Only the born geniuses let themselves be worried and fascinated by these outstanding exceptions, and get no peace till they are brought within the fold. Your Galileos, Galvanis, Fresnels, Purkinjes, and Darwins are always getting confounded and troubled by insignificant things.

(William James, What Psychical Research Has Accomplished, 1890)

I didn't really feel up to reading On some Hegelisms in bed on Saturday morning, not knowing a great deal about Hegel, so I skipped to James on contemporary research into psychic phenomena. One of the incidental interests of the book is the lists of great men and examples of historical events which he obviously thought his audience would be familiar with. I'd never heard of Purkinje, and I'm still not sure why James thought he belonged in that list.

James is almost saying the same thing as Thomas Kuhn - "normal science" (Kuhn's term) excludes things it can't categorise, eventually the number of discovered facts it can't explain becomes impossible to ignore, and it takes a genius to change the way people think. James obviously thought a paradigm shift was about to happen with psychic research, but it never did. Psychologists made discoveries about the ability of the human mind to delude itself, and sceptics uncovered fake psychics. The phenomena were explained away rather than piling up to an intolerable level which demanded an explanation. (Interesting similarity to something mentioned on In Our Time the other week - scientists faced with an apparently falsifying fact usually don't do the "correct" Popperian thing of abandoning their now discredited theory, they try to find out what they've missed to explain away the anomaly - they posit another planet, rather than abandoning Newtonian physics because Uranus isn't behaving properly).

There's an interesting division between the hard-headed side of James's temperament (what he calls the "scientific-academic mind") and his desire to believe that psychic phenomena (and the spiritual world in general) could be given a rational explanation and integrated into science. He had enough scepticism to recognise that many psychics were frauds, but thought there was a core of phenomena which needed an explanation. He's scathing about the ability of the "feminine-mystical mind" to provide explanations for anything, but says people with that temperament notice things which scientists ignore because they can't be categorised within the current scientific system. An alternative explanation is that people who tend not to think rationally and sceptically will observe things which aren't really there, or read significance into coincidence and randomness.


Responses to James

James's essay The Importance of Individuals is a response to Grant Allen's The Genesis of Genius, and John Fiske's Sociology and Hero Worship, which in turn are responses to Great Men and Their Environment, a criticism of Allen's view (derived from Herbert Spencer) that individuals have no influence on the course of history.

I'm reading The Will to Believe / Human Immortality, a Dover collection of two books (The Will to Believe is itself a collection of essays, some originally given as lectures). I wish the Allen and Fiske pieces had been included in the collection.

Routledge charges an extortionate price for Bertrand Russell's What I Believe, a pamphlet he wrote in the twenties as part of a series. The series included Russell's Icarus, a response to Haldane's Daedalus, and Russell's then wife Dora wrote Hypatia, on women's liberation. It would have been nice to have at least Icarus and Daedalus included in the paperback of What I Believe (eight quid for fifty pages!).

The Dover collection of James is good value for money, but similarly it wouldn't have hurt to have added another couple of dozen pages to it, which would make James's response more understandable.

William James

Great Men and the Environment

We all recollect Mr. Darwin's famous statement of the influence of cats on the growth of clover in their neighborhood.

Well, I didn't recollect it, but here it is. Clover needs humble bees (bumblebees, I assume) for pollination, bees have their nests destroyed by mice, and mice are killed by cats, so bees are more common near towns (and by implication, clover).


Australian podcasts

The Philosopher's Zone - corny title aside, this is a very high quality half-hour of discussion. The host, Alan Saunders, switched from law to philosophy at the University of Leicester. He describes the philosophy department as a very bad one, which is probably fair (it was "merged" with Exeter's philosophy department at about the time I arrived at Leicester to study chemistry - this at a time when universities very rarely shut down departments). The ABC has some really good programmes available via podcast, putting the BBC to shame.

All in the Mind includes a lot of philosophy of mind along with the psychology and brain physiology (I had to stop listening to the one about brain surgery, it was making me feel queasy).

Some of the other shows I listen to out of general interest in Australian life (Street Stories, Perspective), and Dr Karl is genuinely popular science at its best. He is enthusiastic, absolutely firm about what's right and wrong (especially when it comes to "alternative therapies"), he admits what he doesn't know, and he's never condescending even to callers who are utterly loopy (his bemused discussion with an agitated young women who had read too much Buckminster Fuller and thought the planets have tetrahedral orbits was astonishingly patient).



The Strange Death of Ordinary Language Philosophy
I read Gellner's Words and Things early last year, I've been struggling with Ryle's The Concept of Mind for years (I made a concerted effort to start from scratch last year and am bogged down in the middle - it's not that I find it difficult, I find it intensely tedious and pointless after the first few chapters).

Stephen Law on religious defences of belief in God
I finished Law's The War for Children's Minds a couple of weeks ago. It's generally a good book, though Law could have done with an editor with a big stick. I'll write some more about that eventually. Probably. Maybe.

Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?
The Guerrilla Radio Show was recommended by someone on the OU AA311 forum. It's interesting, if you skip the first five minutes (ads for the show, which generally consist of Americans yelling over heavy metal). Once the yelling's over, you get an hour of intelligent American philosophy postgrads discussing various topics (with the occasional regrettable yelling interlude), and this paper was mentioned in the Knowledge 101 show.


And over five years later...

I'm intending to use this for jotting down thoughts about philosophy, not necessarily in a structured or well-thought-out way. Most of my reading over the last three or four years has been philosophy.

Last year I did two Open University courses, A103 (An Introduction to the Humanities), and A211 (Philosophy and the Human Situation). A103, starting in September 2005, gave me confidence in my ability to write essays and study on my own. I started A211 in early 2006, and got a distinction (mainly due to a surprisingly good performance in the exam - if you'd told me a couple of years ago that I'd spend three hours writing essays with a fountain pen, and that they'd be good essays, I'd have laughed at you).

I started AA311 (Reading Political Philosophy) in early 2007.