Friday, October 17, 2008

"ontological wonder-sickness"

William James
"in wandering mazes lost"
(Image from Wikipedia)

I have to prepare a response to a couple of papers being given next week at an international conference on "mysticism" -- a fraught term -- and one of the two papers, by Nobuo Kazashi (professor of philosophy at Japan's Kobe University), is titled "The Young William James and Ontological Wonder Sickness."

I've not read James in a long time, so I returned to one of his most famous books, The Will to Believe: And Other Essays in Popular Philosophy, and Human Immortality (Courier Dover Publications, 1956), where James describes what he calls "ontological wonder-sickness":
Our mind is so wedded to the process of seeing an other beside every item of its experience, that when the notion of an absolute datum is presented to it, it goes through its usual procedure and remains pointing at the void beyond, as if in that lay further matter for contemplation. In short, it spins for itself the further positive consideration of a nonentity enveloping the being of its datum; and as that leads nowhere, back recoils the thought toward its datum again. But there is no natural bridge between nonentity and this particular datum, and the thought stands oscillating to and fro, wondering "Why was there anything but nonentity; why just this universal datum and not another?" and finds no end, in wandering mazes lost. Indeed, [a certain Professor] Bain's words [affirming the end of mystery in the complete vision of science when all has been encompassed within the most general of scientific laws] are so untrue that in reflecting men it is just when the attempt to fuse the manifold into a single totality has been most successful, when the conception of the universe as a unique fact is nearest its perfection, that the craving for further explanation, the ontological wonder-sickness, arises in its extremest form. As Schopenhauer says, "The uneasiness which keeps the never-resting clock of metaphysics in motion, is the consciousness that the non-existence of this world is just as possible as its existence." (pages 71-72)
In the reference to finding no end but being "in wandering mazes lost," James quotes from Milton's epic Paradise Lost, Book 2.561, where the more philosophical of the fallen angels apparently fall into a type of wonder-sickness -- and James is probably punning between "wandering" and "wondering" -- though Milton does not explicitly state that these erring angels pose the ultimate ontological question. They perhaps don't suffer from James's peculiar illness.

But what is the symptom of "ontological wonder sickness," anyway? The "oscillating to and fro, wondering"? Or the "craving for further explanation" itself? James is not entirely clear on this point.

Be that as it may, I suspect that a fear of nothingness lies at the heart of James's concern, for the Schopenhauer quote emphasizes "that the non-existence of this world is just as possible as its existence."

Perhaps I should ask my friend Bill Vallicella.

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At 6:51 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My understanding is the "wonder-sickness" is referring the human mind's inability to be satisfied with any purportedly ultimate level of explanation. It's like a more refined version of the child who continually asks "why?" to everything you tell him.

From a "mystical" standpoint, perhaps a Buddhist view, the continually seeking mind can represent a form of samsara. Hence the term "sickness". While the wandering mind spurs us on to new inventions, new questions, new ideas, there is also maybe something a little perverse about the fact that we just can't accept things as they are, but must continually revert to more thought-construction.

At 7:12 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, WTW, for the explanation. You're probably correct that the expression "wonder-sickness" refers to the lack of satisfaction (though a dizzy, continuous oscillation would more likely make me ill).

By "samsara," are you focusing on the aspect of suffering more than on reincarnation?

Also, was James influenced by Buddhism in his view on "ontological wonder-sickness"?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

".....I suspect that a fear of nothingness lies at the heart of James's concern.....".

Since we humans are, arguably, the only form of life which can contemplate its own death (non-being), a fear of nothingness no doubt lies at the heart of the concerns of all of us.

At 5:06 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Christopher, it probably does in those insomniac moments at 3:00 a.m., when we find ourselves lying in the darkness contemplating our own finitude...

In James's case, I was thinking of his statements expressing anxiety that, metaphysically speaking, there was no solid ground upon which to stand, for beneath the surface of life was a great abyss.

Jeffery Hodges

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