The deeper I get into Barzun’s biography, titled A Stroll With William James, the more tempted I am to come to that conclusion. For those uncertain as to what I mean by ecological psychology, it is a radical departure from the information processing theories that currently dominate the field. Too many—both layperson and academic alike—have let the brain–as–computer metaphor become the only way they can conceptualize what goes on in our wetware (see?); but of course, before computers (and even earlier, before machines), there were other ways of approaching this most intriguing set of questions. William James apparently did so in a way that presaged much of the ecological approach.
This quote from Barzun, which includes a direct quote of James (which is unattributed in the book, so I can’t point to its source), lays the foundation. The James quote is enclosed in quotation marks, and all emphasis is from the text (p. 97):
Clearly, the subject of truth is not the simple thing that our school and laboratory habits have made it seem. In that picture, truth is a vast collection of statements somewhere to be found. All good minds—our searchers and researchers—dig for truths like Forty-Niners and add their nuggets to the pile. Some dull old ones are replaced with bright new ones, and one day the collection will be complete and systematized, a hoard of propositional truth sitting inside a computer like the Nibelungs’ beneath the Rhine.
That popular libretto overestimates the verbal. “The Truth: what a perfect idol of the rationalistic mind. The whole notion of the truth is an abstraction, a mere useful summarizing phrase like the Latin language or the law. Judges and Latin teachers often speak of these entities as if they were something apart and existing before legal decisions and grammatical ways, but clearly they are nothing of the kind. Both law and Latin are results. Distinctions between the lawful and the unlawful or between correct and incorrect in speech have grown up indidentally among the interactions of men’s experiences in detail.”
A proposition, then, is not so much true as truth–ful, a short-hand reminder of how to orient ourselves in experience. A truth is like a map, which does not copy the ground, but uses signs to tell us where to find the hill, the stream, and the village. Truth is the pathway, not the terminus. By our truths we chart “reality,” but never exhaust it, however faithful to its contours; and because of this limitation, truth-seeking, individual or collective, is always thrown back upon experience, where we vainly wish that truth might be read like a book.
One might object to these ideas as being too pragmatic to be a philosophical approach. Interestingly enough, James did develop a theory of pragmatism, but what he meant by that term is so far afield from its many current meanings that I dare not delve into it at this point: I do not know enough of it to introduce it fairly. That said, James’ pragmatism seems firmly rooted in an approach that has made deep sense to me from childhood; and that explains why I took to ecological psychology like an albatross to the sea: context is key to understanding an organism’s actions. More from Barzun (pp. 99–100):
It should also be evident that many useful objects can be enjoyed as ends—food by the gourmet, shelter by the connoisseur of architecture, clothing by the devotee of conspicuous consumption. Once again, it is language that derails judgment. To say “ends in themselves” about art objects suggests that nothing passes from the object to the beholder, that he does not get good from it as he would in hunger from a piece of bread. But one can and does hunger for art and the “end” of art is inside the beholder, just like the bread. True, one would not perish from lack of music and art, but that fact does not change the other fact of both food and art being useful to man, the one to his body (and spirit) the other to his spirit (and body) [sic].
The phrase “for its own sake” leads astray even more slyly. Suppose the seemingly rational statement: “I go to concerts and listen to music for its own sake,” and compare it with: “I go to church on Sunday for my sister’s sake.” It is at once obvious that music has no “sake” like the sister’s. The concert goer is not doing a favor to music by listening to it; he is listening for his own sake, for pleasure, excitement, or even “drowsy reverie interrupted by nervous thrills.” In short, the music serves his peculiar ends; it is therefore useful. ....
The blundering intention in the use of “sake” hopes to suggest a single-mindedness—listening to music for enjoyment, rather than for study, for therapy, for snobbery. That may be a praiseworthy difference, though human motives are usually mixed; but motive is not the point here. The point is utility, which is inescapably a feature of whatever the human mind seeks out. So “useful” requires a qualifier to show what species of utility is being talked about. To the keeper of the museum, the white glove Charles I wore at his execution has historical utility; it differs from that which it had for the king.
To point out these links and nuances is not merely to reprove bad habits of speech. The habits represent rooted opinions and the feelings attached; they come from the Platonizing (and patronizing) attitude toward the body and toward things. It ignores the mind in its wholeness and flies off to perform trapeze work among concepts and conventions. To put it the other way around, the opposite or pragmatic analysis follows from the nature of the stream of consciousness, from thought as it actually occurs. Pragmatism is the expanded description of how we natively think.
If Barzun is providing an accurate portrayal of James’ thinking, the parallels between his and J.J Gibson’s approach to psychology are striking. Both rejected the dominant paradigm of the day; both rejected ancient assumptions and ideas that remained part of the dominant paradigms—rejected them because they led researchers off into tangled thickets (often reductionistic ones) rather than clarified the questions surrounding what an organism can perceive, know, and do. That last sentence in the book excerpt, characterizing James’ pragmatism, is very close to Gibson’s affordance [PDF] theory of perceiving and acting. They both point to how we work “in the wild”, rather than under the austere, artificial conditions imposed by a research laboratory.
It may simply be the iconoclastic tendencies of each of these individuals that I’m focusing on. But that is a remarkable thing! James read widely in philosophy, yet resisted the seduction of authority that tends to coat ideas with a patina acquired with time (but not, usually, tested by time). Gibson may not have been as thoroughly classically educated, but he also resisted that false glow, recognizing that it represented little more than habit, slid into from one generation to the next. Putting this in a different context, in case such would be helpful: James and Gibson were each able to retain at least a bit of the “beginner’s mind” in their professional thinking—something far too few individuals can accomplish. For myself, I am just beginning to understand its deep, enduring value.