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Title: William James: psychology and ontology of continuity
Authors: Bella, Michela
metadata.dc.contributor.advisor: Calcaterra, Rosa Maria
Keywords: ontologia
Issue Date: 9-Jul-2015
Publisher: Università degli studi Roma Tre
Abstract: Introduction: The thesis William James: Psychology and Ontology of Continuity addresses the issue of the continuity of consciousness in William James, considering also its possible actualization. In particular, this work aims at outlining critically the various theoretical perspectives that influenced James’s philosophical discourse. On the wave of the Darwinian theory of evolution, James’s reflections originate in the field of late 19th century physiological psychology where he develops more and more intensely the exigency of a renewed epistemology and a new metaphysical framework for gathering the most interesting scientific theories and discoveries about the human mind. The analysis of the theme of continuity allows us to capture, from the historical and the theoretical point of view, the importance of James’s gradual translation of psychological experimental observations of the continuity of thought into an ontological perspective according to which continuity constitutes a feature of reality. Indeed, such an analysis clarifies James's position within his own historical context, as well as highlighting the most original outcomes of his work. Whilst many of James’s phenomenological and psychological insights had an important and far-reaching influence, the aspect of continuity, although mentioned by some scholars, has not been properly analysed to date. This is firstly due to the great attention that interpreters have commonly paid to James’s individualist attitude, hence to the tychistic or variant features of reality. Secondly, it is important to consider that the main interpretative stream of pragmatism narrowed the comparison between James and Charles S. Peirce into a paradigmatic polarization, so that James was mainly considered as the philosopher of nominalism and individuality, while Peirce was labeled as the realist in search of a mathematical continuum that would match with his theory of infinite semiosis. It is important to acknowledge that James was immediately intrigued by the contradictory synthetic unity of mental states that he could draw from his description of the continuity of the states of consciousness, in so far as they preserved both real continuity and real divisibility. The vague aspect of experience was not fully reproducible in conceptual terms, and in logical terms it resulted in a contradiction. James’s elaboration of this problematic issue should be considered within the shift of paradigms that was taking place in the first half of the 20th century. Such an epochal change affected James’s elaboration, particularly through the theoretical and methodological advancements that were made in the fields of physiology and biological sciences throughout the 19th century. The formulation of a continuum capable of retaining both the synthetic and the power of individuation also became a critical issue for James. By developing his philosophical arguments, he persuaded himself that the dualistic approach was unsatisfactory when defining a descriptive ontology. A new scientific paradigm, that he himself would have helped later to criticize and change from within, was necessary to establish a gradual amelioration of his research work. The work of James is for the most part a work of epistemological critique, since he relentlessly claimed that temperamental and metaphysical assumptions affected even the supposed neutral direction of science, as it did every other field of human knowledge. Sellars’s challenge to the “myth of the given” is the ripest fruit of the critical work internal to the empiricist-naturalist-positivistic mentality, but such criticism of the supposed neutrality of sense data began long before and in different fields of knowledge with the contribution of thinkers such as Peirce, Ernst Mach (1838 - 1916) and, in a particular mode, Henri Bergson (1859-1941). Many critics, including James himself, recognized that Peirce’s and, especially, Bergson’s theories were the most significant philosophical sources for James’s elaboration of the continuity of reality. In fact, whilst there are specific differences between their philosophies, James gleaned important philosophical legitimacy from Bergson’s sharp criticism of intellectualism (or absolute rationalism) and his assertion that the “philosophy of mechanicism” implies “psychological determinism” was, most probably, particularly appreciated by James. However, considering the results of James's and Bergson’s inquiries, it seems clear that there are significant differences between their theoretical outcomes. Such differences are connected with their own differing philosophical training and, more generally, different cultural frameworks : James remains profoundly committed to Anglo-American empiricism, whereas Bergson shows distinctive traits of the Cartesian tradition. Nevertheless, their philosophical engagement with freedom, that is to say, with the deconstruction of all idealisms that might obstruct the honest search for truth, is the most significant and, indeed, resistant undertone of both their philosophies. James’s and Bergson’s temporalization of scientific paradigms accords with the rehabilitation of theories of direct perception within a more extended and enriched conception of experience. In this sense, it seems that the effort to preserve a real space for the freedom of research in the scientific and latu sensu cultural fields of society was a common trend at the time, involving also Peirce and Mach. That is to say that the liberty was to be practically pursued in the methodology of research which tirelessly attempted to recognize and take into account the powers involved in epistemological play. The social and natural observable features of human beings suggested that these powers consist in the conceptual meanings transmitted by historical tradition, and the physiological and biological interests that affect human beings. More specifically, James claimed that these psychological tendencies worked exactly in the direction of dogmatic assumptions. The tangle of conceptual and physiological cognitive dimensions is thus the crucial point that emerges in these years, and it reveals particularly interesting interdisciplinary and insightful aspects in the pragmatism reception. The introductory section of this work will present the main lines of research and indicate a possible new outcome in the attempt to denote in a vitalistic sense the epistemological realism of James. Moreover, the theoretical and methodological criteria will focus upon identifying and clarifying the key terms of his analysis, in particular with regard to philosophical terms. Considering the naturalist and continuum ontology embraced by James, and taking into account the pluralistic definition of his metaphysics, it seems important to dwell upon the distinction between ontology and metaphysics. The cultural atmosphere of the beginning of the 20th century can be revived through the clarification of the current interpretations of these terms, at least in the Anglo-American context. To such an aim, framing the objectives of James’s polemical discourse and acknowledging the characteristic mixture of some unjustified assumptions that silently influenced the progress of scientific research, is very promising. The thesis is divided into three main chapters. The first chapter is a direct reading of some key chapters of the Principles of Psychology (1890), and of James’s articles that can be considered as previous drafts. The analysis will focus particularly upon PP IX The Stream of Thought, X The Consciousness of Self, XV The Perception of Time; PP II XIX The Perception of Reality, and XX The Perception of Space. Through this overview, I will also try to reconstruct the indirect state of psychological research, particularly that of experimental psychology. James mounted lucid criticisms of the atomism of sensation and associationist psychology, focusing upon critical interconnections between psychology and philosophy, methodology and theory. This chapter is an important support for my epistemological reading of James’s theories. The second chapter is a recollection of the most interesting contributions to the issue of continuity produced by three major interlocutors of James, to whom extensive correspondence and interesting analogies have traditionally drawn scholars’ attention. At the time, Peirce, Bergson, and Mach were three resonant voices on the cultural horizon and nowadays their influence is regarded as undeniable, especially with regard to the critical-methodological and epistemological aspects of their reflections in different areas of research. Such an indirect reconnaissance of the main influences on and criticisms of James’s elaboration of the issue of continuity will be outlined in proportion to the intensity of the relationship between James and these authors, and some of the most interesting topics at that time will be focused upon. This work of clarification, which is pursued through the acquisition of contemporary external points of view, is important to show both the historical and theoretical context of certain assumptions made by James (e.g. synechistic pluralism) and to emphasize the peculiarities of his philosophical reflection. An accurate contextualization enables us to notice James’s adherence and contribution to that group of thinkers that witnessed the collapse of mechanical models in physics due to the irruption of the issue of temporality. Such a situation opened the way to theories of relativity and new epistemic models based upon the idea of uncertainty rather than on absolute truths or solid certainties . The third chapter finally focuses upon the philosophical texts of James. The intention of this analysis is to highlight the psychological assumptions and the epistemological principles that James firstly developed within his psycho-physiological training. More specifically, the aim of such analysis is to show that these principles remain important acknowledgments because they shape significant traits of James’s view. In this regard, the cognitively active and selective description of mind suggested to James a necessary enrichment of the notion of rationality to the extent that it included “personal reasons”. His paradigmatic distinction between rationalists and empiricists already appears in 1897 as the physiological and temperamental distinction between 'tender- minded' and 'tough- minded', and was already expression of James’s tendency towards a new radically empiricist epistemology. The general enrichment of the scientific approach to human beings and their faculties found in pragmatism a natural and valuable new methodology. According to pragmatist methodology, in fact, the meaning of concepts could be enhanced by considering all their possibly conceivable (theoretical and practical) consequences. From the beginning, James’s radicalization of empiricism was connected to a pluralistic metaphysics which was supposed to leave room for every human reason and to consign to human beings’ potentialities the actualization of novelty. In SPP he still thought of the alternative between monism and pluralism as the possibility of real novelty. Like change, novelty was really possible in a world still in-the-making, but it was difficult to show how it could happen and he finally formulated the hypothesis of small drops in which reality comes to be all at once. This solution was assumed to be possible and probable by James, even if it raised some difficulties as to what his general view concerns. Some tensions still remain between his monistic or pluralistic connotation of pluralism, which can be relevant even for his more general connection of epistemology and ontology, and the classification of his hypothesis of pure experience. However, his urgency to stress the sensualist side of knowledge and reality was mainly due to James's effort to avoid falling into surreptitious intellectualist lines of thought. Some of the essays included in MT and ERE are particularly interesting for the analysis of feelings and relations. They treated some core arguments for James's recovery of the theory of direct perception within his doctrine of radical empiricism and his metaphysical theory of pure experience. The Conclusion focused upon the relevance of some of James's most precious studies and insights have for our times. Recollecting the key points and the theoretical issues upon which James seemed to devote long and deep reflection, and given the general reconstruction of his philosophical view, interesting lines of influence can be drawn, connecting him to contemporary branches of psychology and philosophy. For instance, there are interesting continuities with contemporary revivals of Dewey’s psychology and other significant affinities can be found with certain contemporary phenomenological approaches to neuroscience.
Access Rights: info:eu-repo/semantics/openAccess
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