Class Notes 3/24

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Recording March 24, 2010
House of Wits
William James: Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results

Field Trip: Morris Woods, Friendship Bench, Harriton Cemetery

Pictures from Harriton Cemetery website- will put some up that are particular to us

Anything to say about the trip?
Julia likes visiting cemeteries.

Back to the work at hand: read conclusions and postscript from The Varieties of Religious Experience, and an online essay The PhD Octopus- look for a Bryn Mawr connection!

Next Wednesday and the Following Monday- Paul Jefferson- Haverford History professor, Harvard dissertation on the Metaphysical Club- knows William pretty well- demanding and will expect us to come prepared. Warned- dialectical roughhousing, not interested in dysfunctional gentility (aka do the reading and come with thoughts). We will be reading Charles Peirce.

Apparently we’re pretty finicky (commence 5 minutes of whining about the Peirce essays being printed upside down and stapled at the bottom corner).

Think about Peirce essays as the source from which James departed, think about what Philosophy is, what it is to think, the genealogy of thinking we see when we look at James’ account and Peirce’s account.

Louis Manan’s The Metaphysical Club- intellectual history of the pragmatists- apparently encountering James unmediated is pedagogically suspect, so read Manan’s text for context (what are modern thinkers saying?)


Looking back on the Will to Believe...

Anne: Looking  back at the Will to Believe- Isabelle’s quote. If trains are robbed by highway men because each of us functions as an individual, what in James’ view of the world--- how do you move from the idiosyncratic individual self?

Katherine: Highwaymen have a common goal, so their streams of consciousness are friendly with one another, running parallel toward the goal. All passengers have been interrupted and are scrambling, nobody has the same ideas. Cooperation would be the goal and the plan.

Anne: struck that Isabelle flagged this example as a point where James calls for cooperation as necessary for the functioning of modern society.  Every institution betrays the ideals of its founders, the act of institutionalizing an idea means eventually betraying it. Striking and helpful in thinking about individuality, not particularly helpful when thinking about social experience.

Anne: Calamity’s quote: make reasonable, not right decisions, attainable argument. Embrace your errors, don’t try to be right, just try to be reasonable. Reassuring argument.

Today we are going on to (a very appropriate) essay about philosophers making blazes through the woods (field trip through the woods!)

Addressed to the philosophical union at UCLA- one in a pair of very important essays delivered as talks to philosophy clubs.
Everybody will read a paragraph. Anne is not impressed by our public reading skills, read as though you are speaking, get the sonorous voice of William James in the room. Read more slowly and more fully, take time to attend to it and we’ll see where it takes us.


Anne: So, you’ve just gone to a lecture by William James. You are now having tea with your friends, what have you learned from the lecture?

Julia: trying to destroy traditional philosophy as we know it! These great questions of metaphysics. There is no way to adjudicate the great debates in philosophy without there being first-order action, philosophy should be about questions that we can actually answer by experience.

Anne: OR give us answers that we can test by experience (if the questions are abstract). Philosphy has been pie in the sky arguments, James wants us to engage with a different kind of philosophy called pragmatism, throwing out the most metaphysical questions. Likes the empiricist, not the rationalist. What else caught your attention?

Kylee: Use of term "cash value”. Not a big fan of this theory personally, but the term drove home the idea of ideas as money changing hands.

Anne: That is one of his famous phrases. Have any of you taken philosophy classes?

Kaitlin: Historical ancient philosophy with Aristotle and Plato

Anne: Was Julia’s description an apt definition of what happened in that class?

Kaitlin: I don’t think so. You’re talking about the republic, it might not be tied directly to our personal lives, but with ancient philosophy it’s tied into what our society is based on.

Anne: Thinking about our thinking in order to change out acting, value of the ideas can be measured by the change they exercise in the world, right? Yes. What other reactions?

Julia: I felt the natural scientist coming out in him strongly when he talked about materialism, reminded me of the final chapter of Darwin’s Origin of Species.

Anne: James has quite a bit of Darwin in his reading journals, interested in the fluidity of how thoughts inspired one another, evolutionary quality of thinking. James is saying there is materialism and then there’s theism (no internal moral order vs. internal moral order). James is not a materialist, the notion of God has a practical consequence, it guarantees that there is an ideal order, we need to believe in that.

Anne: Act differently and with more hope about the possibilities of your life, which will change the course of your life. The test of pragmatism is action. Thinking for James is only important because of the actions belief generates, thinking in and of itself doesn’t matter at all. Kylee, can you expand upon why you dislike this?

Kylee: I see where he’s going with the materialism vs theism and I agree that theism gives you more hope, but I kind of got this feeling that pragmatism is the value of something, it’s only worth something if it makes something happen. Exestential crisis with education, where the value hasn’t been explored but rather funneled through and stopping streams and funneling thoughts into a pragmatic tool of society.

Anne: careful with definition of pragmatism- bigger, theistic, spiritual vision of pragmatism in this essay.

Marina: What is practicalism/pragmatism? I don’t know if I can put it into words. I guess, from what I got from what I was reading last night is he thinkgs that basically practicalism is not truth exactly but going towards something that is true, on a path but not hitting truth. The whole point is that nothing is true, you can’t get to the truth, you can only go in its general direction.

Katherine: I thought that what is true for this essay is the thought that yields practical value or ation are true but thoughts that don’t have any consequence aren’t true.

Anne: We can always test any truth claim with a practical test or experiment. I think we need an example.

Katherine: Work through example James gives? The proper trail? If you’re saying "please open the door" or "damn you open the door," they’re two different meanings and sort of two different waves of thinking about getting the door open, but the end result is opening the door, so can we talk about it?

Anne: All right, "please open the door" and "damn you open the door" mean something very different. What’s the different meaning of those two sentences?

Julia: command vs. request.

Katherine: positive vs. negative

Kaitlin: "Please open the door" contains no damning anyone. "Damn you open the door" has two actions, damnation being the first one.

Anne: What else can you say about the different meanings?

Relle: if you would like to, lack of urgency/force in “please”, damn you inspires urgency.

Anne: Different relationships between speaker and spoken to, imperative command vs. light request, but then he goes onto say “thus to develop a thought’s meaning, we need only determine what conduct it is fitted to produce. That conduct is for us its sole significance.” So what conduct will be produced between the sentences? What is the practical difference between them?

Kylee: Even though you’re in a bad mood, and please may take more effort, you are more likely to get what you want.

Anne: How does truth operate in this situation? What is true in either of these cases?

Alex: When we were talking about "damn you open the door", were we talking about the genuine forced options? Can’t feel indifferent, will either be repulsed or threatened, could it be where truth comes in? Truth is like the genuine forced option? Much less likely to feel indifferent if the request is more forceful.

Julia: Someone swearing implies that something more unpleasant will follow, please is a less high risk situation.

Anne: The heart of this essay is that the truth of this idea is the conduct that it produced, if something is true it leads to a particular outcome.

Relle: Does it have to lead to a particular outcome to be true? Because there may be an outcome, but it will not be particular.

Anne: The worth of a particular claim will be measured by the conduct it produces- truth is too weird a word for this.

Julia: 1:1 correlation between a claim and a behavior? Between a claim and an action?

Anne: Back to Kylee’s existential crisis about education...

Kylee: The mind has such an expanse of possibilities and by forcing thoughts into a stream that, albeit is more pragmatic, is funneling into a particular active thought, it’s not necessarily thought as an experience which I believe in. And I think that using religion as a tool for pragmatism (to be religious because it happens to make you happier) is less than good in my mind.

Anne: Focus on education. There is a debate among the faculty about renewing the curriculum. Open curriculum? (no distribution requirements?) or whether we reorganize distribution requirements? Is it true in James’ terms that students need distribution requirements in order to be liberally educated? How might this be true?

Kaitlin: I can see it being true if at every liberal arts college you would have to have distribution requirements…

Anne: What is the cash value of the idea that you need to meet a series of distribution requirements, and what is the cash value of an open curriculum?

Katherine : In different fields you have to think differently, if you have had training in different ways of thinking you’ll be stronger.. I kinow a lot of people who wouldn’t do it on their own.

Isabelle: For both sides of the argument, the argument for requirements is to expand the disciplines and ways that you think because you wouldn’t do it if it weren’t required, but I argue that people don’t really do it even when it is required, because if you scrape by or don’t attend  then having taken a class that you care about it would be much more worth your time.

Relle: Unless you are planning on being an elementary school teacher, an open curriculum would allow you to have a specialty that is necessary once you graduate.


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