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The Philosophy of Life
by Swami Krishnananda


Chapter 15: William James

William James, the great teacher of pragmatism in America, repudiates the claims of the logical reason in constructing systems of absolute monism, which, according to him, give us an unmanageable ‘block-universe' and set at naught moral responsibility, free will, effort and aspiration, indeterminacy, want and struggle which are the main characteristics and daily occurrences of life. The pragmatism of William James is a theory of the will which looks with disfavour on the intellectual philosophies which make a self-complete Absolute the entire reality. James complains that such rigoristic systems become deterministic in their nature and give no room for variety, novelty and personal effort. They contradict the practical realities of life, thus losing touch with experience and glorying in an airy abstraction. The test of truth, for James, is its practical consequences, the actual bearing it has on life. Nothing, according to James, can be accepted as true which does not stand this pragmatic test. Here the judge is not the reason but the will-to-believe which dominates all activity and experience. We cannot make truth an absolute principle or an end in itself, for such a rigid truth is nowhere seen to exist. Truth is a means to an end, an instrument for the fulfilment and satisfaction of the demands of the will-to-believe. There cannot be a universal truth, unchanging and eternal, beyond experience. What is true is what is believed to be true by men's temperaments and aptitudes. There is no objective truth independent of these individual considerations. People accept a theory not because of its logical soundness but its appeal to practical needs. Nothing is true that is not admitted by life. The meaning of life is its practical workability, and its aim is a consistency in what it believes, understands and does. Even knowledge cannot be an end in itself, for its value is dependent on its utility in the satisfaction of practical needs. Knowledge, then, is a means to an end. James goes counter to all monistic systems of idealism, holding that truth is the same as utility in empirical experience, and that the useful is the true. What we believe irresistibly is to be regarded as truth. Even God has to satisfy the pragmatic test in order to be. Reality is not beyond phenomena or appearance; it is ever being created by our efforts.

James identifies the real with the experienced. But this experience is always pluralistic, empirical, and not monistic or absolutistic. He favours theism rather than absolutism, for theism can permit the existence of a plurality of beings together with a God whom they may worship objectively. James is an empiricist in that his will-to-believe is based on sense-perception and the experience of the multifarious world of disconnected individuals. His restricting himself to phenomenal experience makes him conceive of consciousness as a stream or a flux of states, which is not being but change. Consciousness is not a static existence but a system of relations, not independent of its contents. Even the soul is a totality of thought-relations, a process, not being. James is a thorough-going adherent to the belief in observed phenomena, who reminds us of Locke and Hume once again in a new setting.

James thinks that if we believe in an omniscient and omnipotent Absolute we will become mere puppets in the hands of an eternally determined Divine will and cannot do anything ourselves for our progress in the future. A deterministic system of absolutism leads us to fatalism, despair and surrender. All hope is abolished from our life. Absolutism defeats our aspirations, desires and longings, and disappoints us at every step by making us play-toys in the hands of the Absolute. Not only this; absolutism mocks at our practical experiences and posits facts which have no relation to life. We are asked to believe what we neither understand nor experience. Absolutistic metaphysics does not provide an object for our immediate faith and belief. James thinks that a philosophy that undermines the validity of our personal experiences cannot stand. So he offers a God of empirical belief, a finite God, not omniscient, not omnipotent, who exists in the midst of many individuals in a universe of real disharmony and diversity. God is only a companion of man, not his eternal self. The existence of God is not organically related to the universe of experience, for the latter is a scene of opposition and struggle, while the former is a superior individual inhabiting perhaps transparent realms. There is no absolute like that of Hegel, no system or consistency of the type required by a universe directed by a self-existent primal will. Truth is not unity but diversity, though sometimes James makes indistinct statements regarding the possibility of some unity which is higher than human experience. It is all freedom of action and not any determined necessity that shapes the destiny of mankind. God does not direct our actions, but we recognise in him an object for our undeniable beliefs and irrefutable experiences. To put James' position concisely, God exists because we need him to justify our experiences. What is real is faith and individual experience, and everything else is an accessory to it. In thinking that the universe is a field of adventure and unforeseen novelty and not a finished system of eternal completeness, James and Bergson are one.

James' complaint that absolutism gives no scope for freedom of will is not true. It allows freedom of action on the part of the individual as long as its consciousness functions in relation to a personal ego. But it disillusions man by pointing out that this individual free will is only an empirical expression of the eternal law of the Absolute, and nothing truly independent. Man's free will is a fact of experience, but it is not ultimately real except when it is consciously identified with the workings of the Absolute in the universe. Our efforts constitute the exercise of this freewill. There is moral responsibility as long as we are confined to individual consciousness and work with free will. But we transcend all relative values in Self-realisation. What we call novelty as presented to our mind and the senses is an eternally existing fact in itself, which previously remained outside our experience but which has now become its content, not because we have created it at present while it did not exist before, but because we are now in a newer stage of evolution which presents to us a different vista of reality and a different angle of vision from which we view reality. Our aspirations are the gradual reaches of our minds towards what is beyond individuality and they have a reality and a value as long as our individualities are realities to us. Every state of consciousness in which we happen to be at any given time appears to be real to us, though no state remains uncontradicted in a higher degree of reality. Indeterminacy is the result of limited observation; a deeper intuition into Reality reveals the eternal unity and harmony of the universe governed by an unchangeable law. But all things are undetermined to the senses, our untrustworthy servants. Our desires and wants do not disprove the existence of the Absolute or posit a real diversity, but only indicate that we have a longing to unite ourselves with it, this longing taking shape as an unwise search for happiness in sense-objects on account of a confused transference of values. Want is a sign of imperfection and of a need to reach perfection. Our struggles in life are the blind movements of this want in a wrong direction. It gets consciously directed to its real goal in sincerely aspiring souls endowed with correct discrimination, and in wise philosophers and saints.

The practical reality to which James is so much addicted is not reality in itself but merely a network of the evidences of the senses. It is hard to understand why one should lay so much emphasis on the validity of sense-experience and deny the significance of the deliverances of the higher means of knowledge. The world of sense is constantly changing, and a changeful phenomenon cannot be equated with reality. There cannot even be the changing phenomena without some unchanging support for their appearance. To say that there is no reality beyond phenomena is as meaningless as to say that there can be locomotion without space or walking without a ground. That the world is a practical reality or Vyavaharika-satta is accepted by the Vedanta, too. But this reality is an appearance of a higher order of unity which is Paramarthika-satta. The highest reality is Brahman, the Absolute Self, which is at once being and consciousness. This consciousness, again, is not a changing flux or a stream of relations. James is more a psychologist than a philosopher and so he is made to put his trust in the psychological functions and identify them with the deepest consciousness in us. The mental consciousness is no doubt a stream, a flow, a becoming; there is nothing of being in it. But we do not flow or move with our mental states or relations; we know that there are states and relations, changes and becomings. Knowledge of a stream cannot itself be a stream. That we observe the states of the relations and ideas of the mind shows that we exist as witnesses independent of these changes of the mind. The true self does not move; for, if it moves, there should be an another to know its movement, a third self to know this second self, and thus ad infinitum, so that knowledge of movement would become impossible.

Utility cannot become the test of truth. The ways of the individual are capricious, and do not by themselves set forth any definite standard of judgment. What is constantly in a state of change cannot be an ultimate truth, for all change points to something towards which it moves. If truth is based on mere belief or even on a pragmatic consideration, it will contradict itself every time our beliefs get disillusioned. Such a truth has no doubt a pragmatic value in the sense that even hallucinations have a value at the time of their being experienced. Even our dreams are real and satisfy the pragmatic test in their own realm. But in the end such truths get contradicted in a greater reality than themselves. If pragmatism holds that there is no such thing as error at all, and that every experience is real within its own field, we have to add that these experiences cannot be ultimately real, for the test of reality is non-contradiction. When we apply this test we find that the plurality of individuals, the finitude of God, and the ultimate validity of observed facts in empirical life vanish in an experience which transcends relative categories. If we are to confine ourselves every time to the immediate presentations in sense-perception and mental operations, irrespective of their being dreams, errors of thought or defective revelations through the senses, we have to be forever sceptics in regard to the nature of truth. That such a sceptic attitude is impossible on the very face of it is easy to understand. Ultimate truth is not a means to an end, but an end in itself, for we have no other desire than to be in possession of truth, and as truth, in the end, should be universal, an experience of it would be the same as being in communion with it. Knowledge is the essence of truth, and what applies to truth applies also to knowledge. We cannot create truth; we only get a gradual revelation of it in the different stages of the unfoldment of our consciousness. What is created is perishable and is not truth. Else, we could call every whim, fancy and illusion a truth. Truth has a self-certainty and finality which none of the human experiences in the sense-world can afford to possess. Belief is not truth, for our beliefs often deceive us. Only a higher faith rooted in an illumined conviction can correspond to truth. The truths of sensations as well as those of mathematics and logic—the two aspects of truth for the pragmatist—are comprehended in a higher and more inclusive experience which we term the Absolute.

The philosophy of the Absolute is not fatalistic. It gives the greatest hope and courage to man by asserting that his essence is an immortal omnipresent existence which is wisdom and truth, freedom and bliss. It does not deny free will or effort as a practical means to this glorious experience. The highest effort consists in meditation on the Absolute. Effort, however, rises beyond itself when the goal is reached. Finitude, evil, duality, plurality, change, evolution are all true and have a meaning in the level of individual experience. But they are all sublimated and absorbed in the Universal Self. There are three degrees of reality, all to be accepted as valid while they are experienced,—the apparent, the practical and the absolute,—revealed respectively in hallucination, in waking life, and in the supersensuous realisation of Eternal Being.

James, sometimes, seems to believe in a reality which is independent of human thinking, and like the absolute idealists makes its being consist in pure experience. Contrary to his fundamental view he speaks as though truth is discovered rather than created in the adventures of life's processes, and makes out that it is a unity as real as diversity and that experience is not confined to the diverse perceptions of the senses. These developments are definitely foreign to the main current of his thought which suggests that the conscious self is only a flow of ideas appearing successively and that an indivisible consciousness is never experience. The idea of a real unity behind a real diversity can make no sense, for we are confronted with two realities each contending to be as universal as the other. Is James occasionally being dogged by a faint persistence of the insurmountable feeling that there ought to be, after all, a ground for all phenomena, which is immediately battled with by his usual belief that plurality cannot be denied on account of its being the object of the empirical will-to-believe? Perhaps, yes. He admits an aboriginal stuff of experience which enters experience and has not yet become properly a part of conscious life, a subject without a disjoined predicate, a neutral limit of our mental functions. But, no. What we call a universe is for him a multi-verse, and his universe is only a universe of discourse. The real objective field of experience is pluralistic. The oneness that he is talking about is a collection of particulars, the concatenation of things in space and time, and the continuity in the operation of the laws of physics, like gravitation, light, heat, sound, magnetism and electricity, and the influence of one man on another, etc. James thinks that even this continuity is not really continuous; it is broken up into divided parts by the existence of opaque material bodies. James overlooks the fact that even the physical universe is a perfectly continuous field of force or energy and that even opaque bodies which, according to him, create plurality in the supposed continuum are, as corroborated by the discoveries of modern physics, reducible to this common universal force or energy, and matter loses its matterness or its character of being an embodied substance when subjected to careful observation. We know how Whitehead surmounts all plurality and division, in his illuminating philosophy of organism. Even lines of physical influence cannot be explained without a basic unity which is coextensive with our own conscious indivisible Self. James tells us that truth is neither a presentation of reality nor a correspondence with it; it is a relation between our ideas and experiences, effected, changed and created by us. That relations between things are themselves matters of experience takes us forcibly to its deeper implication that there is a unity linking all things together and that experience ought to be an undivided whole of consciousness. There cannot be consciousness of the relations of things without a universal consciousness that holds them together and makes them intelligible. James thinks that truth is a normal functioning and a harmonious relation of ideas, even as health is a normal functioning and a balanced relation of the parts of the body. He forgets that health is the indication of the expression of a wholeness that we experience when the harmonious relations of the parts of the body reflect the indivisibility of the Self. James manages to maintain, however, that reality is a stream of perceptions and ideas together with the relations that obtain between these perceptions and ideas as connecting links, and that reality is created by us every moment. He does not stop to think that no relation of ideas within is possible without an indivisible Self, and that there can be no perceptions outside without an Absolute underlying all things related in knowledge.