2016 Commencement Address

Joan Richardson

Commencement Address by Joan Richardson

Distinguished Professor
Ph.D. Programs of English and Comparative Literature
June 3, 2016

Before I begin, let me say how honored I am to have been asked to speak today. I thank President Robinson and Provost Lennihan for this invitation, and welcome them, the Members of the CUNY Board of Trustees and Graduate Center Foundation, our distinguished recipients of honorary degrees, the candidates, their families and friends. As a graduate of this institution, this occasion is particularly moving for me.

I am here to address you, this year’s graduating class, at the beginning of what all of us gathered expect will be your brilliant careers—I borrow my terms in this greeting from Ralph Waldo Emerson writing to Walt Whitman after reading the first published edition of his Leaves of Grass, which the young poet had sent in 1851 to Emerson, already known as the Sage of Concord, noting that it was the work of the older man that had—in his words—“set my simmering mind to boil.” Each of you might figure your dissertation or thesis director and readers in the place of Emerson to your Whitman, as we send you on your way after having learned from your work something we had not known before, something we deemed worthy of being passed on to future generations—for that is, finally, what the conferral of the degree means: that each of you has extended, by the degrees that are registrations of new information, the scale of human perception. You have added to the range of our collective experience on this planet spinning at 1,040 mph on its axis (at the equator) while simultaneously circling our aging and dying star, our sun, at 67,000 mph—Astonishing! Being awarded your degree means that all of us in this institution—who are ourselves in the positions we hold because we were similarly considered and weighed in the scales of previous generations—believe in you. To be believed in is both a great honor and a great responsibility because, in the deepest sense of things, belief is all we have.

Some of you might remember Tinker Bell in Peter Pan, who existed only if she was believed in. An American poet very much a part of me, Wallace Stevens—whose life span was exactly that of Albert Einstein, 1879-1955—expressed the emotional power of belief in this way: “…believe, // Believe would be a brother full/ Of love, believe would be a friend...” William James, the extraordinary American philosopher, slightly older brother of the novelist Henry James, framed America’s defining philosophy of Pragmatism all around what he phrased as the “Will to Believe,” offering as illustration the now famous example of two mountain climbers, having ascended a precarious route, being blocked from reaching an adjoining peak by a sudden avalanche that at the same time prevents them from retracing their path and collapses the passage by which they would have crossed to the trail opposite, by which they had planned to descend. Their only hope is to leap across what is now a gaping chasm. One of the climbers is immobilized by fear—he has no chance of surviving; the other believes he can make the jump, and so has at least a 50% chance of survival. Believing is, or can be, a matter of life or death. A belief is—as James noted, adopting the formulation of Alexander Bain, the Scottish philosopher, founder of the journal Mind, who actively applied the scientific method to psychology—a belief is “a platform for action.” What to believe in is, of course, a variable, unless you are at the edge of an abyss.

At the heart of James’s Pragmatism—as both method and as articulated first through what he importantly denoted as “popular lectures on philosophy” in 1906 (collected and published as a volume the next year)—is the platform of meliorism: believing, that is, in “a better promise as to this world’s outcome” (P 541), as phrased concisely by James. Poised between optimism, “the regnant doctrine in European philosophy,” as James observed, transforming the Christian myth of progress into the Enlightenment’s dream of reason, and pessimism, “recently introduced” into 19th-century thought by Schopenhauer and becoming increasingly stylish, “Meliorism,” as James offers, “treats salvation as neither inevitable nor impossible. It treats it as a possibility, which becomes more and more of a probability the more numerous the actual conditions of salvation become” (my emphases). In other words, each of us is, in relation to the future, in the situation of our mountain climbers: if we believe that the work we do—what we give the greater part of our attention to—can improve our collective being on the planet, there is at least a 50% chance that it will; we have a stake in the game of “making the universe better”. “Every such ideal realized,” James announces, “will be one moment in the world’s salvation.” But if we do not believe that the work we do might make things better, there is no chance that it will. As James goes on to voice in what another American philosopher, Stanley Cavell, calls “passionate utterance”:


Our acts, our turning places, where we seem to ourselves to make ourselves and grow,—[as you in your experience over your years here at the Center]—[these turning places] are the parts of the world to which we are closest, the parts of which our knowledge is the most intimate and complete. Why should we not take them at their face-value? Why may they not be the actual turning-places and growing-places which they seem to be, of the world—why not the workshop of being, where we catch fact in the making, so that nowhere may the world grow in any other way than this?

Elsewhere, in his monumental and still central volume, The Principles of Psychology (1890)—that I vigorously recommend to all of you, for carefully reading through its 1,400 pages will occasion another of those “turning points” on which your future and that of our world depends—in any case, in the keystone chapter of Principles, “The Perception of Reality,” after elucidating the nature and kinds of belief and the work of will in transforming belief into action, James draws to an end with the following, italicized for emphasis: “Will and Belief, in short, meaning a certain relation between objects and the self, are two names for one and the same psychological phenomenon…our belief and attention are the same fact.” In other words, it matters what you pay attention to, perhaps never more urgently than now, with not only the various forms of human life threatened but also the health of the planet itself. We need to turn our attention to what Wallace Stevens called “the exquisite environment of fact,” tune our instruments, our minds, to the temperament of the cosmos, thereby increasing the shadings of meaning and possibility exponentially, for as Emerson reminded us, “We are adapted to infinity.”
I will close with another passage from James, this one from his 1895 address, “Is Life Worth Living?”:

If this life be not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a game of private theatricals from which one may withdraw at will. But it feels like a real fight—as if there were something really wild in the universe which we, with all our idealities and faithfulnesses, are needed to redeem; and first of all to redeem our own hearts from atheisms and fears.—[And here I note that for James, “It is,” as Stevens phrased it, “the belief and not the God that counts.”]—For such a half-wild, half-saved universe—[James continues]—is our nature adapted. The deepest thing in our nature is…this dumb region of the heart in which we dwell alone with our willingnesses and unwillingnesses, our faiths and fears. As through the cracks and crannies of caverns those waters exude from the earth’s bosom which then form fountain-heads of springs, so in these crepuscular depths of personality the sources of all our outer deeds and decisions take their rise. Here is our deepest organ of communication with the nature of things…here possibilities, not finished facts, are the realities with which we have actively to deal.


Thank you for your attention. Go out there and fight for what you believe will make things better for us all, for this world of ours.