Attacking the Rationalists

In the winter of 1906-1907, William James delivered a series of lectures at the Lowell Institute in Boston on the subject of pragmatism. They were, in many ways, the culmination of a lifetime of work (James would die only two years later) and they also have the virtue of what can only be called voice — one hears William James speaking in these lectures in the most direct way. James writes in his preface that the lectures are “printed as delivered, without development or notes,” making these deeply personal essays into the central theme of James’ battle against the Absolute in philosophy and religion, against Plato and Hegel. In the second lecture, “What Pragmatism Means,” James says:

What do believers in the Absolute mean by saying their belief affords them comfort? They mean that since in the Absolute finite evil is overruled already, we may, therefore, whenever we wish, threat the temporal as if it were potentially the eternal, be sure that we can trust its outcome, and, without sin, dismiss our fear and drop the worry of our finite responsibility. In short, they mean that we have a right ever and anon to take a moral holiday, to let the world wag its own way, feeling that its issues are in better hands than ours and are none of our business.

I find this bracing, even exhilarating. James was never one to let himself off the hook and in this passage he refuses to let us off the hook either. The emphasis on responsibility is characteristic of James’ philosophy and connects in my thinking to Camus and the mid-twentieth-century existentialist philosophers whom James prefigures in many ways. Existence not essence, in James, is experience not essence. I’ve recently been reading Buddhist texts and commentaries and James fits in there as well, but that’s a big subject and I just wanted to make a note of the above paragraph because James has become absolutely central to my view of the world (and my poetics) over the last few months.


On this anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, I simply note the destructive violent power of absolute belief. Certainty is so difficult to maintain that whole religions and political systems have to be created to prop it up. Those systems — theirs, ours — are inherently violent.

Health Care

I always like these occasional features in the NY Times Sunday Magazine about a mysterious medical diagnosis. This account, though, seemed particularly relevant at a time when the country is debating health care reform. [Spoiler alert] The patient, a sixty-four year old woman who is pretty clearly from the working class, loses her ability to walk because of weakness in her legs: she is suffering from a copper deficiency. It turns out that her dentures don’t fit properly and she has been piling on the denture cream, which contains zinc, which reduces the minute amounts of copper needed by the body. At the end of the piece we are informed that, while she “still cannot afford new dentures,” she has switched the brand of denture adhesive she uses and is going to physical therapy, though the nerve damage might me irreversable. So: an aging woman’s false teeth don’t fit and she can’t afford new ones — no insurance, you know — and as a consequence she unknowingly poisons herself and causes severe nerve damage in her legs. Still, in the end, she’s got the same old ill-fitting dentures. No insurance, you know. And the various mouthpieces of the medical-industrial complex and their political defenders are making up shit about a very modest healt care reform proposal creating “death panels” so as to quietly dispose of grandma on the cheap. One would like to ask them what they propose to do for people like the woman in the Times story, since they have such deep concern for the weak and unprotected.

Fairy Tales

The underlying narrative motif of this news story about the feud between Keith Olberman and Bill O’Reilly is And they lived happily ever after. And how did that wonderful result occur, children? It occurred because the corporations that own Mr. Olberman and Mr. O’Reilly decided that the feud was bad for business. Like many fairy tales, this one is very dark and should not comfort you, my children.

Later: Glenn Greenwald has the details.

They Should Be Happy

. . . because most of the crackers [more here] who live in Alabama think that government is the problem. This is the end result of radical right-wing-attacks on government and civic life in general, in favor of a kind of he-man individualism. Well, at least most of them are armed so they will be able to settle their own disputes the old fashioned way. So close the jail and the schools and the DMV, bro, and don’t forget the fire department.