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Death and the Spirituality of Matter 16 June 2007

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Ethics, Philosophy & Social Theory, Religion, Science.

I often hear the complaint from believers that atheists have no sense of wonder or of the spiritual, that they are arrogant for thinking they know what is unknowable, and that there is nothing higher or noble in a materialist view of the world. An extension of this argument, and indeed usually its crux, is that atheists can therefore have no morality. At its core is the idea that without the enchanted view of the origin of life, there is no appreciation of life at all. These arguments are specious on many levels, not the least of which being that it presupposes the necessity of a belief in the supernatural to the phenomena of wonder, nobility, or spiritual.

The pragmatists answered these claims in terms of experience. That we understand evolution does not change our experience of being human; it merely changes our relationship to the unknown and “supernatural.” It is the experience of humanness wherein lies the meaning of life and of matter. Nearly all of my reading in pragmatism is in John Dewey, a personal hero of sorts; but recently after hearing an interview with William James’ most recent biographer, Robert D. Richardson, I picked up William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism (New York: Houghton-Mifflin, 2007). The book is engrossing and I’m coming to appreciate aspects of pragmatism that are absent in Dewey, namely a more thoroughgoing accounting of the nature of experience, or rather, the phenomena themselves.

In the introduction, Richardson works to lay out the major themes of James’ thinking, and in passing quotes James speaking of the meaning of death and the nature of matter. Here, James connects the lived undergoing (experience) of interaction with loved ones to the moral value of matter itself, and ultimately, for me, the meaning of life in relationship to both other humans and matter itself. This is an atheistic spirituality; an acknowledgment of the experience of wonder; and an implied description of the real source of our sense of the ‘holy.’

…to anyone who has ever looked on the face of a dead child or parent, the mere fact that matter could have taken for a time that precious form, ought to make matter sacred ever after. It makes no difference what the principle of life may be, material or immaterial, matter at any rate co-operates, lends itself to all life’s purposes. That beloved incarnation was among matter’s possibilities.

—from Pragmatism, quoted in Richardson, 7.

I’ll be reading the James biography over the summer, and I’m sure will be posting about it consistently. I’m excited to expand my foray into American Pragmatism and find out one of the primary inspirations of Dewey’s philosophy.



1. Our Own Providence « Todd’s Hammer - 6 July 2007

[…] July 6th, 2007 · No Comments [As I mentioned before, I’m reading a biography of William James this summer, and it’s been more than pleasurable so far, a glimpse into not only the life of a great mind, but into the moment of transformation of American culture into modernity. If you like biography or philosophy, read this book: Robert D. Richardson, William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2007). My first brief post about James is here.] […]

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