10 July 2007

A Golden Age

On April 2, 1900, William James wrote to a Harvard colleague, the Hegelian philosopher George Palmer. I love this letter as an artefact of that time, a golden age in American philosophy, as seen from the inside.

"Glorious old Palmer --

"I had come to the point of feeling that my next letter must be to you, when up comes your delightful 'favor' of the 18th, with all its news, its convincing clipping, and its enclosures from Bakewell and Sheldon."

[I omit here some gossit about the jockeying for academic positions.]

"I'm glad you're back in ethics and glad that Royce has 'Epistemology' -- portentous name, and small result, in my opinion, but a substantive discipline which ought, par la temps qui court, to be treated with due familiarity. I look forward with eagerness to his new volume. What a colossal feat he has performed in these two years -- all thrown in by the way, as it were ...."

[I do further skipping here to get to my favorite part.]

"The great event in my life recently has been the reading of Santayana's book. Although I absolutely reject the platonism of it, I have literally squealed with delight at the imperturbable perfection with which the position is laid down on page after page; and grunted with delight at such a thickening up of our Harvard atmosphere. If our students now could really begin to understand what Royce means with his voluntaristic-pluralustic monism, what Munsterberg means with his dualistic scientificism and platonism, what Santayana means by his pessimistic platonism (I wonder if he and Mg have had any close mutually encouraging intercourse in this line?) what I mean by my crass pluralism, what you meanby your ethereal idealism, that these are so many religions, ways of fronting life, and worth fighting fo, we should have a genuine philosophic atmosphere at Harvard. The best condition of it would be an open conflict and rivalry of the diverse systems. (Alas! that I should be out of it, just as my chance begins!) The world might ring with the struggle, if we devoted ourselves exclusively to belaboring each other.

"I now understand Santayana, the man. I never understood him before. But what a perfection of rottenness in a philosophy! I don't think I ever knew the anti-realistic view to be propounded with so impudently superior an air. It is refreshing to see a representative of moribund Latinity rise up and administer such reproof to us barbarians in the hour of our triumph. I imagine Santayana's style to be entirely spontaneous."

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.