James: A Pluralistic Universe, Appendix C { Philosophy Index }

Philosophy Index

Philosophy Index

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Philosophy Topics




William James

A Pluralistic Universe

Appendix C: On The Notion Of Reality as Changing

In my Principles of Psychology (vol. ii, p. 646) I gave the name of the ‘axiom of skipped intermediaries and transferred relations’ to a serial principle of which the foundation of logic, the dictum de omni et nullo (or, as I expressed it, the rule that what is of a kind is of that kind's kind), is the most familiar instance. More than the more is more than the less, equals of equals are equal, sames of the same are the same, the cause of a cause is the cause of its effects, are other examples of this serial law. Altho it applies infallibly and without restriction throughout certain abstract series, where the ‘sames,’ ‘causes,’ etc., spoken of, are ‘pure,’ and have no properties save their sameness, causality, etc., it cannot be applied offhand to concrete objects with numerous properties and relations, for it is hard to trace a straight line of sameness, causation, or whatever it may be, through a series of such objects without swerving into some ‘respect’ where the relation, as pursued originally, no longer holds: the objects have so many ‘aspects’ that we are constantly deflected from our original direction, and find, we know not why, that we are following something different from what we started with. Thus a cat is in a sense the same as a mouse-trap, and a mouse-trap the same as a bird-cage; but in no valuable or easily intelligible sense is a cat the same as a bird-cage. Commodore Perry was in a sense the cause of the new regime in Japan, and the new regime was the cause of the russian Douma; but it would hardly profit us to insist on holding to Perry as the cause of the Douma: the terms have grown too remote to have any real or practical relation to each other. In every series of real terms, not only do the terms themselves and their associates and environments change, but we change, and their meaning for us changes, so that new kinds of sameness and types of causation continually come into view and appeal to our interest. Our earlier lines, having grown irrelevant, are then dropped. The old terms can no longer be substituted nor the relations ‘transferred,’ because of so many new dimensions into which experience has opened. Instead of a straight line, it now follows a zigzag; and to keep it straight, one must do violence to its spontaneous development. Not that one might not possibly, by careful seeking (tho I doubt it), find some line in nature along which terms literally the same, or causes causal in the same way, might be serially strung without limit, if one's interest lay in such finding. Within such lines our axioms might hold, causes might cause their effect's effects, etc.; but such lines themselves would, if found, only be partial members of a vast natural network, within the other lines of which you could not say, in any sense that a wise man or a sane man would ever think of, in any sense that would not be concretely silly, that the principle of skipt intermediaries still held good. In the practical world, the world whose significances we follow, sames of the same are certainly not sames of one another; and things constantly cause other things without being held responsible for everything of which those other things are causes.

Professor Bergson, believing as he does in a heraclitean ‘devenir reel,’ ought, if I rightly understand him, positively to deny that in the actual world the logical axioms hold good without qualification. Not only, according to him, do terms change, so that after a certain time the very elements of things are no longer what they were, but relations also change, so as no longer to obtain in the same identical way between the new things that have succeeded upon the old ones. If this were really so, then however indefinitely sames might still be substituted for sames in the logical world of nothing but pure sameness, in the world of real operations every line of sameness actually started and followed up would eventually give out, and cease to be traceable any farther. Sames of the same, in such a world, will not always (or rather, in a strict sense will never) be the same as one another, for in such a world there is no literal or ideal sameness among numerical differents. Nor in such a world will it be true that the cause of the cause is unreservedly the cause of the effect; for if we follow lines of real causation, instead of contenting ourselves with Hume's and Kant's eviscerated schematism, we find that remoter effects are seldom aimed at by causal intentions,[1] that no one kind of causal activity continues indefinitely, and that the principle of skipt intermediaries can be talked of only in abstracto.[2]

Volumes i, ii, and iii of the Monist (1890–1893) contain a number of articles by Mr. Charles S. Peirce, articles the originality of which has apparently prevented their making an immediate impression, but which, if I mistake not, will prove a gold-mine of ideas for thinkers of the coming generation. Mr. Peirce's views, tho reached so differently, are altogether congruous with Bergson's. Both philosophers believe that the appearance of novelty in things is genuine. To an observer standing outside of its generating causes, novelty can appear only as so much ‘chance'; to one who stands inside it is the expression of ‘free creative activity.’ Peirce's ‘tychism’ is thus practically synonymous with Bergson's ‘devenir reel.’ The common objection to admitting novelties is that by jumping abruptly in, ex nihilo, they shatter the world's rational continuity. Peirce meets this objection by combining his tychism with an express doctrine of ‘synechism’ or continuity, the two doctrines merging into the higher synthesis on which he bestows the name of ‘agapasticism (loc. cit., iii, 188), which means exactly the same thing as Bergson's ‘evolution creatrice.’ Novelty, as empirically found, doesn't arrive by jumps and jolts, it leaks in insensibly, for adjacents in experience are always interfused, the smallest real datum being both a coming and a going, and even numerical distinctness being realized effectively only after a concrete interval has passed. The intervals also deflect us from the original paths of direction, and all the old identities at last give out, for the fatally continuous infiltration of otherness warps things out of every original rut. Just so, in a curve, the same direction is never followed, and the conception of it as a myriad-sided polygon falsifies it by supposing it to do so for however short a time. Peirce speaks of an ‘infinitesimal’ tendency to diversification. The mathematical notion of an infinitesimal contains, in truth, the whole paradox of the same and yet the nascent other, of an identity that won't keep except so far as it keeps failing, that won't transfer, any more than the serial relations in question transfer, when you apply them to reality instead of applying them to concepts alone.

A friend of mine has an idea, which illustrates on such a magnified scale the impossibility of tracing the same line through reality, that I will mention it here. He thinks that nothing more is needed to make history ‘scientific’ than to get the content of any two epochs (say the end of the thirteenth and the end of the nineteenth century) accurately defined, then accurately to define the direction of the change that led from the one epoch into the other, and finally to prolong the line of that direction into the future. So prolonging the line, he thinks, we ought to be able to define the actual state of things at any future date we please. We all feel the essential unreality of such a conception of ‘history’ as this; but if such a synechistic pluralism as Peirce, Bergson, and I believe in, be what really exists, every phenomenon of development, even the simplest, would prove equally rebellious to our science should the latter pretend to give us literally accurate instead of approximate, or statistically generalized, pictures of the development of reality.

I can give no further account of Mr. Peirce's ideas in this note, but I earnestly advise all students of Bergson to compare them with those of the french philosopher.

« Appendix B

A Pluralistic Universe by William James

  1. Compare the douma with what Perry aimed at. back
  2. Compare Appendix B, as to what I mean here by ‘real’ casual activity. back