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William James and His Life Understanding

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In his work “On a Certain Blindness In Human Beings”, William James describes human judgments, what makes us create those decisions, and the inherent bias that is located in those decisions. He begins ensuring that we know that “We are practical beings, each of us with limited functions and duties to perform” (James, 229). He believes that in order to reach a state of almost enlightenment, in order to come to a proper conclusion on what we may be missing in life, going back to nature is absolutely not the answer, “No modern person ought to be willing to live a day in such a state of rudimentariness and denudation” (James, 233). His first mention of the state of people of whom the blindness was probably least persistent comes when talking of the people who worked on clearing the forest; stating that “The chips, the girdled trees, and the vile split rails spoke of honest sweat, persistent till, and final reward” (James, 234). This is foreshadowing to the importance of the common man later mentioned extensively in “What Makes a Life Significant”, as in that work, the dedication, work, and toil of the common, everyday worker is praised and exalted. Later, James draws meaning from a quotation of Stevenson, reiterating, “To miss joy is to miss all” (James, 240). This is underscoring the importance of simply embracing the most seemingly menial and useless things in life. One must be able to look at simple joys and take them in fully, as without being able to feel joy, can one truly feel anything? James draws this point out, explaining that we have become such “practical creatures”, and as a result have become dead toward “all but one particular kind of joy” (James, 241). The only instance in which we can truly be open to any kind of joy is in the case of love, James asserts, insisting, “The passion of love will shake one like an explosion” (James, 243). James is recognizing love as one of the most powerful emotions we have as humans, and that love has the ability to make the most mundane interesting. James later implores, “what other kind of value can the preciousness of any hour; made precious by any standard, consist, if not in feelings of exited significance, … engendered in some one, by what the hour contains?” (James, 247) Essentially James highlights the importance of the individual experience, and in some way, I believe, hints towards the titular “blindness”. James wants the reader to realize that one experience, be it more typically “upper-crust” or “lowly”, is ultimately up to the interpretation of the one having the experience. No person is more important in an experience than the one having it. Further expounding on his point from before, James asserts that “the kind of fibre of which such inanities exist is the material woven of all the excitements, joys, and meanings that there ever were, or ever shall be, in this world”, (James, 253). It is exactly this kind of writing, these kinds of points he reaches that make James so enjoyable to read. From the typical droll and almost anesthetic nature of typical philosophical writings, James differentiates himself, making sure to include nuggets of pure genius that make the writer double back and readdress not only the paragraph he/she just read, but their entire lives. One wonders, out of a life so utterly unspectacular, one so dull, almost, how could so much joy, wonder, and happiness be drawn? It is simply due to the ideal of being able to “enjoy the simple things” as people are akin to tell others so easily. James later goes on to go on a love-fest with Tolstoi, making sure the reader knows how much he enjoys the work. Speaking of the main character of Tolstoi’s ‘War and Peace’, James writes “Later in life he always recurred with joy to his month of captivity, and never failed to speak with enthusiasm of the powerful and ineffaceable sensations, and especially of the moral calm, which he had experienced at this epoch”. He qualifies his earlier statements about nature through quotations, later emphasizing, “unhappiness is the fatal result, not of our need, but of our abundance”. (James, 256). James believes that in order to truly appreciate life for “many an over-educated pessimist” (James, 258) “The remedy… is to descend to a more profound and primitive level.” (James, 257). Probably the most important of all of James’ assertions comes at the end of his essay, in which he emphasizes the “Certain Blindness” is truly a blindness towards others. We are not able to experience the world from the view of others, making our own view of the world wholly unique. There is not a single being on this earth that has had the same experiences as you, and that as a result “neither the whole 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” (James 264). We each have an essentially individual experience of the world, and making that experience the most we can, trying to maximize that experience just may be our purpose for being here.

In his next lecture, on “What Makes a Life Significant”, William James begins what ends up being essentially a love-fest for the common man. Referencing his previous lecture, James states “Every Jack sees in his own particular Jill charms and perfections to the enchantment of which we stolid onlookers are stone-cold”, re-emphasizing. the fact that every human experience is unique, and what makes an experience essential to one man, may make no difference to another (James 266). James goes on to speak of a utopia, one in which “a fore-taste of what human society might be, were it all in the light, with no suffering and no dark corners”, a seemingly perfect place, as what can one find wrong in a place with “no poverty, no drunkenness, no crime, no police” (James 269-70)? Yet as James emerged from this utopia, he wanted nothing more than something “primordial and savage” (James, 270). He craved destruction; he craved the grime and grit showcased in everyday human life. We as humans can not survive in a perfect world. We need struggle, and strife, and turmoil to survive. The story of human beginnings tells us as such, no matter your interpretation. Take evolution, for example. The only way in which we came to the state we are in today was through survival of the fittest. Only the toughest, most capable of surviving the toils of the world made it through, we needed struggle in order to become what we are. Even, for example, the creation story of the bible tells us as such. Humans aren’t living in the Garden of Eden, a utopia if ever one has been described, as we had to make mistakes, suffer, and pay for those mistakes in order to ascend to a place of higher thought and spirituality. Whatever your persuasion, it appears that human life is build off of struggle, and any rush to take that away is ultimately deemed unsuccessful. It is for these reasons that James so deeply reveres the common man, that he believes those with “horny hands and dirty skin” were the “very parents of our life” (James 275). While both seeming convincing and fully believing in his words, it seems difficult to not reach a conclusion of near condescension when reading this work. The seemingly endless ways in which James praises the poor for their work and dedication seem to almost come across as insincere. The final point James comes to is one of Ideals. The ideals that he speaks of are absolutely essential to life, and especially to leading a fulfilling life. James insists that “no outward changes of condition in life can keep the nightingale of its eternal meaning from singing in all sorts of different men’s hearts” (James 301), finally emphasizing that it is not only the poor and suffering that can lead fulfilling lives, it is simply up to the experience of a person, and what they chose to do with that experience.

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