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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

doubt and inquiry

I've been keying my morning notes from A History of Israel, volume 2, and The Golden Bough. Endless reading, endless notes. One idea leads to another, one book leads to another--but are they all leading anywhere in particular, to a conclusion? Or is this like one of my favorite Winnie-the-Pooh episodes, "Where the Woozle Wasn't", in which Pooh and Piglet take to tracking the elusive woozle in the snow, following its footprints, which keep getting more and more numerous. They eventually discover (or it probably is pointed out to them by the all-wise Christopher Robin) that they have been tracking their way around a shrub, and have been following their own footprints.

Nowadays I tend to hold my ideas provisionally, and not accept anything as true unless it has lots of support in the world of fact, and also resonates within my own being as true. I seek to be both open-minded and skeptical--mental qualities I admire (and which I noted William James as possessing in high degree in my review on Amazon.com of his Principles of Psychology); or anyway, I admire them in conjunction with each other.

The issue is that of belief; what do you hold to be true? James covers this topic in the chapter entitled "The Perception of Reality". Here is an extract:

In its inner nature, belief, or the sense of reality, is a sort of feeling more allied to the emotions than to anything else. Mr. Bagehot calls it the "emotion" of conviction. It resembles more than anything what in the psychology of volition we know as consent. Consent is recognized by all to be a manifestation of our active nature. It would naturally be described by such terms as "willingness." What characterizes both consent and belief is the cessation of theoretic agitation, through the advent of an idea which is inwardly stable, and fills the mind solidly to the exclusion of contradictory ideas. When this is the case, motor effects are apt to follow. Hence the states of consent and belief, characterized by repose on the purely intellectual side, are both intimately connected with subsequent practical activity. This inward stability of the mind's content is as characteristic of disbelief as of belief. But we never disbelieve anything except for the reason that we believe something else which contradicts the first thing. Disbelief is thus an incidental complication to belief, and need not be considered by itself.

Almost by definition, then, a belief is exactly that thought which impels us to action. I was most intrigued to learn that James did not regard disbelief as the opposite of belief. Rather, he says:

The true opposites of belief, psychologically considered, are doubt and inquiry, not disbelief. In these states the content of our mind is in unrest, and the emotion engendered is, like the emotion of belief itself, perfectly distinct, but indescribable. Both sorts of emotion may be pathologically exalted. In nitrous oxide intoxication, a man’s very soul will sweat with conviction, and he be all the while unable to tell what he is convinced of at all. The pathological state opposed to this solidity and deepening has been called the questioning mania. It consists in the inability to rest in any conception, and the need of having it confirmed and explained.

Doubt and inquiry: yes, that about sums it up for me. I doubt, I inquire. And while doubt does not lead to action, but rather tends to inhibit action, inquiry does lead to action--or rather is an action. Sitting in a chair, reading a book, all appearances aside, is an activity. It's doing something: running one's eyes across the page, processing the meaning of the marks, relating the concepts that arise to one's memories.

The pursuit of knowledge: concepts that feel solid enough to base one's actions on.

One of the points that James makes is that the period of relatively open-minded inquiry in one's life is generally confined to one's youth. When we gain a profession, knowledge tends to be focused in that specific area, and one does not go back to review what one has learned about all the other subjects under the sun. He makes the point, essentially (wish I could find the passage, but have searched and can't), that what we think of, in school, as being the beginning of our learning, is in fact actually the end of it, for the most part. By age 25 or so we've learned enough to meet the practical needs of the day, and therefore go no further.

Well, that's not me, anyway. I still seem to be taking a full range of subjects, and there still is no final exam in sight. I'm still in the classroom, and next to me, along with my book-satchel and lunchbox, is my coffin.

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