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Sunday, September 23, 2007

William James I: How an individual settles into a new opinion

William James (1842 - 1910)
Many of you may have followed the fact that current authors - especially current authors of books that have become very popular - often mention that they first heard of the idea of the book they wrote through older writing, in obscure books, some of which are now firmly planted in the public's mind. One such example is As A Man Thinketh (available through my website, or send me an email with the title of the book in the subject line), by James Allen. The authors and speakers who populate The Secret refer to it, as do others, too numerous to mention.

I read As A Man Thinketh in 1991 or so, thanks to a friend in Cancun, Mexico, where I was living at the time, who lent it to me, and it was the first of many such "older" books that turned out to contain within them the seeds of many newer, popular books that have become runaway bestsellers.

Today I want to offer you a brief article by one of American psychology's major figures, William James (1842 - 1910), who contributed enormously to the field, and who maintained contact with some of his European contemporaries, Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung. While the article is written - from our 21st Century perspective - in slightly quaint language, it nevertheless contains much truth about the process of forming new opinions, making choices, and change. I urge you in particular, to pay close attention to the last paragraph.

How an individual settles into a new opinion
William James
From PRAGMATISM

The process is always the same.

The individual has a stock of old opinions already.

The individual meets a new experience that puts some of these old opinions to a strain.
  • Somebody contradicts them.
  • In a reflective moment, the individual discovers that they contradict each other.
  • The individual hears of facts with which they are incompatible.
  • Desires arise in the individual which the old opinions fail to satisfy.

The result is inward trouble, to which the individual's mind till then had been a stranger.

The individual seeks to escape from this inward trouble by modifying the old opinions.

  • The individual saves as many of the old opinions as is possible (for in this matter we are all extreme conservatives).
  • Old opinions resist change very variously.
  • The individual tries to change this and then that.

Finally, some new opinion comes up which the individual can graft upon the ancient stock of old opinions with a minimum of disturbance to the others.

  • The new opinion mediates between the stock and the new experience.
  • The new opinion runs the stock and the new experience into one another most felicitously and expediently.

The new opinion is then adapted as the true one.

  • The new opinion preserves the older stock of truths with a minimum of modification, stretching them just enough to make them admit the novelty, but conceiving that in ways as familiar as the case leaves possible.
  • An outreé explanation, violating all our preconceptions, would never pass for a true account of a novelty.

The most violent revolutions in an individual's beliefs leave most of his old order standing.

New truth is always a go-between, a smoother-over of transitions.

The point I now urge you to observe particularly is the part played by the older truths . . . their influence is absolutely controlling. Loyalty to them is the first principle; for by far the most usual way of handling phenomena so novel that they would make for a serious rearrangement of our preconceptions is to ignore them altogether, or to abuse those who bear witness for them.

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