The other day, I wrote a post on Henry James that now seems extraordinarily muddled. I didn’t recognize the puzzle that was in my mind; now I do:
The puzzle was why Nelson Goodman’s response to the question “What is philosophy good for” had, in my ears, a distinctly Jamesian ring. The response was to turn the question on its heels, reversing the current, as it were: “The world is good for philosophy.” The implication being that philosophy grows naturally out of the world’s diverse activities and business; that it is a valuable end that can neither properly said to be served by them, but that nonetheless emerges from them, a consequence.
My mistake below was in broadening the scope of Goodman’s claim, to imagining it to correspond with a great many of abstract ideals, such as beauty and justice, which the world might be “good for.” Maybe it is. But considering them gets in the way of seeing how Goodman’s thought is at one with something essential in James: that the world is very good for the powers of human receptivity that include understanding, attending, apprehending, comprehending, assessing. Philosophy, though productive of tracts and arguments, represents the receptive power in a particularly active form (as does, say, criticism, and art itself).
James’ heroines (and heroes, but they are usually heroines) are heroic in their powers of receptivity; they are magnificent because they are so refined in discerning and taking hold of the world. They are heroic in their powers of attending, as is great philosophy, for Goodman.
Attention in James is a cultivated disposition, a fundamental ethical habit; it is essential to, and developed in, all other receptive powers (comprehending, assessing, evaluating), and his novels are dramas of the attention.
That does not mean that they concerned with passivity. They are concerned with receptivity, and with the ways that it might become stagnant and passive, how it might become exploitative, violent, manipulative; how apprehending and comprehending might be forms of conquest, psychological or material.
Henry’s sister, Alice, I think, was a hero in his mind because of the powers of attention she possessed; her tragedy was the limitation of how actively she could exercise them, owing to neurological and related physical suffering. Though the creation of Isabel Archer is indebted to a cousin, her range of reception, her sense that experience is there to be properly received, and the James household’s faith in receptivity as a valuable activity, and a delicate one, in itself, suggests that the inspiration lay within the immediate family circle; Jean Strouse’s excellent biography of Alice, as well as Alice’s diary, makes clear that she is a candidate for inspiring James to imagining a nightmare of how her capabilities might have been corrupted, tragically turned against her.
Goodman was helpful in giving salient phrase to what in James might be mistaken as mere dilettantism or elitism. It is, as Goodman’s work shows, neither. There is no reason that cultivated powers of understanding, apprehension, appreciation ought not to be widespread in a democracy; there is no reason that such powers ought to masquerade as enfeebled aestheticism. But James is as good as any at showing the dangers to which the great claims on behalf of receptivity towards the world, as well as the receptivity itself, are susceptible.