Diary, 1/10 to 1/11/19

Copyright 2019 by Alan Carl Nicoll
All Rights Reserved

james 2
William James, 1842-1910

{1/10/19}  Weight 219.6


Cancelled my home Wi-fi effective immediately.  The downsides are obvious.  I’ll be getting a refund check “within six weeks.”  Thus begins my new dedication to getting more work done.  I will no longer have Twitter to blame for my laziness.


{1/11/19}  Weight 219.4.

3:00 am.  I wanted to look up William James’s famous distinction between “tough-minded” and “tender-minded” psychological types and see how this compared to Whitehead’s “simple-minded” versus “muddle-headed” distinction.  It’s not as easy as I’d hoped.

James, in his Pragmatism:  A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (in William James:  Writings, 1902-1910, The Library of America, place and date of publication not given), doesn’t so much define the terms as merely to enumerate respective traits, as follows (quoting, but omitting James’s commas), p. 491:

The Tender-Minded The Tough-Minded
Rationalistic (going by ‘principles’) Empiricist (going by ‘facts’)
Intellectualistic Sensationalistic
Idealistic Materialistic
Optimistic Pessimistic
Religious Irreligious
Free-willist Fatalistic
Monistic Pluralistic
Dogmatical Sceptical

I would describe myself, without worrying too much about niceties of James’s definitions of the “traits,” as:  rationalistic, intellectualistic, materialistic, pessimistic, irreligious, fatalistic, and sceptical.  That amounts to two from column A and six from column B.

If this exercise is worth anything, perhaps some details are worth considering, though I don’t want to get involved in research at this point.  I don’t choose between monistic and pluralistic because I’m not entirely sure what the distinction is, aside from “one” versus “many” in the roots of the words.  I believe that they are general metaphysical views:  of existence, the universe, “universal substance,” the Absolute, and so on.  If I must go into a pigeonhole, I suppose I’d go with “monistic,” because it seems to me that all that exists in the universe is energy of one form or another.  As for “empty space,” maybe it doesn’t exist in a meaningful sense.  All this is too muddled to bother with now.

I call myself “rationalistic,” but probably not as James means it, since he contrasts this with “empiricist” where I would contrast it with “irrationalistic.”  When it comes to a disagreement between a principle and a fact, the principle must give way, so I must be (again, without having researched the terms) “empiricist.”  Alternatively, Bartley talks about “rationalism” as, in essence, being persuadable by argument, and willing to “go wherever the argument leads,” while I balk at such a commitment and require that the argument lead to a result that doesn’t “fail the smell test.”  (I believe that this is my only significant difference from Bartley.)  But rather than quibble excessively, I’ll accept the label “empiricist,” with reservations.

The distinction between “intellectualistic” and “sensationalistic” escapes me, though I certainly consider myself an intellectual, that is, “inclined toward activities that involve the intellect,” as opposed to physical activities, but I doubt that this is what James means.

Which now puts me at one part tender- versus seven parts tough-minded, with one undecided.  So it seems that, overall, I am “tough-minded,” which suits me just fine.

In my 5/3/18 entry I quoted Whitehead’s distinction, which Barrett summarized as follows:  “The muddle-headed look at the complexities of things and write obscurely; the simple-minded cultivate clear and distinct ideas but miss the complex depths of sheer matters of fact.”  I’m going to use the abbreviations MH versus SM.

By this distinction, I very much prefer SM writing, because I despise “obscurity.”  I am thinking of philosophy, of course, not poetry, which I am not considering now.  My “Bleak Philosophy sketch” starts with a repudiation of whatever I can’t understand, and “obscure” equates with “impenetrable” which equates with “useless” as far as I’m concerned.  But, of course, I also hope to recognize and take account of complexities—not by writing obscurely, but by hedging things with qualifiers, like “seems” and “approximately.”

Barrett goes on to offer a “chorus of muddle-headedness from three major contemporary thinkers…:  Whitehead—‘Exactness is a fake’; Wittgenstein—‘All words are vague’; Heidegger—‘All formulae are dangerous.’”

I certainly agree with Wittgenstein here (as I put it, “words are the blunt instruments of thought”), and possibly with Whitehead’s claim; Heidegger I choose to ignore.  It seems to me that these are reactions of the SM to perceived complexity.

Whitehead’s claim that “exactness is a fake” reminds me of Einstein’s quote, “So far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain. And so far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.”  (See my Collected Quotations).  [Attributed to Einstein:  Geometry and Experience, quoted in Bart Kosko: Fuzzy Thinking: The New Science of Fuzzy Logic, Hyperion, New York, 1993, p. 3]

All of which leaves me somewhere between the poles of MH versus SM—Whitehead’s definition pulls me towards the SM, while Wittgenstein’s observation pulls me towards MH; but I much prefer the SM attitude.

When it comes to my own writing, I strive to be SM while avoiding the pitfall of missing “the complex depths of sheer matters of fact.”

I think that James’s “rationalistic” is a reasonably good fit with “simple-minded” because principles are easy to talk about while facts tend to be messy; and “empiricist” is “muddle-headed” because it insists on facts over principles.

Now, to consider my own “Bleak Philosophy”:  “Critical Rationalism” (hereafter CR), an important part of being bleak, seems to me essentially a principle of avoiding “known error.”  In other words, science proceeds by offering conjectures to solve current problems, conjectures which then are winnowed by refutations, refutations being current test cases or “data,” which results in the “current best guess” (my term).  Not coincidentally, the italicized words give the title of Karl Popper’s excellent, readable book:  Conjectures and Refutations.  A conjecture which has been refuted thus becomes a “known error”:  such as “phlogiston,” “the ether,” “Lamarckism,” and so on.  Avoiding known error and provisionally accepting the current best guess is then the “guide to action” that pragmatism looks for.

“Current best guess” is hardly a definition of “truth,” yet this is all that science gives us.  I can’t accept James’s definition of truth, as described in his early and rather MH “The Will to Believe”; it has been compressed [by others, not James] into the formula, “It’s true if it works.”  So I tend to avoid using the word “truth” in considering scientific or philosophical matters.  Thinking in terms of “models and mysteries,” [which is fundamental to Bleakphil] I balk at calling a map “true”; maps are “more or less accurate” and cannot avoid being selective.  Maps are simple-minded in a complex (MH) world.  However, in talking with the bulk of mankind [apologies], “truth” is an indispensable word; I use it ironically, or with a mental nod toward the unspoken complexities.  I have considered the word often in this diary, but not previously from this Popperian angle.

So, two hours well spent?  Sure, if philosophy is important, and it is to me.

Copyright 2019 by Alan Carl Nicoll
All Rights Reserved

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s