Tuesday

Jan. 11, 2011

Zero Holding

by Robyn Sarah

I grow to like the bare
trees and the snow, the bones and fur
of winter. Even the greyness
of the nunneries, they are so grey,
walled all around with grey stones —
and the snow piled up on ledges
of wall and sill, those grey
planes for holding snow: this is how
it will be, months now, all so still,
sunk in itself, only the cold alive,
vibrant, like a wire — and all the
busy chimneys — their ghost-breath,
a rumour of lives warmed within,
rising, rising, and blowing away.

"Zero Holding," by Robyn Sarah, from The Touchstone. © House of Anansi Press, 1992. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of William James, (books by this author) born in New York City (1842). As a young man, he studied art, then went on to Harvard University and earned a medical degree there. But he was never a practicing doctor — instead, he stayed on as a member of the Harvard faculty. He said: "I originally studied medicine in order to be a physiologist, but I drifted into psychology and philosophy from a sort of fatality. I never had any philosophic instruction, the first lecture on psychology I ever heard being the first I ever gave."

In 1872, a group of Harvard intellectuals, including James, began a conversation group. Charles Sanders Pierce wrote: "It was in the earliest seventies that a knot of us young men in Old Cambridge, calling ourselves, half-ironically, half-defiantly, 'The Metaphysical Club,' — for agnosticism was then riding its high horse, and was frowning superbly upon all metaphysics, —used to meet, sometimes in my study, sometimes in that of William James." Members came from various academic disciplines, including law, medicine, and philosophy. William's younger brother, Henry James, wrote about Oliver Wendell Holmes: "He, my brother, and various other long-headed youths have combined to form a metaphysical club, where they wrangle grimly and stick to the question. It gives me a headache merely to know of it."

William James' most famous contribution to philosophy is an idea called pragmatism. Pragmatism was first conceived of by Charles Sanders Peirce, but it didn't catch on. James himself had a hard time understanding Peirce. He wrote to his brother: "I am amused that you should have fallen into the arms of C.S. Peirce, whom I imagine you find a rather uncomfortable bedfellow, thorny and spinous, but the way to treat him is after the fabled 'nettle' receipt: grasp firmly, contradict, push hard, make fun of him, and he is as pleasant as anyone; but be overawed by his sententious manner and his paradoxical and obscure statements, wait upon them as it were, for light to dawn, and you will never get a feeling of ease with him any more than I did for years, until I changed my course and treated him more or less chaffingly. I confess I like him very much in spite of his peculiarities, for he is a man of genius and there's always something in that to compel one's sympathy."

Unlike Peirce, William James was not a philosophical genius, and he didn't see anything wrong with taking a complex concept and oversimplifying it for the sake of making it more accessible. The term "pragmatism" was first used in a lecture James gave at the University of California Berkeley in 1898. But James was quick to give the credit for the term to Peirce, who he said had thought of it about 20 years earlier.

According to James, pragmatism valued the practical outcome of an idea above the idea itself. He saw a huge divide in philosophy between what he called "tough-minded" and "tender-minded" ways of looking at the world. He associated a "tough-minded" view with science, empirical evidence, atheism, pessimism, skepticism, and materialism. "Tender-minded," on the other hand, went along with idealism, optimism, religion, dogma, and free will. James thought that pragmatism was a way of getting beyond this divide, and plenty of other dualities that caused conflict.

The way that pragmatism bridged these divides was to ask, with every idea, what the practical outcome of two opposing sides would be. If there was no significant difference in a practical outcome, then there was no significant conflict between two sides. One of James' examples was the conflict that philosophers perceived between free will and determinism. James pointed out that there was no clear practical difference between having free will and believing in determinism — therefore, there was no fundamental conflict.

James also said that pragmatism was a philosophy of truth. He said, "The true is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief, and good, too, for definite assignable reasons." In James' pragmatism, "truth" was a large concept — something could be true because it was actually experienced in a direct way, or it could be true because it contributed to overall happiness. So he allowed for a lot of religious and spiritual beliefs to coexist with empirical thinking, because religion was true in the sense that it added meaning to life. He said: "If theological ideas prove to have a value for concrete life, they will be true, for pragmatism, in the sense of being good for so much. How much more they are true, will depend entirely on their relations to the other truths that also have to be acknowledged." That was another idea of his — that abstract ideas (like religious beliefs) were fine, and could coexist with empirical observations, as long as they did not "clash with other vital beliefs." So until they started to get in the way, they were true enough.

James' pragmatism was based in empiricism, in the sense that experience should be the ultimate context for everything. But unlike some of the more rigid empirical philosophers like David Hume, who thought experience was only what was experienced by the senses, James said that experience could also include metaphysical ideas, religion, or anything at all that was part of our experience as human beings.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, it made sense that Americans embraced pragmatism — a new approach, a practical approach, and an attempt to reconcile seemingly opposing sides. Pragmatism was popularized by James, Peirce, and John Dewey, one of Peirce's students. Dewey lived until 1952, and he had a long and prolific career. By the time he died at the age of 92, he had published 40 books and hundreds of articles. Dewey called his philosophy "instrumentalism" rather than "pragmatism," but he is generally considered the third major pragmatist. He helped make the philosophy seem even more relevant to Americans, writing about education, art, civic life, and government.

Even though it is such a complex philosophy, today we use the word pragmatism in an offhand way, to mean "practicality."

Another term that James coined and popularized was "stream-of-consciousness," which he meant as a psychological term. He said, "It is a fact that in each of us, when awake (and often when asleep), some kind of consciousness is always going on. There is a stream, a succession of states, or waves, or fields (or of whatever you please to call them), of knowledge, of feeling, of desire, of deliberation, etc., that constantly pass and repass, and that constitute our inner life. The existence of this stream is the primal fact, the nature and origin of it form the essential problem, of our science." But eventually he settled on "stream-of-consciousness," an idea that other scholars lifted from psychology and used to talk about literature.

From the archives:

It's the birthday of novelist Alan Paton, (books by this author) born in the province of Natal, South Africa (1903). He's best known for his novel Cry, the Beloved Country (1948), which he wrote after working for 25 years as a public servant and educator.

He was the son of English settlers in South Africa. After graduating from college, he took a job as a teacher in a Zulu school. He had long wanted to be a writer, and wrote two failed novels about his experiences in the Zulu community before deciding that he needed to put writing on hold and get involved in the fight against apartheid.

He went to Johannesburg and got a job transforming a reformatory from a prison into an educational institution. He became known among the residents of the reformatory as the man who pulled out the barbed wire and planted geraniums. He became one of the foremost authorities on penal systems in South Africa, and he began giving talks on the subject. After World War II, he decided to go on a world tour of penal institutions, to learn as much as he could about improving those in his own country.

It was only after he'd left South Africa that he realized he could no longer put off writing fiction.  One evening in Norway, sitting in front of a cathedral at twilight, he found himself longing for home, and when he got back to his hotel room he started writing his novel Cry, the Beloved Country, about a Zulu pastor in search of his son, who has murdered a white man. He finished the novel in three months, writing in a series of hotel rooms. When it was published in 1948, it became an international best-seller. It's the best-selling novel in South African history. It still sells about 100,000 copies a year.

It's the birthday of writer and ecologist Aldo Leopold, (books by this author) born in Burlington, Iowa (1887). Aldo grew up in a big, prosperous family, lived on a 300-acre estate with a lot of his relatives. The whole family spoke German together and worked in the gardens and orchards, where he learned about plants and soil. He went hunting with his dad and bird-watching with his grandfather.

While he was studying at Yale, he practiced writing by composing long letters home. Theodore Roosevelt created the U.S. Forest Service in 1901, and a few years after that, Leopold finished his master's degree and joined the Forest Service. He worked on surveying and drawing maps.

When he was in his 20s, he was caught in a storm out in the wilderness and he ended up with kidney disease. For the rest of his life, he had bouts of poor health. And it was during these bouts that he began to write. He wrote Game and Fish Handbook (1915) and Game Management (1933), about wildlife conservation. After 19 years in the Forest Service, he became the Professor of Game Management at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and bought a piece of land on the Wisconsin River. And it was there, at his home in Wisconsin, that he wrote many of the essays for which he is now famous.

He tried to publish a collection of his essay, but for seven years his manuscript was rejected. He kept reworking the essays, and finally, when he was 60 years old, he got the news that his book was going to be published. One week later, a neighbor's trash fire got out of control, and Leopold was afraid that it might spread to his farm, so he went out to help fight the fire. Suddenly, he lay down on the grass and died of a heart attack.

So Leopold's children spent the next months putting the book together, and in 1949 A Sand County Almanac was published. It became one of the most important texts of the conservation movement.

Aldo Leopold wrote, "Harmony with land is like harmony with a friend; you cannot cherish his right hand and chop off his left."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

 









«

»

  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
The Writer's Almanac on Facebook


The Writer's Almanac on Twitter

Subscribe to our daily newsletter for poems, prose and literary history every morning
An interview with Jeffrey Harrison at The Writer's Almanac Bookshelf
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show
O, What a Luxury

Although he has edited several anthologies of his favorite poems, O, What a Luxury: Verses Lyrical, Vulgar, Pathetic & Profound forges a new path for Garrison Keillor, as a poet of light verse. Purchase O, What a Luxury »