The essay by William James “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings” was published in 1900 and provided the reader with an insightful, in-depth, and detailed discussion of the human beings’ ability to be blind toward each other and the joy of life. As James states, “… so blind and dead does the clamor of our own practical interests make us to all other things” (25). When describing the human experience and perception, James points out that we are not always capable of perceiving the world as others, and that is the primary cause of the discrepancies that happen among human beings.
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For James, the blindness is the human inability to value the simplest moments, the beauty of life, and the joy it brings, even if this joy is seen by us as something insignificant. James quotes Tolstoy when discussing the value of simple things, and provides the reader with a description of a character’s imprisonment who suddenly realizes the happiness of eating, drinking, and sleeping when it is necessary (35). According to James, we, as human beings, often overlook the joy in simplicity and overcomplicate our own existence: “life is always worth living, if one has such responsive sensibilities” (37).
He argues that “the educated classes” overlook the common and withdraw from the Nature, becoming blind to all the life’s simple joys and goods (James 38). At the same time, our human practicality interferes with our ability to understand and perceive the feelings of others; the core problem is that “each is bound to feel intensely the importance of his own duties and the significance of the situations that call these forth” (James 3). Due to our feeling of importance and the assumption that the feelings of others are less significant (intense, painful, etc.) than our own, we judge and think of others in a false way.
Thus, James’ approach to morality is bound to the individual’s experience of life and emotions. He argues that we need to be aware of this blindness and approach it differently to ensure we can understand others and remain sympathetic toward them (James 5). James sees the life of children of nature and savages (as he calls them) more vital and filled with joy than the life of “educational class” (James 39). The solution to this problem, the inability to be “alive”, is to live the life empty of thought but full of sensorial experiences, James argues (40).
The conclusion of the essay provides a summarized statement of the discussed ideas: “it… forbids us to be forward in pronouncing on the meaninglessness of forms of existence other than our own; it commands us to tolerate, respect, and indulge…” (James 46). Thus, James sees morality as the human ability to be respectful of the lives of others, their joys and sorrows, no matter how insignificant or mere they appear to the beholder. If observed from a wider standpoint, James’ view is simple and tremendous at the same time: each of us needs to value and tolerate the life of the other, no matter how we would view, assess, or judge it.
Critical Assessment of the Ideas
Although such an approach toward human morality has the potential to improve the relations and discrepancies among us, it still has certain ambiguity and vagueness that need to be addressed. First, James views the lives of savages as more vital than the lives of adults tangled in the everyday thoughts and broodings (39). Nevertheless, it appears that James at least underestimates (if does not overlook) the difficulties that the “savages” had to face in their lives, including hard labor, diseases, and dangers of the living without the supporting means of the civilized world. Furthermore, James does not identify what he understands under the description “savages” and prefers to focus on the advantages of their lives, including the closeness to nature.
As Otto accurately points out, “the bearing of the economic pattern of society on general human happiness simply did not assume for him a status of a philosophical problem” (187). Thus, despite his ability to see the advantages of any life and praise those, it appears that James preferred to ignore (or merely did not notice) the very real issues and difficulties the low classes had to endure during the time the essay was written. James continuously views them from his perspective: he is an educated citizen who does not live in poverty and does not have to work hard to support himself and ensure he has the basic needs. Therefore, James’ suggestions to see others as equal, to be aware of the blindness and accept the life of the others as meaningful as your own fails because he eradicates the very difference that makes our society diverse. By stating that those who live close to the Nature are more alive, James neglects the difficulties and hard labor rural workers perform day by day, something unknown or, at best, slightly familiar to a citizen like James.
Other issues that are touched upon but not specifically addressed are the individual’s abilities to criticize him/herself and understand the consequences of such critique. When describing his encounter with a mountaineer from North Carolina, James notices: “I had been blind to the peculiar ideality of their conditions as they certainly would also have been to the ideality of mine” (9). There is no explicit self-critique in James’ words but rather a note about the human blindness toward each other and the necessity to recognize the value of life by all human beings. Still, James does not ask himself whether such blindness is indeed an issue for all people or only those who reside at the higher levels of social hierarchy.
As Otto points out, while James merely contends that his compatriots remain blind to the problems of the other citizens (those who live in poverty), Jacob A. Riis directly describes the sufferings of those people, proving that economy, greed, and public neglect all have a direct negative impact on the members of the lower classes (186). Had James gone farther in his reflections, he would be able to provide ethics similar to the frameworks we call nowadays as social justice and privilege awareness, admitting that some citizens have more opportunities to build and live better lives than the others, whereas also admitting that equity is more important than equality because, due to our differences, we often cannot be equal but all have the right to be treated with dignity and not experience any limits linked to our differences. Still, James fails to recognize the lack of self-critique in his reflections and concludes that all human beings are initially blind towards each other due to the peculiarities of human nature (3). If James asked himself instead “what am I blind to as an individual, as William James?”, he could have come to different conclusions compared to those expressed in his essay.
Stating this, I do not aim to undermine the importance of James’ idea but rather to point out the gaps in his argument. Per se, the idea to value the ideals and conditions of other individuals is essential in addressing various social issues such as racism, discrimination, classism, etc. It is the basis of the ethical principles of expressing sympathy for the ones who need it, supporting each other during emergencies, and being open toward the difference of opinions. At the same time, it is also crucial for our understanding of morality, since we restrain from performing a morally wrong action toward another person (insulting, hitting, abusing, etc.) by valuing their difference and accepting it.
Thus, the ideas expressed by James are the basis of our understanding of ethics and morality, but they do not evolve into deeper reflections about differences between human beings and focus on the problem of spectator and the judged: “[the judged] knows more while the spectator knows less” (6). The importance of individual and societal actions, their influence on each other and the lives of others remain unaddressed. It appears that James’ solution to the problems of lower classes and marginalized groups was “to have its life currents absorbed by what is given”, i.e. to accept the life they had as it was and be attentive to the positive sides of it (37).
Implications for Our Understanding of Ethics and Morality
The ideas expressed by James have a significant influence on the modern understanding of ethics and morality. As it was mentioned previously, the basic idea of equality “accept everyone and their differences” or sympathy “try to understand what the other feels” are the exact ideas expressed by James in his essay (46). As great as these ideas are, they can be misinterpreted and lead to seemingly ethical but wrong approaches such as, for example, racial color blindness. Although it was seen as a proof of anti-racism spirit in society, it also overlooked the difference, eliminating it, thereby making us blind toward the issues that were specifically tied to color and race.
The problem of liberal tolerance is also related to the ideas expressed by James. The “live and let live” approach together with the “we are all equal” statements can be seen as calls for acceptance of others, similar to James’ opinion expressed in the essay. At the same time, such an approach leads to the eradication of difference. While some members of the marginalized or discriminated groups would find such an approach acceptable, the others would point out that it is the differences that make them who they are and we should not be blind toward them (for example, people with mobility limitations).
Denying the difference of individuals with disabilities would result in blindness toward their selves, shaped by their experiences and feelings. Furthermore, nobody can fully comprehend the life of a marginalized or underrepresented group unless he or she is a member of it. Still, this is what James suggests as the solution to the issue of the “certain human blindness”.
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As we can see from the history of discrimination in the word, human blindness on a political and national level can have catastrophic consequences, such as racial segregation, wars, genocides, etc. The value of James’ ideas is that if applied on a national level, it has the potential to prevent countries from implementing horrid foreign policies and improving the lives of marginalized and discriminated. Still, if these ideas are transformed into tolerance, and not empowerment or support, there is a high chance that the political issues will turn into cultural ones, and the society might overlook discrimination because it will be considered as the part of national culture (e.g., the representation of women, black people, minorities, etc. in classical literature and films).
Thus, the tolerance discussed by James does not critically examine the bias that existed during his time but supports the already existing approach to marginalization in the Western culture, although it does offer several changes to it. The problem of the power and wealth, their influence on the life of others, and their contribution to misjudgments and unfairness are not addressed by James.
It appears that James’ (deliberate or not) decision not to address complex political and societal issues in relations of people to each other led to the gaps in morality and ethics that are being addressed today (various types of privilege, the importance of difference, etc.). As it is, the discussion of human blindness was valuable because it became the basis for tolerance and the idea of equality, which were significant for battling racial and discriminatory issues in the 20th century. Nevertheless, the modern society needs a more profound understanding of the significance of differences to address the issues of racism, discrimination, classism, sexism, etc. in their current form.
James, William. On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings. Penguin Books Limited, 2009.
Otto, Max Carl. “On Certain Blindness in William James.” Ethics, vol. 53, no. 3, 1943, pp. 184-191.