<<

. 24
( 41 .)



>>

incorporated into a more moral substitute for war.3
Three reasons can explain James™s intense interest in the body and his
keen sensitivity to its expressive role in mental and moral life. One was his
early pursuit of a career in painting, which he formally studied between
1858 and 1861. “˜Art™ is my vocation,” he declared to a friend in 1860 at the
age of eighteen.4 Though this vocation was soon to be replaced by science
and later by philosophy, James™s acutely discriminating attention to bodily
form and subtleties of expression, together with his skill in visualizing and
depicting states of mind and feelings, were no doubt developed by his
youthful passion for drawing and the study of art, which his long and
frequent stays in the cultural centers of Europe helped inspire.
James™s special sensitivity to the body™s pervasive in¬‚uence on our men-
tal and moral states was surely also a product of his own enormous burden
of nagging, recurrent bodily ailments, which for many years threatened to
rob him of any career at all. In what should have been the healthy years of
early manhood, he very often suffered from chronic gastritis, headaches,
constipation, insomnia, listless fatigue, nervous depression, and severe
back pains. He also was plagued by debilitating eye problems that some-
times limited his reading to only forty-¬ve minutes in a row and no more
than two hours a day.5 Forced to give up his career plans for laboratory
science, since he physically could not endure the strain of laboratory
work, James chose to become a doctor despite his lower regard of this
profession as full of “humbug” and “tenth-rate” minds.6 Of the ¬ve years
he took to complete the degree at Harvard Medical School, only two were
spent in school. The rest were devoted to seeking “ primarily through rest
and water cures in various spas of Europe “ the bodily and mental health

3 William James, “The Moral Equivalent of War,” in The Writings of William James, ed. John
McDermott (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977), 664, 665, 670.
4 The Correspondence of William James, ed. I. Skrupskelis and E. Berkeley (Charlottesville:

University Press of Virginia, 1992“2004), 4:33. Hereafter C followed by volume and page
numbers will designate page references to this twelve-volume work.
5 These health problems are expressed in voluminous detail in James™s letters, but see also

Howard Feinstein, Becoming William James (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1984).
6 See his letters to friends, as presented in Ralph Barton Perry, The Thought and Character of

William James, 2 vols. (Boston: Little, Brown, 1935), 1:216; and also in The Letters of William
James, ed. Henry James III, 2 vols. (Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1926), 1:79.
Deeper into the Storm Center 137

that could allow him to achieve a successful professional life. Four years
after the degree, James was still, at thirty-one, a jobless dependent “nurs-
ing ill health in his father™s house,” until his friend Henry Bowditch, a
Harvard physiologist, offered James a job as his temporary replacement.
Harvard™s new president, Charles Eliot, who had been James™s chemistry
teacher (and was a neighbor and friend of the family) approved the idea
and eventually arranged for James a regular post in physiology.7
An avowed victim of “neurasthenia” (now regarded as a mythical dis-
ease), James realized that many of his ailments were psychosomatic, the
result of what he repeatedly described as his “miserable nervous system”
(C2:108). His problematic nerves generated bodily disorders that in turn
increased his nervous stress, which then stimulated further somatic com-
plaints and mental anxiety in a vicious spiral of incapacity. How could
James not be deeply impressed by the powerfully reciprocal in¬‚uences of
mind and body when they were played out so often and so dramatically in
his own painful experience of in¬rmity and when they were so carefully
monitored by him as a medical school student and young doctor whose
primary occupation was to heal himself so that he could eventually begin
a career beyond that of a studious invalid? Biographers have sometimes
attributed the onset of these psychosomatic ailments to James™s prob-
lem of choosing a profession and particularly his reluctance to give up a
career in art for one in science and medicine.8 But whatever their cause,
the fact that many of these ailments continued long after James was well
launched into his hugely happy career as a professional philosopher must
have kept the body™s mental and moral importance pervasively present
in his philosophical thinking.
The matter of professional career also suggests a third reason that
could have been crucial in prompting James to emphasize the body™s
central philosophical role. His university training and ¬rst professional
work were in anatomy and physiology; and this somatic knowledge was
precisely what enabled him to enter the academic profession of philos-
ophy, despite his having had no formal training in it. Though Nietzsche
criticized philosophers for “lack . . . [of] knowledge of physiology,”9 James
began his illustrious career as a Harvard philosopher by teaching phys-
iology in the Medical School in 1873. He then used this expertise in
physiology as the key wedge to maneuver himself slowly but surely into

7 Feinstein, Becoming William James, 318, 321.
8 This is a central thesis in Feinstein™s instructive biography.
9 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power (New York: Vintage, 1967), para. 408.
Body Consciousness
138

a professorship in the Harvard philosophy department, overcoming his
lack of of¬cial philosophical credentials and the stubborn opposition of
some important department members.10
Physiology was increasingly recognized to be central to new research in
psychology (which was still considered a subbranch of philosophy), but
the Harvard philosophy department had no faculty who was quali¬ed to
teach this new scienti¬c approach to the mind; so James was able to con-
vince Harvard™s president and Board of Overseers that his teaching of psy-
chology was essential to keep the philosophy department competitively
up to date. In 1874, James was able to offer a course on “The Relations
between Physiology and Psychology,” in the physiology department; by
1877, he was permitted to teach a course on Herbert Spencer™s psychol-
ogy in the philosophy department; and by 1879, James was able to give
his ¬rst purely philosophical course (on Charles Renouvier) and leave
all teaching of physiology. Finally, in 1880, his (assistant) professorship
was of¬cially transferred to the philosophy department. Since James™s
professional aspirations as a philosopher so heavily relied on the view
that physiology was crucial to the philosophical study of mind, it is only
natural that his philosophy would give the body a very prominent role.
That personal factors helped fuel James™s somatic emphasis should
not discredit his theories. If the quest for knowledge is always guided by
interest, then heightened personal interest can generate better theory
by promoting more penetratingly vigilant attention, more subtle aware-
ness, and keener sensitivity. Worries about his own body-mind attunement
prompted James to seek more than a purely theoretical and specula-
tive understanding of how physical life and mental life are related. His
somatic philosophy was thus deepened by extensive explorations into a
wide variety of pragmatic methodologies aimed at improving the harmo-
nious functioning of the self™s body-mind nexus.
James not only read and wrote about these pragmatic therapies, exhort-
ing the philosophical community to explore them more seriously.11 He
also boldly tested many of them on his own ¬‚esh. James™s letters reveal
his experiments with an impressively broad range of often contradictory

10 James™s maneuvers are described in Feinstein, Becoming William James, 332“340.
11 In his presidential lecture to the American Philosophical Association in 1906 (“The Ener-

gies of Men”), James urged philosophers to undertake a sustained program of research
that would systematically explore the wide-ranging means (such as yoga), by which we
human beings are able to tap into our normally dormant “deeper levels of energy” so as to
improve our physical and mental capacities of performance. See “The Energies of Men,”
in William James: Writings 1902“1910, ed. Bruce Kuklick (New York: Viking, 1987), 1230.
Deeper into the Storm Center 139

methods: ice and blistering (for counter-irritation), corsets, varieties of
weight lifting, electric shock, absolute bed-rest, diverse water cures, vig-
orous walking, rapid mountain climbing, systematic chewing, magnetic
healing, hypnosis and “mind-cure” therapy, relaxation, spinal vibrations,
vapor inhalations, homeopathic remedies, lessons in mental focusing
to minimize muscular contractions, diverse programs of medically pre-
scribed gymnastics, cannabis, nitrous oxide, mescaline, strychnine, and
varieties of hormonal injections. James™s palette of somatic experiments
was surely as varied and daring for his time as Michel Foucault™s was for
ours, and often just as de¬ant of mainstream opinion. However, true
to his Puritan-Victorian context, James™s experimentalism avoided the
explosive area of sexuality, where his views were as conservative and sexist
as Foucault™s were radically transgressive.12 Still, no less than the French
poststructuralist, the New England pragmatist was an admirably adven-
turous explorer in all three branches of somaesthetics: the analytic study
of the body™s role in perception, experience, and action and thus in our
mental, moral, and social life; the pragmatic study of methodologies to
improve our body-mind functioning and thus expand our capacities of
self-fashioning; and the practical branch that investigates such pragmatic
methods by testing them on our own ¬‚esh in concrete experience and
practice.
This chapter ¬rst examines the contributions James made to analytic
somaesthetics through his theories on the body™s central role in mental
and moral life. Next his pragmatic views on somatic methodologies of
meliorism must be considered, especially because he construed philoso-
phy as an instrument and art of living aimed at improving our experience.
Finally, we shall see how the problematic limitations of James™s somatic
methods are sometimes re¬‚ected in his own practical efforts to heal him-
self through body-mind attunement.


II
The best entry into James™s somatic philosophy is through his ¬rst book
and mammoth masterpiece, The Principles of Psychology (1890). Its opening
chapter introduces what will be the guiding hypothesis of James™s philos-
ophy of embodied mind: “the general law that no mental modi¬cation ever

12 James strikingly argues for the existence of what he calls “the anti-sexual instinct” “ “the
actual repulsiveness to us of the idea of intimate contact with most of the persons we
meet, especially those of our own sex” (PP, 1053“1054).
Body Consciousness
140

occurs which is not accompanied or followed by a bodily change” (PP, 18). Since
the brain is the most crucial body part for mental life, the book™s next two
chapters explain brain functioning and the general physiological condi-
tions of brain activity. James then devotes the subsequent chapter to the
topic of habit. Beginning with habit, we shall analyze the major topics
through which James develops his arguments for the centrality of bodily
experience in our mental and social life, deploying also his texts beyond
the Principles.

Habit
Habits are an apt topic for exploring the body-mind connection, since we
speak of both bodily and mental habits. Moreover, habits can be under-
stood as the expression of mental attitudes incorporated in bodily dis-
positions or conversely as bodily tendencies re¬‚ecting mental life and
purpose. James™s famous theory of habit evinces the striking way that
his insight into the basic bodily dimension of life is elaborated into ever
widening circles of human signi¬cance, like the ever-expanding ripples
of a single well-cast stone, which soon encompass an entire pond. From
the simple but crucial physiological fact that our malleable bodily consti-
tution permits habit formation, the body of habit grows into a key factor
not only shaping the individual™s mental and moral life but also more
broadly structuring human society as a whole.
At the most fundamental physical level, “the phenomena of habit in living
beings are due to the plasticity of the organic materials of which their bodies are
composed,” which includes, for James, the inner nervous system as well
as “outer form” (PP, 110). “Our nervous system grows to the modes in which
it has been exercised ” (PP, 117), so our embodied selves are shaped into
habits of mind and action that perform for us automatically what once
required considerable thought, time, and effort. Because habits thus pro-
vide the principal direction of thought and behavior, we can be described
as “mere walking bundles of habits” (PP, 130). By allowing us to diminish
“conscious attention” to what they themselves can successfully perform
through “the effortless custody of automatism,” habits also enable us to
concentrate “our higher powers of mind” on more problematic aspects
of our experience that need more focused attention (PP, 119“126).
From these premises, James draws a strong moral: We should make
every effort to develop the best possible habits while our body or nervous
system is still ¬‚exible enough to be most easily shaped. The key “is to
make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy . . . For this we must make
automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can, and
guard against the growing into ways that are likely to be disadvantageous
Deeper into the Storm Center 141

to us, as we should guard against the plague” (PP, 126). Such training of
embodied action, James argues, requires a good measure of “asceticism”
to push our nervous system further into the right directions it may not
yet be prone to take (PP, 130).
But the role of the disciplined habit-body extends far beyond the per-
sonal ethical efforts of self-improvement; it sustains the entire social
structure through which habit is itself shaped and in which individual
efforts ¬nd their place and limit. Pre¬guring Foucault™s theory of dis-
ciplined, docile bodies and Pierre Bourdieu™s theory of habitus, James
asserts: “Habit is thus the enormous ¬‚y-wheel of society, its most precious
conservative agent. It alone is what keeps us all within the bounds of ordi-
nance, and saves the children of fortune from the envious uprisings of
the poor.” Habit, James continues, “keeps the ¬sherman and the deck-
hand at sea through the winter; it holds the miner in his darkness . . . It
dooms us all to ¬ght out the battle of life upon the lines of our nur-
ture or our early choice, and to make the best of a pursuit that dis-
agrees, because there is no other for which we are ¬tted, and it is too
late to begin again. It keeps different social strata from mixing.” Even
if a man acquires the wealth to dress his body “like a gentleman-born,”
“he simply cannot buy the right things. An invisible law, as strong as grav-
itation, keeps him within his orbit, arrayed this year as he was the last”
(PP, 125, 126). Likewise, a body habituated to timid, subservient, inhib-
ited expression will ¬nd it almost impossible to express itself suddenly in
the kind of bold and de¬antly assertive action needed to challenge social
structures that pervasively inculcate inferiority through somatic habit for-
mation that shapes mental attitudes and not merely body postures.

Change and Unity in the Stream of Thought
From this broad social panorama, let us turn to the more private theatre
of personal thought in which philosophers rarely grant the body a central
role. James proves a remarkable exception. Asserting that each individ-
ual™s consciousness exists in “absolute insulation” from others (PP, 221),
James argues that personal consciousness is not merely pervaded by
somatic feelings but ultimately depends on them for its distinctive sense
of continuous ¬‚ux and unity. His celebrated notion of the stream of
consciousness af¬rms “thought is in constant change” (PP, 224). Our
sensations are always slightly changing, even if we think that we are hav-
ing exactly the same sensation as we continue to regard the same blue
sky. We have this impression because we confuse having “the same bod-
ily sensation,” with having a sensation of “the same OBJECT” (PP, 225),
here the blue sky; and because our minds are far more interested in (and
Body Consciousness
142

habituated to focus on) noticing objects rather than sensations. But since
one™s physiological “sensibility is altering all the time,” the same object
cannot continuously give exactly the same sensation. “The eye™s sensibil-
ity to light . . . blunts itself with surprising rapidity,” and the state of one™s
brain, which surely affects our experienced sensation, is also continu-
ously modi¬ed to some extent, since even the mere ¬‚ux of experience
and brain activity will leave new neural traces. “For an identical sensation
to recur it would have to occur the second time in an unmodi¬ed brain.”
But this, notes James, “is a physiological impossibility.” “Experience is
remoulding us every moment”; and as our nervous system is continu-
ously modi¬ed, so is the ¬‚ow of our sensations, feelings, and thoughts

<<

. 24
( 41 .)



>>