17 July 2007

Back to the Golden Age

Last Tuesday, July 10, my blog entry consisted of a lengthy quotation from a letter that William James wrote to his friend/colleague Palmer during the golden age of Harvard philosophy, commenting on two of their colleagues in particular, Royce and Santayana.

I'd like to expound upon that letter a bit today.

Royce, it tells us, has just been assigned to teach epistemology. James (although his name is now closely associated with epistemological controversies) didn't like the term,
and jests here about its portentuosness. The French phrase he uses, BTW,literally translates "by the times that run" ... or more idiomatically, "since these are the conditions that prevail"! Everybody else is using "Epistemology," so we might as well use it, and have somebody as talented as Royce teaching it.

Royce was at this point at work on the second volume of his two-volume work, THE WORLD AND THE INDIVIDUAL. That's the "new volume" that James says he looks forward to eagerly. Royce was trying to reconcile Hegelian metaphysics with individualistic ethics and
politics, hence James' description of it as "voluntaristic-pluralistic monism."

But when we start reading James description of his reaction to Santayana's new book, the mingling of praise and critique positively en-giddies us! What James first says he prizes about Santayana is his imperturbability. But James doesn't describe himself as
imperturbable ... he squeals and grunts! Imperturbability is best admired in others, rather than imitated, it appears.

All of James' admirers know how James used the word "thickening" as a term of praise, and here Santayana is credited with thickening Harvard.

But after he describes the "thick" atmosphere, the various fighting faiths, why does he refer to himself as "out of it"? I don't think this a hypochondriacal lament. I believe, rather, that at this time James was hard at work on the Gifford lectures, which would
eventually becomes "The Varieties of Religious Experience." He perhaps regretted that he was becoming too immersed in a project that might seem, from the point of view of the debates on epistemology, ethics, and metaphysics he has in mind in most of this
letter, something of a digression.


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