William James on dogmatism and its origins; fruitful pathologies
Dogmatic philosophies have sought for tests for truth which might dispense us from appealing to the future. Some direct mark, by noting which we can be protected immediately and absolutely, now and forever, against all mistake — such has been the darling dream of philosophic dogmatists. It is clear that the origin of the truth would be an admirable criterion of this sort, if only the various origins could be discriminated from one another from this point of view, and the history of dogmatic opinion shows that origin has always been a favorite test. Origin in immediate intuition; origin in pontiﬁcal authority; origin in supernatural revelation, as by vision, hearing, or unaccountable impression; origin in direct possession by a higher spirit, expressing itself in prophecy and warning; origin in automatic utterance generally, — these origins have been stock warrants for the truth of one opinion after another which we ﬁnd represented in religious history. The medical materialists are therefore only so many belated dogmatists, neatly turning the tables on their predecessors by using the criterion of origin in a destructive instead of an accreditive way. They are effective with their talk of pathological origin only so long as supernatural origin is pleaded by the other side, and nothing but the argument from origin is under discussion. But the argument from origin has seldom been used alone, for it is too obviously insufﬁcient.
In the end it had to come to our empiricist criterion: By their fruits ye shall know them, not by their roots.
No appearances whatever are infallible proofs of grace. Our practice is the only sure evidence, even to ourselves, that we are genuinely Christians.
Why not simply leave pathological questions out? To this I reply in two ways: First, I say, irrepressible curiosity imperiously leads one on; and I say, secondly, that it always leads to a better understanding of a thing’s signiﬁcance to consider its exaggerations and perversions, its equivalents and substitutes and nearest relatives elsewhere. Not that we may thereby swamp the thing in the wholesale condemnation which we pass on its inferior congeners, but rather that we may by contrast ascertain the more precisely in what its merits consist, by learning at the same time to what particular dangers of corruption it may also be exposed.
In the autobiography of that high-souled woman, Mrs. Annie Besant, I read the following passage: “Plenty of people wish well to any good cause, but very few care to exert themselves to help it, and still fewer will risk anything in its support.
Some one ought to do it, but why should I?” is the ever reëchoed phrase of weak-kneed amiability. “Some one ought to do it, so why not I?” is the cry of some earnest servant of man, eagerly forward springing to face some perilous duty. Between these two sentences lie whole centuries of moral evolution.” True enough! and between these two sentences lie also the different destinies of the ordinary sluggard and the psychopathic man. Thus, when a superior intellect and a psychopathic temperament coalesce — as in the endless permutations and combinations of human faculty, they are bound to coalesce often enough — in the same individual, we have the best possible condition for the kind of effective genius that gets into the biographical dictionaries. Such men do not remain mere critics and understanders with their intellect. Their ideas possess them, they inﬂict them, for better or worse, upon their companions or their age.
No one organism can possibly yield to its owner the whole body of truth. Few of us are not in some way inﬁrm, or even diseased; and our very inﬁrmities help us unexpectedly. In the psychopathic temperament we have the emotionality which is the sine quâ non of moral perception; we have the intensity and tendency to emphasis which are the essence of practical moral vigor; and we have the love of metaphysics and mysticism which carry one’s interests beyond the surface of the sensible world. What, then, is more natural than that this temperament should introduce one to regions of religious truth, to corners of the universe, which your robust Philistine type of nervous system, forever offering its biceps to be felt, thumping its breast, and thanking Heaven that it hasn’t a single morbid ﬁbre in its composition, would be sure to hide forever from its self-satisﬁed possessors?