William James and the Art of Popular Statement

★★★☆☆

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Buy this book ~Jun 19, 2016 Books read in 2016

Highlights

The art of popular statement was far more than an aside in James's career. It was integral to the way he carried himself, to his interactions with colleagues, to his choice of venues for speaking and publishing, to the discursive style he adopted, to the conversations he influenced, and to the intellectual bonds he fostered with his fellow citizens.
Specifically, the points of tension between the culture of eloquence and the culture of professionalism provided James with a wealth of rhetorical resources for relating to and interacting with popular audiences. Because of his understanding of intellectual life in the first half of the nineteenth century, he was able to reconnect the American people to an increasingly rare yet still appreciated mode of thought and engagement. At the same time, because of his understanding of modern science and the new frontiers of the mind, he was able to help his audiences comprehend, respond to, and participate in patterns of thought in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
As an anonymous book reviewer for the nation's popular periodicals, James had the opportunity to shape the perceptions of ordinary Americans on some of the biggest issues of the day—the role of science in society, the authority of specialists, the character of public discourse in the age of expertise, and the relationship between professional and lay perspectives. The result of these efforts was a set of rhetorical strategies for addressing the intersection of modern science and public culture.
Indeed, it was as though there were two Jameses at work in the reviews—one who promoted a culture of popular participation and one who relegated science to properly trained professionals. Admittedly, James was dealing with different questions and different texts in his reviews, so the point may have been that at some times there was a need for public participation while at other times specialists needed to settle the matter. And in this regard there was a telling pattern to his critiques. When it came to issues with which he agreed (the validity of evolution, for example), he often wanted those properly trained to settle the matter, instead of allowing uninformed reactionaries to meddle with the debate. But when it came to issues with which he disagreed (Spencer's philosophy, for example), he wanted everyone to have a say and to leave inquiry open for diverse points of view.
If psychical research was primarily a matter of the wonderful complexity of the human mind, then there was little need to show that spirits, mediums, ghosts, and psychic forces were “real” in the conventional sense of the term. Psychical research was justified because paranormal phenomena were intriguing parts of human experience, not because spirit forces were rigorously demonstrable.
Had James wanted to, he could have made a living solely from the lecture circuit. By the end of the nineteenth century, he received hundreds of offers to lecture every year. In 1899, his wife estimated that at least one offer arrived in the mail every day. As a result, he could have quit his job at Harvard and traveled the country addressing packed houses. But travel was hard on him, the social obligations associated with lecturing were often annoying, and he relished his time at home in Cambridge and at his summer house in New Hampshire. James was a firm believer in what he called “The Gospel of Relaxation.” Not wanting to spend his whole life on the lecture circuit, he declined the vast majority of invitations he received.
In fact, the act of lecturing had been so central that James considered retiring from Harvard to spend more time speaking to general audiences in America and abroad. Why? Because, as he told F. C. S. Schiller on May 1, 1903, popular statement was “the highest form of art.” It was a revealing statement from someone who had once studied to be a painter. More revealing, however, was the fact that a mere two days after penning that letter to Schiller, James told his brother Henry something very different: “Lectures have such an awful side (when not academic) that I myself have foresworn them—it is a sort of prostitution of one's person.” Here was an attitudinal chasm. On May 1, popular statement was the highest form of art, something to be pursued with enthusiasm and dedication. On May 3, public lecturing was taxing and contemptible, a prostitution of the mind. James was nothing if not moody, and his letters to Henry often revealed different sentiments than the sentiments he expressed to others. Nevertheless, the disparate statements of May 1 and May 3 raise an important question: What did James really believe about lecturing to popular audiences? Answering the question based solely on his correspondence does little to settle the matter, given that James celebrated public speaking one day and loathed it the next. But if we compare his correspondence to his practices, the disparity goes away. James often complained about lecturing, yet he returned to the public stage year after year.
These pragmatic questions, which had emerged from James's earlier lectures, were integral to the dismissive, combative, practical attitude that defined James's populist program. Indeed, the questions themselves were verbal pathways around Kant and the philosophical professionalism Kant encouraged. Whenever philosophers tried to escape into the world of Kantian mystification, nonphilosophers could, in James's intellectual culture, shut them down or bring them back to reality by asking: What practical difference will your work make in my life?
Regardless of whether James was working from brief, sentence-fragment notes or from a full-sentence manuscript, he seemed to be spinning ideas in the audience's presence. His philosophy appeared to unfold in the moment, enveloping listeners and readers in phrases, markers, and metaphors designed specifically for them. James was indeed “thinking in public with rhetoric.” At the least, he was able to persuade his audiences that they were caught up in a burst of intellectual creativity. The result was a powerful sense of identification.
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