18 September 2011

That Jamesian Expression

I often quote William James as saying “to think is the only moral act.”  I’d like to try to explain what it meant to James, and abstract for now from the additional question of the resonance it has for me.  The fuller context is: “to sustain a representation, to think, in short, is the only moral act, for the impulsive and the obstructed, for sane and lunatics alike.”

What does it mean to sustain a representation? It means to remain attentive to some specific fact or possibility, to refuse to allow myself to be diverted therefrom. If I have a boring project due at work, I must nonetheless continue to focus on it in order to get it done -- or, I could just let my attention drift and wind up writing on a blog.

Of course that is my example, not one of his.

This matter of sustaining representation (the key form of thought in this sentence, and in James' psychology of the will generally) plays into the dichotomy, also present in the above quotation, between the "impulsive" and the "obstructed." The impulsive fellow acts too quickly, plucking the tempting apple without wondering whose tree this is and what might be the consequences. There are various representations that he might be well advised to keep in his mind -- of arrest for trespassing, of an angry orchard-owner chasing him with a shotgun, of the extra pounds he may add to his waist by such impulsive eating.  The obstructed fellow on the other hand can only see the reasons that block action, and cannot keep his attention on those that require it.

Thus, to think, by which we mean here to focus one's attention, to choose among the consequences of an act the key ones and to keep one's focus there, is the moral act. "The whole drama is a mental drama."

The apple orchard example is mine, too.  Let's consider a couple of James at last. One involves an exhausted sailor on a ship, working the pumps to get the water safely off the ship and keep her afloat. The physiology of exhaustion weighs down upon the sailor and obstructs him in his work. What keeps him going?  Thought!  -- alertness, enforced perhaps by the image of the “hungry sea engulfing him.” Thus, thought overcomes the obstruction in his activity.

Another of James’ examples here is of a man or woman lying in bed. Perhaps it is a freezing morning, and the comfort of one’s position under the covers, combined with the thought of the aggravation that will be involved in getting up, gathering wood (this the late 19th century) starting the fire, etc.  – all this keeps us in bed.  Until perhaps a “fortunate lapse of consciousness occurs,” you stop thinking of the warmth of the blanket etc. and your mind turns instead to something important that must be done or is expected that day.   At some “lucky instant” the idea of getting up and getting on with the day will “awaken no contradictory or paralyzing suggesting,” and will produce automatically the “appropriate motor effects.”
In the case of the alertness of the sailor, and the arising of the lazy-bones, we see the connection between thought and morality.  Thought is that which makes us moral agents at all, both when through focused attention we stick to a task and when through a different sort of focus we change the course of our (in)activity.

"The idea to be consented to must be kept from flickering and going out."

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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.