December 11, 2014

"On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings" by William James

I have been reading a biography of the philosopher and psychologist William James, In the Maelstrom of American Modernism, by Robert Richardson. It has brought back to mind some essays of James, a humanist thinker whose ideas on the multiplicity of life, and the primacy of experience, are very attractive to me. I have written about his essays: the brilliant one on "Habit"; on "The Gospel of Relaxation", comparing it to Buddhist thought. And I've written on his great short essay "On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings". I am for the first time republishing a blog post, one that I wrote two years ago, just before Christmas, soon after the school shooting at Sandy Hook. It seems to me that we need James's wisdom yet again after the recent police shootings, his admonishment that we can't know what is in another heart. This understanding would go a long way to allaying prejudices; if we all could accept this, would racism still exist? 

In this season of "peace on earth, good will to men", I wanted to share with you some of the ideas from a beautiful essay by the philosopher William James titled "On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings", written in 1898, which you can read here. He writes:
...the blindness in human beings of which this discourse will treat is the blindness with which we all are afflicted in regard to the feelings of creatures and people different from ourselves. 
To make his points, James quotes various writers at length––Stevenson, Wordsworth, Whitman, Tolstoy––but he begins with a couple of personal anecdotes, one about the disconnect in understanding between us and our dogs, which goes a long way in humorously illustrating mutual miscomprehension:
"Take our dogs and ourselves, connected as we are by a tie more intimate than most ties in this world; and yet, outside of that tie of friendly fondness, how insensible, each of us, to all that makes life significant for the other!––we to the rapture of bones under hedges...they to the delights of literature and art. As you sit reading the most moving romance you ever fell upon, what sort of a judge in your fox-terrier of your behavior? With all his good will towards you, the nature of your conduct is absolutely excluded from his comprehension. To sit there like a senseless statue, when you might be taking him to walk and throwing sticks for him to catch! What queer disease comes over you every day, of holding things and staring at them like that for hours together, paralyzed of motion and vacant of all conscious life?"
 James also tells us of traveling through North Carolina and seeing clearings made by settlers which he thought showed "unmitigated squalor", nature defiled. But it was explained to him that these rude clearings were victories for the people living there. I thought back on the early settlers of Vermont, who cleared land bit by bit, planting between tree stumps, whose land must have looked violently ugly at first. He admitted that he "had been as blind to the peculiar ideality of their conditions as they certainly would also have been to the ideality of mine..."

I reread this essay today with an open heart, trying to accept, in this time of mass shootings and political rancor, that I must be willing to see the significance of other lives. James, by quoting a long excerpt from Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Lantern Bearers", points out that all lives have an inner glow that might be hidden by "a rude mound of mud", but that, according to Stevenson, "...the true realism, always and everywhere, is that of the poets: to find out out where joy resides, and give it a voice beyond singing....For to miss the joy is to miss all".

So much of this essay, and one that follows, "What Makes a Life Significant", is an elucidation of deeply democratic principles, a belief that it is not only the lives of the successful and powerful that have meaning; James quotes Whitman's "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" here to great effect, where "Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes! how curious you are to me!" The great gathering of humanity is as beautiful and enlarging as Wordsworth's mountain dawns. These words of James are like gospel to me:
To be rapt with satisfied attention, like Whitman, to the mere spectacle of the world's presence, is one way, and the most fundamental way, of confessing one's sense of its unfathomable significance and importance. 
This post would be very long if I included every sentence underlined, every paragraph highlighted. If your interest is piqued, read the essay at the link above; it is fairly short and very readable since it was originally delivered as a lecture. But I will end with James' summing up final paragraph:
And now what is the result of all these considerations and quotations? It is negative in one sense, but positive in another. It absolutely forbids us to be forward in pronouncing on the meaninglessness of forms of existence other than our own; and it commands us to tolerate, respect, and indulge those whom we see harmlessly interested and happy in their own ways, however unintelligible these may be to us. Hands off: neither the whole of truth, nor the whole of good, is revealed to any single observer, although each observer gains a partial superiority of insight from the peculiar position in which he stands. Even prisons and sick-rooms have their special revelations. It is enough to ask of each of us that he should be faithful to his own opportunities and make the most of his own blessings, without presuming to regulate the rest of the vast field. 


  1. "Even prisons and sick-rooms have their special revelations..." Amen to that!
    Just yesterday, in our county prison, where I facilitate a life-skills class (one inmate came in announcing "LIFE-SKILLS....HOLD YOUR URINE!" as a continuing admonition to his fellow students not to be getting up and walking out of class to visit the is just 75 minutes, for crying-out-loud) the subject of Flemish-bond in bricklaying and glazed-headers came up, as we discussed the best, most beautiful, bricks, those used to produce that distinctive bond, had gone through the hottest fire, their exposed ends turning to glass, their usefulness coming to full-fruition only in the company of their fellows, miraculous unseen gravity holding the whole thing up...and Pentecost revealing the value of all-each-has-been-through: the learning of his native language.
    Good Will
    James Brake Small, Jr.