When a thing is new

You may have seen this well-known quote attributed to William James:

When a thing is new, people say: “It is not true.”

Later, when its truth becomes obvious, they say: “It’s not important.”

Finally, when its importance cannot be denied, they say “Anyway, it’s not new.”

This quote is probably a distillation from a passage in James’s classic lecture “Pragmatism”:

 I fully expect to see the pragmatist view of truth run through the classic stages of a theory’s career. First, you know, a new theory is attacked as absurd; then it is admitted to be true, but obvious and insignificant; finally it is seen to be so important that its adversaries claim that they themselves discovered it.

There is no pursuit more subject to retroactive obviousness than philosophy.

Philosophy is the design of the very conceptual apparatus used to understand all experience, and this includes the experience of our own memories. Once we start thinking with a new philosophy our old thoughts are subsumed by the new philosophy and re-understood in its terms. We unconsciously dissociate from our old self, treating that old self like someone else.

It is extremely difficult even to return to old philosophies we once used but abandoned, and it is even harder yet to return to older and more primitive philosophies that were blind to experiences which, to us, are impossible to miss.

We tend to either find these older philosophies obsolete, and fail to appreciate the role they played — and continue to play! — in our present philosophies. Or we thoughtlessly do our best to believe what the older philosophies say in the terms of our new philosophies and do severe violence to both the old and the new.

Here is how I understand it: We develop philosophies we need but do not yet have with the philosophies we do have but need to leave, which in turn were developed with philosophies we used to have but left.

It is like making new tools with worn-out tools which were made from old, now broken tools. No — actually, it is not like this. It literally is this.

The big difference is that when we think of tools, we tend to view them as objects we use. Philosophies are subjects we use, and in an unnerving sense those subjects are our subjectivity.

By many, possibly most, popular philosophies, there no distinction is made between one’s own soul and our deepest subjective tools, which are not only the contents of our beliefs, but our very believing of those beliefs: our faith.

When our subjective tools begin to malfunction, we feel that we ourselves — our very souls — are breaking down. We lose our faith, and we want it back.

To be continued.


Leave a Reply