The Marginalian
The Marginalian

The Art of Human Connection: Pioneering Psychologist and Philosopher William James on the Most Important Attitude for Relationships

The Art of Human Connection: Pioneering Psychologist and Philosopher William James on the Most Important Attitude for Relationships

To be human is to continually mistake our frames of reference for reality itself. We so readily forget that our vantage point is but a speck on the immense plane of possible perspectives. We so readily forget that there are infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives.

The discipline of countering our reflex for self-righteousness is a triumph of existential maturity — one increasingly rare in a culture where most people would rather armor themselves with judgment than tremble with uncertainty, would rather be right than understand.

The pioneering psychologist and philosopher William James (January 11, 1842–August 26, 1910), who coined the term “stream of consciousness,” explores the making of that triumph in a pair of wonderful lectures — “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings” and “What Makes Life Significant” — posthumously collected in the 1911 volume Talks to Teachers on Psychology: And to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals (public library | public domain).

William James

With an eye to “the price we inevitably have to pay for being practical creatures,” James considers those rare moments when our habitual blinders fall away and we see a fuller picture of reality:

Only in some pitiful dreamer, some philosopher, poet, or romancer, or when the common practical man becomes a lover, does the hard externality give way, and a gleam of insight into the ejective world… the vast world of inner life beyond us, so different from that of outer seeming, illuminate our mind. Then the whole scheme of our customary values gets confounded, then our self is riven and its narrow interests fly to pieces, then a new centre and a new perspective must be found.

That new perspective includes the recognition that other people strive for happiness and meaning in ways other than our own, just as valid in the making of a life. James considers the value of this shift in understanding:

It absolutely forbids us to be forward in pronouncing on the meaninglessness of forms of existence other than our own; and it commands us to tolerate, respect, and indulge those whom we see harmlessly interested and happy in their own ways, however unintelligible these may be to us. Hands off: neither the whole of truth nor the whole of good is revealed to any single observer, although each observer gains a partial superiority of insight from the peculiar position in which he stands.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print)

Observing “the falsity of our judgments, so far as they presume to decide in an absolute way on the value of other persons’ conditions or ideals,” observing “how soaked and shot-through life is with values and meanings which we fail to realize because of our external and insensible point of view,” observing how often and how readily we judge the outward choices of others while losing sight of the “inward significance” of those choices, James writes:

The first thing to learn in intercourse with others is non-interference with their own peculiar ways of being happy, provided those ways do not assume to interfere by violence with ours. No one has insight into all the ideals. No one should presume to judge them off-hand. The pretension to dogmatize about them in each other is the root of most human injustices and cruelties, and the trait in human character most likely to make the angels weep.

Complement with Joan Didion on learning not to mistake self-righteousness for morality, then revisit William James on the psychology of attention, how our bodies affect our feelings, and the four features of transcendence.

Published June 2, 2023




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