Saturday, June 13, 2015

James and Hume, semi-reconciled

Podcast. Went walking and pedaling this morning with the question of whether David Hume's "common life" cure for sadness ("I dine, I play a game of back-gammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends" etc.) is cheating, somehow. Is it the mere simulacrum of happiness, "a trick, a sham, an illusion?"

No, I don't think so. I agree with William James about "the lustre of the present hour" always standing in relief against a backdrop of alternative possibilities, but strongly resist the insinuation that theistic/supernatural possibilities possess plausibility enough to invalidate the genuinely happy (though "common") experiences of everyday life. The pleasures of dining, gaming, and socializing are as real as anything we know. Unless you're suffering a serious chemical imbalance, you'd have to be dangling at least one foot in the insubstantial hypothetical Empyrean otherworld, to be so desensitized to them.

James's point was not that heaven is real, but that there are individuals among us who so vividly entertain its possibility that its contrast with common life is capable of casting a despondent shadow and (again) turning us into "melancholy metaphysicians." I don't think he meant to repudiate Hume's cure.

I also wondered about Yeats and Inisfree, which might be taken as a paean to heaven but also as a celebration of the more common and grounded pleasures of pounding and pedaling upon gray pavement. I take it that latter way, as a statement of loyalty to life here and now, a proclamation that the poet is at home in the natural universe.

I hope that those who dream of a supernatural heaven will not renounce or neglect what James called the earth of things, too. Because for us humans the most vital question remains the fate of life on this rock and not in some transcendent cloud, the seductive so-called "glories of the upper ether" must be regarded with healthy Humean skepticism. When he wasn't bending over backward to accommodate the varieties of others' experience, James was a pretty good Humean skeptic himself. He too was a practitioner of the common life cure.

Another mundane thought of the reality of common life crowded in on these reflections this morning, as I pounded and pedaled: simple admiration for Older Daughter's work ethic, and inspiration from her example. She's been putting in long hours at her summer job, and was catching up on much-needed sleep early this morning as I drafted my dawn post. Then the phone rang, and she was almost immediately out the door and back at it, cheerfully pushing that rock. Right at home.

No comments: Accelerating Intelligence News