Personality: Pedagogical, Subliminal, and Social Aspects
3 Panel Participants
The notion of personal growth is the subject of much contemporary talk. We hear marketing campaigns encouraging each of us to “be the best that you can be,” self-help programs promising to help us on the path toward self-actualization, and even talk show hosts holding a “Personal Growth Summit” in an attempt to fill a vacuum in the lives (and television viewing schedules) of their sizable audiences. In an attempt to engage this popular and widespread yearning for personal growth, our panel examines some of the philosophical dimensions of personality with an eye to shedding some light upon the notion of personal growth. We propose, through the three papers detailed below, to discuss the enlargement of one’s personality. Through William James’s work on what he calls “healthy-mindedness” in his The Varieties of Religious Experience, each of our panelists will examine one aspect of personal growth.
The first paper takes up the notion of personal growth toward healthy-mindedness in James’s own life, specifically in James’ career as a teacher and his thoughts on teaching. James’ struggles with depression brought him familiarity with the morbid-minded. In Talks to Teachers, James urges teachers to see their students in a healthy-minded way, “under the aspect of the good.” Yet there is evidence that James saw many of his own students as incapable of much deep thought or interest and that James found teaching to be an exhausting chore. One might conclude that at James did not live up his own advice, and that teaching did not promote healthy-mindedness in his life. However, connecting Talks with James’ thoughts about healthy-mindedness (as expressed in The Varieties of Religious Experience and Pragmatism) shows James’ advice in a new light. And in practice, his engaged teaching and mentoring both developed healthy-mindedness to a remarkable degree in his students and also supported his own quest for healthy-mindedness.
The second paper discusses James’s inquiry into the subliminal currents that affect personal growth. It will first propose to explore the meaning of the « Myers’s problem », namely what James thought in 1901 to be the most urgent task for psychologists : to determine « the precise constitution of the subliminal region of the mind». This historical survey might then allow us to reissue this very problem today. Indeed, the idea of an efficient mental activity below the threshold of the ordinary consciousness can throw light on some key living processes, such as mental growths in productive thinkings or personal achivements in day do day work. In other words, the subliminal issue might help to gain understanding and control over creative experiences in the making.
The third paper deals specifically with the social character of the self, attempting to see personal growth as equally a matter of interior reflection and social engagement. Focusing upon James’s presentation of “healthy-mindedness” in his Varieties, the paper examines the social context of the New Thought movement, from which James drew his chief examples of the healthy-minded religious attitude. This paper seeks to demonstrate two things: (a) that the personal growth described by members of New Thought was a social phenomenon, not merely a matter of individuals’ interior experiences; and (b) that personal growth or self-enlargement always and ever occurs within the context of intersubjective relationships. As such, the paper seeks to unravel some of the community-level requirements for personal growth.
I. William James, Talks to Teachers, and Healthy-Mindedness
In his Talks to Teachers on Psychology, William James offers two central pieces of pedagogical and ethical advice to his audience of teachers: The first – found on the book’s opening page -- is to “conceive, and, if possible reproduce sympathetically in their imagination, the mental life of their pupil as the sort of active unity which he himself feels it to be” (3). The second – found on the book’s closing two pages -- is to see their students sub specie boni, under the aspect of good rather than sub specie mali, under the aspect of the negative notion or the bad (113 - 114). The importance of these two recommendations is emphasized by their location in the text, and together they offer an important ethical perspective that frames James’ use of the new physiological psychology that forms much of the substance of the book.
However, research into James’ own practice as a teacher uncovers some evidence that he regarded most his students as louts, incapable of much deep thought or interest, who had come to Harvard for various social reasons, and reveals evidence that James found teaching to be an exhausting chore. In Talks James cites Spinoza, who held that the person who acts sub specie mali is a slave, while he who acts under sub specie boni is a freeman. The evidence cited above suggests that James falls into the category of the slave. One might conclude that at best James did not live up to the very high standard he suggested that teachers seek, and that at worst James was a hypocrite in not practicing what he preached in a work that was most profitable for him financially.
However, connecting Talks with James’ thoughts about healthy-mindedness and morbid-mindedness (as expressed in The Varieties of Religious Experience and Pragmatism) shows James’ advice in a new light. Whereas the healthy-minded tend to see all things as good or to at least minimize evil (and therefore seem temperamentally suited to achieve James’ ethical advice), the morbid-minded focus on evil, the bad, and all that is unsatisfactory in the world, which would of course include unsatisfactory students. Having created this bifurcation, James is quick to point out that most of us are a mixture of these two lives. He stated that “A life healthy on the whole must have some morbid elements” (Manuscripts and Lectures 63).
James’ struggles with depression show that he is most familiar with the morbid-minded. But James did much in his life to overcome his morbid-mindedness, although the “sick soul” always remained a part of him. His students by and large found him to be a remarkable teacher and human being, open and encouraging to their ideas and sympathetic to their feelings.
In fact, James’ practice of teaching is consistent with his ethical advice in Talks as understood from the perspective of his comments on healthy-mindedness. His engaged teaching and mentoring both developed healthy-mindedness to a remarkable degree in his students and also supported his own quest for healthy-mindedness.
II. The Myers’s Problem Today
In the chapters on healthy-mindedness, James conceived a rational frame in order to explain the baffling healing practices labelled as « mind cures ». Though, he used the conceptual tools of what he called the « modern psychology of the subliminal self ». Which facts does this formula cover ? What kind of mental processes can it explain ? This paper will first propose to explore the meaning of the « Myers’s problem », namely what James thought in 1901 to be the most urgent task for psychologists : to determine « the precise constitution of the subliminal region of the mind». This historical survey might then allow us to reissue this very problem today. Indeed, the idea of an efficient mental activity below the threshold of the ordinary consciousness can throw light on some key living processes, such as mental growths in productive thinkings or personal achivements in day do day work. In other words, the subliminal issue might help to gain understanding and control over creative experiences in the making.
1. First of all, we will investigate how James was led to the conception of a « subliminal self » ? Why did he distance himself from ordinary waking consciousness ? For a full understanding of the context of these researches in experimental psychology, one should consider a blind spot : James’s strong interest into hypnotism, which was the common ground for both the birth of dynamic psychiatry and the « psychical researches ». The investigations conducted by the psychologists of that time led them to the idea of an « hypnotic stratum of personality ». But how did they gain access to this stratum ? Some unpublished documents here, gathered at the Houghton Collection, might titillate jamesian scholars on some unexpected spots. For instance, a handwritten sheet of paper labelled, by his wife, « valuable and highly prized books of WJ » could be a decisive clue to appraise in which extend James experimented himself hypnosis.
2. These sets of experiments must be linked with a key-issue in the Varieties, where James mentionned a « discovery », made in 1886, which « opened an entirely new chapter in the study of human nature ». That is the proved reality of an unconscious mental work which coexists with the ordinary awareness. These new facts led him to develop, here and there in his book, the idea of a general psychological process named « subconscious incubation » : an unconscious maturing process in which « motives ripen in silence ». This process has been poorly understood since James’s time. What is but his mechanism ? According to James, it springs from a « struggle » between familiar everyday awareness and a submiminally active conception of the less familiar, the forbidden or the possible. That strive creates a « tension » over the consciousness and can make the personality to reach some « bursting point ». This process is applied to the facts of enlargements of personality in religious experience. Wouldn’t it be possible, though, to see it also in other experiences than the religious ones? Anyone who is experiencing productive thinking for his work isn’t already acquainted with such subliminal processes? For instance, in the smallest acts of invention, how does the good idea break through? These are some weapons of the mind over experience we inherited from William James.
III. The Community of Healthy-Mindedness: Examining the Social Character of New Thought
This paper seeks to fill a hole in William James’s account of healthy-mindedness in his Varieties of Religious Experience. Specifically, I will discuss what I take to be a failure on James’s part to sufficiently examine the intersubjective, social, and communal aspects of religious lives and attitudes. Focusing on what James calls “the religion of healthy-mindedness,” I will delve into the social practices, interpersonal relations, and broader political engagements of the New Thought movement, which is James’s chief example of the healthy-minded religious attitude.
James’s concern in the Varieties is to describe the religious life, or, as he puts it, “that personal attitude which the individual finds himself impelled to take up towards what he apprehends to be divine.” For James, the task is to describe the phenomenon of religiosity in all its various—and often disparate—forms. In looking to the personal experience of religion, he focuses on the beliefs and attitudes of individuals, and often rather exceptional ones. Indeed, he explicitly seeks the eccentricities, the extremes of religious experience in an effort to find the common “element or quality in them which one can meet nowhere else.” Accordingly, when James turns to examining the characteristics of religious temperaments, he follows his stated method of focusing on the reports of temperamentally extreme individuals. The “healthy-minded” or “once-born” religious attitude finds its best exemplars in proponents of “New Thought,” while the “sick souls” or “twice-born” attitude is exemplified by such figures as Leo Tolstoy and John Bunyan.
James’s method leads him, I will argue, to overemphasize the merely individual or solitary aspects of these personal experiences and attitudes. Overlooking in large part the social qualities and intersubjective dynamics of personal religious experiences, James thus seems to equate the “personal” with the “interior.” After arguing that a sufficient account of the “personal” must include a robust examination of the social relations and contexts in which an individual’s interior experiences are had, I seek to enrich James’s notion of healthy-mindedness by inquiring into the sort of community established by practitioners of “New Thought.” Guiding questions shall include: (1) What sorts of intra-community relations characterize New Thought, i.e., how was the movement organized and what constituted an individual’s belonging to it? (2) How was the New Thought movement related to the broader social and political community? (3) How did membership in the movement work to form the religious attitudes of practitioners? My hope is that, by bringing the sociality of the New Thought movement to bear upon our assessment of the attitudes adopted by its members, we might better understand this healthy-minded religious attitude. Indeed, such a refocusing might contribute to a more robust understanding of religious life in general.