U.S. Intellectual History Blog

A Genius for Friendship

Editor's Note

This guest post from longtime S-USIHite and frequent guest blogger Paul Croce is in honor of National Friendship Day, which falls on the first Sunday in August. Paul is Professor of History and American Studies at Stetson University and former president of the William James Society. He is the author most recently of the book Young William James Thinking (Johns Hopkins, 2017).– Ben Alpers

William James (left) with his friend Josiah Royce, in 1903.

For deep friendships, consider the challenges of difference.

Friendship in the universe of social media is generally based on similarity.  Finding friends through kinship of interests or personal likenesses can put us at ease.  It’s comfortable to pal with people who share your foodie tastes or enthusiasm for Star Trek.

The magnetic pull of similarity is also at work in our political clustering.  Americans are sorting by values and ideology not only in jobs and churches, but also in how they find friends and even in those they choose to marry.

The Pew Center reports that while only 8% of Americans maintain that “interracial marriage is a bad thing,” twice that percentage of political party members (15% of Democrats and 17% of Republicans) “would be unhappy welcoming someone from the other party into their family.”

Is finding a similar person the only way to get close to a fellow human being?  Seems a truism: birds of a feather flock together.  The “Truly Me” dolls from American Girl are even designed to be personal replicas, so “girls [can] show exactly who they are—inside and out.”

And Americans are flocking together, from inside the Beltway to Main Street USA, with ever-sharper polarizations around cultural and party differences.  An increasing number of citizens are choosing where to live based on the predominant ideologies in neighborhoods.  And after President Donald Trump’s meeting in Helsinki, Finland, with Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, the American Polarizer-In-Chief commanded strong approval ratings of 64% among Republicans, despite all the criticisms even within his own party, according to an NBC/WSJ poll, while a whopping 80% of Democrats strongly disapproved of Trump’s performance.

Our tastes for similarity in friendship is percolating through the body politic. This trend produces comfort in the immediate circles, solidarity with the fellow minded across the land, and lots of anger directed toward everyone else outside of those circles.

There’s a place for the friendship of similarity, but it’s not the only source of comradeship, or even the strongest way to bond.  The psychologist and philosopher William James (1842-1910) offers suggestions toward finding kinship through difference.

Early in his life, James declared, people “differ, thank heaven”!  His attitude of gratitude came from realizing that similarity reinforced the ideas and assumptions he already had, but difference brought enrichment.  He liked to say, quoting a carpenter friend, “There is very little difference between [people]; but what little there is, is very important.”

When James launched his academic career in the 1870s, he put together his very own Facebook—literally a scrapbook of portraits depicting scholars he was reading.  By his late twenties, he had already developed “quite a decent nucleus” of his “Anthropological Collection.”  He hunted out distinctive human traits in friends and colleagues, and he would needle his friends when traveling for “any further contributions” to the collection.

Shortly after starting to read the work of contemporary English philosopher Shadworth Hodgson, he wrote to him saying “I think I shall understand your books better for having this vision of your face.”  And despite his reservations about German scientist Carl Ludwig, who proposed reductionist chemical and physical explanations for human psychology contrasting with James’s own humanistic approaches, he said “I have enjoyed Ludwig’s face very much; he must be a good fellow.”

And yet, despite all the riches of diversity, differences can breed hostility.  The siren song of anger directed at those other guys who just don’t get it leads right back to polarization.

Friendship can be tricky.  How to find enough similarity to gain a point of connection, but not so much that it stifles growth.  Call it the Goldilocks Problem For Finding Friends: how to get it just right.  When it works, friends find a sweet spot in relationships with variations on a theme—similar general goals, but different and even complementary ways of achieving them.

The Disney brothers were very different.  Walt was creative and outgoing; Roy was quiet and businesslike.  They tapped their differences in building the Disney Brother’s Studio.  Years later, the avuncular Walt Disney liked to say of their entertainment empire, “it was all started by a mouse.”  But five years before the 1928 debut of Mickey Mouse (after some trial runs as the less-cute Mortimer Mouse, who would become the unfriendly rival to Mickey in later cartoons), the animation studio itself started with the complementary skills of Walt and Roy.  And those became bywords in the company: the artsy ones were “Walts”; the accountants were the “Roys.”

Counselors have a saying about good marriages and good friendships: you don’t have to see eye to eye, but it’s crucial to be looking in the same direction.  So the key is to have enough similarity to generate a common enterprise, but no so much sameness that you stifle growth—or each other.  Difference adds the juice of challenge and creativity.

James called this balance genius.  He praised a friend of his, the popular philosopher Thomas Davidson, as a genius, for his ability to be a “friend of very different people.”

A close relationship does not mean agreement on everything; and frustrations over differences can be real storm warnings.  However, the richest of friendships will grow among those willing to step up to the challenge of learning from differences.  There’s the personal genius: remaining steadfast to yourself while finding the opportunities in the obstacles generated by human diversity.

4 Thoughts on this Post

S-USIH Comment Policy

We ask that those who participate in the discussions generated in the Comments section do so with the same decorum as they would in any other academic setting or context. Since the USIH bloggers write under our real names, we would prefer that our commenters also identify themselves by their real name. As our primary goal is to stimulate and engage in fruitful and productive discussion, ad hominem attacks (personal or professional), unnecessary insults, and/or mean-spiritedness have no place in the USIH Blog’s Comments section. Therefore, we reserve the right to remove any comments that contain any of the above and/or are not intended to further the discussion of the topic of the post. We welcome suggestions for corrections to any of our posts. As the official blog of the Society of US Intellectual History, we hope to foster a diverse community of scholars and readers who engage with one another in discussions of US intellectual history, broadly understood.

  1. Paul,

    I look forward to reading your book (as soon as I can afford it).

    Could you comment on James’s argument in “The Will to Believe”?

    I read that text as suggesting that certain ideas cannot be willed into the habitual mindset of humans’ existence unless certain “preexisting tendencies” are present.* James, as part of the (radical) empiricist tradition, seemed to agree with Locke’s basic premise about complex ideas originating from outside sensations (such as “democracy” or “government”) but factored in the biological instincts (as Darwin taught).

    From this perspective, would “friendship” qualify as an innate tendency (Darwin’s social instincts) or as a learned behavior? If the latter, would making friends with divergent metaphysical and epistemological views become problematic based on James’s contention in Pragmatism that, with regard to new ideas, “we are all conservatives” in desiring a “minimum of disturbance?” If the technological society we live in allows for people to “swipe right” without hesitation, do you think James’s point further precludes the political culture from finding a civil (polite) discourse to emerge? With no incentive to allow dissenting ideas the sometimes-healthy task of disturbing our physical/mental equilibrium, does this part of James’s essay bode ill for future social standards?

    If you have time, I’m also wondering if you find any relevance in James’s “live vs. dead hypothesis” metaphor for explaining the political sensibilities of today (or in the long, general sweep of American political history). It seems like James would take the position that becoming a Republican or Democrat hinges less on logical analysis (and/or eventual “conversion”) and more on what function it serves for one’s overall, pragmatic needs (plus one’s temperament).

    * William James, The Will to Believe: and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (New York: Dover, 1956), 6.

    ** William James, Pragmatism in William James: Writings, 1902-1910, ed. Bruce Kuklick (New York: Library of America, 1987), 513.

  2. Paul,

    I look forward to reading your book (as soon as I can afford it).

    Could you comment on James’s argument in “The Will to Believe”?

    I read that text as suggesting that certain ideas cannot be willed into the habitual mindset of humans’ existence unless certain “preexisting tendencies” are present.* James, as part of the (radical) empiricist tradition, seemed to agree with Locke’s basic premise about complex ideas originating from outside sensations (such as “democracy” or “government”) but factored in the biological instincts (as Darwin taught).

    From this perspective, would “friendship” qualify as an innate tendency (Darwin’s social instincts) or as a learned behavior? If the latter, would making friends with divergent metaphysical and epistemological views become problematic based on James’s contention in Pragmatism that, with regard to new ideas, “we are all conservatives” in desiring a “minimum of disturbance?” If the technological society we live in allows for people to “swipe right” without hesitation, do you think James’s point further precludes the political culture from finding a civil (polite) discourse to emerge? With no incentive to allow dissenting ideas the sometimes-healthy task of disturbing our physical/mental equilibrium, does this part of James’s essay bode ill for future social standards?

    If you have time, I’m also wondering if you find any relevance in James’s “live vs. dead hypothesis” metaphor for explaining the political sensibilities of today (or in the long, general sweep of American political history). It seems like James would take the position that becoming a Republican or Democrat hinges less on logical analysis (and/or eventual “conversion”) and more on what function it serves for one’s overall, pragmatic needs (plus one’s temperament).

    Mark

    * William James, The Will to Believe: and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (New York: Dover, 1956), 6.

    ** William James, Pragmatism in William James: Writings, 1902-1910, ed. Bruce Kuklick (New York: Library of America, 1987), 513.

    • Thanks Mark for your thoughtful comments. In the spirit of Wm James, they cover a lot of ground!
      On complex ideas, I read WJ’s radical twist on empiricism in his shift of starting points. Traditional empiricism starts from simple sensations (which then get built up through associations into more complex ideas). For James, we begin our encounters within experience with a perception of “aboriginal sensible muchness,” as he puts it in Some Problems of Philosophy. Our mental attention then resolves from the complexity our own comprehension of the world. So ironically, simple sensations of particular slices of experience—this keyboard, this chair, this idea—are “complex,” in the sense that they are the result of our mental action after our “simple” direct encounter with superabundant world (“one great blooming, buzzing confusion,” as he puts it in Principles of Psychology).
      On friendship, I perceive that James would place this form of human interaction as part of our “social self,” which has some innate force, and which can also be amplified by habit, which he called not just “second nature” but “ten times nature” (in Principles).
      Good point about James recognizing people’s conservative impulses, also with his idea of habit as the great fly-wheel of society keeping most of us in our grooves of thought and behavior. But in addition, he also recognized that we have impulses for spontaneity and novelty. Different people have different mixes of these, and we change at different times of life. So we are not destined for conservatism, although our habits push in that direction; and we are not destined for progressivism, although our spontaneity pushes there. We are destined for ongoing debate, with the future in our hands. I don’t see James anticipating the closing out of any particular political culture, or of any possibility for civil discourse. In this atmosphere of constant debate, the future in our hands.
      With such constant contest, he perceives the persistence of philosophical and ideological difference, rooted in our divergent “sentiment[s] of rationality.” These are the grounding assumptions that serve as starting points to most inquiries and commitments. I think he would welcome the recent research that shows the temperamental and even physiological bases of differences such as commitments to Republican or Democratic ideologies. But in addition, we are not left with living exclusively in our own temperamental and ideological corners. His ideas offer resources, such as in “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” for getting along with different views, and even learning from them. I explore this in “William James’s Psychology of Philosophizing: Intellectual Diversity, Selective Attention, and the Sentiments in Our Rationalities,” coming out soon with The Good Society journal.
      In effect, this taps into his ideas about live and dead hypotheses that you reference. The most live hypotheses (and philosophies and ideologies) will be the ones that we infuse with the most energy. We are not doomed to one particular politics or to an impolite public future, but getting to a more hopeful future will not be easy. That’s why he says it will feel like a real fight.
      PS Thanks for your interest in my book, and I share your distaste for its price! I get a 40% discount from the publisher, and I’d be happy to send you a copy at that price.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

S-USIH Comment Policy

We ask that those who participate in the discussions generated in the Comments section do so with the same decorum as they would in any other academic setting or context. Since the USIH bloggers write under our real names, we would prefer that our commenters also identify themselves by their real name. As our primary goal is to stimulate and engage in fruitful and productive discussion, ad hominem attacks (personal or professional), unnecessary insults, and/or mean-spiritedness have no place in the USIH Blog’s Comments section. Therefore, we reserve the right to remove any comments that contain any of the above and/or are not intended to further the discussion of the topic of the post. We welcome suggestions for corrections to any of our posts. As the official blog of the Society of US Intellectual History, we hope to foster a diverse community of scholars and readers who engage with one another in discussions of US intellectual history, broadly understood.