:: Article

on william james and john la farge

Cecelia Watson interviewed by Richard Marshall.

Cecelia Watson is a new philosopher on the block who goes all philosophically historical and vice versa to think about the challenges facing new philosophers, about addressing philosophy’s bad rap, about the painter John LaFarge and his influence on the philosophy of William James, on James’ Principles of Psychology, about the role of art on epistemology, of the importance of dogs to James, of dress and fashion and philosophy, on the semicolon and grammar snobs, the overstudy epidemic, and the debts of Pragmatism and science to art. This is roaring.

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Cecelia Watson: My first contact with philosophy was in high school, thanks to a terrific teacher who led a reading group for a few students who wanted to explore philosophy, which wasn’t on the menu of standard courses. We read Plato, Descartes, Voltaire, Locke, Hesse, Sartre. In those little mini-seminars, I started to understand that philosophy might provide a better way to think about the kinds of questions that we all have to ask just by virtue of being human. How should we live, and how should we understand our place in the world and our responsibility towards others?

That’s what drew me in, and that sense of practical value is still what motivates my research and teaching. I don’t categorize myself solely as a philosopher, however: I consider myself both a philosopher and a historian, because combining those disciplinary perspectives is a central feature of my thinking. It’s a combination I’ve worked to cultivate in both my training and my professional choices. My MA is in philosophy, for instance, but I wrote a dissertation supervised by historians (albeit some of the most philosophically astute historians I know). I write articles that dig into topics using the methodological resources of both historians and philosophers. And before I was at Yale in Philosophy, I was a postdoc at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. I’ve been less concerned with the label on the department door than about where I can work on the problems that interest me and contribute to that particular community of scholars.

3:AM: You’re a relatively new philosopher. What are the big challenges facing new philosophers starting off today – are there issues that you imagine may be specific to philosophy rather than any discipline?

CW: Philosophy sometimes gets a bad rap as a discipline that’s fundamentally conservative in its methods and its output. I think one of the challenges for new philosophers is showing that philosophy has a lot to contribute to discussions in fields that see themselves as more radically progressive.

I can give an example of how this plays out in my own subfield, in ways that definitely influence my own attempts to negotiate dual loyalties to both history and philosophy. Lorraine Daston, a historian of science, published an article in Critical Inquiry suggesting that Science Studies and the History of Science have grown apart, and that historians of science might look to other disciplines for new input. “Philosophy, anyone?” she concluded. This question touched a nerve, and two other senior scholars, Peter Dear and Sheila Jasanoff, published a reply to Daston in the history of science journal Isis. Dear and Jasanoff disagreed with just about everything Daston said, but they seem to have been especially exercised by her suggestion that philosophy might be a good partner for the history of science. They called Daston’s invocation of philosophy “an apparent plea to return to a more intellectualist analytical mode” and suggested that a move towards philosophy would spoil the “synthetic vision” of science promoted by both science studies and the history of science.

Their analysis seems to me to miss the mark. In the first place, “philosophy” can’t be reduced to an “intellectual analytical mode.” I’m sure many continental and pragmatist philosophers would be greatly surprised to hear that this is what “philosophy” means.
Second, Dear and Jasanoff seem to assume that analytic philosophy, unlike science studies, hasn’t shifted since the 1980s: to them, Daston’s suggestion would mark a “sad retreat,” a giant step backwards thirty years in time. What an odd assumption for scholars who are historiographically-minded– to assume that philosophy hasn’t progressed, and to assume that we could ever undo all the work done by historians of science in the 80s and 90s! That they do indeed make this assumption perhaps speaks to how deeply ingrained are these conceptions of philosophy, if even historians deny it a history.

Finally, I’m not convinced that an “intellectualist” approach, one that privileges reason as a motivating factor, necessarily subverts an understanding of science as additionally heavily bound by context. In fact, surely a rich vision of science should have to account for the perception many historical actors have that they’re acting according to reason and are motivated by ideas. Yes, let’s also show how context-dependent those ideas are– let’s talk about how much one’s time and place can control what ideas are available to be thought– but let’s not pretend that’s the only story. The story philosophy has to tell is legitimate and valid as well, and reflects genuine truths about how it is that we understand ourselves within the larger cultural and social contexts of which the history of science and science studies has made us aware. I see philosophy and history as partners in creating a synthetic vision of science.

Dear and Jasanoff aren’t alone in their attitude toward philosophy. It’s one I’ve come across many times simply by virtue of trafficking in multiple disciplinary circles, and it’s one I think anyone who values philosophy should be concerned about. Dear and Jasanoff pitch their criticism of Daston’s call to philosophy as part of a defense of “the wider public goods of information and criticism that universities aim to serve.” Allowing this narrow view of philosophy to solidify has potentially serious practical ramifications; universities everywhere are looking to trim fat. I think the answer is really to show the value of work that combines both history and philosophy by doing it and showing exactly how it serves those “public goods” Dear and Jasanoff invoke as the business of universities. Certainly this is how I conceive of what I’m working towards in my teaching and research.

3:AM: You consider the influence of the painter John La Farge on William James. Could you first tell us something about the painter?

CW: Of course. When I talk about my research on La Farge and James, I rarely encounter a person who’s already familiar with La Farge. Even art historians often draw a blank, or have only a hazy recollection of having heard La Farge’s name somewhere. This present-day obscurity contrasts sharply with La Farge’s tremendous fame during his lifetime: by the time he died in 1910, he was eulogized as “our last great Old Master,” and his obituary in the Times said that he had “attained excellence and distinction without being a leader or the founder of a school, and probably without wishing to be.” That last bit– his resistence to forming a school– is what made him famous and formidable in his own time, and what I’d argue has made him forgettable now: La Farge’s defiance of every category that characterized art during his time– tonalism, pre-Raphaelitism, Impressionism– makes him difficult to place in a broader history of art. In fact, I’ve often seen his work displayed in hallways or solitary alcoves in museums, which I can’t imagine is accidental, since his pieces look so different from those of his contemporaries that they’d be a little jarring hung in the same galleries. And not only did La Farge not found or follow a school, he excelled in multiple mediums. He was celebrated for his oil painting, his watercolors, his opalescent glass windows, and his art criticism. He was versed in the most traditional of European painting techniques and the latest and greatest scientific theories of perception and consciousness. To be fair, he wasn’t perfect– in spite of his considerable renown, no one could be as big a fan of La Farge as La Farge. Maybe it’s not possible to wear that much learning lightly, but I don’t get the impression La Farge even tried. He could be pretty conceited and prickly, and he and William James each complained to Henry James about the other man’s stubbornness.

3:AM: William James is known as an American Pragmatist philosopher and psychologist. What did the philosopher find of interest in the painter?

CW: James and La Farge met when James was 17. They were both studying painting at the studio of a Newport, Rhode Island artist, William Morris Hunt. James aspired to paint professionally– and by all accounts he was very talented, especially at portraiture; no one really knows why he quit, though biographers love to speculate, of course. Whatever his reasons for giving up art as a possible profession, James retained a lifelong interest in La Farge’s work, and it’s possible to discern La Farge’s influence on James pretty clearly: thanks to La Farge’s distinctive aesthetic and his unique theory of art, it’s possible to see very clear overlap between James’s scientific and philosophical work and La Farge’s art and criticism. James acknowledged late in life that he’d been thinking for fifty years about painting with La Farge, and in one of his last letters to La Farge, James called La Farge’s 1909 book on art criticism “pragmatism transferred to a new field.”

3:AM: So how does James try and find truth in art? Is the truth a special arty truth dependent on the self, or is it truth about objective reality?

CW: When James was painting with La Farge in Newport, La Farge definitely took on the role of teacher: he was slightly older than James, and as James reported to his brother Henry, La Farge knew everything, had read everything, had seen everything, and painted everything. Equally, La Farge regarded James highly enough to take the younger boy with him when he went out painting in the Newport countryside. What stuck in James’s mind for fifty years was that La Farge had said that his landscape paintings weren’t copies– they weren’t an objective record of nature. Instead, La Farge said, he was “using the facts to support my being in relation to nature.” In other words, La Farge wasn’t denying that there were “facts” or objects, but what he was trying to do was to depict the interplay between those facts and his subjective self. He wanted his paintings to be a record of his seeing nature, not a record of nature.

Why would this have stood out so much to James? To understand this, it’s necessary to understand that La Farge was making a radical departure from the then-dominant pre-Raphaelite painters. The pre-Raphaelites advocated “truth to Nature,” and pre-Raphaelite organizations like the Society for Advancement of Truth in Art believed artists should hew to an ideal of “selecting nothing and rejecting nothing.” One of the founders of the Society, Clarence Cook, repeatedly criticized La Farge for being insufficiently “truthful” and for “turning his back on Nature.” La Farge, on the other hand, thought he was painting the truth– he just had a much subtler view of truth than Cook did. For La Farge, truth “cannot be absolutely disentangled from ourselves;” and as a result, La Farge wanted his painting to “have a meaning more than a strict copy from nature.” This was what James remembered as La Farge’s method of “not copying”– and he picked up this method of not-copying and applied it against intellectual opponents in psychology and philosophy, who James took to be arguing for what he called “a copy-theory of truth.”

3:AM: How then does James’s work on the painter help him answer the broader question ‘What, and how, can we know?’ and did James see art as an alternative to Associationist theories that were current at the time?

CW: When James finally published his Principles of Psychology in the 1890s after decades of work, he claimed that its most original contribution lay in its argument against Associationist theories of mind. James’s Associationist opponents argued for a copy theory of perception just as La Farge’s pre-Raphaelite critics did. James attacked this “copy theory” and offered an alternative theory of perception that incorporated elements of La Farge’s art theory.
Associative theories of mind have a long history, stretching back to the Greeks, but James’s dispute lay more narrowly with the “Associationist School,” which included Hartley, Herbart, Hume, the two Mills, Spencer, and Bain. James criticized the Associationists for explaining the organization of ideas in the mind as a direct reflection of the ways in which objects were organized in the outer world, thus making “the dance of the ideas” a copy of reality. The mind was just a passive receptacle for sense impressions drawn from the world.

James’s answer to this copy theory of perception was precisely like La Farge’s answer to the copy theory of the pre-Raphaelites: it was no more possible for the mind to be a mere record of sense objects than it would be possible for an artist to make an exact copy of nature. James’s explanation for why such a copy is impossible is enormously complex and difficult to summarize efficiently, because it brings together so many of the Principles’ central themes. These themes culminate in James’s chapter on the stream of thought, in which James introduces a metaphor of the mind working on the sense data in the same way a sculptor works on a block of stone.

The mind, James indicates, does not fabricate the world it knows; rather, it selects out some subset of the sensational data offered up to it. This subset, once selected out, is what the mind knows as the world. It is not the whole of reality—there are other bits of stone that might have been incorporated into the statue, but once these bits have been rejected, they fall forever out of the grasp of the mind, and cease to be part of the world as it knows it.

One is restricted by the material given, just as a sculptor can only carve out what his block of marble allows. Nonetheless, the finished sculpture is the result of choices, and it would not exist without the sculptor there to form it. Because of the role of choice, there is self-determination at work in what an individual knows as the world, though “self” has multiple meanings here for James. There is an historical aspect to the self, on an individual level: one’s own past actions, and one’s personal habits, can determine what bits of the “chaos” one selects to form one’s world. There is also an historical aspect to the self at the species level: if one’s ancestors have chosen over and over to chisel off and discard some particular bit of the stone, that bit may simply cease to appear to future generations at all.
There is also a physical component to the self at both the individual level and the species level; and this physical self, like the historical self, whittles down the supply of raw materials even before the chisel touches the stone. As James explains in his sculptor analogy, the worlds of ants and crabs are different from our own, because we’ve evolved with completely different sensory apparatus.

These arguments are very much congruent with La Farge’s. La Farge didn’t concern himself with the lessons of evolution, but he argued for the role of physical attributes and individual and collective memory as determinants of the artist’s point of view.

3:AM: Is there a general point to made about the role of art in epistemology, that there is a genuine sense in which we can know things about the world through studying art? Is it visual art in particular that is important here, or could the thesis be extended to poetry and novels and music and sculpture etc?

CW: Yes, I think the study of art– any art, not just the visual– does offer genuine insight into the world. I see it as a legitimate mode of inquiry into the nature of things. The lessons of art don’t always get picked up and translated into another field as happened with James and La Farge, but neither do I think that the insight the arts produce should be thought of as less legitimate or valuable than the knowledge we get from, say, laboratory science.

3:AM: Did James think it was through making art or studying art that the anxieties about subjectivity and objectivity could be addressed?

CW: He didn’t advocate for the study of art in a systematic way in his published work– he just seems to have extracted its lessons. Privately, however, he definitely suggests that art is one means of bridging the gap between one’s own inner life and another’s. There’s a wonderful letter he wrote to his young son Alexander after he had seen a coyote that had been shot outside a California hotel when it was trying to find food in the trash. James wanted his son to find the image of the coyote in a book and copy it out, to meditate on “how brave all living things are.”

3:AM: And why were dogs important to James?

CW: James was a keen observer of the everyday, and dogs featured prominently in his everyday life. In fact, he was something of a dog enthusiast: he owned several dogs in his adult life, he collected anecdotes and newspaper clippings about dogs, he attended dog shows, and he copied dog scenes from the paintings of Delacroix. And his correspondence with his brother Henry indicates that he reflected quite a bit on the behavior of the dogs he encountered. Observing dogs helped James further refine his active conception of the mind, and dogs appear repeatedly in the Principles to drive home that on both the species level and the level of the individual, one’s perspective determines what one’s final picture of the world looks like; and this perspective is a complicated, ever-shifting composite of past experience, present disposition, and physical form. James’s emphasis on the difference between dogs and humans set him apart from most of his contemporaries, who favored eliding the two species in one manner or another. W. Lauder Lindsay and George Romanes asserted that the human mind differed from the animal mind only in degree and not kind, but James took great pains to argue in the Principles of Psychology that in fact the human mind was superior in its ability to analogize, a capacity James believed was forever inaccessible to animals.

The qualitative difference in the human and animal mind did not, however, lead him to conclude that animals were somehow automata undeserving of protection. He argued vigorously against vivisection, asserting that the powerful had a responsibility to intervene whenever and wherever they saw suffering. His arguments in these places are actually quite ingenious, because they’re framed in terms of the moral welfare of the powerful, rather than invoking sympathy for the powerless.

3:AM: And what was James’ philosophy of dress and fashion?

CW: James thought a good bit about the ways in which clothing helps us construct our identities– not just in terms of how others see us, but in terms of how we develop our selves. James followed Hermann Lotze in considering clothing an extension of the physical body– and because the body mattered so much to James’s account of mental life, he took clothing seriously as a means to self-determination. This interest shows in his own clothing– James’s dress was frequently remarked upon in contemporaries’ reminiscences. He seems to have cultivated a casual but neat look– and occasionally he held reading groups in an undershirt and suspenders. In larger classes he was known for wearing a casual jacket and “festive” ties. Doubtless this doesn’t sound too shocking nowadays, but James lived in a time of black frock-coat formality. Somber dress was the name of the game, with men expected to wear dark jackets even in the heat of the summer.

In addition to cultivating a distinctive personal style, James helped make administrative decisions about academic attire. American universities at the turn of the century were considering whether or not to adopt the cap and gown worn by students at British universities. Harvard appointed James the chairman of a committee to investigate this question. James’s report on the committee’s behalf advocates for students to be able to choose whether or not to wear robes– a verdict in keeping with James’s sense of clothing as significant to the self and therefore best left to individual choice.

3:AM: You’ve other interests of course. What’s of philosophical interest in the semicolon? What does style know?

CW: My work on the semicolon, and on English punctuation more broadly, started as an attempt to answer a question for myself after I got into an argument with my dissertation advisor, Robert J. Richards, over semicolon usage. Bob told me to go consult the Chicago Manual of Style, and I marched right off to find it so that I could quote to him the rule that would legitimize the semicolon use that Bob had declared incorrect in a paper I’d written. I stood there with that giant compendium of rules in my hand and started wondering why and how it had become the arbiter of style and clarity. Who had declared it king? So I started digging into the history of systems of grammar rules, and found out they’re a relatively recent phenomenon. English grammar books really only started coming out in significant numbers in the early 1800s, when more and more children were attending school and becoming literate. So the grammar book was really born as a kind of textbook, and the rules in the books were deliberately made to resemble the natural laws presented in textbooks on physics, geology, mathematics, and other disciplines that were considered natural sciences. Grammarians framed their analysis of language this way because parents felt that natural science was the most important thing for students to be studying, and grammarians had to bow to that demand with their textbooks. Intriguingly, the acceptance of rules didn’t actually seem to make anything clearer– I found that if anything, grammar rules have, historically, made it harder to interpret language. Further, the old saw that “you have to know the rules to break the rules” just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny as an explanation for the necessity of rules; we can perfectly well understand English prose written before the era of grammar rules, which suggests that rules aren’t really naturally in language (or if they are, they’re so general as to be incapable of filling a Chicago Manual-sized book). Nor have we agreed on one set of rules, such that we all concur on the precise meaning of each and every symbol on the page, and thus give meaning to the rules in the same way computer programmers input symbols with the certainty that they’ll always produce the same outcome. So the question I came to by the end of my Critical Inquiry piece was: If rules don’t do the things they seem to promise– if they don’t make our prose clearer and easier to interpret– then what is it that they are doing, and why do people care so much about them?

I didn’t get around to addressing that question in the article since most of the work of that piece was dismantling old assumptions about grammar, but I want to get around to it, and I have a guess. I suspect at least part of the love for grammar rules that many people feel is really displaced love for language more generally. Self-styled “grammar snobs” want so much to get back to that point in the past where the majority of people respected language and understood its nuances, and society at large shared a common understanding of grammar rules. But that place is a mirage. There was no time when everyone spoke flawless English and people punctuated “properly.” It’s important to come to grips with this historical fact, because it influences what we do in the present: hanging on to the old story about grammar– the mythical story– limits our relationship with language. It keeps us from seeing, describing, and creating beauty in language that rules can’t comprehend. It lets us dismiss out of hand the ideas of people who haven’t expressed them in “proper” form. It makes people feel justified in publishing blogs and books of pictures of “bad grammar” on signs that may well have been penned by someone using English as a foreign language, or someone with a less privileged educational background. So what might originate as love of language ends up, if it’s focused inappropriately on grammar rules, seeming really quite hateful and limiting.

3:AM: You’ve also written about a rather weird subject: the psychopathology of the overstudy epidemic. When did this happen and how many died? What was going on?

CW: A little over a century ago, hundreds of American men, women and children suffered from what physicians called “overstudy.” Too much reading would drive them mad, ultimately killing them or driving them to suicide. The diagnosis was frequent between 1870-1900, with reports of the condition peaking between 1880-1895. Especially dramatic cases often made the front pages of the major newspapers, and they’re chock full of drama: a little boy dying while feverishly reciting mathematical proofs that he’d studied too much, a district attorney found dead of a heart-attack brought on by his bookworm lifestyle…. Anyone who read could get overstudy– man or woman, adult or child– so it definitely wasn’t cordoned off as a disease for the young or female. What interests me are the ways in which the history of philosophy, the history of the medical profession, and the social history of this time period all intersect in the overstudy diagnosis. Overstudy refocused old debates over the relationship between body and mind, and helped frame new questions about the role of medical professionals in treating mental illness: Was this form of insanity localizable to some part of the brain? Was the brain a part of the body just like any other? Or was the mental a thing incorporeal, beyond the reach of medicines, scalpels, microscopes, and the expertise of the physician or scientist? Why, at the turn of the century, did the diagnosis disappear?

3:AM: I guess you’ve argued that Pragmatism has a debt to art, but are you saying that all philosophy – and science too – might be similarly indebted? At a time when the arts and humanities are having funding cut, this seems a very important point at the moment.

I do think there’s always been a lot of productive exchange among what we now classify as the arts, humanities, and sciences, and I do worry that cuts to the humanities are not really just cuts to the humanities, but ultimately, cuts to academic inquiry full stop.

It’s not just cutting humanities that I see as cause for alarm, but privileging a certain type of science education over the work of the humanities. “Scientific literacy” pops up in op-eds off and on, and you see liberal arts colleges starting initiatives to strengthen students’ training in science. But scientific literacy usually gets defined in these discussions as training in the methods and “facts” of the sciences. There’s nothing wrong with that type of study, but it’s incomplete if our goal is scientific literacy. True scientific literacy has to come from learning to look at the sciences from a humanistic and social-scientific perspective as well, and to be able to contextualize and critically evaluate the scientific data reported in the media. It’s amazing how quickly that data can become part of our identities. I notice this all the time with, for instance, evolutionary psychology, which certainly has a strong popular presence. Students will come into my class and refer to whichever is the latest evolutionary psychology study that proves that gender differences are fundamental, or that we humans all have certain evolved behaviors that we can’t fight with laws and social apparatus. They don’t necessarily know that they can and should critically evaluate such studies before deciding whether or not to use them to determine what they believe about themselves and how to conduct themselves.

And of course this isn’t just about the work of the classroom. The critical apparatus of the humanities allows us to ask questions that can be helpful to scientists, universities, and grant-givers as they choose the values and objectives they’ll pursue with “hard” research.

3:AM: And finally, are there five books you could recommend to take us further into this fascinating philosophical world of yours?

CW: This is a tough one! Since my research topics are so varied, I think the best answer I could give would be to name five books that I always come back to– books that inevitably spark my philosophical imagination, even when the topic I’m working on has no obvious link to the subjects of these books.
Essays, Comments, and Reviews, William James
Essential Writings and Speeches, Martin Luther King
Don Quijote, Miguel de Cervantes
The Peloponnesian War, Thucydides
Collected Poems, Edgar Bowers


ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, February 21st, 2014.