Friday, November 6, 2009

James bio - 9

Principles of Psychology is published in September 1890, to great acclaim... "an American masterpiece" (J. Barzun), "evoking vividly the very life of the mind" (G. Santayana), "the most intelligent book on psychology that has ever appeared," widely lauded for its literary style, its substantive contributions to our understanding of consciousness, and its philosophy. For instance: the heroic mind "can stand this universe... can still find a zest in it, not by ostrich-like forgetfulnes, but by a pure inward willingness to take the world" on its own terms and fight the good fight to ameliorate its problems. This is precisely the form of fight and heroism exemplified by nine courageous schoolchildren in Arkansas in 1957.

Another child is born to the James family, after a miscarriage. (The oldest was now eleven.) Brother Henry is at the peak of his novelistic notoriety and productivity.

Sister Alice continues her mysterious downhill slide. Brother and sister exchange remarkable letters around this time, neither of them blinking at the prospect of her demise but facing it candidly:

"It may seem odd for me to talk to you in this cool way about your end," he writes, but if one has things present to one's mind, why not speak them out?" He tells his sister to take as much morphine as she needs to dull the pain of dying. She replies in kind. "It is the most supremely interesting moment in life..." Richardson is right, the James family style (from which brother Henry most often digressed) involved "scorching directness," "avidity for experience," honesty and intensity.

The next significant publication, in 1891, would become one of James's most influential essays-- "The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life." It includes this marvelous, lucid account of the basis of morality and justice here on the "rock" we call planet Earth:

Were all other things, gods and men and starry heavens, blotted out from this universe, and were there left but one rock with two loving souls upon it, that rock would have as thoroughly moral a constitution as any possible world which the eternities and immensities could harbor. It would be a tragic constitution, because the rock's inhabitants would die. But while they lived, there would be real good thing and real bad things in the universe; there would be obligations, claims, and expectations; obediences, refusals, and disappointments; compunctions, and longings for harmony to come again, and inward peace of conscience when it was restored; there would, in short, be a moral life, whose active energy would have no limit but the intensity of interest in each other with which the hero and heroine might be endowed.

We, on this terrestrial globe, so far as the visible facts go, are just like the inhabitants of such a rock. Whether a God exist, or whether no God exist, in yon blue heaven above us bent, we form at any rate an ethical republic here below. And the first reflection which this leads to is that ethics have as genuine and real a foothold in a universe where the highest consciousness is human, as in a universe where there is a God as well. "The religion of humanity" affords a basis for ethics as well as theism does.

James was anything but hostile to religion, as we'll see in future Varieties of Religious Experience installments of the James biography. But he would be in agreement with contemporary secularists like Austin Dacey who "want to put God out of the ethics business."

It is at about this time that James ventures into the Blue Ridge mountains of Carolina and proclaims Mount Mitchell "the most beautiful forest walk (only five hours) I ever made." He climbs Roan Mountain and Grandfather Mountain as well, and declares the roads thereabouts "the only roads I have seen in America which resemble the great Swiss roads."

On this trip he encounters mountaineers and loggers whose inner lives, he learns, he'd been blind to. This becomes the inspiration for "On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings," the essay he later calls his favorite.

I said to the mountaineer who was driving me, "What sort of people are they who have to make these new clearings?" "All of us," he replied. "Why, we ain't happy here, unless we are getting one of these coves under cultivation." I instantly felt that I had been losing the whole inward significance of the situation. Because to me the clearings spoke of naught but denudation, I thought that to those whose sturdy arms and obedient axes had made them they could tell no other story. But, when they looked on the hideous stumps, what they thought of was personal victory. The chips, the girdled trees, and the vile split rails spoke of honest sweat, persistent toil and final reward. The cabin was a warrant of safety for self and wife and babes. In short, the clearing, which to me was a mere ugly picture on the retina, was to them a symbol redolent with moral memories and sang a very p├Žan of duty, struggle, and success.

I had been as blind to the peculiar ideality of their conditions as they certainly would also have been to the ideality of mine, had they had a peep at my strange indoor academic ways of life at Cambridge.

Wherever a process of life communicates an eagerness to him who lives it, there the life becomes genuinely significant. Sometimes the eagerness is more knit up with the motor activities, sometimes with the perceptions, sometimes with the imagination, sometimes with reflective thought. But, wherever it is found, there is the zest, the tingle, the excitement of reality; and there is 'importance' in the only real and positive sense in which importance ever anywhere can be.

In the early to mid '90s James gives a series of talks to teachers in Boston, eventually collected in Talks to Teachers on Psychology, and to Students on Some of Life's Ideals:

Spinoza long ago wrote in his Ethics that anything that a man can avoid under the notion that it is bad he may also avoid under the notion that something else is good. He who habitually acts sub specie mali, under the negative notion, the notion of the bad, is called a slave by Spinoza. To him who acts habitually under the notion of good he gives the name of freeman.

Richardson evokes the man, his passion, and his ideals as he implores his young teachers-in-training:

See to it now, I beg you, that you make freemen of your pupils by habituating them to act, whenever possible, under the notion of a good.

James here lays claim to being the first, and the best, "Positive Psychologist."

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