Is James’s “Mystical Realism” Consistent with His Humanism?



An Abstract

A leading question in contemporary Jamesian scholarship centers around the differing interpretations of Richard Gale, who argues that James’s work flows from a self that is hopelessly divided, and Wesley Cooper, who identifies a unity in James’s thought. This paper, owing much to Cooper, shows that James could hold an ontological realism in his metaphysics while consistently allowing for the active human mind to creatively carve out meaningful worlds in science, ethics, religion, and metaphysics. For example, we can do science as if determinism were a fact, while in reality believing that indeterminate amounts of effort make ethics possible. We can be realists in regard to the facts of reality, but humanists in our interpretation of what they mean. And we can affirm a larger reality as described in accounts of mysticism, while being humanists in determining how to respond to it.





Is James’s “Mystical Realism” Consistent with His Humanism?


A Traditional Paper


The title of this paper expresses an issue that Richard Gale brought to the front of recent Jamesian scholarship in his work, The Divided Self of William James. Frank Oppenheim calls attention to the problem between Gale’s notion of the divided self and Wesley Cooper’s notion of the unity in James’s thought. Oppenheim, implying that Gale currently has the upper hand, writes of James’s view of self: 

For his empiricist phenomenal self and his pan-psychic mystical self formed an incompatible: “dangerous dyad.” The former Jamesian self wanted, according to the first attitude of will, "to have it all” as Richard Gale puts it. The latter pan-psychic Jamesian self wanted to feel one with the universe and experiences the saving touches of the divine MORE in accord with the second me-focused attitude of will.[1]

Oppenheim calls attention to the divergence of the divided versus the unified view of James and the need for careful analysis and dialogue among scholars. This paper proceeds with a view compatible with Cooper’s while also acknowledging with Cooper that “ (Gale’s) ‘Divided Self’ interpretation of James is by far the most powerful critique that we have.” [2]

According to Gale, James developed a realistic ontology in his religious and mystical writings, a realism that produces the ultimate problem in James. Gale sees an irresolvable incompatibility between the realism of the mystical writings and the ontological relativism of the psychological and ethical work. This incompatibility expresses what Gale calls the ultimate aporia of views from James’s divided selves. Gale compares James to Gilbert and Sullivan's Poo-Bah. The Poo-Bah was an official in “Mikado” who held all of the positions in the state. In advising the king, he would give a piece of advice as chancellor of the exchequer, urging fiscal responsibility, but the opposite piece of advice as private secretary, urging him to spend generously on himself. Gale contends that James wore all of the metaphysical hats and would take differing positions depending on the needs of the situation. He was a determinist qua scientist, but an advocate of free will qua moralist.  Switching to a more heroic metaphor, Gale describes James as a Promethean god-like character who could create the world he needed when he needed it. Accordingly, all truths, but especially ethical truths manifest nothing else than the free choice of the human will, a view that merits the name “humanism.”

James’s psychological and ethical writing is, in Gale’s interpretation, the work of Promethean selves who can move between a world of determinism and indeterminism with no more remorse than Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pooh-Bah in changing hats. By assuming a position of ontological relativism, James could shuttle between scientific psychology, pragmatism, and melioristic ethics. The one thing that the conflicting views have in common is that they are products of the Promethean ego. The law of non-contradiction holds within each view, but need not hold between them. But mystical realism stops the flow. Gale argues that mystical realism makes such fluidity impossible. He pictures the realist view as “sticky” and throughout his work compares it to cotton candy, mush, or sludge. In the end, Gale concludes that it is not possible to reconcile the divided worldviews. Gale’s final comment on the problem that he unfolded throughout his book was, “One does not solve this problem. One can only bear witness to it. And no one has done so with more passion, honesty, and brilliance than William James.” [3] (Gale, 332).

 Wesley Cooper counters Gale’s position with The Unity of William James’s Thought. As Cooper’s title implies, he sees James’s work as internally consistent, and attributes the apparent conflict not to James “changing hats” from one position to its contradictory, but to the fact that James dealt with two levels. The levels are the empirical and the metaphysical. Empirical investigation deals with the mind and the world that it knows. Metaphysical investigation deals with pure experience, which is the source of mind and world.

Cooper counters the argument that James abandoned pure experience after 1905 in favor of pan-psychism. Rather than a sharp dichotomy, Cooper observes that pure experience and pan-psychisms are both “proto-mental” meaning that they have some of the mind like qualities but not all. Of the five characteristics of thought that James lists in the Chapter IX of Principles of Psychology, “The Stream of Thought,” pure experience and pan-psychism exhibit purposivesness, change, and continuity. When ordinary consciousness emerges, the mind maintains the three characteristics of the proto-mental stage, but adds personality and the distinction between subject and object. Cooper makes a strong argument that his interpretation allows for a coherent and unified reading of James’s texts from Principles to his final metaphysical works.

At stake is the validity of James’s project in Pragmatism, to create a philosophy large enough to accommodate the scientific and religious attitudes. For us, the question is whether James offers a live option for overcoming deterministic materialism without slipping into a philosophical untenable dualism.

            The “divided self” view sees James as an ontological relativist in his psychology as well as his ethics and pragmatism. The judgement of James as an ontological relativist is based on numerous passages in which James seems to make reality dependent on subjective interests. In “The Perception of Reality,” Chapter  XXI of Principles, James affirms, with emphasis, what seems to be the clearest statement of relativism possible. “The fons et origio of all reality, whether from the absolute or practical point of view is thus subjective, is ourselves” (PP II 297-298). However, James distinguishes two meanings of the word “reality,” metaphysical reality and practical reality. The first includes anything that is an object of consciousness in any way whether it is a brick wall, a scientific concept such as a planetary atom, a fictional character, or a dream. Practical reality depends on the emotional needs of the person. For me, and I suspect for most of the readers of this paper, a brick wall has a reality that the other things on this list do not have. 

We think in terms of degrees of practical reality. If I am watching a football game on TV, I believe that it is real. But it is not real for me in the same way that it is real for a quarterback being blindsided by a linebacker. In this sense, James argues that a thing is real only if it is interesting or important. The linebacker is interesting to the spectator, important to the quarterback.

James’s distinction between the two kinds of reality makes sense if we understand it to be a distinction between reality and our awareness of reality. Reality is that which is independent of our mind, that which we need to take account of in order to make true judgments. Awareness of reality, by contrast, is subjective. The world-relativization in Principles is true of our feeling of reality, not of reality itself. The linebacker feels more real to the quarterback than to the spectator, but the hit really happens or it doesn’t. The same is true of the worst events of which we are aware. Many things occur, such as bombings, terrorist attacks, wars, and murders, that would not be in our world if could choose otherwise, but whose reality neither James nor any person of sound mind, would deny.

            Is it legitimate to interpret James’s world-relativization in “Perception of Reality” as applying only to the perception and not to the reality? There are numerous phrases that support this interpretation. He begins the chapter with an analysis of belief which he defines as a “mental state or function of cognizing reality” (PP II 283). He introduces the next section on the various orders of reality by asking, "Under what circumstances do I think things real?" The discussion of reality is peppered with such phrases as “judged more real” and “deemed more real.” Toward the end of the chapter he sums up his work by saying, “I have now, I trust, shown sufficiently what the psychological sources of the sense of reality are. Certain postulates are given in our nature; and whatever satisfies those postulates is treated as if real” (PP II 317). Although James sometimes uses the term “real” without the subjective disclaimers such as “judged to be” or “deemed to be,” the whole passage makes sense when read as if they are implied. To read it so would involve no contradiction internally or with James’s references to reality in Pragmatism or other works. In Principles, he was doing psychology and leaving the ontological question for another time.

If  I interpret James correctly, he believed that we can be determinists while doing psychology and believers in free will while doing ethics without advocating or even implying ontological relativism. James asserts, in his treatment of free will, that scientific psychology can act as if determinism were a fact even while the psychologist as an ethical person assumes free will. The ability to take differing positions as scientist and moral agent does not mean that two contradictory realities can coexist. It means rather that science has its limits but can work productively within the limits. James says of determinism,  “(I do not) see why for scientific purposes one need give it up, even if indeterminate amounts of effort really do occur. Before their indeterminism, science simply stops” (PP II 576). So as James sees it, deterministic science is a sphere selected out from the larger reality in which some things are undetermined.  The key point is that no matter how useful, appealing, or seductive determinism is to the scientific psychologist, indeterminate amounts of effort might really occur. What of science?  James cautions, “Science, however must be constantly reminded that her purposes are not the only purposes and that the order of uniform causation which she has use for, and is therefore right in postulating, may be enveloped in a wider order, on which she has no claim at all” (PP II 576). The scientist qua scientist can work while realizing that scientific work is done within a partial slice of reality based on the purpose of the science. Recognizing the limits of science is no more Promethean or Poo-Bahistic than the person teaching the game of checkers who says that the pieces must remain on the black squares while knowing full-well that physically they could be put on the red squares.

There is plenty of textual evidence to support the view that James did not hold an ontological relativism even in the Principles of Psychology. After explaining that the question of determinism vs. indeterminism cannot be decided scientifically, he states that we might remain skeptical, but if we need to decide “we must project on one of the views the attribute of reality for us.” This may sound like ontological relativism, but preceding this he warned that in going beyond skepticism “we are taking the risk of error on our head” (PP II 573). There could be error only if determinism or indeterminism is real. In a relativistic universe each view would be correct in its own sphere and neither view would be in error.

James explains that the choice between determinism, indeterminism, or skepticism is voluntary. He makes this statement without apology to the determinists.

He follows up by saying, “If meanwhile the will be undetermined, it would seem only fitting that the belief in its indetermination should be voluntarily chosen from amongst the possible beliefs” (PP 573). James puts the emphasis on the word be, “If the will be undetermined...” This means that he deliberately distinguishes between what is and what the determinists, indeterminists, or skeptics happen to believe. If the will is in fact undetermined, we can draw the realist conclusion that the indeterminists have a true belief and they can freely choose to hold it, and the determinists have chosen a false one. Of course, if the will be completely determined, then the indeterminists have a false belief, but there is not much they can do about it. In moving between a psychological determinism and an ethical indeterminism, the relation is not symmetrical.  Although we can do deterministic psychology even if indeterminate amounts of effort do occur, we cannot do ethics if everything is determined.

After affirming that indeterminism might be freely chosen, James cautions, “We ought never hope for any other method of getting at the truth if indeterminism be a fact” (PP II 573). Therefore he held that since indeterminism is or isn’t a fact, the truth about it must be something we “get at” rather than create by a Promethean fiat

My reading of James is that he was a realist in that he believed that there is that which exists independently of the mind, that which truth must take account of. What does this do to his humanism? I think it leaves it intact. He expressed this quite clearly and memorably in “Pragmatism and Humanism.” “Now however fixed these elements of reality may be, we still have a certain freedom in our dealings with them. Take our sensations. That they are is undoubtedly beyond our control; but which we attend to and make emphatic in our conclusions depends on our interests” (Pragmatism, 118).

In the essay "Reflex Action and Theism", James shows that the human mind constructs a world from the infinite number of possibilities given in immediate sense experience.  Sense experience with its sensing subject and sensed object emerges from “pure experience.” Immediate experience constitutes the material for a world. The world as we understand it is constructed from the given contents of our impressions. We accomplish the construction in the service of our volitional nature.  As James says, "The conceiving or theorizing faculty ‑‑ the mind's middle compartment ‑‑ functions exclusively for the sake of ends that do not exist at all in the world of impressions we receive from our senses, but are set by our emotional and practical subjectivity altogether"(WB, 117).  We take a given state of affairs and try to remake it into a state of affairs demanded by our volitional nature.  But in what he calls the miracle of miracles, the given order bends, at least somewhat, to our desires and our efforts to remodel it.  The scientist, the artist, and the person of practical affairs share the belief that the world will respond to their action if it is the right action.  If they fail, they try again.  They assume that "the impressions of sense must give way, must be reduced to the desiderated form.  They all postulate in the interest of their volitional nature a harmony between the latter and the nature of things. The theologian does no more" (WB, 120). The comment about the theologian implies that theological ideas attempt to make articulate sense of ineffable religious experience analogously to the way scientists, artists and others working with empirical reality try to make sense of ineffable immediate experience. Each succeeds to some extent.  So, according to James, neither materialistic determinism nor free will, nor any other meaningful idea is given in sense experience. Each is a way of trying to satisfy our human need for a rational world and each may be true to the extent that it satisfies our human need while accounting for what is given in reality.

The relativism in James’s thought applies to the interpretations, but reality stands as a constraining limit, and truth must take account of it. We can fashion the data of reality in many ways, but not necessarily in any way we like. For example, a brilliant scientific hypothesis might be falsified by experiment; a well thought out business plan may result in financial loss.

If James was a realist rather than an ontological relativist at the metaphysical level, as I believe Cooper convincingly shows, then the realism of his mystical philosophy does not under-cut his earlier work or present a divided self with irreconcilable differences.  The problem remains of reconciling the pragmatic melioristic morality with the resignation and abandonment of the finite will in mysticism. But it need not be a contradiction to hold that the persons described in James’s account of mysticism could look in one direction and see a harmony, not of their own making, before which they wish to surrender, and look in the opposite direction and see a chaos which calls for their strenuous action to redeem.  Describing the effects of the unseen supernatural regions James writes “ When we commune with it, work is actually done upon our finite personality, for we are turned into new men and consequences in the way of conduct follow in the natural world upon our regenerative change” (VRE 389). Grace from the higher region can be translated, by effort, into willful activity in our ordinary life.

A further problem with James’s ethics remains.  Gale contends that James was a “hipster,” an experience junkie who wanted to have it all. Throughout his book he interprets James’s “desire-satisfaction maximizing” in this light. James’s thought invites a very different interpretation. While it is true that James was exuberant in his empiricism, he did not advocate an aesthetic hedonism in his personal life or work. In fact he had a puritanical contempt for the aesthete, and moralistically warned his readers to avoid experience that does not result in ethical conduct. James’s emphasis on satisfying demands need not be based on a personal desire to have it all, but, more likely on the insight into the richness of each person and the consequent respect to honor, if possible, the demands that each feels or expresses. James expressed this view in the essay “On a Certain Blindness in Humans Beings” whose theme emphasizes that if we look at people only from the outside, we miss their inner being. We are blind to the triumph of the Appalachian farmer or the beauty that Jack sees in his Jill. James expresses the full impact of such blindness, “To miss the joy is to miss everything.” Gale gives a magnificent account of this side of James in Chapter 9, “The I—Thou Quest for Intimacy and Religious Mysticism." James’s own wording of the moral imperative fits the non hedonistic interpretation. Far from sounding like a hipster, he is serious to the point of being somber. He writes, “There is but one unconditional commandment, which is that we should seek incessantly, with fear and trembling, so to vote and act as to bring about the very largest total universe of good which we can see” (WB, 207).

James’s assertion of a moral imperative seems to imply a degree of realism and runs counter to the notion that ethics flows only from our free choice. We need to  examine whether he advocated any objective truth in his moral philosophy. He begins by rejecting skepticism as an acceptable position for the moral philosopher. The rejection of skepticism is itself an affirmation of truth. But what is the truth in this context?

The idea that carries James’s whole ethical project is the belief in the inner value of each person. We know our own inner life first-hand.  We cannot seriously doubt that other people have an inner life, but we don’t know much about what it is. Recognition of the inner meaning of each person requires us to take their desires and demands seriously. A truth derived from this inferentially is that the best universe is the one in which as many demands as possible are realized. The character of this universe cannot be defined until all claimants have had their say, but it serves as a reality which moral ideals must take into account if they are to be true. Although it is not known to any human being, there is a particular arrangement that satisfies the moral command better than any other. Thus although my demands and yours are subjective, the moral universe, in which our demands can be allocated a proper place, is objective, and our respective ideas about it are true or false.

If the position that James calls pluralistic mysticism is right, then there is a benevolent eternal reality that we can hope to know perceptually, even in our lifetime, although transiently and passively. But all of us, mystic, materialist, and everyone in between, must be aware of a temporal reality that consists of some harmful and helpful things. True beliefs about these realities will lead us into a desired relation with them. We can also rationally believe that we have a degree of freedom and the world is to some unascertainable extent malleable to our will. Therefore we can be realists in regard to the facts of reality, but humanists in our interpretation of what they are. So we can affirm a larger reality as described in accounts of mysticism, and humanists in determining what we think of it and how to respond to it.


[1] Oppenheim, Frank M. Reverence for the Relations of Life: Re-Imagining Pragmatism via Josiah Royce’s Interactions with Peirce, James, and Dewey. ( Notre Dame Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005) 198.


[2] Wesley  Cooper. The Unity of William James’s Thought. ( Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2002) 8.


[3] Richard Gale. The Divided Self of William James. ( Cambridge UK: Cambridge

 University Press, 1999) 332.