U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Agnosticism, James, and the (Missing) Ontological Argument

Over Thanksgiving break, I have been reading James’s Varieties of Religious Experience.  This is my first time through the text, but I am certain that I will come back to this well again, and yet again — and not just for the scholarly uses I can make of it.  This reading has been a profoundly moving experience, in ways I can’t quite articulate yet — just like I can’t adequately explain what it was like to sit in the theater on Wednesday and see Ang Lee’s stunning film adaptation of The Life of Pi.   But I’ll try.
At the risk of revealing the fact that I have apparently spent a good part of the last decade under a rock, I have to admit that I knew absolutely nothing about this story before I saw it in the theater.  I had never read the book, or read anything about it.  I remember seeing the title on display in Barnes and Noble — either when the book first came out, or perhaps later.  I really don’t know. 
So I did not know what to expect when I saw the film.  The poster showed an Indian boy and a Bengal tiger together in a boat.  Magical realism? A dream sequence? A single dramatic moment meant to entice viewers to watch an otherwise underwhelming film?  I just didn’t know.
I didn’t know.

Now that I have seen the film, all I can think of is Job, shattered at last not by any of his sufferings but by what came after them:  the terrifying presence of the living God. “I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now mine eye sees thee,” says the man who can find the strength or the fury to rail against anything and everything that has befallen him, but falls into stunned silence when brought face to face with the awful terror of a God who comes near. In a similar way, when it comes to The Life of Pi, as the Battle Hymn* says, “mine eyes have seen the glory” — and it shook me to the center of my soul. 
The Life of Pi is not a perfect film, by any means.  But the few moments of heavy-handed sentimentalism are like so much evanescent vapor — they will not obscure the filmmaker’s vision, or yours.  Go see it, I implore you.  It is likely that you will be entertained — visually, narratively, dramatically, the film has much to recommend it.  But if your sensibility is at all susceptible to any sense of the sacred, you might also be transported, or enraptured, or awed into a sense of helpless surrender, or at least (as was my case) prompted to raise a desperate plea to no one in particular, a plea that must remain unanswered until the very end:  please, underneath it all, let there be everlasting arms.
Of course, my reaction to this film reveals much about my temperament.  I had wondered, when I started reading James, if I could consider myself to have a “religious” sensibility in the way that James describes, because I just wasn’t seeing it.  Yes, this is a horribleway to read as a historian, and I generally don’t make the mistake of assuming that texts written in an earlier era might somehow “speak” to — or about — me.  I am an intellectual historian, damn it, and we tread a lonely, lofty road.  As Laurence Veysey put it in his Wingspread Conference paper, “Alone among academics [intellectual historians] operated (if they thought carefully about what they were doing) under the paradoxical working assumption that all ideas are false but important.”**  

So okay, I admit it — when it comes to Varieties of Religious Experience, I have broken the rules.  I have been reading James in a regular riot of perspectival multiplicity, paying attention to his argument as it both instantiated and indicated his particular historical context, but at the same time  paying attention to it as a philosophical and even a polemical appeal that might (or might not) ring true for me.

Bad intellectual history?  Probably.  Good existential choice?  Definitely.
Should I bring this personal and personalized reading of James to the seminar room next week?  Probably not.  After raising hell (in a thoroughly professional and intellectually defensible manner, of course) about the methodological difficulties of dealing with both Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Women and Economics and Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class, I would do well to leave inquiries about methodology, situated epistemology, idealism, unmarked/marked gender, identity politics, and hegemonic hermeneutics alone for a week or two, if only so that everyone in the class can recalibrate their doubtless overtaxed irony meters.  Instead, I am happy to come to class next week and talk about James as a representative thinker of his time, rather than as a philosopher whose take on truth might be meaningful or helpful for this time, for this reader.
So in the remainder of this blog post — and I promise I won’t ramble on for too much longer — let me practice my serene intellectual detachment by pointing out something I noticed in James’s text that I found interesting and puzzling.  Now, just because it’s interesting doesn’t mean it’s important.  Indeed, I would love to hear from our readers on this — especially those of you who are particularly well versed in Jamesian thought.  Hey, if you’ve read the post this far, what have you got to lose?
In James’s chapter on “The Value of Saintliness,” he discusses how to evaluate the merit of saints or saintliness in the real world.  James writes:

…[T]he aggressive members of society are always tending to become bullies, robbers, and swindlers; and no one believes that such a state of things as we now live in is the millennium.  It is meanwhile quite possible to conceive an imaginary society in which there should be no aggressiveness, but only sympathy and fairness….Abstractly considered, such a society on a large scale would be the millennium, for every good thing might be realized there with no expense of friction.  To such a millennial society the saint would be entirely adapted.  His peaceful modes of appeal would be efficacious over his companions, and there would be no one extant to take advantage of his non-resistance. The saint is therefore abstractly a higher type of man than the ‘strong man,’ because he is adapted to the highest society conceivable, whether that society ever be concretely possible or not.***

When I read this passage, it occurred to me that James is making something like an “ontological argument” for the value of saintliness.  He is borrowing here, it seems to me, from Anselm and his successors.  But, in true Pragmatic fashion, James is bringing the force of the argument to bear on the world that we can see, or that we might imagine.  This is an ontological argument in the service of a phenomenological epistemology.  We are to measure the value of such saintliness as we encounter in our piebald society against an ideal society than which none greater can be conceived.
Oddly, though, when James comes to discuss systematic theology as a philosophical enterprise with a particular (and polemical) vision of truth, the ontological argument is notably absent from his later lecture/chapter on “Philosophy,” in which he reviews not only of the various “proofs” for God’s existence, but also various arguments for his essential qualities and attributes.  In “Philosophy,” James gives a whole laundry list of theological propositions advanced by the syllogistic methods of Thomistic theology, where divine truths are demonstrable via the tools of logical argumentation and a priori reasoning.  But Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God is not among them.**** 

Of course, Aquinas was one of many theologians who found Anselm’s “proof” wanting precisely (and, I think, ironically) because of its reliance on a priori reasoning — an epistemological foundation that David Hume scorned as well.  And Hume is, it seems, something of a favorite of James.  So I find it surprising that, in setting up his straw man, a concern with abstract ontology as a demonstration of practical irrelevancy, he left out the marquee proof.  He left it out here, but he used it earlier — he used it because it worked for the purposes of his argument, which is to establish that a world with saints in it is, on the whole, better than a world without them. 
James is not interested in ontology, in the abstract idea of things in themselves; as an empiricist, he is concerned with phenomenology, with things in relation to other things, selves in relation to other selves.  The measure of what might be ultimately true is how well it accords with the truths we can experientially measure.  Any idea of God as he is in and unto himself is of little interest to James.  After considering a few of those divine attributes asserted by Thomistic theology and its epigones, James comments:  “candidly speaking, how do such qualities as these make any definite connection with our life?  And if they severally call for no distinctive adaptations of our conduct, what vital difference can it possibly make to a man’s religion whether they be true or false?” (400).
So what I’m puzzling over here is this:  given his phenomenological bent, why does James find it necessary, or helpful, or persuasive, to evaluate the phenomena of saints and saintliness against the background of an ontological argument for the (existence of? possibility of? promise of?) the ideal society?

What is he (not) doing in structuring his argument thus?  
*I also saw Lincoln over the break — that’s a must-see film for American historians, certainly.  And I saw it not one week after reading Foner’s Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men.  The film might be “based on” or “informed by” Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, but it was Foner’s text that made the movie more than just a superlative film.  And it certainly was that.  But that’s another blog post.
**Laurence Veysey, “Intellectual History as the New Social History,” New Directions in American Intellectual History(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979), 4.
***William James, “The Value of Saintliness,” The Varieties of Religious Experience, in William James: Writings 1902-1910, The Library of America (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1987), 339.
****pp. 387-410.  For the laundry-list of claims about God’s essence and attributes, see especially pp. 392-398.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. And my apologies for not drawing more explicit / detailed connections in this post between The Life of Pi and The Varieties of Religious Experience. But when it comes to movie spoilers, I’d rather be safe than sorry. If you see the movie, the connections will be evident enough.

  2. It seems James’s “ideal society” was shaped by his anti-imperialist politics and subsequent disgust with Rooseveltan “strenuous life” nationalism. On the one hand, James was part of the movement against “overcivilized” manhood (I’m relying pretty heavily on Bederman’s Manliness and Civilization here). On the other hand, after the Spanish-American War, James set out in search for a “moral equivalent” for TR’s “military masculinity” (see the new book with that title). I’m not sure you could piece together a systematic “ideal society” from James other than his disparate reactions against Philippine annexation.

    I’ve always thought of James’s tough-minded “saint” as akin to Nietzsche’s “Superman”–the important thing was to recognize one’s freedom to remake society whatever way one wished. That might be to “existentialize” James too much, and I haven’t read American Nietzsche yet, so I stand ready to be corrected.

  3. Mark, thanks for this reminder to be pragmatic about reading James. Your read on the context against which he contrasts his ideal society seems sound to me, and he does draw these connections himself. Saintly asceticism of a thoroughly modern kind as the moral equivalent to war, etc.

    I guess the short answer to “where is the (takedown of the) ontological argument?” is that it didn’t suit James’s purposes to do so — but I am puzzled as to why. What makes the ontological argument “work” is an a priori notion privileging the existent real over the theoretically existent real. The ideal society would be not the best society we could imagine, but the actual existence of the best society we could imagine. If we decide that the best society we could imagine can never actually exist, then it’s not the ideal society. And James toggles back and forth in this section between what is ideal and what is possible, as well as between ontological being and phenomenological effect.

    However, chasing the shadow of the ontological argument is really a red herring. The Jamesian omission that made me laugh out loud came in his discussion of asceticism and monastic saintliness. “I refer to the chastity, obedience, and poverty which the monk vows to observe,” James says, “and upon the heads of obedience and poverty I will make a few remarks.” Now that’s (not) saying something!

Comments are closed.