the list

I call James to the task of considering the nature of a history of spirituality since he was himself so aggressively interested in the spiritual—in both fertilizing and disciplining it. But I also call on him for the scope of his philosophical ambition. James’s metaphysical system, unlike those of the Idealists he loved to lampoon, has as one of its features that, as with our list of terms concerning spirituality, everything, presumably, can be contained within it. It is a theory of everything.

Is this a problem? First to the task of what it means. A thinker like Spinoza has often been called a monist. By this, readers mean that he sews up all of life’s particularities into one, single, existing substance. This reading can still afford to acknowledge that Spinoza understood substance to be infinitely modified. For the point, so it goes, is that its modifications are nevertheless, finally, of this one thing. James was against such pictures of the universe. His appeal to experience was precisely meant to give us the “blooming, buzzing” confusion of life—the smell of a dog’s nose, the angle of a roof as it is about to collapse, the agony of guilt over a failed connection with someone, the moments of longing for death. Finally, American readers have always felt, in turning to James after a spell in the archives of the Germans and the French: someone to give us the sense and taste of the damned gorgeous springtime in Cambridge MA, and not merely, as Schleiermacher vaguely promised, the sense and taste of the infinite.

And yet. Does James really get around the problem of how to have, while also theorizing what it is to have, experience? Does James really give us a theory of everything that marks what that everything shall smell and taste like? To do this question justice would take us deep into the bowels of modern philosophy—into, at the very least, the curious logic of an apriori worldview centered elsewhere than in the mind. Kant thinks, for example, that we meet up with the world of blooming experience with a mind that already orders it; James thinks we meet up with singular objects in the world with a self that is already experiencing, or better, a self that already is experience. There is a critical difference in the shape of the two positions. For Kant, we are limited to experience, and the work is to make this limitation and its structure as pellucid as possible. What it leaves out. What it leaves in. For James, we are limited by nothing, whose name (the thing, the nothing) is experience. It is noteworthy, then, that James’s theory of experience, in leaving nothing out, has a harder time than Kant’s at specifying what is left in—what it is, in short, that we are having an experience of.

It is enough in this context to suggest something like the following about James, concluding with some questions to a history of spirituality. What James was evidently after with his concept of a radical empiricism was a way to resolve the call of spirituality. As a sick-souled, genealogically-stressed denizen of the Cantabrigian beau monde at the turn of the twentieth century, James was fascinated by the more colorful of spirit’s possibilities. But in his philosophical commitments, he was a critic of spirit, Hegelian, Bradleyian, Blavatskian, and otherwise. James wanted to give us the real, and he felt sure that this real was both empirical and absolute—that the empirical was not simply the place of experiment and Baconian habit, but was also mind. This might seem a surprising claim in the light of James’s insistence that the turn to the empirical saves us from all forms of rationalism. But it is one that makes sense both of his various personal commitments and of his inheritance of a Kantian seriousness with respect to the integration of the person. James, like Kant, felt it important to admit that there were cracks in existence. He simply thought he knew how they could be philosophically, which for him meant empirically, resolved. That this resolution in a thinker like James comes couched in the language of open-endedness only serves to underscore the maddening sleight of the apparently decisive thing that nevertheless has no borders.

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