Jamesian Pluralism and Some Good News

Pluralism lets things really exist in the each-form or distributively. Monism thinks that the all-form orcollective-unit form is the only form that is rational. The all-form allows of no taking up and dropping of connexions, for in the all the parts are essentially and eternally co-implicated. In the each-form, on the contrary, a thing may be connected by intermediary things, with a thing with which it has no immediate or essential connexion. It is thus at all times in many possible connexions which are not necessarily actualized at the moment. They depend on which actual path of intermediation it may functionally strike into: the word ‘or’ names a genuine reality. (A Pluralistic Universe, Lecture 1: Types of Philosophical Thinking)

William James uses the expression all-form. By this term, he describes those that believe they have access to the all-form, to an idea or series of ideas that can explain what is fundamentally real. Of course, James is skeptical. The universe is filled with many each-forms. The bits and pieces of experience do not always add up just as much as not every part can be made so simple into a unity with other things. Our experience is of snippets, pieces, and fragments that we are trying to assemble, and our efforts are revisable as we learn from time to time the parts and piece of the universe do not fit together so easily. Something is always missed as we incorporate new information, but make no mistake a great deal of our experience of ourselves in relation to the world is part construction of ourselves. In James’s words, experience is “additive” in this very way.

In addition, James is ontologically neutral about what the ontology of these various parts and contents of experience are. The room may be a perception of it as physical object, or the same room may manifest as thought-content. I believe it was Bertrand Russell that coined this as neutral monism. Either way, I have loved this term since I first heard it, but it also puts some ontological concerns out of play for the Jamesian. The materialist and the idealist are certainly not candidates for James in the strictest sense from my reading of A Pluralistic Universe. Instead, only a pluralism that combines the fact that experience consists of conjunctive and disjunctive relations can really do justice to James’s radical empiricism.

Beyond that, I have been thinking a long time that these theses of James’s radical empiricism and the general openness to what can be experienced embodies reasons for why persons should be tolerant of other people’s religious views. If this is how experience truly operates, then we have both a philosophical account for reasons why we should be tolerant of others.

Thinking this way has many consequences for other parts of life. Consider a narrative of a fictional Methodist minister driving around Cleveland. He walks down the street on Cleveland’s Eastside. He passes a woman who has just moved to the city. The anxious young woman is attending a sangha for the first time and her heart flutters at the anticipation of finding a group with similar if not identical synergy from her last sangha. She’s circling nervously outside the Zendo as he passes her. Later that day, the pastor passes a young man shopping with his mother who will have his barmitzvah in a week’s time. He’s excited at the prospect of being recognized before the Jewish community as a man while his mother talks to an African-American friend on the phone from work. The African-American woman on the phone runs a charity with her non-denominational church and wondered if the mother knew of similar charities her church could work with to donate school supplies to local elementary schools in Warrensville Heights. When the pastor gets into his car, he promised he’d run some flowers to an ex-parishioner who moved to the Westside of Cleveland, but to get there he must drive past the Mosque in Parma. As he’s driving, he stops to let several Muslims cross the street apparently late for some function. In one day in Cleveland, the Minister could come into contact with a variety of perspectives without ever really coming to know those parts that each try to decipher the all-form of reality, but to which are multiple expressions of it.

To this end, I am happy to announce that I will be blogging here more about my research for a monograph I am writing entitled, William James, Pluralism, and the Religious Multiverse. It’s due in December 2018. I will continue to put more of this together and in putting this together, some of the ideas and writing will appear here.

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