A study of the concept of vagueness in the work of William James
William James and the Reinstatement of the Vague
Search the full text of this book
William Joseph Gavin
Recently, the work of philosopher-psychologist William James has undergone something of a renaissance. In this book, William Gavin argues that James's plea for the "reinstatement of the vague" to its proper place in our experience should be regarded as a seminal metaphor for this thought in general. The concept of vagueness applies to areas of human experience not captured by facts that can be scientifically determined nor by ideas that can be formulated in words. In areas as seemingly diverse as psychology, religion, language, and metaphysics, James continually highlights the importance of the ambiguous, the contextual, the pluralistic, or the uncertain over the foundational. Indeed, observes the author, only in a vague, unfinished world can the human self, fragile as it is, have the possibility of making a difference or exercising the will to believe.
Taking James's plea seriously, Gavin looks to the work of other philosophersincluding Peirce, Marx, Dewey, and, to a lesser extent, Rorty and Derridaand shows that a version of James's position is central to their thought. Finally, Gavin provides a pragmatic upshot of James's plea, reaffirming the importance of the vague in two concrete areas: the doctor-patient relationship in medicine and the creating and experiencing of modern art.
"Gavin has taken an often cited but seldom explored text from James and shown its significance for James's overall philosophy. He clearly and insightfully delineates the character and role of 'the vague' in James's metaphysics and shows its relevance for James's views on science, art, and especially religion."
Part I: Interpretations
Part II: Conversations
Part III: Applications
(Non)-Conclusion: Life as a "Real Fight"; Text as "Spur"
William Joseph Gavin is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southern Maine.