William James was America's greatest philosopher. Of course with the 20th century decline in the capacity for philosophical thought, he may be said not to have had much competition. On January 11, 1842 William James was born to a proponent of Swedenborgian ideas. His erudite family was part of what would later be called the New England Flowering. William James taught at Harvard for three decades. His books include The Principles of Psychology (1890), a field he helped invent. His empiricism is apparent in all his work: everything is questioned, and a temperate, thorough intellectual, investigation can provide reliable answers.
Our excerpt is from the title we mentioned:
The progress from brute to man is characterized by nothing so much as by the decrease in frequency of proper occasions for fear. In civilized life, in particular, it has at last become possible for large numbers of people to pass from the cradle to the grave without ever having had a pang of genuine fear. Many of us need an attack of mental disease to teach us the meaning of the word. Hence the possibility of so much blindly optimistic philosophy and religion. The atrocities of life become ' like a tale of little meaning though the words are strong;' we doubt if anything like us ever really was within the tiger's jaws, and conclude that the horrors we hear of are but a sort of painted tapestry for the chambers in which we lie so comfortably at peace with ourselves and with the world.
Be this as it may, fear is a genuine instinct, and one of the earliest shown by the human child. Noises seem especially to call it forth. Most noises from the outer world, to a child bred in the house, have no exact significance. They are simply startling. To quote a good observer, M. Perez [Bernard Perez, The first three years of childhood, 1878. The ellipses are James's]:
"Children between three and ten months are less often alarmed by visual than by auditory impressions. In cats, from the fifteenth day, the contrary is the case. A child, three and a half months old, in the midst of the turmoil of a conflagration, in presence of the devouring flames and ruined walls, showed neither astonishment nor fear, but smiled at the woman who was taking care of him, while his parents were busy. The noise, however, of the trumpet of the firemen, who were approaching, and that of the wheels of the engine, made him start and cry. At this age I have never yet seen an infant startled at a flash of lightning, even when intense; but I have seen many of them alarmed at the voice of the thunder. . . . Thus fear comes rather by the ears than by the eyes, to the child without experience. It is natural that this should be reversed, or reduced, in animals organized to perceive danger afar. Accordingly, although I have never seen a child frightened at his first sight of fire, I have many a time seen young dogs, young cats, young chickens, and young birds frightened thereby. ... I picked up some years ago a lost cat about a year old. Some months afterward at the onset of cold weather I lit the fire in the grate of my study, which was her reception-room. She first looked at the flame in a very frightened way. I brought her near to it. She leaped away and ran to hide under the bed. Although the fire was lighted every day, it was not until the end of the winter that I could prevail upon her to stay upon a chair near it. The next winter, however, all apprehension had disappeared. . . . Let us, then, conclude that there are hereditary dispositions to fear, which are independent of experience, but which experiences may end by attenuating very considerably. In the human infant I believe them to be particularly connected with the ear."
The effect of noise in heightening any terror we may feel in adult years is very marked. The howling of the storm, whether on sea or land, is a principal cause of our anxiety when exposed to it. The writer has been interested in noticing in his own person, while lying in bed, and kept awake by the wind outside, how invariably each loud gust of it arrested momentarily his heart. A dog, attacking us, is much more dreadful by reason of the noises he makes.
Eh, who care about the state of 20th century philosophy. Maybe James is all we need.