Affect and Rationality in William James


William James writes in his Varieties of Religious Experience: “Each emotion obeys a logic of its own, and makes deductions which no other logic can draw. Piety and charity live in a different universe from worldly lusts and fears, and form another centre of energy altogether” (Varieties 298). James suggests that affective knowing, the focus on emotional or bodily information for the interpretation of experience, seems to illuminate domains that are inaccessible to the usual connotations of the word “logic,” as opposed to the more expansive derivation of the “Logos” of Greek philosophy in which sense James appears to be employing the term. As he describes it, being “inside” certain affective modes, including those accompanying rationality, constructs bodily experience of the world in radically different ways, forming different energetic centers that fundamentally color one’s perception of the world. Indeed, as James writes in Pragmatism: “The philosophy which is so important in each of us is not a technical matter; it is our more or less dumb sense of what life honestly and deeply means.  It is only partly got from books; it is our individual way of just seeing and feeling the total push and pressure of the cosmos” (Pragmatism 1). James contends that bodily experience is prior to any theoretical system that one may hold. As he makes clear, affective intuition determines the type of philosophy that one is drawn to, though because of the pervasive repression of feeling modes in favor of rational thought in modernity, this knowledge is often unconsciously acted out as if we are driven primarily by rational considerations.

James suggests that educated people in the modern West often think that we believe things for rational reasons when, in fact, we almost always use rationality as an instrument for justifying what we feel for, as he writes, “our passions or our mystical intuitions fix our beliefs beforehand.” He continues, philosophy “finds arguments for our conviction, for indeed it has to find them. It amplifies and defines our faith, and dignifies it and lends it words and plausibility. It hardly ever engenders it; it cannot now secure it” (Varieties 391-92). Although this view might appear anti-intellectual at first glance, to even undercut the very basis of reason, this does not appear to be James’ intention.  Rather, James demonstrates that intellectual rationality is but one way of knowing the world applicable to certain domains of experience more than others, and that, for complex historical reasons, the West has, for the last few centuries, pervasively and systematically privileged “logical reason” over what he terms “feeling” and “intuition.” As James notes: “Until the seventeenth century this mode of thought prevailed” (Varieties 443-44), particularly until the widespread acceptance of the Cartesian equation of thought with human being in general as codified in the cogito: “I think, therefore I am.” However, before Descartes and the epochal shift in philosophy that he enacted and represented, “such distinctions . . . between the impersonal and the personal aspects of existence, were hardly suspected or conceived” (Varieties 443-44). Thus, James suggests that the domains accessible to intellect and affect were not yet individuated in premodernity as they are in the experience of late modernity, visible in the radical Kantian separation of subject and object, which assumes that one can never directly perceive the world outside of oneself, so the only way to obtain real knowledge is through mathematics, formal logic, and empirical testing.

Contrary to this Cartesian-Kantian conclusion, the foundation on which the privileging of scientific rationality rests, James contends that intellectual rationality is but one valid and productive way of constructing experience and, thus, of knowing the world. This approach refocuses attention on bodily experience which, as James suggests, can provide just as much real information as rationality, though of a radically different kind. However, while modernity has often constructed these two epistemological domains as fundamentally discontinuous and incommensurable, James posits that, just as they were combined in premodernity in a generally naïve, unconscious way, it seems that the way to attain a more complete understanding of lived experience lies in the intentional integration of these experiential domains. And this integration appears to be constituted primarily in a consciousness of where one’s attention is directed, and of which mode one emphasizes at any given moment. James writes:

Now however fixed these elements of reality may be, we still have a certain freedom in our dealing with them. Take our sensations. That they are is undoubtedly beyond our control; but which we attend to, note, and make emphatic in our conclusions depends on our own interests; and, according as we lay the emphasis here or there, quite different formulations of truth result. We read the same facts differently (Pragmatism 94-5).

Ultimately, James sees freedom not as a triumph of rationality over mute feeling as the case has often been constructed in modernity, but as the freedom to emphasize whichever domains of process one finds most appropriate to illuminate one’s experience at any particular moment. Thus, by becoming conscious of repressed bodily knowledge, one becomes more able to participate in the “formulation” of “truth” than if one is conscious only of one’s verbal, conceptual rationality, but unconsciously driven by one’s neuroses: the non-verbal affective and intuitive modes of engagement returning as compensatory Freudian symptoms. “Experience, as we know,” James writes, “has ways of boiling over, and making us correct our present formulas” (Pragmatism 86), a statement that bears a strong resemblance to Freud’s description of the process through which neurotic symptoms are produced. However, James perhaps goes farther than Freud to see these symptoms as impelling the psyche towards greater integration rather than simply cathexis, which Freud describes as leading to regression, anti-cathexis, or sublimation, none of which seem to have the potential for the psychic conciliation that James implies. According to James, by paying attention to intimate bodily feelings and not just to rational logic, one can apparently participate in what James would later term a “radical empiricism.” James writes:

Our acts, our turning-places, where we seem to ourselves to make ourselves and grow, are the parts of the world to which we are closest, the parts of which our knowledge is the most intimate and complete. Why should we not take them at their face-value?  Why may they not be the actual turning-places and growing-places which they seem to be, of the world—why not the workshop of being, where we catch fact in the making, so that nowhere may the world grow in any other kind of way than this? (Pragmatism 111).

In James’ view, attention to intimate experience is the primary locus for the growth and transformation, not only of the individual, but of the world, for the deepest premises that we hold about the nature of reality fundamentally condition the type of meaning that we can elicit from immediate experience. In turn, the meaning that we cull from the raw data of our senses determines what kind of world we collectively co-create.


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9 responses to “Affect and Rationality in William James

  1. Pingback: William James’ “Will to Believe” for a Post-Christian Age | Bill Walker | Blog

  2. Pingback: what is modernity? by michel foucault | sinceritypop

  3. Great post! Just a historical caveat: Freud was the last James had in mind when discussing unconscious cognition. He didn’t think much of Freud and adopted the subliminal psychology of Frederic W. H. Myers, and subsequently Théodor Flournoy. James’s references particularly to Myers in his writings and letters are unambiguous, and yet his impact on James’s psychology is almost completely ignored by James scholars – probably because they remind us of James’s interest in unorthdox questions such as telepathy (a term coined by Myers).

  4. Thanks for adding that nuance. However, I believe our task as scholars is not merely to reproduce and analyze the work of earlier thinkers in ever finer detail, but to follow their lead in synthesizing ideas that previously appeared unconnected, even incommensurable. In fact, as the two preeminent psychologists of the early twentieth century, it is perhaps our obligation to bring James and Freud into relation.

    I agree with James about most things, but I think he had a blind spot for certain other thinkers, like Freud, who we can now see as complementary to James in the broad outlines of his work. For instance, although James expressed a strong dislike for Hegel, John Dewey once told him in a letter that James had more in common with Hegel than he’d like to admit. Even great thinkers are not always the best judge of the historical significance of their work in relation to other thinkers.

    You’re right, though, that James’ work on parapsychological phenomena is often ignored by James scholars, probably due to the predominant materialist bias of contemporary academia, though it’s hard to miss if one reads “What Psychical Research Has Accomplished” in The Will to Believe, in which James unequivocally states:

    “He who will pay attention to facts of the sort dear to mystics, while reflecting upon them in academic-scientific ways, will be in the best possible position to help philosophy.”

  5. By the way, my new book, “How Does It Feel?: Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Philosophy of Rock and Roll,” which is coming out in the next few months, undertakes precisely the project articulated by James, not specifically in relation to telepathy, but to premodern modes of thought explicable through formal and final causation.

  6. Thanks for your response; I think I see where you’re coming from – may I just add a few paragraphs to explain my priorities as a historian?

    It’s of course fine that you make it your task to synthesize ideas (though I don’t accept that this should necessarily be “our task as scholars”). But wouldn’t you agree that to do this in a meaningful way you first need to appreciate and try to understand the formation of ideas in their respective historical context, and in their own right?

    Personally, I do find James’s and Freud’s ideas on the unconscious/subliminal incompatible on a fundamental metaphysical level and think correspondences are mostly due to both drawing on the same sources (there is surprisingly little in psychoanalysis that’s original – Freud relied on many of the same authors read by James, but wasn’t always very good acknowledging them). More specifically, I see no necessity to compare a Jamesian insight regarding subliminal cognition with a principle of psychoanalysis when a reference to one of Freud’s many neglected ‘predecessors’ (e.g. Pierre Janet or others whom James actually drew upon) would help me avoid an anachronism.

    There is a problematic habit in philosophy to discuss ideas and concepts as free-floating, quasi-transcendental entities, and to ignore their dependence on specific internal and external factors (mind you, this is not to say ideas can simply be reduced to those conditions). To appreciate differences as fundamental, and let them co-exist in peace, I think it is vital to acknowledge that Freud and James had very different concerns, questions and convictions regarding the nature of mind, and that they wrote for different audiences.

    In short, I’m critical of forced marriages of ideas which emerged in very different contexts, just because they are the ideas of ‘great men’. After all, an assessment of James and Freud “as the two pre-eminent psychologists of the early twentieth century” depends on what criteria one selects to assess pre-eminence. And it ultimately boils down to a strong historical claim that could be fundamentally challenged on a number of historiographical grounds, i.e. the question of motivations behind the writing – which often includes distortion – of history.

    We all have blind spots, but this general insight should be no license to bypass contextualisation and to retroactively transform poor old James into an unwitting Freudian. Apologies if I sound overly nitpicky, but I’m sure you can see my general point.

  7. Pingback: An ‘Integrated Affair’: William James, Sigmund Freud, and Analysis vs. Synthesis in Academic Discourse | Rock and Roll Philosopher

  8. Hi Andreas, This is an interesting enough conversation that I’ve posted my response as a new blog post, so feel free to comment over there if you’d like to keep the conversation going.


  9. Pingback: William James, Sigmund Freud, and Analysis vs. Synthesis in Academic Discourse | Grant Maxwell

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