Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Monday, August 17, 2015

WILLIAM JAMES: The Social Me and the Animal Me

Not many Americans were selected for the Great Books readings.  That shouldn’t be too surprising.  America is still a relatively young country.  But this week’s reading selection is unusual in a different kind of way.  The introduction says “William James, the distinguished American psychologist and philosopher, was the elder brother of novelist Henry James.”  Henry James is also included in the Great Books readings (GB3 The Beast in the Jungle).  (This is the only case where two members from the same family are represented in the Great Books.)  So we’re fortunate this time to have a fellow American and English-speaking author on the schedule.  We can rest assured that nothing gets lost in translation because he’s writing in our own native language.  And we’re also fortunate that he’s both psychologist and philosopher.  Maybe he can help shed some light on what Sigmund Freud (a psychiatrist) had to say a couple of weeks ago in our reading Why War?  Freud wrote that “conflicts of interest between men are settled by the use of violence.  This is true of the whole animal kingdom, from which men have no business to exclude themselves.”  Would William James agree with that assessment?

James begins his essay by defining his terms: “a man’s social me is the recognition which he gets from his mates.”  Then he goes on to say we’re “gregarious animals.”  This one statement seems to confirm Freud’s assessment that Men are animals.  But in the context of the rest of his essay it’s not that simple to determine if James believes Man is, in fact, just a complicated social animal or if he’s really a creature of a whole different order.  James believes “a man has as many social selves as there are individuals who recognize him.”  This raises a couple of philosophical questions.  (Do animals ponder philosophical questions in their quiet moments?)  Is my personal worth defined by the opinion of the community or by my own private standard?  A second question relates to the first: can other people give a more accurate evaluation of me than I can give myself?  Do animals ever worry about these things?  James also observes that “we do not show ourselves to our children as to our club companions, to our customers as to the laborers we employ, to our own masters and employers as to our intimate friends.”  Do animals do this?  They can certainly act tenderly toward their offspring.  And without a doubt they act differently with their own species than they act with predators.  Is this proof animals have separate “selves” the same way humans do?  And then there’s the question of love.  James goes on to say “the most peculiar social self which one is apt to have is in the mind of the person one is in love with.”  Do animals fall in love?  They can be very affectionate to one another.  Is this love?

Another area James explores in his essay is the idea of honor.  He says “a man’s fame, good or bad, and his honor or dishonor are names for one of his social selves.”  Thucydides dealt with this very issue in last week’s reading.  The Melians had to decide whether they would pay tribute to the Athenians in what amounted to extortion.  The Melians had to determine which they valued most; their safety or their honor.  Is the word “honor” worth fighting for?  Is it worth dying for?  People can honestly disagree.  The Athenians and Melians did.  Many people today still do.  It shouldn’t be surprising then for people to disagree on the basic question of Man’s place in the universe.  Are human beings just highly developed animals?  Ever since Darwin (GB1 Man and the Lower Animals) people have debated this issue and come to different conclusions.  Obviously we eat, sleep, reproduce and fight just as all “lower animals” do.  But it’s also true we make up stories and plays, ponder philosophy, study history, learn mathematics and science and create fine works of art.  What “lower animal” can do any of these things?  Next week Chekhov explores what it means to be human in his short story Rothschild’s Fiddle.    


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