ABSTRACT

In a letter to the Unitarian clergyman Minot Judson Savage on 4 January 1910, James suggested that in his 1909 work A Pluralistic Universe, and the chapter on Bergson in particular, he “successfully disposes of Spencer’s book on the unknowable” (CWJ 12: 406). The letter to Savage, as Ignas Skrupskelis (2004: xliv) observes, demonstrates a growing need within James to summarize his “underlying motives and philosophical position”, no doubt driven by his increasing poor health and the sense of limited time. This letter pulls together important distinctions in James’s late thinking, which challenges “conceptual” thought as “discontinuous” and embraces the “flux” as “continuous” and in turn suggests the “remedy is to take up the flux, bodily and tel quel into the content of philosophy”. It underlines his view that “there is no where extant a complete gathering up of the universe in one focus, either of knowledge, power or purpose”. He continues by suggesting that “something escapes, even from God” and that we face a situation that is for “science, philosophy and theology to work out together”. James offered a resolution to the conflicts between science, philosophy and religion by showing the limitations of thought itself, but he did not give in entirely to the quagmire of the “unknowable” that he perceived in Herbert Spencer’s work. But the letter to Savage does give us a sense of finally dismissing the work of Spencer (and Kant), especially when he writes: “one is entitled after this to pass them by entirely”. The dismissal took James a lifetime, for Spencer had assumed the position of special opponent for many years, the “role of a punching bag”, as Perry (1935a: 475) so succinctly expressed it. Perry is also correct to see that Renouvier and Spencer formed opposite poles of attraction and repulsion, but both

were important. The Savage letter is important in signaling, at the end of a lifetime, the inadequacy of Spencer’s nineteenth-century resolution to the science-religion problem and above all the problem of the “unknowable” in such a debate. Spencer’s view is the opposite of James’s own response, which is built out from Renouvier.