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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, August 17, 2007

thinking before acting

I continue to make my way through The Varieties of Religious Experience, the landmark book based on a series of lectures that William James delivered at the University of Edinburgh in 1901-02, as Gifford Lecturer on Natural Religion. The approach he decided on was to examine the psychology of personal religious experience: what are the feelings, thoughts, and acts that we call "religious", and what is their value?

With such a topic, everything depends on the qualities of the teacher. What are his own beliefs or prejudices? How tolerant and open-minded is he? What is the caliber of his intellect? For his thoughts to have any lasting value, he must not be pushing any private religious belief of his own; he must be wide open and tolerant of others' beliefs; and he must have a mind that is deep, subtle, sharp, and sympathetic.

William James is all of the above, in maximum degree. Hence this book, published in 1902, is still valuable and relevant today. Indeed, like any classic, it has the freshness of the present moment.

Two days ago I was reading lecture 18, "Philosophy", in which James, having covered much ground in earlier lectures on conversion, saintliness, and mysticism, addresses the conceptual content of religion: the power and value of religious ideas. With breathtaking brevity and assurance he sums up scholastic philosophy about God, then, as a tool to gauge the value of the ideas, he introduces the philosophical method known as pragmatism, first formulated in the 19th century by the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce. James encapsulates Peirce's idea as follows:

Thought in movement has for its only conceivable motive the attainment of belief, or thought at rest. Only when our thought about a subject has found its rest in belief can our action on the subject firmly and safely begin. Beliefs, in short, are rules for action; the whole function of thinking is but one step in the production of active habits. If there were any part of a thought that made no difference in the thought’s practical consequences, then that part would be no proper element of the thought’s significance. To develop a thought’s meaning we need therefore only determine what conduct it is fitted to produce; that conduct is for us its sole significance. To attain perfect clearness in our thoughts of an object, we need then only consider what sensations, immediate or remote, we are conceivably to expect from it, and what conduct we must prepare in case the object be true.


As I read this paragraph, highlighter in hand, sitting in my soft leather occasional chair, I felt that I was arriving at a major station in my thinking career.

I had been exposed to the philosophy of pragmatism before. Indeed, my introduction to William James was via this philosophy, and the first book of his that I bought and read was Pragmatism, based on lectures given a few years after this series in Edinburgh. But this compressed summary of the philosophy, given as a preliminary to examining other ideas, struck me: it sank home.

Beliefs are rules for action. The whole function of thinking is but one step in the production of active habits.

It's not much of an exaggeration to say that I've spent my whole life thinking. Thinking and studying. Thinking is "thought in movement". I have been searching for beliefs, or "thought at rest". Without firm beliefs you can't take action. What would you do?

But it makes a huge difference what one believes. It's useless to have beliefs that lead us into mistaken or even catastrophic action. As Bertrand Russell said, "I don't want to die for my beliefs; I might be wrong." The personal convictions of George Bush an Tony Blair have not led them to take worthwhile actions, in my opinion--quite the opposite. History is a train-wreck of actions undertaken by people with strong but mistaken convictions.

So my lifelong "analysis paralysis" may not be a bad thing. The Hinayana view of Buddhism, as well as the Hippocratic oath, say it well: "First, do no harm." At least if you're sitting on a meditation cushion, anxious and confused about life, you're not making things any worse for your fellow beings.

Of course, I'm a living being and I do take action all the time--every moment of every day. But my action tends to be, more often than not, retreating to my soft chair, highlighter in hand, and opening another book...


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