Jacques Barzun: A Stroll With William James; Harper & Row; New York.

William James is the nearest thing to a thoroughly American philosopher this nation has produced. George Santayana complained that James felt compelled to play the part of a home-spun American­ a role enjoyed by our intellectuals from Ben Franklin to Ezra Pound. Santayana found the compulsion to be American difficult to understand, but Santayana was a Spaniard. Being Spanish–or Italian or Irish, for that matter–is an unambigu­ous identity. It is as much a fact of life as being a woman. But America is different. To be an American is more like being a man, in that no one is quite sure what either means, just that it is important to play the part. However, some find the burden of being an American too heavy to bear. William’s brother Henry, like T. S. Eliot, turned into an Englishman–or at least a caricature of one.

As Jacques Barzun makes clear in his Stroll, William and Henry were much closer in spirit than most critics have been willing to admit. Both spent much of their earlier life rambling, first with their eccentric father, later on their own. Nearly half of William’s first 25 years were spent out of the country. It is not inconceivable that his Americanism came no easier to him than English manners did to Henry. Neither attitude was, precisely speaking, affected, but neither was quite real. A philosopher’s background may have little to do with his work–such is arguably the case with St. Thomas or David Hume–but James’s thought was a very personal affair: it is something like the sum of all forces at work upon James throughout his life–the burgeon­ing technical revolution, the Victorian ideas of progress and social responsibil­ity, the equally Victorian loss (or rejec­tion) of faith, and the obsession with Art so characteristic of the fin de siecle. If anyone can weave these separate threads together into the fabric of a philosopher’s mind, it is Jacques Barzun.

Barzun, despite his foreign birth, is a splendid example of what the American liberal temper can accomplish: a literate, intelligent, and thoroughly decent defense of all that seems likely to im­prove our “American way of life.” In a long and useful career, he has expounded with patience and eloquence the shortcomings of our intellectual institu­tions, the glories of romantic genius, and the implications of the scientific revolu­tion which continues to haunt our dreams. In this his most recent book, Barzun returns to one of the main sources of his inspiration, the philo­sophy of William James. While profes­sing eclecticism, Barzun concedes James a special place in his affections. Barzun explores James the man, his times, and the broad outlines of what can fairly be called his system–psychology, ethics, and epistemology.

Most of James’s philosophy is summed up in that deadly word “pragmatism,” a term he coined in a lecture delivered at Berkeley in 1898. James’s pragmatism is not an isolated fragment of philosophiz­ing. It is an integral part–the center­ piece–of his system and the link be­tween his psychology and his ethics. His Principles of Psychology (1890) re­mains an important work, if only for the dogged persistence with which he dis­tinguishes between mind and brain. Jamesian psychology owes a great deal to Bishop Berkeley: both men concen­trated on what happens in the mind as the only given of experience. This attention to mind led James to formulate his “stream of consciousness.” Within this stream, nothing can be taken as a fixed rule. Concepts like “white” and “black” are only (sometimes) helpful abstractions. James offers no “realm of the abstract” as a refuge to “persons who yearn for security and perfection here below.” Given such a psychology, it becomes imperative to devise a means of verification–some way of making and determining true statements.

Pragmatism is James’s solution. Strictly construed, it is “an attempt to explain how the mind ascertains truth.” Ideas are true “in so far as they help us to get into satisfactory relation with other parts of our experience,” that is, if they lead to productive results. James’s most famous definition–”truth is what works”–is not the ethics of Jay Gould or even Calvin Coolidge, but a summary of the process of verification. The difficulty with pragmatism is not that it is a justification for Yankee shrewdness, but that it justifies or verifies a material cause only by reference to a material event. A theory about the material universe is true, he argues, only if it leads to produc­tive consequences in that same universe. What is left out, ex hypothesi, is any we are still left with the problem of defining “works” in a way that avoids absolute relativism. James’s solution is reminiscent of Protagoras, who declared man to be the measure of all things. Like James, Protagoras was necessarily an agnostic, and also like James, he took refuge in vague aspirations toward decent behavior and a consensus of right-thinking man.

Barzun encourages us not to be alarmed by James’s relativism and urges upon us the usual cultural relativism made familiar by the disciples of Franz Boas. Since Moslems have four wives and African chiefs 40, “it seems egotistical to proclaim any one set of commandments the sole morality and somewhat fanciful to speak of ‘indelible moral truths im­planted in the human heart.”‘ This is worse than poor reasoning: it is poor anthropology. Moral ideals are not an ethnographical statement of how people do behave, but of how they ought to behave. It is, after all, more than a little odd that the Ten Commandments pro­hibit just about everything New Yorkers consider essential to the good life. The fact that certain cultures have different standards from ours does not necessarily vitiate an ethical system whose essen­tials can be found in Aristotle, Confucius, and the Old Testament. Some of the developing peoples have different systems of science and mathematics. Are cannibalism and sorcery to be consid­ered the equivalent of Christian ethics and Newton’s laws? Besides, many of our most basic prohibitions–against incest, adultery, theft, and murder–can be regarded as universal or, at least, convergent evolutionary norms. It is a superfi­cial and somewhat snobbish cultural relativism that refuses to comprehend the parallels between our own ethical norms and those of the most primitive societies.

Barzun takes his argument a step further and insists that antirelativists “need to see that without the acceptance of different ethical norms we should never have got away from those of the caveman.” It is difficult to see why the moral relativist should look down his nose at paleolithic ethics. It is equally difficult to see by what presumed right a relativist can insist that anybody “needs” to do anything. James’s variety of gentle skepticism was comparatively harmless in the hands of scrupulous nonbelievers like Hume, Huxley, or James himself, but it will not do as the ethical foundation of a civil order. Most people, not even intellectuals, are deterred from vice by the consideration that it isn’t quite nice or that it may be harmful. Even Henry Adams, James’s colleague, was closer to reality in his inchoate adoration of the Virgin and the Dynamo. The absolute imperatives from which pragmatists shrink may prove to be the only security we have. In the long run, it is the personal test that counts.

James did suggest two possible sources for a positive morality, or two main commandments. The first is “that we should seek incessantly…so as to act as to bring about the very largest total universe of good that we can see.” In such a search, abstract rules can serve as helpful guidelines, but since “every dilemma is…a unique situation,” moral progress depends on our attention. We must always keep in mind the tangible results of our actions. The second great commandment has to do with obliga­tions which, James asserts, arise from every personal claim made upon us: “There is some obligation whenever there is a claim. It is incumbent upon each of us, whenever a claim is made, either to accept or reject the obligation.” Barzun believes that James’s second commandment can give us a “release from interminable shilly-shallying.” It removes moral decisions from the realm of personal likes and dislikes, since we are to consider the claims made by anyone, without respect of persons.

Unfortunately, James’s second com­mandment–like all of his ethics–begs more questions than it answers. Why should we, adrift in the stream of our private conscious experience, consider even for a moment the claims made by “the others”? Besides, it is not always possible for some of us to consider our possible obligations to every person who knocks on the door. Artists, sur­geons, and monks all need at least some time to be free of the incessant demands of other people, and even those of us not engaged in critical occupations cannot necessarily spendour lives in entertain­ing alternatives. Much of our character, much of what is most essentially us, depends on what we have rejected. No one can expect Elie Wiesel, for example, to consider the possible claims upon his humanity which might be made by retired concentration camp guards any more than a hard-shell Southern Baptist can be required to give a fair hearing to Larry Flynt. In both cases, granting enemies the right to make a claim not only gives ground on the battlefield: it weakens the integrityof their personal identify. It will be remembered that Jesus did pause to consider the case for the other side. But that was at the beginning of his ministry. Afterwards, what conceivable purpose would it have served to give the tempter a hearing?

Far from providing a basis for action, James’s moral principles condemn his followers to lives of liberal indecision. He seems to have conceived of his two principles as replacements for the two great commandments, but how weak and indecisive they appear, when set beside the biblical “thou shalt….” The scriptural commandments come from a source claiming absolute authority, James’s from a well-intentioned and cultivated professor of psychology.

In the end, all of James’s speculations come to grief on the same rock–invis­ible, but palpable as the force of a hurricane. James regarded all manifesta­tions of the religious spirit as phenomena to be studied–an acceptable procedure if, and only if, he hap­pened to be right. However, his own agnosticism and naive insistence on the concrete facts of personal experience may strike many readers as a typical late Victorian phenomenon. In poetry, fin­ de-siecle introspection bore fruit in the decadent music of Ernest Dowson and Lionel Johnson, but in philosophy the results are less obviously positive. The cynical mysticism of Henry Adams and the tawdry utilitarianism of John Dewey have this in common with pragmatism: each is built on the shifting sands of the individual stream of consciousness. It is better, in the end, to be a thorough-going Berkeleyan and take your stand on”esse est percipi.” Such metaphysical rigor can lead to positive consequences. What are we to make of Barzun’s curious book? It is an easy way to get acquainted with William James; it is the best sort of literary history: part scholar­ship, part personal record of Barzun’s life long dialogue with James. It is the sort of book that no longer gets written. Indeed, it could only be written by that nearly extinct type of person: the man of letters. Barzun reminds us what college professors used to be like, before they became bureaucrats.