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A Pluralistic Universe (1909)

de William James

Sèrie: The Hibbert Lectures (1908)

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In his famous lectures at Oxford University in 1908 and 1909, William James made a sustained and eloquent case against absolute idealism and intellectualism in philosophy. Ever since Socrates and Plato, the philosophy of the absolute had held sway--the emphasis on essence at the expense of concrete appearance, the insistence on a coherent universe, abstract, timeless, finished, enclosed in its totality. James's own thinking led him to renounce monistic idealism and the intellectualization of all "truth." Going against the grain of entrenched philosophy, James argues in A Pluralistic Universe that the world is not a uni-verse but a multi-verse. He honors the human experience of manyness and disconnection (and various kinds of unity) in the world of flux and sensation, a world that is discounted scornfully by the monists. "Pluralistic empiricism," as James called it, permits intellectual freedom, while the artificial concepts of monism do not. It approaches the only reality that has any meaning, one that follows the pattern of daily experience. A Pluralistic Universe, like Some Problems in Philosophy and Essays in Radical Empiricism (also available as Bison Books), is basic to an understanding of James's thought.… (més)
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Williams James gave these lectures when aged around 66, just two years before he died. They are a remarkably franked and earnest account of what he believed and how he saw philosophical enquiry. The argument is intriguing, and well-worth reading particularly since it is reasonably short. What other author would present his own work as a paralogism?

James sees individual humans as being the component cells of a greater yet still finite unified living entity. This whole explains and justifies its parts rather than vice versa. Because he is not a reductionist, he is content for the capabilities of this divine whole not to be emergent properties. Thus this whole has a greater mind limited in space and time rather than something grander and less intimate. Indeed this divine whole is one of many in a pluralistic community possessing greater minds, extending throughout the cosmos.

He explained this viewpoint in a series of eight lectures. He notes that traditional philosophy is groundless and it is tied up in self-imposed knots. Philosophers use personal preference to deliver supposed foundations from analogues of experiential features of the universe. Thus philosophical terms are normally ill defined, abstruse and easily misinterpreted. Philosophers often are uncomfortable with mathematics and nearly always show an aversion to the indeterminate, indefinite or infinite.

William James argues in favour of arguments using a revealed empiricism. He asserts that our subjective sometimes-delusional experiences are incommensurate with logic. Therefore, in such circumstances, he suggests we ought to suspend the use of logic. Furthermore he claims that all concepts and definitions are artificial suppositions and therefore can safely be ignored whenever they contradict either subjective experience or deeply felt belief. Thus most scientific knowledge is deemed superficial and misleading.

Hence he justifies the inconsistently fickle use of how or when logic is applied by philosophers. Logic is a support act that is entertained only when it gives pleasing results. Life itself is said to violate logic. How can we learn and grow old, and yet still be the same person? Indeed the everyday concepts of rational argument are said to introduce unnecessary barriers. They subdivide reality into concepts perhaps only appropriate to a snapshot in time not the flow of time. They leave the holistic wood obscured by the individual trees. ( )
  Jewsbury | Feb 16, 2010 |
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In his famous lectures at Oxford University in 1908 and 1909, William James made a sustained and eloquent case against absolute idealism and intellectualism in philosophy. Ever since Socrates and Plato, the philosophy of the absolute had held sway--the emphasis on essence at the expense of concrete appearance, the insistence on a coherent universe, abstract, timeless, finished, enclosed in its totality. James's own thinking led him to renounce monistic idealism and the intellectualization of all "truth." Going against the grain of entrenched philosophy, James argues in A Pluralistic Universe that the world is not a uni-verse but a multi-verse. He honors the human experience of manyness and disconnection (and various kinds of unity) in the world of flux and sensation, a world that is discounted scornfully by the monists. "Pluralistic empiricism," as James called it, permits intellectual freedom, while the artificial concepts of monism do not. It approaches the only reality that has any meaning, one that follows the pattern of daily experience. A Pluralistic Universe, like Some Problems in Philosophy and Essays in Radical Empiricism (also available as Bison Books), is basic to an understanding of James's thought.

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