Sunday, August 31, 2014

Humanist William James on Certain Blindness in Human Beings

By Gary Berg-Cross

These are angry times on so many level including the war front.  It seems at times like “The Guns of August II” or to paraphrase a recent WAPO article, “Is this 1939 again?”  Will the dogs of war and the romance of simple military solutions sweep away another generation?

Events don’t make it easy to talk about alternatives to war or the value of the culture of peace, but perhaps such times are exactly when we need this conversation the most.  As Martin Luther King Jr. said in his, A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches

          “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate
          cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” 

With this hypothesis in mind it seems like a good time share, if not love, then a peaceful space in which to discuss such the topics.  WASH MDC has organized a panel and community discussion on Sept. 6th from 2-4 (Wheaton Public Library, 11701 Georgia Ave., Wheaton, MD ) on the topic of Peace and Issues including a Humanist perspective. Edd Doerr, past AHA president, who blogs here often, will be on the panel along with an anthropologist with experience in peace negotiations. 

I thought that I’d get a little jump on the meeting with a few humanist-oriented thoughts on the challenge of peace going back to a time before the WWI Guns of August swept away the Great Powers' peace.  Why not a mini-Renaissance on the prospects of avoiding the damages of war and the building of a culture of peace?

Around the turn of the 20th Century American
William James looking back to the Civil War, a squalid US war with Spain and the recent Boer war.  It was the late colonial period. Looking back to our late 20th and now recent 21st century events in history's rear view mirror they start to uncomfortably resemble the earllier aggressions that James lamented.  Similar too is the specter of war clouds abroad that motivated James to gave talks and write a series of anti-war pamphlets around the turn of the century,  He started with one calledCertain Blindness in Human Beings” in 1899.  In raising anti-war consciousness James was leveraging facts & new understanding from the social sciences.  It seemed to him that the emerging sciences offered some enlightened basis to understand human nature and the tendency toward violence.  Certainly he saw the corruption of language as the word Peace and peaceful activity had come to mean essentially the preparation for war.  And with that start of new factual understanding strengthened with a Progressive philosophy of truth,  knowledge & morality James argued we could begin to take on age old problem & escape the ruptures to civilizations caused by war. But it would, as he later said, take a moral and culture commitment as strong as the commitment to war and militarism. To bring the war-party and the peace-party together an extended discipline was needed and the avoidance ot, as he said:

  “The strength of one’s opposition to war depends on the correctness of one’s position, certainly, but it also requires a better understanding of the permanent enemy among us, namely, “the bellicosity of human nature.”

New understanding in turn calls on moral action. Beyond the mere intellectual conviction that war is morally unacceptable, James argued that we have a

 “bounden duty to resist settling reasonable disputes in a violent manner,”

Instead suggests James one is also obliged to translate one’s beliefs into an active, yet non-violent resistance to the human proclivity to settle disputes  “quickly, thrillingly, tragically, and by force.”


That’s still good advice and a hard task. Sure, we have an even better fact and theory basis to understand human tendencies.  It’s just that empirical science and our best wisdom, tempered by moral sense, seem now to be again out of power and favor.  What passes for statecraft is running somewhat amok.

James followed him 1899 work with 2 later ones. The Essence of Humanism & The Moral Equivalent of War.  In the first James pointed to the hopes of Humanism mixed with a Pragmatic philosophy which he saw as levers  to advance society’s enlightenment:

Humanism is a ferment that has "come to stay." It is not a single hypothesis of theorem, and it dwells on no new facts. It is rather a slow shifting in the philosophic perspective, making things appear as from a new center of interest or point of sight.

A humanist perspective might be marshalled to avoid war, but in Moral Equivalence he starts with the observation that:

“The war against war is going to be no holiday excursion or camping party.”

It certainly hasn't been easy and The Great War proved to be a steam roller that ended peace and progress for a generation.  James saw militarism well entrenched asd as Chris Hedges later wrote, War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning. As James put it:

"The militarily-patriotic and the romantic-minded everywhere, and especially the professional military class, refuse to admit for a moment that war may be a transitory phenomenon in social evolution. The notion of a sheep's paradise like that revolts, they say, our higher imagination. Where then would be the steeps of life? If war had ever stopped, we should have to re-invent it, on this view, to redeem life from flat degeneration.
Reflective apologists for war at the present day all take it religiously. It is a sort of sacrament. .."

These ideas are  protected by irrationality, paradox and old human tendencies claimed as the highest of virtues not balanced by enlightened passion .

“ The military feelings are too deeply grounded to abdicate their place among our ideals until better substitutes are offered than the glory and shame that come to nations as well as to individuals   from the ups and downs of politics and the vicissitudes of trade…

Modern war is so expensive that we feel trade to be a better avenue to plunder; but modern man inherits all the innate pugnacity and all the love of glory of his ancestors. 

James could see the factors that militaristic times leverage to trample peaceful stances.  There is seemingly paradox there too as some things so horrible should propel us into action, but they are rationalized away with ego defenses and spin:

"Showing war's irrationality and horror is of no effect on him (people). The horrors make the fascination. War is the strong life; it is life in extremis; war taxes are the only ones men never hesitate to pay, as the budgets of all nations show us.”   From

 Yes, and we still are willing to pay for war over pre-school and the like.

James worries and paradoxes & double personalities of civilized man still hold sway even as the Humanist perspective and a better understanding of human nature sheds light on factors like irrationality, the politics of fear, scapegoating, personalizing evil, religious & self-justification, the seduction of glory, the fear of shame, tribal solidarity, pugnacity.  James saw it all and rang the bell of warning that is hard to hear with the thump of bombs.

Still sadly still  too true. In our time the Dept of War has become the Dept of Defense. We have perpetual preparation of war and plans for attack masked in the right of self defense. As James said:

"Peace" in military mouths today is a synonym for "war expected." The word has become a pure provocative, and no government wishing peace sincerely should allow it ever to be printed in a newspaper. Every up-to-date dictionary should say that "peace" and "war" mean the same thing, now in posse, now in actu. It may even reasonably be said that the intensely sharp preparation for war by the nations is the real war, permanent, unceasing; and that the battles are only a sort of public verification of the mastery gained during the 'peace'-interval."....and

" legitimate interest of any one of them (Great Powers) would seem to justify the tremendous destructions which a war to compass it would necessarily entail. It would seem that common sense and reason ought to find a way to reach agreement in every conflict of honest interests."

Cartoon from

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