The Dynamic Individualism of William James

James O. Pawelski

 

            The goal of this book is to make three specific and meaningful contributions to James scholarship.  First, it presents a sustained study and exploration of Jamesís individualism (Part I).  Everybody knows that James was an individualist.  But in spite of this (or perhaps because of this), no oneónot even James himselfóhas taken the time to spell out in detail just what kind of individualist he was.  In an attempt to correct this oversight, the author presents three chapters which sketch out Jamesís individualism based on the main contexts in which he discusses it.  Chapter 1 examines the political context, in which James contends that the contributions of individual geniuses are the catalysts of social change; Chapter 2 explores the psychological context, where James argues that psychology is properly the study of finite, individual minds; and Chapter 3 takes up the religious/metaphysical context, in which James claims that individuals are irreducible constituents of spiritual reality. 

            The second contribution of this book (Part II) is the presentation of an important new way of interpreting Jamesóa way that can help us understand many of Jamesís views, including his individualism, more clearly.  The initial sketch of Jamesís individualism given in Part I goes a long way toward clarifying this important thread of his thinking, but it also raises deep questions about the consistency of Jamesís views. 

            Chapter 4 takes a look at various suggestions commentators have made for understanding these textual difficulties.  Each of these suggestions has merit, but none goes far enough in resolving these tensions.  The author suggests that commentators who try to characterize James as ďdividedĒ or who see a ďunityĒ in Jamesís thought miss the dynamism in his thinking.  By taking seriously Jamesís views on the reflex arc, we can see that he was less interested in division or in unity, and more interested in processes of unification.  The author also notes a common error to which James interpreters often succumb, when they try to ďsnip the reflex arc,Ē thus destroying the organic dynamism among perception, conception, and volition.

            Chapter 5 proposes an important new way of interpreting James.  If it is true that in order to understand Jamesís philosophy we have to understand his psychology, the author claims that it is just as true that in order to understand Jamesís psychology we have to understand his physiology.  Keeping Jamesís physiology (and especially his appropriation and elaboration of reflex action theory) at the center of his thinking gives us a hermeneutic key for understanding not just his discussions of individualism, but his entire corpus in fresh and dynamic ways.  According to the ďIntegration ThesisĒ presented here, Jamesís thought changes dynamically over the course of his careerómoving from an emphasis on volition to an emphasis on perception and finally heading towards integration of all parts of the reflex arc.

            In sum, Part II of the book maintains that Jamesís individualism is dynamic in three distinct ways: diachronically (since it changed significantly over the course of his career), organically (since it involves an integrated relation among perception, conception, and volition), and developmentally (since it emphasizes a continual growth and evolution of the self).

The third contribution of this book (Part III), is the opening up of more of the cash value of Jamesís dynamic, growth-oriented thought by extending its application to realms of experience James himself did not fully explore.  Chapter 6 consists of an application of the authorís interpretation of Jamesís mature individualism, an exploration of the cash value of the approach argued for in Part II.  The author here presents structured wholeness, a new model for applying James's radical and integrated individualism to epiphanal experience.  Human experience includes both feelings of wholeness (moments of religious, philosophical, aesthetic, or romantic epiphany) and the structure of everyday, ordinary existence (mundanity).  Structured wholeness claims that the stoic rejection of epiphany and the romantic rejection of mundanity are both pathological.  It insists, instead, on the volitional integration of epiphany and mundanity in a process of ongoing personal progress.