Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Friday, November 17, 2006

William James: PRAGMATISM - Lecture 4

After tackling the philosophical problems of free will and evolution/design in nature, James turns his attention to an issue that has come to be known as ‘the one and the many.’ Very few people lay awake at night worrying about this one, and these tend to be either professional philosophers or college students. But the topic is actually more interesting than you might suppose. Basically: Is the world one thing with many parts, or is it just many separate parts with no unifying connection? Who cares? As long as you don’t think about it, you’ll do just fine. But philosophy isn’t satisfied doing just fine. Philosophy wants to know: is it One, or is it Many? This isn’t a question so much as a quest. James says that “Philosophy has often been defined as the quest or the vision of the world’s unity.” It goes something like this.

Human beings tend to look for the simplest explanation of things. That includes the world. To a child it just seems like common sense to say that the world is made up of many separate things: trees and rocks and rainbows and root beer. But by using the term “the world” you’ve already subconsciously answered the question of The One vs. The Many. It’s One – THE world. It’s more inherently pleasing to grasp the world as a unity – as One. It may be just a name that we give to it – One – a mere verbal construct, using “the world” (one world) for the sake of easy conversation, as when we say “the world goes ‘round.” But James asks an interesting question: “why is ‘one’ more excellent than ‘forty-three’ or ‘two million and ten’?” Why is One special? And he follows up with another: “What is the practical value of oneness for us?”

Again and again the pragmatist comes back to the same point: what is its practical value? Much of One’s practical value is a sort of verbal shorthand. We refer to the world as One so we don’t have to constantly qualify our statements. We want it clear that “the whole thing” is what we mean when we use the term “the world” – “we mean to cover the whole of it by our abstract term ‘world’, which expressly intends that no part shall be left out.” And just as our toes and fingers and arms and everything else all connect to make up the body, so the world is connected by all of its parts. When we clearly see how this part connects with that part, we feel the world is One. But when we can’t see how in the world this part over here connects with that part over there, we feel the world is Many. As James puts it: “The world is One, therefore, just so far as…many definite conjunctions as appear. But then also not One by just as many disjunctions as we find…It is neither a universe pure and simple nor a multiverse pure and simple.”

The philosophical term for Many is Pluralism, the term for One is Monism. And James says that “To interpret monism worthily, be a mystic…The method of Vedantism is the mystical method. You do not reason, but after going through a certain discipline you see, and having seen, you can report the truth.” Here’s an example of Vedantic thought: “We are not parts of the One; It has no parts; and since in a sense we undeniably are, it must be that each of us is the One…” Say what? You can see where this line of thought is headed.

The pragmatist is having none of that. Pragmatism…”must equally abjure absolute monism and absolute pluralism.” Neither extreme will do. So where does that leave us? Precisely where we began as children: the world seems to be made up of separate things even though some philosophers tell us it’s really just One Thing. Or, as James puts it, “This leaves us with the common-sense world, in which we find things partly joined and partly disjoined.” And since we don’t have enough data or understanding to answer the question definitively, James says that pragmatism “must obviously range herself upon the pluralistic side.” In the question of the One or the Many, stick with the instinct you had as a child. You were probably correct.

-- RDP


Blogger SMJ said...

Another way of stating the problem of "the one and the many" is to ask whether or not the universe reveals, at a fundamental level, an organized structure, or is it, instead, random, with no underlying structure. If it has structure, then you must consider whether that structure consists of one kind of substance or rather a combination of several different substances.

As to the first question, I think we can clearly answer that the universe indeed does have a structure, and that this structure is rational. To think otherwise is to render all attempts at scientific knowledge useless. Since Dewey's test for philosophical relevancy means that an idea or belief must be "useful," then belief in a chaotic, irrational universe must therefore be moot.

So we must proceed to the next question. Since the universe is understood to be rational and has a verifiable structure, what kind of structure does it exhibit? Is it monistic or pluralistic? One thing or many? Here, common sense does not help us. Standing at sea level, our eyes tell us that the earth is flat. But we know that isn't so. Our senses are just not reliable in seeing underlying structure, especially at the molecular level.

The truth is we simply don't know enough about the basic building blocks of nature. We used to think that atoms and molecules are the primary stuff from which everything else is created. Now, we have a whole compendium of elementary particles: pions, positrons, neutrinos, leptons, hadrons, etc. Beyond these are even more mysterious entities such as quarks and gluons, with their various flavors and colors.

But is there one kind of underlying stuff from which everything is derived? Perhaps. Cosmology, or the study of origins, leans toward a holistic theory which explains complex events in terms of simple causes (e.g., unified field equations) which, in theory at least, can be mathematically expressed. The Big Bang theory is one monistic model which describes a highly condensed state of matter that explodes in a tremendous wave of heat energy, and leading to the formation of many different elemental compounds. Other cosmological models are possible. But all such models imply a positive beginning to the universe in which the laws of physics (i.e. nature) are initially conceived.

I find it odd that on most tombstones the only information recorded are the facts of one's birth and death. As if all the events in between are of no consequence. We should recall that philosophy is an ongoing conversation between rational creatures striving to understand themselves and their world. Thus, the history of philosophy is but a record of the answers to these questions that different men have proposed to themselves in different times. The fact that metaphysics has never been able to entirely settle these questions does not mean the conversation itself is meaningless. For if the definition of "usefulness" requires finality, then all other conversations about art, beauty, truth, justice or God must also be meaningless. In which case, the only questions we have left to discuss have nothing at all to do with knowing what things make a good life, but only the mundane facts of when I was born and when I ceased to be. Things verifiable, but hardly essential.

11/20/2006 12:21 PM  

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