Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Putnam, Ruth Anna. Review of Francesca Bordogna's WILLIAM JAMES AT THE BOUNDARIES. NDPR (July 2009).

Bordogna, Francesca. William James at the Boundaries: Philosophy, Science, and the Geography of Knowledge. Chicago: U. of Chicago P, 2008. In her concluding paragraph Francesca Bordogna describes her book as "[a] combination of intellectual history, history of science, and what one may call 'philosophy studies'". I mention this at the outset because one must not expect this book to be a philosophical examination of James' philosophy. Just as "science studies" are not science, so Bordogna chose the characterization "philosophy studies" modestly and wisely. That said, the book is an ambitious and on the whole successful presentation of the disciplinary debates in American universities at the turn of the twentieth century, particularly as they concern drawing or transgressing boundaries between psychology and philosophy. As Bordogna sees it, William James' philosophy engaged in "boundary work". She seeks to answer the question, "Yet what prompted James in the first place to transgress the divides increasingly separating disciplines, types of discourse, and groups of investigators?" I do not find fully persuasive her attempt to show that such transgressions are essential to James' (supposed) aim of reconfiguring not only relations between scholars but also relations between citizens. Indeed, I am not persuaded that this was his aim. Nor do I believe that James' interest in abnormal and psychic phenomena played as large a role in his life as the author suggests. Nevertheless, I am a philosopher not a historian of ideas. As I already said, as history of ideas the book is successful: it provides an interesting, sometimes even gripping, account of certain issues that were very much alive a hundred and some years ago and have their analogues in today's explosion of new cross-boundaries disciplines, e.g., cognitive science. Let us turn to details. Knowledge -- both in the sense of the activity of coming to know as pursued in universities, research institutes, and industrial laboratories and also in the sense of the product of that activity -- lends itself to a geographical metaphor. There are fields, fields have boundaries, fields may be adjacent, and boundaries may be disputed or transgressed or firmly established. Philosophy, in particular, has fluid boundaries. Switching metaphors, the trunk of the tree of knowledge is philosophy while the various sciences, beginning with mathematics, followed by physics and biology, etc. are the branches that in time branched off. Various models of the organization of knowledge are discussed in chapter 7 of the book under review. By the turn of the twentieth century, psychology was sufficiently developed, one might say "sufficiently scientific", to branch off the parent tree. Thus returning now to Francesca Bordogna's geographic metaphor, boundaries between psychology and philosophy were drawn, were disputed, and were transgressed. At the same time, the place of philosophy in the university had to be renegotiated. Its earlier role as the culminating and unifying conclusion of a college education was called into question. Bordogna uses the building and the positioning of Emerson Hall at Harvard to represent one outcome of such negotiation (chapters 1 and 7). Emerson Hall, from its opening to this day, houses the offices of Harvard philosophers as well as many of the halls in which they lecture. According to James' colleague Hugo Münsterberg, Emerson Hall represented both the unification of philosophy and the drawing of its boundaries -- philosophers' studies and lecture halls were no longer scattered among the other disciplines. Meanwhile, Emerson Hall's position relative to the other buildings in Harvard Yard represented philosophy's culminating or unifying position within knowledge (or, perhaps, within the teaching of knowledge). One wishes Bordogna had provided a map. In any case, neither the geographical metaphor nor that of a tree of knowledge suits James' ultimate conception of philosophy as that which unifies knowledge by facilitating communication between the practitioners of various disciplines. A brief glance at the development of William James' position is here in order. In 1890 he published The Principles of Psychology, for many years a widely used textbook. In Principles James drew a clear line between psychology and philosophy. Psychology assumes mind-body dualism, a position inconsistent with James' ontology of pure experience. Psychology takes for granted that there is a mind-independent world and that we can and do know a lot about it. Philosophy subjects these assumptions to critical examination. Nevertheless, one can find interesting and deep philosophy in Principles. Moreover, James frequently and egregiously transgressed the boundaries between philosophy and psychology. . . . Read the whole review here:

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