U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Matter’s Possibilities

Last week I read Henry Adams, who set the wheels of my mind spinning with his magnificent twinned metaphor, the Dynamo and the Virgin.  That was Adams’s most memorable metaphor, but it did not stand alone; The Education of Henry Adams is richly allusive, replete with imagery — the motions of his mind made sensible to the reader when passed through the materiality of experience.  One of my classmates pointed out the profusion of water imagery in Adams.  For my part, I noticed the importance of roads.

This week I am reading William James’s lectures on Pragmatism.  And here is metaphor of a different order of magnitude.  Where Adams announces his master metaphor, James masterfully deploys metaphors throughout his text.  What is the great image?  The “cash value” of an idea?  Pragmatism as a woman?  The universe of discourse?  The little living dynamo of the squirrel running round and round the tree?  James’s most important theoretical arguments come embedded and expressed in the fabric of multiplicitous life.  James’s prose enacts what his philosophy envisions:  What our intellect really aims at is neither variety nor unity taken singly, but totality (542).

Yes. Totality.  Totality, and mortality.


This is one sensibility that James and Adams share:  their arguments, their explorations, their essays, their assessments, their histories and philosophies unfold in the shadow of death.  Adams passes over in silence the most painfully educative twenty years of his life — never naming his wife, never naming his loss.  The friends for whom he wrote it knew.  And he knew. And the readers for whom he perhaps did not admit to writing, but that he knew would some day see it — we also know, even if we do not know the details.  Remembered grief resonates at a register that anyone who has ever mourned can hear.

James too builds his philosophy of possibility in the shadow of mortality.  

Matter is indeed infinitely and incredibly refined.  To any one who has ever looked on the face of a dead child or parent the mere fact that matter could have taken for a time that precious form, ought to make matter sacred ever after.  It makes no difference what the principle of life may be, material or immaterial, matter at any rate cooperates, lends itself to all life’s purposes.  That beloved incarnation was among matter’s possibilities (527).

One senses that the most practical concern of Pragmatism is the problem of mortality.  This is, in fact, the chief “metaphysical problem” to which James devotes a whole chapter.  The need to which God answers, in James’s view, is the need for life to win out at last.  

A world with a God in it to say the last word, may indeed burn up or freeze, but we then think of him as still mindful of the old ideals and sure to bring them elsewhere to fruition; so that, where he is, tragedy is only provisional and partial, and shipwreck and dissolution not the absolutely final things (533).

But James does not explore — not here, at any rate — the fate of the part in relation to the whole.

Adams faces it square, and makes the problem of mortality the problem of history:

Society is immoral and immortal; it can afford to commit any kind of folly, and indulge in any sort of vice; it cannot be killed, and the fragments that survive can always laugh at the dead; but a young man has only one chance, and a brief time to seize it (255).

This observation comes as part of his account of the diplomatic tussle between Britain and the United States over reparations for the Alabama.  Adams hears and perhaps even joins the hard laughter of history, the irony of understanding that comes decades too late to be of any use.  The American diplomats and statesmen at the center of the crisis, including Adams’s own father and Adams himself, the “private secretary,” were conscious of their role as actors in a drama, and they believed they understood the motives of their fellow players.  But the historical record — suspect in some places, to be sure, as Adams notes — revealed them decades later as all fooled, and all fooling. 

Like all folly, all history is perspectival.  It is a vision of distance and degrees.  And here we stand, you and I, on a raft of flotsam — not really held together, but just pressed close by the current of our times.  We can almost fool ourselves that we stand on something solid, that our footing will not give, that there is some certain angle we can take upon the past — that past that runs ahead of us, floating downstream, around the bend and out of view.  But — inevitably — our matter will fail our minds. 

Both Louis Menand and Drew Gilpin Faust explored the long shadow of death falling across the minds of a generation.  And what minds they were.  What about this generation of historians?  What shape does the dread shadow take for our profession as a whole today?  

I have been by turns amused, inspired, and worried by James Livingston’s vision of the Pragmatic past upon which we might build our present.  I have wondered where, in all that abundance, one might find sustenance, one’s daily bread.  The possibilities of self-fashioning may be endless.  But time is wasting.

Without mortality, there would be no such thing as history — all would be living, and all past would be but living memory.

We historians are death’s retainers.  The question is, Can these bones live?  

Ink and paper are a poor substitute for resurrection.  But I will do my best.



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Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams [1918], with an introduction by Leon Wieseltier, Library of America Series (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1983).

William James, Pragmatism, in Writings 1902-1910, edited and with notes by Bruce Kuklick, Library of America Series (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1987).

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Nicely put LD:
    But…immortality does not guarantee an unfailing memory nor does memory serve us without critical examination. History would still be a tangle of calculation and miscalculation, intent and obfuscation, discreet planning and derelict of duty, lost and found, found and lost. We like to know where we’ve been and we like to think we know where we’re going. History gives us a glimpse into both, mortal or otherwise.

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