University of Alberta, Canada