Paper Title:


“Rationality, Relations, and Altered States of Consciousness in William James and Benjamin Paul Blood”




Type of Submission:


2009 SAAP Paper Submission






Although more often connected to the Varieties of Religious Experience, in this paper I suggest that we can detect the influence of Benjamin Paul Blood and nitrous oxide use in William James’s earlier work, in particular “The Sentiment of Rationality,” and the Principles of Psychology. I think James models the Sentiment on Blood’s explication of the nitrous oxide-induced “anesthetic revelation.” I also propose that observations stemming from James’s own nitrous oxide use are both explicitly and implicitly contained in certain elements of his psychology, particularly in claims concerning the nature of consciousness, consciousnesses of emptiness, and the feltness and hence existence of relations. Therefore, I submit that more aspects of James’s writings are inspired by Blood and nitrous oxide than is usually admitted, and both may have played a part in his formulation of radical empiricism.










Rationality, Relations, and Altered States of Consciousness in William James and Benjamin Paul Blood




In this paper I add to the list of connections between William James, Benjamin Paul Blood, and nitrous oxide experimentation. While others have argued that James’s links with Blood and nitrous oxide is critical to the content and development of The Varieties of Religious Experience, here I focus specifically on the relation of both to James’s earlier work.[1]

My central claims are, first, that both Blood’s philosophical views and his articulation of the “anaesthetic revelation” gained from the inhalation of nitrous oxide, I suggest, are implicitly present in James’s formulation of the “Sentiment of Rationality.” I think James models the Sentiment on Blood’s explication of the anesthetic revelation. I also believe that observations stemming from James’s own nitrous use are both explicitly and implicitly contained in certain elements of his psychology, particularly in claims concerning “consciousness,” his arguments for the feltness of relations, and his descriptions of consciousnesses of emptiness.[2]

I also consider what consequences Blood and the experimental use of nitrous oxide may have had on James’s understanding of what counts as empirical. If this interpretation is correct, then more aspects of James’s writings are inspired by Blood and nitrous oxide than is usually admitted, and both may have had a role in his formulation of radical empiricism.[3]



I – The American Scholar

            In temperament, style, and substance, Blood was a man after James’s own heart.[4]  The “Paul Bunyan of Amsterdam, New York,”[5] Blood was an eccentric who has “worn out many styles, and [is] cosmopolitan, liberal to others, and contented with [himself].”[6] He was a gambler, a boxer, a gymnast, and a weight lifter; he patented his own design for a mechanical reaper; he was a prolific writer of letters, a part-time poet, a non-academic philosopher and a mystic.[7]

Blood’s best-known work, and the piece that introduced him to James, is his 1874, self-published pamphlet, The Anaesthetic Revelation and the Gist of Philosophy.  In it, Blood explains that the pursuit of philosophy is ultimately dissatisfying. Quests for absolute certainty, ultimate foundations, and first principles are failures. Philosophy “seeks to grasp totality,” but it can neither fully grasp it nor articulate it. [8] It cannot even define itself.[9] Moreover, a “weakness in the philosophic spirit” is that it seeks “the content or contents of life outwardly in another, (namely truth),” that is, externally, through observation and rational argument, rather than internally, in one’s own “spirit” or inner life.[10] It is not that observation and argument do not get at anything—they do, but that process, philosophically speaking, is “condemned as availing itself of only one-half of intelligible possibility.”[11] Thus the old game is over: “It was the long endeavor to logicize what we can only realize practically or in immediate experience.”[12] Philosophy as such cannot answer the really tough questions, the what and the how of knowledge and the what and the why of being, as well as the problems of identity and difference, unity and multiplicity, and the relation of being to nonbeing. Philosophy, therefore, is ultimately dissatisfying, and the quest for certainty leads to despair.[13]

Blood’s treatment for the dissatisfaction of philosophy is a good dose of nitrous oxide. It is not the going under or the deep, dreamy stupor of the intoxication but the coming to that provides a revelation, which Blood describes as 

a certain survived condition (or uncondition), in which is the satisfaction of philosophy by an appreciation of the genius of being, which appreciation cannot be brought out of that condition into the normal sanity of sense—cannot be formally remembered, but remains informal, forgotten until we return to it.[14]


The satisfaction comes from ending the craving for answers to perennial philosophical questions,[15] and by “an appreciation of the genius of being,” I take Blood to mean that the revelation provides a glimmer of the distinctive character of being qua being, of being without object. In a later book, Pluriverse, Blood notes that “the best remembered impression [of the revelation] is the sense of initiation,” the sense that “now you know” the Mystery.[16] However, this “sense” is but an afterthought of the revelation, for the Mystery “is lost altogether… and buried amid the hum of returning common-sense, under that epitaph of all illumination, This is a queer world.”[17] After fourteen years of experimenting, Blood begins to write about it but refers to the revelation in “provisional and poetical,” not in factual, terms, a point to which we will return.[18] 

This “appreciation of the genius of being,” is not fully comprehendible in, or transferable to, “the normal sanity of sense.”[19] Here, sanity designates a state of “formal or contrasting thought.”[20] But the state Blood describes generates a feeling of synthesis between the rational and irrational. He calls it a “metalogical” state, and sanity is merely one side of a synthesized coin. “If we are to be satisfied,” remarks Blood, “we must be satisfied without knowledge —metalogically;” we must, that is, feel the fact of the “impersonal yet wise life,” and the use of nitrous oxide supplies this metalogical feeling.[21] Quoting Blood,

The naked life is realized only outside of sanity altogether; and it is the instant contrast of this “tasteless water of souls” with formal thought as we “come to,” that leaves in the patient an astonishment that the awful mystery of Life is at last but a homely and a common thing, and that aside from mere formality the majestic and the absurd are of equal dignity.[22]


The quote, “tasteless water of souls,” comes from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” in his 1855 collection, Leaves of Grass.[23]  Whitman describes himself as everyone, and everyone as himself, and he reports on the “cosmic existence” in which all things share:

I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise, Regardless of others, ever regardful of others…. I resist anything better than my own diversity, And breathe the air and leave plenty after me, And am not stuck up, and am in my place…. These are the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands…. This is the breath of laws and songs and behaviour, This is the tasteless water of souls…. this is the true sustenance.[24]


Blood utilizes Whitman’s description of the tasteless water of souls, the element of the divine common to everything in the universe, as a characterization of his metalogical state; thus, to the extent that he can, Blood expresses the anesthetic revelation both philosophically-rationally—i.e., he defines, characterizes and contrasts it—and also poetically, by co-appealing to analogy and mystical-monistic language. 

The content of Blood’s claim concerning the revelation is that consciousness enjoys a brief moment of “ontological intuition,” for it is in a satisfied state where it feels the immediate fact of life, and this feeling terminates the need for any further philosophical justification of being.[25] As for how it is articulated, we saw that Blood gives a vague description of the anesthetic revelation in both rational terms and in Whitman’s poetic terms. 

James’s sentiment of rationality follows the same general model: there is certain state of consciousness, and this state feels good, secure; it causes one to stop trying to justify being, its what and why, its relation to non-being; the state is not itself rational but meta-rational; it is momentary, and ends somberly; and it is described in philosophical and poetical terms—the latter are Whitman’s, and these have mystical overtones.


II – Anesthetic Sentiment

James anonymously reviewed The Anaesthetic Revelation in an 1874 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. He states,

More indeed than visionary,—crack-brained, will be the verdict of most readers, when they hear that [Blood] has found a mystical substitute for the answer which philosophy seeks; and that this substitute is the sort of ontological intuition, beyond the power of words to tell of.[26]


James’s first taste of Blood is slightly bitter. “What blunts the mind and weakens the will,” asserts James, “is no full channel for truth, even if it assist us to a view of a certain aspect of it.”[27] However, his final word in the review is actually the recommendation of Blood’s tract to “real students of philosophy.”[28] As James sees it, the intellect’s job is not to suppress or to attack claims such as Blood’s but to interpret them, to find ways, albeit vaguely, to bring them into inquiry and to assess their consequences.[29] 

A lifelong correspondence eventually ensued between James and Blood some years after the review, and James began a regular habit of referring or alluding to Blood in his writings.[30] Blood shows up in eight of James’s works, and the last essay James would see published was a piece devoted to Blood, entitled, “A Pluralistic Mystic” (1910).[31] There James recalls that Blood’s original pamphlet “fascinated [him] so ‘weirdly’ that [he is] conscious of its having been one of the stepping-stones of [his] thinking ever since.”[32]

The first admitted mention of Blood in James’s published work is in 1879, in “The Sentiment of Rationality.” James refers to Blood’s pamphlet as a “curious recent contribution to the construction of a universal mystical method,” that hopes to find some means of communicating the mystical.[33] However, I think there is an implicit connection to Blood’s work in James’s formulation of the Sentiment of Rationality, for it appears to be modeled after Blood’s description of the anesthetic revelation. 

James characterizes the marks of rationality as a “strong feeling of ease, peace, rest,” and “the absence of any feeling of irrationality.”[34]  In fact, continues James,

When enjoying plenary freedom either in the way of motion or of thought, we are in a sort of anaesthetic state in which we might say with Walt Whitman, if we cared to say anything about ourselves at such times, “I am sufficient as I am.” This feeling of the sufficiency of the present moment, of its absoluteness,—this absence of all need to explain it, account for it, or justify it,—is what I call the Sentiment of Rationality.  Whatever modes of conceiving the cosmos facilitate this fluency, produce the sentiment of rationality. Conceived in such modes, being vouches for itself and needs no further philosophic formulation.[35]


Keeping in mind the content, terminology, and rational-poetical structure of Blood’s characterization of the anesthetic revelation, we can see that James, too, is discussing a certain feeling of satisfaction, particularly with regard to the conception of being, and in such a state, as with Blood’s, there is no need to justify it further.  We see that James also likens it to an anesthetic state; thus, he comes very close here to giving an explicit reference. Moreover, James uses Whitman to describe this feeling. The line, “I am sufficient as I am,” is from “One Hour to Madness and Joy,” a poem wherein Whitman speaks of what else but the madness and joy of “mystic deliria”: “O the puzzle, the thrice-tied knot, the deep and dark pool, all untied and illumin’d!”[36]  

Thus far the content, terminology and structure of James’s articulation of the sentiment of rationality bear a striking resemblance to Blood’s description of the anesthetic revelation, but one may object that James is talking about the very feeling of rationality, an ontological emotion that we can achieve with our intellect through either rational or practical means, while Blood, on the other hand, refers to the meta-rational (i.e., the metalogical), as that which “lies outside” of rationality. In addition, James throws the “mystic method” (to which he connects Blood in that footnote) in the rationalist-theoretical heap as a substitute for the method of logic.[37] 

However, according to James the sentiment of rationality is not itself rational—it is always mixed up with custom and habit, our expectations when we predict future consequences, and faith in the possibility that we can actively participate in shaping our world.[38] Neither is James’s sentiment any more sustainable than Blood’s, for our “ontological wonder-sickness,” our seeming inability to conceptually maintain a relation-less absolute datum, constantly threatens to rob us of our satisfying sentiment. [39]

James’s sentiment of rationality thus appears to me to be, at the very least, modeled on Blood’s account of the “metalogical” emotional satisfaction attached to the anesthetic revelation: it shares much of the content, most of the terminology, and the philosophical-poetical structure of Blood’s explanation, even down to the use of Whitman, though of course not every detail is the same. I mean only to show the strange similarity between both accounts. However, this connection to the anesthetic revelation is only a contact high, as it were, for James had yet to experiment with nitrous oxide and thus had yet to address Blood’s “new and empirical question” of whether nitrous oxide intoxication leaves open “the possibility of an informal consciousness, or an unconditioned being.”[40]




III – Strung out in a Pluralistic Universe

            The situation changes in 1882, around when James publishes “On Some Hegelisms.”[41] A footnote at the end of the essay indicates that since sending off the article James has “made some observations on the effects of nitrous-oxide-gas-intoxication,” and the defining aspect of them “is the tremendously exciting sense of an intense metaphysical illumination. Truth lies open to the view in depth beneath depth of almost blinding evidence,” and like Blood, James strongly urges others to repeat the experiment.[42] 

One of the first effects of the intoxication, reveals James, was a conviction that “Hegelism was true after all, and that the deepest convictions of my intellect hitherto were wrong…and that [the] truth was that every opposition, among whatsoever things, vanishes in a higher unity in which it is based.”[43] Later, but still under the sway of the nitrous, James sees that Hegel misplaces his principle of unity. Instead of a grand, monistic telos, for James the higher unity lies in the abstract pluralistic genus, for his experimentation revealed, as Blood predicted, that opposites are not different in kind.  Rather, they synthesize into a plural form; one cannot exist without the other: the rational and irrational are thus of “equal dignity.”[44] James sees a similar “ontologic emotion” accompany both the influence of the gas and the Hegelian mindset—they are analogous emotional states arrived at by different means.[45] 

The relation between James, and Hegel is complicated and not in our sphere, but it seems evident that James’s use of nitrous gives him a different and more sympathetic perch upon which to view the Hegelian system than the one he was used to utilizing; it is a perspective where he still rejects crucial tenets of Hegelian thought, but it nevertheless causes him, as Nelson states, to re-think “an entire (and entirely dominant) philosophical scheme.”[46]

The feeling of the “metalogical” is evident in James’s testimony as well. Page after page of phrases or pairings of contrasting words, such as sober and drunk, life and death, good and evil, and I and thou, “were fused in the fire of infinite rationality.”[47] In fact, there are also striking similarities between Blood’s claims about the affects of coming out of a nitrous oxide stupor and that which manifests in James’s use of the gas. 

Blood instance, predicts that “to minds of sanguine imagination there will be a sadness in the tenor of the mystery, as if the key-note of the universe were low.”[48]  James, in realizing reason and silliness are united, “not in a higher synthesis, but in the fact that whichever you choose it’s all one,” becomes horrified, has perhaps “the strongest emotion” he has ever had, and finds himself drenched in a “pessimistic fatalism.”[49] 

It would not be an understatement, then, to say that James is profoundly affected but ultimately, and ironically, unsatisfied with the anesthetic revelation. Hence, he is as dissatisfied with the mystical method as he is with the rationalist method, and his guess about ontological wonder-sickness, in his case, was correct. Nevertheless, the experimentation certainly produces noticeable and quite similar fruits in both James and Blood.[50] Both, for example, become allies in the fight for a methodological pluralism and a radical empiricism. [51] [52] James even quotes Blood when he explicates the pluralist position and its connection to “radical empiricism.”[53]

There is a central “point of illumination” both men take from the anesthetic revelation, namely that it inspires a radically different view of the possible variations in states of consciousness.[54] Blood puts it this way in 1874: “Sanity is not the basic quality of intelligence, but is a mere condition which is variable, and like the humming of a wheel, goes up or down the musical gamut according to a physical activity.”[55] Compare that statement to James’s description of the potential variety of consciousnesses in an 1889 preface to an anonymous account of the experimental use of nitrous oxide: “Normal human consciousness is only a narrow extract from a great sea of possible human consciousnesses, of whose limits we know nothing.”[56] James phrases it similarly in Varieties when he says that “our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, lie parted forms of consciousness entirely different.”[57]

In addition, I suggest that other elements of James’s psychology are explicitly and implicitly connected to his own nitrous oxide use. First, James describes seeing (while on nitrous) “all logical relations of being with an apparent subtlety and instantaneity to which its normal consciousness offers no parallel.”[58] “The thought,” he continues, “of mutual implication of the parts in the bare form of a judgment of opposition, as ‘nothing—but,’ ‘no more—than,’ ‘only—if,’ &c., &c., produced a perfect delirium of theoretic rapture.”[59] In other words, on nitrous James feels his “but” with unparalleled intensity, and relations, he argues in The Principles of Psychology, are known through feeling.[60] 

The gas provided amplified glimpses of the feeling of logical relations, which is a distinguishing factor in James’s own view of what counts as empirical. James argues against Hume’s problematic admittance that when the latter is insensible of himself, such as being in a deep sleep, he “may truly be said not to exist.”[61] James claims these “time-gaps” to which Hume accedes are absurd, and James explicitly invokes nitrous oxide-influenced states to support the notion of consciousness as a continuous stream[62] rather than as Hume’s “bundle.”[63] [64] James also appeals to nitrous oxide use when discussing the primacy of object over self, for the nitrous-influenced condition is, paradoxically, a state that can provide the feeling of a temporary loss of self.[65] 

Finally, I discern the influence of anesthetic experimentation in James’s explication of “feelings of tendency,” namely in his arguments for the existences of “nameless states” and “consciousnesses of emptiness.”[66] He insists that we have the sensation of felt gaps all the time. James tells us, “Suppose we try to recall a forgotten name. The state of our consciousness is peculiar. There is a gap therein; but no mere gap. It is a gap that is intensely active.”[67] We cannot say what the name is, but we still can say what it is not. Although he gives a normal, accessible example to a “consciousness of emptiness,” it is quite plausible that nitrous oxide use provided additional illumination on feelings of relations and feelings of tendencies. In describing coming out of the revelatory nitrous state James remarks, “I know no more singular sensation than this intense bewilderment, with nothing particular left to be bewildered at, save the bewilderment itself.”[68]  The anesthetic revelation is the ultimate felt gap: here’s the secret of life—now forget it and remember only that you glimpsed it!  Indeed, by his own admittance the most profound gaps James himself ever felt occurred when he was gassed, so it is highly likely that these intoxicated moments provided him with concrete examples of intense feelings of relations and feelings of tendencies, the claim to the existences of which James offers to undermine Hume’s form of empiricism.





In short, I have shown the philosophical and experimental connections between Blood and James in the latter’s early work. Both had similar “philosophical” experiences on nitrous oxide; James’s “Sentiment of Rationality” is inspired by or modeled on Blood’s characterization of the anesthetic revelation; and parts of James’s articulation of consciousness and consciousnesses of emptiness are explicitly and implicitly informed by his nitrous oxide use. Moreover, I argued that James’s anesthetic journeying provided amplification to the theoretical underpinnings of the “feltness” of relations found in both his psychology and his radical empiricism. It seems, then, that James’s substance experimentation aided in re-directing traditional philosophical accounts of what qualifies as empirical. 

Nitrous oxide inhalation showed James and Blood that not only is consciousness more mysterious than he previously thought, but so is life. “Philosophy,” ends James’s last published statement, “must pass from words, that reproduce but ancient elements, to life itself, that gives the integrally new. The ‘inexplicable,’ the ‘mystery’… remains; but it remains as something to be met with by faculties more akin to our activities and heroisms and willingnesses, than by our logical powers. This is the anaesthetic insight, according to [Blood].”[69]













[1] For a look at the influence of Blood and the anesthetic revelation on the Varieties, see Christopher A.P. Nelson, “Artificial Mystic State of Mind: WJ, Benjamin Paul Blood, and the Nitrous-Oxide Variety of Religious Experience” Streams of William James 4, n. 3, First Special Issue on The Varieties of Religious Experience Historical Perspectives on the Gifford Lectures and the 1902 Text Fall 2002), 23-31. 

[2] I use “consciousness” in this paper according to James’s formulation of it as a stream of thought. 

“Thinking of some sort goes on,” and this, says James, is a more accurate description of how we encounter life than some abstract notion of discrete perception, for we never have sensations either as simple or discrete, a point pursued further below (Principles I, from The Writings of William James: A Comprehensive Edition, John J. McDermott, ed., Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1977, 22). Consciousness, for James, designates a non-entity (William James, “Does Consciousness Exist?” quoted in Robert Richardson, William James: in the Maelstrom of American Modernism, Boston, New York: First Mariner Books edition, 2007, 448). Consciousness is not a thing but a process and a function (ibid.), and there are no real breaks in the stream but only breaks between the things of which we are conscious (Principles I, from The Writings of William James, 34). For James, unlike the British empiricists, consciousness is more like a filter than a sponge, for it assumes an active role in perception.

[3] Unfortunately, Blood’s writings are difficult to interpret. James notes that “Blood is not consecutive as a writer, aphoristic and oracular rather; and being moreover sometimes dialectic, sometimes poetic, and sometimes mystic in his manner; sometimes monistic and sometimes pluralistic in his matter, I have to run my own risk in making him orate pro domo mea, and I am not quite unprepared to hear him say…that I have entirely missed the point” (William James, “A Pluralistic Mystic” Memories and Studies, New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1911, 375). Like other “mystical” voices, Blood speaks paradoxically to some, contradictorily to others.  In addition, his thought seems to have undergone diverse phases (ibid., 376). In James’s view, Blood begins “radically” monistic and at some point shifts to a (methodological) pluralist position, but the relationship between these two points is hard to discern—even James admits nearly thirty-five years after encountering him that “a deeper man must mediate the monistic with the pluralistic Blood” (ibid., 394). It is the latter Blood that James prefers, of course, but both guises turn up below. 

[4] Ralph Barton Perry, The Thought and Character of William James (1948) new paperback edition, (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1996), 211. 

[5] Richardson, William James, 434. 

[6] Richardson, 434.

[7] Ibid., 158.

[8] Blood, quoted in James, “A Pluralistic Mystic,” 384.

[9] Blood The Anaesthetic Revelation, 4.

[10] Ibid., 27.

[11] Ibid., 31.

[12] Blood, quoted in James, “A Pluralistic Mystic,” 403.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Blood, The Anaesthetic Revelation, 33.

[15] Nelson, 28b.

[16] Benjamin Paul Blood. Pluriverse: An essay in the philosophy of pluralism (Boston: Marshall Jones Company, 1920), 205, quoted in Nelson, 29a.

[17] Blood, The Anaesthetic Revelation, 34, emphasis added.

[18] Blood. Pluriverse, 212, quoted in Nelson, 29a.

[19] C.f., James’s characteristics of “mystical experiences” in Varieties.

[20] Blood, The Anaesthetic Revelation, 34. 

[21] Ibid., 28, 26, respectively. I am not entirely clear on how to explain “metalogical” more precisely, but for our purposes it should be enough to say it is a state different from our so-called normal, rational conscious state, one that allegedly reveals the essential character of being and underlies or grounds oppositions, such as rational and irrational. The metalogical is not known but encountered.

[22] Ibid., 34.

[23] Walt Whitman. Song of Myself, unabridged, Dover Thrift Editions (Mineola, New York: Courier Dover Publications, Inc., 2001), 15, paragraph 17.

[24] Whitman. Song of Myself, 14, 15, paragraphs 16 and 17, emphasis added.

[25] Blood, The Anaesthetic Revelation, 31. Blood writes: “being without knowledge hath no doubt and no question of origin or basis. The disease vanishes in the fading of the question, and not in the coming of an answer (ibid.). Blood states elsewhere that, “the beginning of curiosity, in the philosophic sense is the stare of being at itself, in the wonder why anything is at all, and what this being signifies” (quoted in James, “A Pluralistic Mystic,” 377).

[26] William James. “Review of The Anesthetic Revelation and the Gist of Philosophy,” Atlantic Monthly, 34 (November, 1874), 627. Online:, (16 Mar 2008).  However, James displays a remarkable mix of skepticism and curiosity, and likens the testimony of Blood’s “Secret of Life” to that of Nirvana: “the state without discrimination, the ‘informal consciousness,’ the ‘being in a meaning prior to and deeper than manifestation in form’ of our author seems to be the same as nirwana” (ibid., 628). “In vino veritas,” adds James—and he bets most of us see a deeper meaning in the saying (ibid.). Moreover, James admits that “ontological emotion, however stumbled on, has something authoritative for the individual who feels it,” but the problem with the authority of Blood’s “ontological emotion” is that its authority, as individually felt, is non-transferable and incommunicable, at least incommunicable in terms of intellectual intelligibility (ibid., 628). 

[27] Ibid., 628.

[28] “We sincerely advise real students of philosophy to write for the pamphlet to its author.  It is by no means as important as he probably believes it, but still thoroughly original and very suggestive” (ibid., 628).

[29] Ibid., 628.

[30] Perry, 213.

[31] Nelson, 26a.

[32] William James. “Pluralistic Mystic,” 372.

[33] James, “The Sentiment of Rationality,” Mind (July 1879), 345, quoted in Nelson, 26a.

[34] James, “The Sentiment of Rationality,” from The Writings of William James, 317 and 318, respectively.

[35] Ibid., 318, emphasis added.

[36] Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass, Small, Maynard & Company, 1897, 91.

[37]  James, “The Sentiment of Rationality,” from The Writings of William James, 324. James notes that the “mystical method” is sought to produce the peace of rationality when logic fails (ibid.).

[38] Ibid., 322, 325, 326, 345, respectively.

[39] James remarks that even if we could completely make “the concrete chaos rational” we will still be asking, What’s on the other side of our Unity? or Why Something, Why not nothing?—this is our unshakeable “ontological wonder-sickness,” our craving to crack being: “Absolute existence is absolute mystery, for its relations with the nothing remain unmediated to our understanding” (ibid., 322, 323).

[40] Blood, The Anaesthetic Revelation, 32.

[41] Mind, v. 7, 26 (Apr.,1882), 186-208.

[42] James. “On Some Hegelisms,” 206. The state, and its insights, is incomparable to “normal consciousness,” and he likens the “immense emotional sense of reconciliation” to drunkenness times one thousand (ibid.).

[43] Ibid. James adds “that all contradictions, so called, are but differences; that all differences are of degree; that all degrees are of a common kind; that unbroken continuity is of the essence of being; and that we are literally in the midst of an infinite, to perceive the existence of which is the utmost we can attain” (ibid.).  Compare this to what James says in the actual essay, before he has his first event with nitrous oxide: “the only real contradiction there can be between thoughts is where one is true, the other false. When this happens one must go for ever, nor is there any ‘higher synthesis’ in which both can wholly revive” (ibid., 205). There, Hegel’s universe is “a Single Block, of which, if she once get her teeth on any part, the whole shall inevitably become her prey and feed, her all-devouring theoretic maw” (ibid., 192).

[44] James seems to be flirting with monism himself here.

[45] James. “On Some Hegelisms,” 208.  Elsewhere, James speaks of the intense “subjective feeling” of rationality in Hegel (James, Writings of William James, 53), and the “mystical mood” or “mystical feeling” prominent in Hegel’s consciousness (Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, New York: Longmans, Green, & Co., 388, quoted in Michel Ferrari, “The Personal Paradox of William James’s VarietiesStreams of William James 4, n. 3, Fall 2002, 19a).

[46] Nelson, 26b.

[47] James. “On Some Hegelisms,” 206.

[48] Blood, The Anaesthetic Revelation, 35. He continues, “...but for such as have felt sadly the instability of temporal things there is a comfort of serenity and ancient peace.”

[49] James. “On Some Hegelisms,” 208.

[50] Nelson states the obvious here: they both write, or try to write, about their observations (30b).

[51] Blood writes this in a letter to James in 1897:

I am a pluralist easily enough, believing only in lower-case gods, and in no grand climacteric results of being; there is no finale, no one lesson to be learned. Everything happens in the middle of eternity. All days are judgment-days and creation-morns … Yet will it ever do to put pluralism in the place of philosophy? It is still true, though there be no god with the capital G, that “the one remains, the many change and pass” (Perry, 211; Blood quotes here Shelley’s Adonais).

“Pluralism,” quips Blood, “is hard to focus,—it is like sand, or meal.  It is a necessary conception, but so is the One” (ibid., 212). Hence, even a many-man such as Blood is befuddled by the philosophical difficulty of the one and the many, a dilemma James considers to be the most vital and pregnant of all philosophic problems (“The One and the Many,” from Pragmatism, quoted in The Writings of William James, 405).  James thinks it is the weightiest of problems because “if you know whether a man is a decided monist or a decided pluralist, you perhaps know more about the rest of his opinions than if you give him any other name ending in ist. To believe in the one or in the many that is the classification with the maximum number of consequences” (ibid., 405-6). 

Methodologically, James prefers the pluralist route for a number of reasons, not the least of which because it jives with empirical observation and common sense, and psychologically it is easier to live one’s life without the monist’s “dogmatic rigoristic temper” (ibid., 417).  Monism cannot have the least bit of separation or the whole view collapses, whereas pluralism can admit union all the way to the point prior to total unity; hence, the pluralist—from this standpoint—is less uptight and in less need of having a dogmatic attitude (ibid.). In addition, some of the problems James has with monists (e.g., transcendental idealists of the monistic persuasion) is that their philosophical expressions are usually vague, and they espouse a causally impotent block-universe “and thereupon come to a full stop intellectually” (ibid.).  “The world is One—yes,” says James, “but how one” (ibid., 407).   Is it “one subject of discourse,” or is it one in the sense of continuity or influence? (ibid.).  Does “One” denote generic, teleological, or causal unity? (ibid., 409-410), or does it refer to “the notion of the one Knower”? (ibid., 411).

However, ontologically neither monism nor pluralism “is primordial or more essential or excellent than the other,” and James treats both as legitimate hypotheses (ibid., 409).  In fact, the attraction both of the views elicit, and the corresponding “sentiment of rationality” of each, has much to do with our temperament and with what ends we seek when focusing our attention on either unity or difference.  For instance, if we seek general physical laws we focus upon the unified behavior of things, and if we seek distinctions we eye difference and plurality—ends come into play when it comes to attention.  Indeed, James notes, although much philosophical focus is on the unifying features in our pursuit of the most rational conception of the frame of things, “If our intellect had been as much interested in disjunctive as it is in conjunctive relations, philosophy would have equally successfully celebrated the world’s disunion” (ibid.).

[52] “Radical empiricism,” says James, “consists first of a postulate, next of a statement of fact, and finally of a generalized conclusion.  The postulate is that the only things that shall be debatable among philosophers shall be things definable in terms drawn from experience. The statement of fact is that the relations between things, conjunctive as well as disjunctive, are just as much matters of direct particular experience, neither more so nor less so, than the things themselves. The generalized conclusion is that therefore the parts of experience hold together from next to next by relations that are themselves parts of experience” (“Pragmatism and Radical Empiricism,” from The Writings of William James, 314). Moreover, consciousness plays an active role in selection, for perception is not just given but taken.

[53] James quotes the following passage of Blood’s in his Preface to his 1897 work, The Will to Believe (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1956, vii-ix), and he alludes to it in a paraphrase of radical empiricism in his August 1898 address to the Philosophical Union of the University of California (James, Collected Essays and Reviews, ed. R.B. Perry, from The Writings of William James, 347):

Reason…is but one item in the mystery; and behind the proudest consciousness that ever reigned, reason and wonder blushed face to face. The inevitable stales, while doubt and hope are sisters. Not unfortunately the universe is wild,—game-flavored as a hawk’s wing. Nature is miracle all; the same returns not save to bring the different. The slow round of the engraver’s lathe gains but the breadth of a hair, but the difference is distributed back over the whole curve, never an instant true,—ever not quite (B. P. Blood: The Flaw in Supremacy: Published by the Author, Amsterdam, N. Y., 1893)  

This reference in The Will to Believe is also noticed by Nelson, 27b, note 12.

[54] Blood, The Anaesthetic Revelation, 34.

[55] Ibid., 34.

[56] James, “The Psychology of Belief,” Mind 14 (1889), 194, quoted in Nelson, 27a.

[57] James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Longmans, Green & Co, 338, quoted in Michel Ferrari, “The Personal Paradox of William James’ VarietiesStreams of William James 4, n. 3, First Special Issue on The Varieties of Religious Experience Historical Perspectives on the Gifford Lectures and the 1902 Text (Fall 2002), 17a.

[58] James, “On Some Hegelisms,” 206.

[59] Ibid., 207, emphasis added.

[60] For James, “We ought to say a feeling of and, a feeling of if, a feeling of but, a feeling of by, quite as readily as we say a feeling of blue or a feeling of cold” (James, The Writings of William James, 38).  The starting point for psychology, says James, is “the teeming multiplicity of objects and relations” (ibid., 21).

This is a key point of departure from the British empirical tradition and their denial of the existence of relations.  On James’s account, we cognize relations through feeling, and as such both relations and feelings of relations “exist,” and we need not appeal to any a priori or supernatural principles in order to posit them (ibid., 38).

[61] David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Book I, Part IV, Section VI, “On Personal Identity,” online version, trthn10.txt, Feb 2008.

[62] James, Writings of William James, 33. James thinks consciousnesses “melt into each other like dissolving views. Properly they are but one protracted consciousness, one unbroken stream” (ibid., 39-40).

[63] According to Hume, the self is nothing but our “succession of related ideas and impressions,” a “bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement” (David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Book II, Section II, “Of Pride and Humility, Their Objects and Causes,” online version, and ibid., Book I, Part IV, Section VI, “On Personal Identity,” respectively).

[64] James writes, “In the unconsciousness produced by nitrous oxide and other anaesthetics, in that of epilepsy and fainting, the broken edges of the sentient life may meet and merge over the gap, much as the feelings of space of the opposite margins of the ‘blind spot’ meet and merge over that objective interruption to the sensitiveness of the eye” (ibid., 32, emphasis added).

[65] Ibid., 60-61.

[66] Ibid., 41.

[67] Ibid., 42.

[68] James, “On Some Hegelisms,” 207, emphasis added.

[69] Ibid., 410-1. James continues, “Let my last word, then, speaking in the name of intellectual philosophy, be his word: ‘There is no conclusion. What has concluded, that we might conclude in regard to it?  There are no fortunes to be told, and there is no advice to be given.—Farewell!’”


















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