2009 SAAP discussion paper submission


The "Nudity of the Kosmos" and Return to the "Stream of Life"

in the Young William James



    When we trace James's intellectual itinerary, we encounter, at its quite early stage, an event that strikes us as of great relevance for the eventual formation of a "phenomenological" philosophy in James.

    For one thing, we can legitimately maintain that it was through the training in painting that the young James was initiated into the art of "phenomenological epoché," which Husserl would set up as the first, preliminary procedure to transform the mode of everyday consciousness into the "phenomenological given."

    Furthermore, it is noteworthy that there was no "methodological" need for James to thematize "epoché" since James was, in a certain way, a habitual, half-unwilling performer of "epoché," as it were. On the contrary, what confronted James as a person was the urgent, practical task to bail out of the unstable sense of the world or the anxiety of life caused by it.


2009 SAAP discussion paper submission


The "Nudity of the Kosmos" and Return to the "Stream of Life"

in the Young William James



When we trace James's intellectual itinerary, we encounter, at its quite early stage, an event that strikes us as of great relevance for the eventual formation of a "phenomenological" philosophy in James. It is the training the young James received to become a professional painter when he was 18 years old.  Encouraged by the clear signs of his talent for painting but uncertain of being good enough to fare as a "painter" in life, the young James made up his mind to give it a serious try under the guidance of William Hunt, a professional American painter of considerable repute with whom the family had been acquainted. 

And Henry James, Sr., the father, acquiesced in his son's decision despite his own vision of the son's future as a scientist. This was a decision bound to affect greatly not only the future of William himself but also the Jameses as a whole because it meant that the family had to return to the United States from Europe, where they had settled down the previous autumn to seek better education for the children, especially for William, the eldest and the one considered by the father to be the most promising of them all.

Now, to return to the young James's wager for painting, it turned out that he gave up on it after having applied himself to the training for less than a year. However, this intensive training in art was going to bear an unexpected but decisive consequence on his ability to "see." The following passage can be found in one of James's lecture notes for the course on "Physiological Psychology" in the year of 1876-77.


The things are the matter of knowledge, the sensations are overlooked. So true is this that everyone who learns to draw has painfully to discover what his sensations actually are. He has never been accustomed to noticing or caring what they are, so much more has he been concerned with the thing they reveal....[1]


We would not need to remember Merleau-Ponty's characterization of phenomenology as "relearning to see" in order to understand that this is no small achievement at all.  To put it in Husserlian terminology, this passage shows that it was through his training in painting that James came to make his own a keen awareness of the distinction between "das Erscheinendes" (what appears) and "die Erscheinung" (appearance).

Generally speaking, awareness of such a crucial distinction can obtain in one's consciousness only when one has learned to shift the focus of his attention from what appears to how "what appears" appears.  And this act of changing modes of one's attention is regarded as the very first step in the phenomenological procedure and named "phenomenological epoché" by Husserl.  In other words, a performance of "phenomenological epoché" brings about the phenomenological reduction of "objects," which are regarded as existing independently of consciousness in the naive attitude, to "phenomena" of consciousness  as such. 

Thus, we can legitimately maintain that it was through the training in painting that the young James was initiated into the art of "phenomenological epoché," which Husserl would set up as the first, preliminary procedure to transform the mode of everyday consciousness into the "phenomenological given."

Incidentally, the James family had produced seven professional painters, counting from the generation of William James's grand-father, and James's second son and a grand-son would pursue the career of painting. And more pertinent to our concern is the fact that several sketches James left behind are considered to evidence the "felicity of his hand" and "his talent for seeing the living line."[2]

Needless to say, however, such a discovery of the "phenomenon" through painting is only a beginning in the lessons of phenomenology, though certainly a difficult and indispensable first step. 


The next event in James's life which arrests our attention is the biological expedition to Brazil in which James participated soon after he had proceeded on to the School of Medicine at Harvard at the age of twenty two.  This one-year episode seems to illuminate, if not specifically the secret of the opening of the phenomenological field in James, the over-all philosophic dynamics emergent in the mind of the young James.  

The deep admiration James entertained for Louis Agassiz, the leader of the expedition, was the main reason for him to participate in it.  Though James could not engage with enthusiasm in the actual, routinized work of collecting, describing, and classifying material in Brazil, he found an irreplaceable spiritual support in the intimate relationship among the members, and in the charismatic personality of Agassiz, who liked to quote the famous lines from Goethe's Faust; "Grau, theurer Freund, ist alle Theorie.  Und grün des Lebens goldner Baum."[3]

Three decades later James reminisced in a public talk about the experience he had with Agassiz:


...We cannot all escape from being abstractionists. I myself, for instance, have never been able to escape; but the hours I spent with Agassiz so taught me the difference between all possible abstractionists and all livers in the light of the world's concrete fullness, that I have never been able to forget it.  Both kinds of mind have their place in the infinite design, but there can be no question as to which kind lies the nearer to the divine type of thinking. (my emphasis)[4]


It would not be much wide of the mark for us to locate one of the sources of the Jamesian call to "return to the stream of life" in this precious, Agassizan lesson in the "difference between all possible abstractionists and all livers in the light of the world's concrete fullness."  On the contrary, the upshot of the Agassizan lesson appears to have lain deep in the heart of the Jamesian radical empiricism.  In the same talk, James says:


"Go to Nature; take the facts into your own hands; look, and see for yourself"¾¾these were the maxims which Agassiz preached wherever he went, and their effect on pedagogy was electric.[5]


Upon returning to Boston in March 1866, James resumes his studies at the Harvard Medical School, only to find himself forced to discontinue them due to aggravating ill-health. James decides to seek recovery in Europe, but in this one-and-a-half-year stay he ends up immersing himself in reading voraciously in philosophy, literature, and psychology while attending all the courses in physiology at the University of Berlin.  

And it is during this stay in Germany that James's "brooding preoccupation with philosophy" begins to take a serious turn eventually leading him up to the brink of suicide.[6] The first letter we are going to have a look at is addressed to Oliver Wendell Homes, Jr., the future Supreme Court Judge who would be called a "philosopher-judge" because of his personality, full of human charm and wisdom.


My dear Wendle,¾¾Ich weiss nicht was soll es bedeuten, dass ich so traurig bin, tonight. The ghosts of the past all start from their unquiet graves and keep dancing a senseless whirligig around me so that, after trying in vain to read three books, to sleep, or to think, I clutch the pen and ink and resolve to work off the fit by a few lines to one of the most obtrusive ghosts of all¾¾namely the tall and lank one of Charles Street....I feel as if a talk with you of any kind could not fail to set me on my legs again for three weeks at least.

...I have been chewing on two or three dried-up old cuds of ideas I brought from America with me, till they have disappeared, and the nudity of the Kosmos has got beyond anything I have as yet experienced....

I have reached an age when practical work of some kind clamors to be done¾¾and I must still wait!....

When I get home let's establish a philosophical society to have regular meetings and discuss none but the very tallest and broadest questions¾¾to be composed of none but the very top-most cream of Boston manhood. It will give each one a chance to air his own opinion in a grammatical form, and to sneer and chuckle when he goes home at what damned fools all the other members are¾¾and may grow into something very important after a sufficient number of years....

I'll now pull up. I don't know whether you take it as a compliment that I should only write to you when in the dismalest of dumps¾¾perhaps you ought to¾¾you, the one emergent peak, to which I cling when all the rest of the world has sunk beneath the wave....  (my emphasis)[7]


One might be inclined to regard the mental crisis James underwent as a case of chronic depression due to an unusual prolongation of adolescence. James's own frustration with his still vocationless status, manifested in the lines quoted above, might appear to give a full endorsement to such a psychological interpretation of the nature of James's crisis. However, the expression of the "nudity of the Kosmos," should be pregnant enough to keep us from accepting a psychological explanation as fully convincing.  

The "nudity of the Kosmos"¾¾when James wrote this phrase down, what was it that he was staring at?  What had the "Kosmos" been denuded of before James's eyes?                                     

Now four months later, James writes an extremely long letter to Holmes again, and the following passage can be found in it:


...I will try in a few brief strokes to define my present condition to you. If asked the question which all men who pretend to know themselves ought to be able to answer, but which few probably could offhand,¾¾"What reason can you give for continuing to live?  What ground allege why the thread of your days should not be snapped now?" [8]


This letter, which amounts to about seven pages in book print, is interrupted here once, and is started again with the date of three days later. But the sequel does not contain any clear allusion to the crucial question just brought up; instead, it relates humorously that the letter had to be interrupted because the author was invited to a cup of tea by a maid. However, James seems to be concerned with the same question in a long letter written to his brother, Henry, around the same period.    


...The Odyssey strikes me as very different in spirit from the Illiad, though whether such difference necessarily implies a difference of time and production I am too ignorant to have any idea. My South American Indians keep rising before me now as I read the Odyssey....But the health!  the brightness and the freshness!¾¾and yet "combined with a total absence" of almost all that we consider peculiarly valuable in ourselves.

The very persons who would most writhe and wail at their surroundings if transported back into early Greece, would be, I think, be the neo-pagans and Hellas worshipers of today. The cool acceptance by the bloody old heathens of everything that happened around them, their indifference to evil in the abstract, their want of what we call sympathy, the essentially definite character of their joys, or at any rate of their sorrows (for their joy was perhaps coextensive with the life itself), would all make their society perfectly hateful to these over-cultivated and vaguely sick complainers.  But I don't blame them for being dazzled by the luminous harmony of the Greek productions.  The Homeric Greeks "accepted the universe," their only notion of evil was its perishability.... To them existence was its own justification, and the imperturbable tone of delight and admiration with which Homer speaks of every fact, is not in the least abated when the fact becomes to our eyes perfectly atrocious in character....

This sad heroic acceptance (sans arrière pensée) of death seems to me the great tragic wind that blows through the Illiad, and comes out especially strong in Achilles....It strikes us with a terrible impression of unapproachable greatness of character; but I can't help thinking that its peculiarity in our sight lies rather in an intellectual limitation, than in any extraordinary moral tremendousness on the part of the hero. Take a modern man of vigorous will and great pride, and give him the same conception of the world as Achilles had¾¾ a warm earth where everything is good, a brazen Fate which is really inscrutable, and which is ever striking her big licks into the pleasant earth, and finally cutting us off from it¾¾and I have no doubt he would live like Achilles (firmly enjoying his earth and as firmly looking at the face of Fate), without needing the introduction of any new and peculiar moral element of strength in his character....  (my emphasis)[9]


This letter, too, is interrupted here once and resumed as follows as if to relieve the dead serious tone of his philosophic outburst with a characteristic touch of humor: 


9.30P.M.  At this "pint" I was interrupted by the thick-set but beaming-with-moral-excellence wench who said, "Bitte kommen Sie zu Tische!" So I went and devoured my portion of Kalbsbraten with the greater zest for having done you so much writing....[10]


James is driving an imperative question home: how can one face up to the finitude of man's existence in the world without any semblance of transcendent order?; can the exertion of sheer moral will measure up to the ultimate reality of the "perishability" of being?  It is unmistakably clear that here lies the nub; but let us here bring into light how this critical question came to confront James.

As shown by James's own statement that the "South American Indians" he had encountered in the Brazilian expedition kept "rising" before him as he read The Odyssey, a keen realization of the very possibility of a radically different mode of existence as illustrated in the Homeric world had an effect very similar to the concrete "knowledge-by-acquaintance" of the tropical life.  In this regard, one might be reminded of Merleau-Ponty's essay, "The Philosopher and Sociology," where he alludes to the profound impact which Lévy-Bruhl's anthropological work presumably exerted upon the later Husserl.


It is to be hoped that we shall soon be able to read, in the complete works of Husserl, the letter that he wrote to Lévy-Bruhl on March 11, 1935, after having read La mythologie primitive.  Here he seems to admit that the philosopher could not possibly have immediate access to the universal by reflection alone¾¾that he is in no position to do without anthropological experience or to construct what constitutes the meaning of other experiences and civilizations by a purely imaginary variation of his own experiences.  "It is a possible and highly important task," he writes, "it is a great task to project ourselves into (einzufühlen) a human community enclosed in its living and traditional sociality, and to understand it insofar as, in and on the basis of its total social life, that human community possesses the world, which is not for it a 'representation of the world' but the real world." (my emphasis)[11] 


In sum, the problem concerns the reflective experience of becoming aware of one's values as such. As an inevitable consequence of having been confronted with a "different" world, one's stance toward his or her own world as the real world becomes subjected to an objectifying light of the now self-conscious mind.

In this vein, let us take note of the telling fact that the word, "peculiar," appears three times in the passage. Significantly, "peculiarity" is not always ascribed to the Greek side: it is relative to the viewpoint which James assumes for the moment as the focus of his interest goes back and forth between the Homeric world and the modern West. And it is rather the "peculiarity" of the "moral values" taken-for-granted in the modern life-world that is brought to a sharper awareness through this process of mutual mirroring of each life-world in the other. James's apparently jocose characterization of the maid as the "thick-set but beaming-with-moral-excellence wench" could also be taken as an unwitting confirmation of the point.


But, one might respond: is any reflective person, living in the present age, not self-conscious enough to entertain these questions at a time or another in his or her life, if not in such an urgent manner as James did?; Could these passages not be disposed of as somewhat exaggerated expressions of the skepticism and gloom typical of youth?  It might be true to a certain extent, but it is far from all there was in James's case of a mental crisis, which is, at bottom, philosophical and religious in nature. It will be made clearer by the following passages taken from the letters addressed to Timothy W. Ward, one of James's close friends who shared in the Brazilian expedition.


...I have grown up, partly from education and the example of my Dad, partly, I think, from a natural tendency, in a very non-optimistic view of nature, going so far as to have some years ago a perfectly passionate aversion to all moral praise, etc.,¾¾an antinomian tendency, in short.  I have regarded the affairs of human life to be only a phantasmagoria, which had to be interpreted elsewhere in the kosmos into its real significance. (my emphasis)[12]


I'm swamped in an empirical philosophy¾¾I feel that we are nature through and through, that we are wholly conditioned, that not a wiggle of our will happens save as the result of physical laws, and yet notwithstanding we are en rapport with reason.  How to conceive it?  who knows? I'm convinced that the defensive tactics of the French "spiritualists," fighting a steady retreat before materialism, will never do anything.  It is not that we are all nature but some point which is reason, but that all is nature and all is reason too.  We shall see, damn it, we shall see.... 

     Your affectionate  W.J. (my emphasis)[13]


Clearly one of the major causes for James's crisis lay in the baptism of the scientific "Weltanschauung" which he had received more than a decade before. For James the problem of the scientific world-view boiled down to the problem of the freedom of will, which became a truly urgent, suffocating concern for him to such an extent as to deprive his consciousness of its natural, naive faith in its own freedom. 

However, the deeper such a morass of paralyzed consciousness is, the more vehement the urge to get out of it becomes. The following is a part of the diary entry assumed to have been made around the same time. 


Tonight while listening to Miss Havens' magic playing, and the Doctor and the Italian lady sing, my feelings came to a sort of crisis. The intuition of something here in a measure absolute  gave  me...an unspeakable disgust for the dead drifting of my own life for some time past....Oh God! an end to the idle, idiotic sinking into Vorstellungen disproportionate to the object. Every good experience ought to be interpreted in practice....Keep sinewy all the while,¾¾and work at present with a mystical belief in the reality, interpreted  somehow, of humanity!  (my emphasis)[14]


This passage is highly revelatory in two regards. On the one hand, in the impulsive declaration that "every good experience ought to be interpreted in practice" we may recognize James's most deep-rooted personal motive for the "pragmatic" stance toward the world: it is the foremost principle of pragmatism in the broad sense of the term never to determine the meaning of any idea or any theory except in relation to concrete experiences in reality. 

On the other hand, the expression of "a mystical belief in the reality of humanity" indicates that the natural faith in the significance of our existence as human beings, which is seldom questioned in a thematic way so long as we are leading our everyday lives in the natural attitude, had been acutely called into question by the young James.

Despite the occasional outbursts of the "pragmatic" resolution to catch on to life, however, James's crisis would linger on and come to a head after coming back to Boston.  Thus we turn to that passage in The Varieties of Religious Experience where James presents his experience of the crisis under the guise of a French hypochondriac; let us quote it almost in its entirety because of its decisive importance:


Whilst in this state of philosophic pessimism and general depression of spirits about my prospects, I went one evening into a dressing-room in the twilight to procure some article that was there; when suddenly there fell upon me without any warning, just as if it came out of the darkness, a horrible fear of my own existence. Simultaneously there arose in my mind the image of an epileptic patient whom I had seen in the asylum, a black-haired youth with greenish skin, entirely idiotic, who used to sit all day on one of the benches, or rather shelves against the wall with his knees drawn up against his chin, and the coarse gray undershirt, which was his only garment drawn over them inclosing his entire figure. He sat there like a sort of sculptured Egyptian cat or Peruvian mummy, moving nothing but his black eyes and looking absolutely non-human. This image and my fear entered into a species of combination with each other. That shape am I, I felt, potentially. Nothing that I possess can defend me against that fate, if the hour for it should strike for me as it struck him.  There was such a horror of him, and such a perception of my own merely momentary discrepancy from him, that it was as if something hitherto solid within my breast gave way entirely, and I became a mass of quivering fear. After this the universe was changed for me altogether. I awoke morning after morning with a horrible dread at the pit of my stomach, and with a sense of the insecurity of life that I never knew before, and that I have never felt since. It was like a revelation; and although the immediate feelings passed away, the experience made me sympathetic with the morbid feelings of others ever since....

In general I dreaded to be left alone. I remember wondering how other people could live, how I myself had ever lived, so unconscious of that pit of insecurity beneath the surface of life.  My mother in particular, a very cheerful person, seemed to me a perfect paradox in her unconsciousness of danger, which you may well believe I was very careful not to disturb by revelations of my own state of mind. I have always thought that this experience of melancholia of mine had a religious bearing. (my emphasis)[15]


This well-known confession attests that it was when James felt in his bones the possibility of losing his senses at any moment under the sway of the ineluctable law of nature that he was seized with an ineffable, overwhelming fear of his own being. And, judging from the expression, "that pit of insecurity beneath the surface of life," it should be reasonable to consider this "insecurity of life" not to be of some personal nature, but of universal nature in its ontological significance.  

The countenance of the universe deprived of the projection of anthropocentric values reveals the Kosmos in nudity and imposes itself upon us as the literally unreasonable and "unheimlich"[16] phenomenon floating away in the gaping pit of nothingness.  We begin to appear total strangers in the eyes of ourselves. The consciousness that has lost all the concrete objects clothed in self-evident meanings continues in vain to ask the question for which it is impossible in principle to find an answer. However, even after consciousness has lost its in-born trust of the world, there remains the everyday life which we the human beings go on performing¾¾as if in ignorance of the bottomless pit just beneath it.


Next, in order to see in what ways such an experience of mental crisis is to affect the orientation of the later developments of James's philosophical thought, let us turn to a diary entry made about one year after James had finally found a way to overcome the crisis in the voluntaristic philosophy of Charles Renouvier. 

After taking charge of a course in the department of physiology as a part-time instructor, James is offered a position of full-time instructor in the same department by President Eliot. James greatly waivers, being apprehensive that, if he accepts the offer, he should lose for good the possibility of teaching courses in philosophy. This diary entry is also a long one, but we shall quote almost all of it again because of its decisive significance for our inquiry.


Yesterday I told Eliot I would accept the anatomical instruction for next year, if well enough to perform it, and would probably stick to that department.  I came to this decision mainly from the feeling that philosophical activity as a business is not normal for most men, and not for me.  To be responsible for a complete conception of things is beyond my strength.  To make the form of all possible thought the prevailing matter of one's thought breeds hypochondria.  Of course my deepest interest will as ever lie with the most general problems. But as my strongest moral and intellectual craving is for some stable reality to lean upon, and as a professed philosopher pledges himself publicly never to have done with doubt on these subjects, but every day to be ready to criticize afresh and call in question the grounds of his faith of the day before, I fear the constant sense of instability generated by this attitude would be more than the voluntary faith I can keep going is sufficient to neutralize....That gets reality for us in which we place our responsibility, and the concrete facts in which a biologist's responsibility lie form a fixed basis from which to aspire as much as he pleases to the mastery of the universal questions when the gallant mood is on him; and a basis, too, upon which he can passively float, and tide over times of weakness and depression, trusting all the while blindly in the beneficence of nature's forces and the return of higher opportunities. A "philosopher" has publicly renounced the privilege of trusting blindly, which every simple man owns as a right¾¾and my sight is not always clear enough for such constant duty....It is not necessary to attack the universal problems directly, and as such, in their abstract form. We work at their solution in every way,¾¾by living and by solving minor concrete questions, as they are involved in everything. The method of nature is patience, and that easy sitting faith, not tense strung, but smiling and with a dash of skepticism in it.... The ends of nature are all attained through means¾¾perhaps the soundest way of recovering them is by tracking them through all the means.  (my emphasis)[17]


Having been tossed about by skepticism and dragged as far as the brink of insanity under the pressure of deterministic view of human beings as part of nature, James is making desperate efforts to re-awaken the lost sense of natural purposefulness of life through pursuing every concrete act as a means to some definite objective.

But this diary entry contains another critically important point, to which a more focused attention should be directed.  It is James's view of being a philosopher and the philosopher's task. To paraphrase James's argument: the philosopher is a man who upholds it, as the first principle of his vocation, never to ensconce himself in his blind, habitual beliefs; it is his task to try to expose them continually to the unrelenting light of skeptical criticism. 

But James confesses frankly that he cannot possibly live in the philosopher's world as an individual human being; it is a world saturated with the sense of perpetual instability caused by the critical attitude required of those who claim to inhabit it.  James is afraid that the degree of such a sense of instability should exceed the capacity of the voluntary faith he can ever muster.

We ought not to take this confession of James's as demonstrative of the unthorough-going nature of his actual acts of philosophizing. Rather it attests to how chaotic was the state of philosophical skepticism into which James was half-irresistibly dragged down. 

In Jamesian philosophy there does exist the "principle of pure experience" as a "methodical" postulate, the formulation of which has struck phenomenologists as bearing a remarkable similarity to the well-known "Prinzip aller Prinzipien" in Husserlian phenomenology. On the other hand, what is apparently missing in James is an explicit thematization of "methodical epoché" as a preliminary step indispensable to obtaining the "phenomenologically reduced given" in the first place. 

 In sum, Jamesian philosophy opens up for us a view of phenomenological exploration without providing a guiding map to arrive there, so to speak.  Then it is little wonder that it should have appeared an incredible feat in the eyes of Husserl who kept working on his notion of "phenomenological" epoché to the very last stage of his career, as his philosophical thinking deepened.

Husserlian thought centering around the notion of phenomenological "epoché" or "reduction" is an extremely elaborate and complicated matter, and presents significant changes over time.  But we can take only its most general features into consideration here. And, in order to bring them into contrast with the general features of Jamesian thought on the "reductive," we would like to point out that in Ideas Husserl discusses a mode of holding an object of consciousness as "merely thought" in terms of "neutrality modification."  "Neutrality modification" is a unique, modified state of belief characterized by Husserl as very close to "epoché" in spite of some significant differences. It is a "modification which, in a certain way, completely annuls, completely renders powerless every doxic modality to which it is related...."[18]

For James, however, what is at stake in his struggles with the "reductive" is the "constant sense of instability" that must be "neutralized" by "voluntary faith" as it is exhibited clearly by the diary entry quoted above. If we are allowed to regard "epoché" broadly as a methodological "neutralizing" of doxic beliefs, we may be justified to argue that, in Husserlian "epoché" and Jamesian "reductive," the dynamic vectors are pointed at opposite directions relative to the power of "belief." What does this disparity signify?


A suggestive clue to clarifying this puzzling point seems to have been provided by a German psychiatrist, Wolfgang Blankenburg, in his work entitled Der Verlust der Natürlichen Selbstverständlichkeit, which is a phenomeno­logical study of a certain type of schizophrenia.  At the outset, however, it should be emphasized that we have no intention of labeling James a "schizophrenic" even in a metaphorical way. Nonetheless, Blankenburg's views seem to be relevant to James's mental crisis and its hidden implication for the opening of the phenomenological field in his work. 

According to Blankenburg, when we observe the so-called "symptom-poor (symptomarm)" type of schizophrenia, we notice a certain similarity, in spite of some conspicuous dissimilarities, between their experiences and those which the phenomenologist has while performing an "epoché."

As for the similarity, Blankenburg considers it to consist in:


the astonishment that such a small thing as the self-evidentness (Selbstverständlichkeit) of what is self-evident should prove itself to be the power supportive of life and the constituent of the Being-in-the-World. In both the phenomenologist and the patient, “the wonder at what is most self-evident,” which deprives man of the ordinariness (Geläufigkeit) of what is ordinary, puts him away (ent-setzt = astound) from life affairs....What strikes us as an undeniable point common to both is that the self-evidentness, which is surrounding us and supporting us in our dealings with things, becomes questionable.[19]


Blakenburg enumerates the essential differences to be emphasized as follows:[20]

First: in the case of the phenomenologist, the "Aufhebung" of the self-evidentness is guided by his theoretical orientation whereas the problem of the so-called "endogeneity" overshadows the case of patients.

Second: we have to recognize the incomparable vehemence of the "Aufhebung" of the self-evidentness in the case of patients.

Third: whereas the phenomenologist can keep his problems at a higher level of abstraction, patients are finding themselves literally at a loss concerning how to deal with concrete affairs in actual life.

Fourth: because the phenomenologist’s suspension of the natural self-evidentness through an epoché is done out of theoretical interest, the reality of the self-evident things is merely "put in brackets" and retained intact.

Fifth: the phenomenologist can perform an "epoché" without compromising his freedom, and can withdraw it at any time.  "On the contrary it is the case that an 'epoché' can be accomplished only against a considerable resistance."[21]

    In consequence, the most significant difference lies in the fact that the "dynamics" relative to the loss of the self-evidentness is working toward quite opposite directions in the two. For the schizophrenic, the problem does not concern how to overcome life theoretically, but how to overcome life practically.


This "resistance" appears to the phenomenologist as a methodological impediment which renders it impossible to perform an epoché completely.[22] Yet, seen from a different viewpoint, it is, as it were, an "elastic band" which brings back human existence over and over again into the "state of captivity in the world." It might be called the "watchman of the mind's health," which can guarantee the phenomenologist that he or she should never fail to "return to the natural attitude" of healthy normality.[23]       

Seen in this light, the basic points of Blankenburg's interpretation seem to help us answer, at least in part and with some necessary reservations, to the question of why the phenomenological field of inquiry could be opened in James in spite of the conspicuous absence of the thematization of "epoché" as a "methodological" procedure.  Of course, we do not mean to classify James as a "schizophrenic." But it seems apparent that there was no "methodological" need for James to thematize "epoché" since James was, like Blankenburg's patient in a certain way, a habitual, half-unwilling performer of "epoché," as it were. On the contrary, what confronted James as a person was the urgent, practical task to bail out of the unstable sense of the world or the anxiety of life caused by it.

   James wrote in his note for a public lecture given in 1905:


The only drawback [of Radical Empiricism] is the sense of "insecurity."[24]


To the extent that James's half-habitual involvement with the phenomenologically "reduced" state of experience was "radical" enough to cause serious problems for his life, we would be entitled to see a definite resemblance between the "dynamics" unsettling the Jamesian world of pure experience and the one agonizing Blankenburg's patient.

Indeed, James's so-called "morbid" sensitivity has been no secret among James scholars, and there is little doubt that it was inherently related to the problem of the "reductive" James was confronted with. In this regard, it is emblematic that in "The Sentiment of Rationality" James coined the name of "ontological wonder sickness"[25] for the metaphysical "uneasiness" that persistently impels the reflective mind into philosophical vigil.     

However, it is not our final objective simply to point out an inherent relationship between the "sick-soul" inside James and the opening of the field of phenomenological inquiry by him. It is only the beginning of the story to be told because it is by struggling to overcome the "sick-soul" inside himself that James embarked upon his philosophic career. In this sense, the "dynamics" working in James's struggles with the weakened sense of reality clearly sets itself apart from the one characterizing the case of Blankenburg's patient.

James was far more "normal" or "healthier" than "normal people" to the extent that he was capable of fighting against a much graver sense of "metaphysical" insecurity than the one which "normal people" ever know of.  And it is in this light that we would like to re-interpret Perry's simple but apt characterization of James as a "strong man overtaken by weakness."[26]






[1] Ibid., p. 477

[2]  L.W.J.,vol. I, p. 24

[3] James, Memories and Studies, p. 13.  The same lines are quoted in "The Sentiment of Rationality," included in  Collected Essays and Reviews, p. 122

[4] Ibid., pp. 14-15

[5] Ibid., p. 12.  Charlene  H. Seigfried maintains in her William James’s Radical Reconstruction of Philosophy that Jamesian view of pure description consisted of an "original synthesis of the careful description insisted by Agassiz as being necessary requisite for the success of the newly emerging  science of natural history and of description as the 'seeing-into' at the heart of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s romantic, poetic vision of the world." (p. 16)

[6] One of the earlier signs of James's philosophic melancholia appears in a letter written to his parents aboard the ship toward Brazil.  Complaining about the "nature of evil" displayed by the unruly sea, James wrote:

     "The awful slough of despond into which you are there plunged furnishes too profound an experience not to be a fruitful one.  I cannot yet say what the fruit is in my case but I am sure some day of an accession of wisdom from it...."  (T.C.W.J., vol. I, p. 217)

[7] T.C.W.J., vol. I, pp. 507-508

[8] T.C.W.J., vol. I, p. 514

[9] Ibid., pp. 268-269

[10] Ibid., p. 269

[11]  Signs (abbreviated as S in the following), pp. 107-108.

[12] Ibid., p. 161

[13] Ibid., pp. 472-473

[14] T.C.W.J., vol. II, p. 271.

[15] The Varieties of Religious Experience, pp. 166-167 (Abbreviated as V.R.E. in the following).

[16]  "Unheimlich" is one of the "key" words James often uses to express his sense of the essential "foreignness" of the world.  It appears quite frequently in his writing. For instance, James writes in a letter to Shadworth H. Hodgson:   "Either close your eyes and adopt an optimism or a pessimism equally daft; or exclude moral categories altogether from a place in the world's definition, which leaves the world unheimlich, reptilian, and foreign to man...."  (original emphasis)  T.C.W.J., vol. I, p. 638.  

[17] T.C.W.J., vol. I, pp. 343-344

[18] Ideas, p. 257

[19] Verlust der Natürlichen Selbstverständlichkeit, pp. 67-68 (my translation).  (Referred to simply as Verlust in the following)  Here Blankenburg draws upon Eugen Fink's article, "Philosophie als Überwindung der 'Naivität.'"

[20] Ibid., p. 68 ff.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid. p. 125

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., p. 443

[25] W.B., p. 72.  This expression appears only in the Will to Believe version: in the Collected Essays and Reviews version  "the ontological qaumazein" is used.  Cf. C.E.R., p. 127 

[26] Ibid., Vol. I, p. 324