Wednesday, July 14, 2010

On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings by William James

Our judgments concerning the worth of things, big or little, depend on the feelings the things arouse in us. Where we judge a thing to be precious in consequence of the idea we frame of it, this is only because the idea is itself associated already with a feeling. If we were radically feelingless, and if ideas were only the things our minds could entertain, we should lose all our likes and dislikes at a stroke, and be unable to point to any one situation or experience in life more valuable or significant than any other.

Now the blindness in human beings, of which this discourse will treat, is the blindness with which we are all afflicted in regards to the feelings of creatures and people different from ourselves.

We are practical beings, each of us with limited functions and duties to perform. Each is bound to feel intensely the importance of his own duties and the significance of the situations that call these forth. But this feeling in each of us is a vital secret, for sympathy with which we look vainly to others. The others are too much absorbed in their own vital secrets to take an interest in ours. Hence the stupidity and injustice of our opinions, so far as they deal with the significance of alien lives. Hence the falsity of our judgments, so far as they presume to decide in an absolute way on the value of other persons' conditions or ideals.

Take our dogs and ourselves, connected as we are by a tie more intimate than most ties in this world; and yet, outside that tie of friendly fondness, how insensible, each of us, to all that makes life significant for the other! - we to the rapture of bones under hedges, or smells of trees and lamp-posts, they to the delights of literature and art. As you sit reading the most moving romance you ever fell upon, what sort of judge is your fox-terrier of your behavior? With all his good will toward you, the nature of your conduct is absolutely excluded from his comprehension. To sit there like a senseless statue, when you might be taking him to walk and throwing sticks for him to catch! What queer disease is this that comes over you every day, of holding things and staring at them like that for hours together, paralyzed of motion and vacant of all conscious life?

The African savages came nearer the truth; but they, too, missed it, when they gathered wonderlingly round one of our American travellers, who, in the interior, had just come into possession of a stray copy of the New York Commercial Advertiser, and was devouring it column by column. When he got through, they offered him a high price for the mysterious object; and, being asked for what they wanted it, they said: “For an eye medicine,” - that being the only reason they could conceive of for the protracted bath which he had given his eyes upon its surface. . .

Let me take a personal example of the kinds that befalls each one of us daily: -

Some years ago, while journeying in the mountains of North Carolina, I passed by a large number of 'coves,' as they call them there, or heads of small valleys between the hills, which had been newly cleared and planted. The impression on my mind was one of unmitigated squalor. The settler had in every case cut down the more manageable trees, and left their charred stumps standing. The larger trees he had girdled and killed, in order that their foliage should not cast a shade. He had then built a log cabin, plastering its chinks with clay, and had set up a tall zig-zag rail fence around the scene of havoc, to keep his pigs and cattle out. Finally, he had irregularly planted the intervals between the stumps and trees with Indian corn, which grew among the chips, and there he dwelt with his wife and babes – an axe, a gun, a few utensils, and some pigs and chickens feeding in the woods, being the sum total of his possessions.

The forest had been destroyed; and what had 'improved' it out of existence was hideous, a sort of ulcer, without a single element of artful grace to make up for the loss of Nature's beauty. Ugly, indeed, seemed the life of the squatter, scudding, as the sailors say, under bare poles, beginning again away back where our first ancestors started, and by hardly a single item the better off for all the achievements of the intervening generations.

Talk about going back to Nature! I said to myself, oppressed by the dreariness, as I drove by. Talk of country life for one's old age and for one's children! Never thus, with nothing but bare ground and one's bare hands to fight the battle! Never, without the best spoils of culture woven in! The beauties and commodities gained by the centuries are sacred. They are our heritage and birthright. No modern person ought to be willing to live a day in such a state of rudimentariness and denudation.

Then I said to the mountaineer who was driving me, “What sort of people are they who have to make these new clearings?” “All of us,” he replied. “Why, we ain't happy here, unless we get one of these coves under cultivation.” I instantly felt that I had been losing the whole inward significance of the situation. Because to me the clearings spoke naught but denudation, I thought that to those whose sturdy arms and obedient axes had made them they could tell no other story. But, when they looked on the hideous stumps, what they thought of was a personal victory. The chips, the girdled trees, and the vile split rails spoke of honest sweat, persistent toil and final reward. The cabin was warrant of safety for self and wife and babes. In short, the clearing, which to me was a mere ugly picture on the retina, was to them a symbol redolent with moral memories and sang a very paean of duty, struggle and success.

I had been as blind to the peculiar ideality of their condition as they certainly would also have been to the ideality of mine, had they had a peep at my strange indoor academic ways of life at Cambridge...

And now what is the result of all these [lengthy] considerations and quotations? It is negative in one sense, but positive in another. It absolutely forbids us to be forward in pronouncing the meaninglessness of forms of existence other than oor own; and it commands us to tolerate, respect, and indulge those whom we see harmlessly interested and happy in their own ways, however unintelligible these may seem to us.

Hands off : neither the whole of truth nor the whole of good is revealed to any single observer, although each observer gains a partial superiority of insight from the peculiar position in which he stands. Even prisons and sick-rooms have their special revelations. It is enough to ask of each of us that he should be faithful to his own opportunities and make the most of his own blessings, without presuming to regulate the rest of the vast field.


  1. On occasion I go through the file of notes I have been taking since graduating from college in 1978, to see what might be usefully added to my blog. I re-discovered a reference to this essay this morning, a full copy of which is still in my library. In it James' quotes extensively from the following authors: Robert Louis Stevenson, ( “The Lantern-bearers' from “Across The Plains”) Josiah Royce ( “The Religious Aspect of Philosophy”), De Senancour ( “Obermann, Letttre XXX) William Wordworth ( “The Prelude”, Book III and IV), Richard Jefferies ( “The Story of My Heart”) Walt Whitman (“Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”, and“Calamus”), Benvenuto Cellini ( “Vita”), Tolstoi ( “War and Peace”), W.H. Hudson ( “Idle Days in Patagonia”), with unattributed references to Thomas Carlyle and Schopenhauer.

  2. Try as I might, I have never understood William James, and I have tried. I haven't read this, but I've read many of his other writings, the Richardson biography, and many, many references to James in other writings.

  3. To my mind he's the Abraham Lincoln of American Philosophy though, of course, old Abe had the advantage of being directly immersed in the practical affairs of the country, not burdened by academic responsibilities. I keep an underlined copy of his "Principles of Psychology", Volume 53 of the Encyclopedia Britannica Great Books ready to hand ( I got rid of all the others), lest any newfangled stuff throw me into a loop. "Varieties of Religious Experience" sits right next to it, though I'm not big on its "paranormal" content.

  4. I really should read "Varieties"---it's been on my shelf for over 30 years and deserves if anything does (from what I've read) the honor of being called "classic"--- and I need to get a copy of "Principles" on my shelf for looks if nothing else. I haven't thought seriously about psychology since Skinner and behaviorism fell out of favor.

  5. Another worthwhile short essay by James is "The Moral Equivalent of War". I haven't read it in a while but advocates something like the Peace Corps. He also has a lecture for Teachers but my copy is hidden away in some box or the other. I find the whole debate on education reform in America today a mass of futile nonsense. As far as my school board is concerned, I might as well talk to a stone wall, let alone someone like a State Commissioner.

    Skinner was big when I was a kid and my Dad taught at Harvard... the "skinner box' was something of a joke in our house. My folks were more Freudian- his stuff in their library was my introduction to sex! Actually, a lot of therapy today is basically behaviorist in theory.. the 'stop smoking' and 'diet control" stuff.

    Cognitive psychology is what they put my kids through in College. Dare I say: gobblygook?