William James

William James - Lecture Notes I. Biography James was a...

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Lecture Notes I. Biography James was a multifaceted thinker, a polymath who seemed “more alive than others” even while suffering from nervous disorders and heart ailments. His father was a Swedenborgian wealthy landowner. He was tutored in the US and also in Europe; he spoke French, German and Italian, but did not take to cosmopolitanism as his brother (novelist) Henry did. He had a crisis while wondering whether to be an artist or a scientist; he was interested in Darwinism and positivistic theories of man but was uncomfortable with the deterministic implications of Darwinian theory. (“All is nature and all is reason, too. We shall see.”) He was on the brink of suicide, disgusted with his “dead drifting.” By 1870 he had nervous disorders. In 1870-78 he staged a recovery. Philosophically: he read Renouvier and began to resolve his imperiled understanding of free will—“the first act of free will shall be to believe in free will,” with attention (= choosing where to direct the conscious mind) as the fundamental phenomonon of will. This fusion of the experience of freedom with the psychology of it was consistent with Darwinism: humans were distinguished by the ability to direct their consciousness to one thing or another. Emotional recovery, also: wife Alice Howe Gibbons. And vocational: fill-in anatomy lecture at Eliot’s Harvard then drifted towards philosophy—he was popular, making an effort to get to know students and courting their questions in class. II. The Principles of Psychology (1890) (part social science, part science, part pyschological) James set out to address the idea of experience: to reconcile the inside and outside. Given two major schools: rationalism (model of innate ideas in the brain, like Cartesian or Kantian interior space-time relations, that structure experience) and empiricism (model of experience being external sense data coming from outside and being processed by the self). James says that these two separate something that cannot be separated—that the human mind is made constantly active by the need to make judgment, in every instance of experience, on the knife-edge between self and other that is the perceptual field . In the moment of perception, one must consider the immediate experience that takes place here, whose first stage occurs before we even make judgments over subjectivity or objectivty because those divisions too are within us. This is an “inadvertent frontal assault” (JTK) on the two existing school, meaning we can start a new theory of experience from anything—representing and foreshadowing a transition to new ways of thinking (he means Modernism and Existentialism here, I think). To clarify the result, because this is tricky: James doesn’t demolish rationalism or empiricism; he just inserts the individual into both schemes. Sometimes you take the categorial imperative, sometimes you take Utilitarian motive (say)—and sometimes you choose between them, which act of choosing defines you as a person. Situations arise without precedent in –isms
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This note was uploaded on 03/23/2012 for the course HIS 1330 taught by Professor Jameskloppenberg during the Fall '11 term at Harvard.

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William James - Lecture Notes I. Biography James was a...

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