More Jamesian Lacanianism!

From Psychology: The Briefer Course, ch. 17

“Will you or won’t you have it so?” is the most probing question we are ever asked; we are asked it every hour of the day, and about the largest as well as the smallest, the most theoretical as well as the most practical, things. We answer by consents or non-consents and not by words. What wonder that these dumb responses should seem our deepest organs of communication with the nature of things! What wonder if the effort demanded by them be the measure of our worth as men! What wonder if the amount which we accord of it were the one strictly underived and original contribution which we make to the world!

This notion that all we can “spontaneously” do (if anything) is give our yes or no seems very similar to Lacan’s deployment of cybernetics toward the end of Seminar 2, particularly the lecture that makes up the penultimate chapter. For Lacan, though, this sequence of “yes or no,” 1 or 0, seems to be conceived as a kind of unconscious code operating on us in a machine-like way, which it is the task of psychoanalysis somehow to bring to the surface or force the subject to confront or assume.

William James the Lacanian

From Psychology: The Briefer Course, chapter 2:

The first and foremost concrete fact which everyone will affirm to belong to his inner experience is the fact that consciousness of some sort goes on. “States of mind” succeed each other in him. If we could say in English “it thinks” as we say “it rains” or “it blows,” we should be stating the fact most simply and with the minimum of assumption.

Further Thoughts on Ontology

I have commented here before on what one might call my “methodological” objection to the Radical Orthodox ontology — namely, the fact that the Radox authors baldly assert their Neoplatonic ontology of hierarchical participation because of its supposedly benificent moral effects. I suggested that perhaps ontology, which at least etymologically is supposed to have some relation to how things “are,” should take science seriously. At the same time, I don’t think that ontology has to be the slave of science, which in practice would mean embracing the ontology of mechanical determinism.

I maintain that the trick the Radox authors attempt to pull would never have been able to succeed if the dominant strains of postwar philosophy had not fallen asleep at the ontological wheel. Analytic philosophy’s prohibition of ontological or metaphysical reflection system-building is well-known, and the dominance of Heidegger and his successors in continental philosophy (in its various institutional incarnations) led to a similar suspicion of metaphysical claims — most often quasi-moral objections to metaphysics as a “totalizing discourse” that is somehow directly oppressive (“Hegel caused the Holocaust,” etc.). Jean-Luc Nancy has undertaken to do a kind of post-Heideggerian ontology over the past couple decades, though I’m not sure he’s really “taking off” among Americans; there may also be someone in the analytic camp pursuing something along these lines, though I’ve not heard of it.

The shame here, though, is that during the prewar period, there was a real flowering of ontologies of the exact kind that I advocate — perhaps the biggest names there are Henri Bergson, Alfred North Whitehead, and William James. In each case, there is a recognition that the mechanical determinism (largely unconsciously) assumed by scientists is not adequately accounting to experience, and so the attempt is made to develop a more inclusive and realistic ontology.

Then in the postwar period, the whole thing apparently just shuts down in America, in both the analytic and continental traditions — the latter of which also spread to many other disciplines in the humanities where ontological reflection may have found a place. Certain contemporary developments — the rediscovery of Deleuze as a “real philospher,” the surprising prominence of Badiou in certain American circles, the aforementioned work of Nancy, Zizek’s more recent work — point toward the potential for a renewed interest in a truly contemporary ontology. The shame, however, is that in so many ways we in America at least have to reinvent the wheel because the prewar developments wound up getting prematurely cut off in our context.

Another Quote

Since the previous one was so popular, here’s another:

In the opinion of some writers an attitude might be called religious, though no touch were left in it of sacrifice or submission, no tendency to flexion, no bowing of the head. Any “habitual and regulated admiration,” says Professor J. R. Seeley, “is worthy to be called a religion”; and accordingly he thinks that our Music, our Science, and our so-called “Civilization,” as these things are now organized and admiringly believed in, form the more genuine religions of our time. Certainly the unhesitating and unreasoning way in which we feel that we must inflict our civilization upon “lower” races, by means of Hotchkiss guns, etc., reminds one of nothing so much as of the early spirit of Islam spreading its religion by the sword. (William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience)

In my mind, this quote is a perfect mixture of deflation of Western chauvanism and unconscious, almost instinctive Orientalism.

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William James

If my main goal was to understand James’s position on religion (Varieties of Religious Experience) but I also wanted some context for his thought as a whole, and if I probably only had time to read one other book of James in the relevant timeframe, what book would you recommend?

UPDATE: Oh, Dewey also, mutatis mutandis.


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