Belief and temperament



Over a century ago, the American philosopher and psychologist William James argued in his book Pragmatism that what he called “the present dilemma in philosophy” is that philosophers may not be as objective as they have long claimed to be. The ideal of rational inquiry has long been, particularly since the enlightenment, that we must follow the truth wherever it leads, regardless of the consequences and regardless of whether we find these consequences agreeable or disagreeable. The notion of objectivity demands that we put aside precisely our subjectivity—our personal proclivities and temperament—in thinking philosophically just as we expect scientists and mathematicians to do, or anyone who is seriously engaged in the quest for knowledge. James believed that none of us actually do this, and the reason is that it’s impossible. We can never put our temperament aside in our attempts to think, and even when we try to, it’s always there in the background, quietly informing and preforming our beliefs or giving our thought a certain trajectory, normally without our being aware of it. What we want, whether we’re philosophers or anyone else, is a worldview that suits or otherwise sits well with us, not only one that we can justify with arguments that are rational and wholly impersonal. We can’t transcend our personal temperament and think entirely objectively, he thought.

James, it’s worth bearing in mind, was a psychologist before he was a philosopher and what he was outlining was a kind of psychology of philosophy. James held that there are essentially two kinds of philosophical temperament, what he termed the “tough-minded” and the “tender-minded.” The tough-minded would include thinkers like Hobbes and Hume, two hard-nosed empiricists who preferred facts to rationalistic theories and who were metaphysical materialists and skeptics of a kind while tender-minded thinkers like Descartes, Hegel, or Rousseau were more rationalistic, idealistic, maybe optimistic, religious, romantic, and dogmatic. Few philosophers, James thought, are entirely one or the other. We’re all a combination of both, but one temperament tends to prevail over the other. When James was writing this, in the first decade of the twentieth century, it was tough-minded philosophers who prevailed over the tender-minded. There were more empiricists than rationalists, and science was often regarded as the great model of knowledge in general. If it isn’t scientific, or as we now say “evidence-based,” we don’t have much use for it. This is not wholly unfortunate, James believed, but nor is it wholly good. The tough-minded, scientific temperament has rigor on its side, but it also has its shortcomings, evidence of which is all around us. When our entire worldview is shaped by science, human life is diminished or it tends to become stripped of meaning. In a materialist universe—a world of matter in motion—we risk losing a sense of the ultimate importance of human life. Our worldview begins to look bleak, and where do we turn for relief but to more tender-minded, especially religious, worldviews which are less rigorous but provide a kind of intellectual comfort. We feel more at home within a religious worldview than within a scientific one, although we tend not to be satisfied with this either. A tender-minded worldview is not easily reconciled with modern science while it also tends to be dogmatic and remote from the world and from practical life.

Herein lies the present dilemma in philosophy: we feel compelled to choose between a tough-minded and a tender-minded philosophy because a middle ground seems impossible to find. We seem forced to choose between an empiricism or a materialism on one side, which we often think has something inhuman about it, and on the other side an idealism, rationalism, or romanticism that may be soft-minded and otherworldly. Also, while rationalism offers us a well-ordered view of the world, straightforward principles, clear and distinct ideas, and a priori proofs of various things, the world as we experience it is not well-ordered but messy and our philosophy should reflect this fact. As he put it, “Refinement is what characterizes our intellectualist philosophies. They exquisitely satisfy that craving for a refined object of contemplation which is so powerful an appetite of the mind. But I ask you in all seriousness to look abroad on this colossal universe of concrete facts, on their awful bewilderments, their surprises and cruelties, on the wildness which they show, and then to tell me whether ‘refined’ is the one inevitable descriptive adjective that springs to your lips.” What James wanted to do in that book was to outline an epistemology and a metaphysics that could appeal to both the tough-minded and the tender-minded by incorporating elements from each. Pragmatism was supposed to occupy a middle region between rationalism and empiricism, and whether it succeeded or not is not my topic here.

It’s worth noting that a few decades before James wrote this, a philosopher whom he held in very low regard and who also thought of himself as a kind of philosopher-psychologist, Friedrich Nietzsche, also held that philosophy is always “the personal confession of its author.” It’s the confession of our daimon, temperament, or sense of life—call it what you will—and as both figures stated it is something in which the philosopher places a great deal of confidence. The philosopher “trusts his temperament,” James says, as Socrates trusted his daimon, not because he was able to produce a demonstration of its reliability but as a psychological article of faith. Even radicals and skeptics don’t really question their sense of life, and the tough- and tender-minded alike are convinced that those of the opposite disposition are, as James said, “out of key with the world’s character” and “not in it.”

Whether we call it our temperament, our sense of life, or our instincts, it’s difficult to deny that it governs a good part of our belief system. Knowledge serves its knowers in a great many ways, and above all it serves our sense of life. Even the hard-nosed skeptic tends to trust it, and without being able to marshal much in the way of reasons. James wasn’t recommending a full-blown subjectivism or psychologism, and nor was Nietzsche and nor am I. This is far too crude and presupposes a false opposition between the objective and the subjective. We need a more nuanced and organic view of the relation between belief and temperament, one that echoes the kind of view we see in Merleau-Ponty regarding the relation of consciousness to the world. Subject and object are not separate realms but more like relata which always already intend one another or lead into each other in an organic way, as the organs of a body can be understood only as they contribute to the larger functioning of the body as a whole at the same time that they have a certain discreteness about them. A philosopher or thinker of any kind is also a person, not a disembodied reasoning machine, and a person who has lived a certain life and had experiences of particular kinds. Try as we might, there is no leaving the person you are on a shelf when you set about to think. The exact mechanism by which temperament—whatever exactly that is—factors into thinking and believing will probably always elude us, but it remains that both James and Nietzsche were onto something. We’ve heard a great deal about how identity informs thought, and much of this ends up sliding very quickly into politics. A more productive line of thinking would focus on the personal dimension of belief or the many invisible ways in which one’s temperament or sense of life finds its way into our thinking, usually behind our back. Philosophy is personal—in some ways, to some extent, and within some limits, and it remains to be seen how this is so without reverting to subjectivism, psychologism, or identitarianism, all of which are dead ends as much as objectivism is.

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