William James’ Pragmatism

William James (1842-1910) was born in New York. His father was an eccentric theologian, and his younger brother was Henry James, the famous novelist. His father had them study abroad in France. James showed promise in science at a young age, but his heart was elsewhere, in painting. His father, with an ill conscience, let him pursue his passion in painting. Ultimately, it wasn’t for him and he refocused his attention on science. In 1869 he had a spiritual crisis and suffered from major depression. During this period, he read aggressively and through his readings he was able to find some semblance of relief. In his journal he wrote:

I think that yesterday was a crisis in my life, I finished  part of Renouvier’s Second Essais and see  no reason why his definition of freewill—“the sustaining of a thought because I choose to when I might have others”—need be the definition  of an illusion. At any rate, I will assume for the present—until next year—that it is no illusion. My first act of freewill shall be to believe in freewill. (Perry pg. 121).

Here was a man of intellect who was treating his depression through philosophical insight. It was an idea which was his first stepping stone to recovery. Remarkable I think. He graduated from Harvard with a focus on physiology. In 1873 he began teaching physiology, and in 1876 he became a professor of psychology. In 1878 he began to write his classic, two volume work titled Principles of Psychology, which became a hit. It’s still a good read to this day. Psychology, in James’s time, was still in its infancy and wasn’t entirely divorced from the philosophy department. In 1881 the president there switched him to the philosophy department. James wrote in one of his letters, “I originally studied medicine in order to be a physiologist, but I drifted into psychology and philosophy from a sort of fatality” (Perry pg. 78). In this case, fate was a gift to both psychology and philosophy. Spencer, would you please take over from here?

            Thank you, Frank. While at Harvard he came into contact with many intellectuals that broadened and strengthened his philosophical positions. Charles Sanders Pierce was just one of those minds. He was one of the founders of pragmatism.

Pierce was an exponent of exact science, where a man might be sure of his ground, and where inaccuracy was the deadliest of sins, whereas James was at home in literature, psychology, and metaphysics, where accuracy is likely to be pretentious or pedantic, and where sympathy, insight, fertility, and delicacy of feelings may richly compensate for its absence. (Perry pg. 131)

However brilliant Pierce was, he couldn’t connect with student’s minds. He was a man at home in abstract logic which only the philosophy faculty could follow.  But it is through Pierce that James found pragmatism. James had a style which attracted company and he soon became the leading voice of pragmatism. Another man who had an influence on James’s thought was Josiah Royce. James found an intellectual opponent in Royce. Royce was influenced by the German idealist school of Kant, Fichte, and Hegel. Idealism and its theory of the “absolute” was gaining ground in the United States.

He gave a set of lectures titled Pragmatism and it was published in 1907. In the beginning of this work he stated:

[T]he one thing that has counted so far in philosophy is that a man should see things, see them straight in his own peculiar way, and be dissatisfied with any opposite way of seeing them. There is no reason to suppose that this strong temperamental vision is from now onward to count no longer in the history of man’s beliefs.

The particular difference of temperament that I have in mind in making these remarks is one that has counted in literature, art, government, and in manners as well as in philosophy. In manners we find formalists and free-and-easy persons, In government, authoritarians and anarchists. In literature, purists or academicals, and realists. In art, classics and romantics. You recognize these contrasts as familiar; well, in philosophy we have a very similar contrast expressed in the pair of terms ‘rationalist’ and ‘empiricist,’ ‘empiricist’ meaning your lover of facts in all their crude [perceptual and sensational] variety, ‘rationalist’ meaning your devotee to abstract and eternal principles. (Pragmatism pg. 9)

John then coughed and said, “What are your thoughts, Frank, on how the temper of our minds determine the temper of our philosophy, is there any truth in this?

“There does seem to be a certain flavor to each philosopher’s style. The ideal philosopher, like blind lady justice, does away with his or her past interests and aims and sets forth the mission to find the best methods to uncover the truth of things. However, every great philosopher has a past, which includes parents, educators, it might include religious beliefs, and certain cultural attitudes. That past shapes the interests and aims of the philosopher. A philosopher’s affections and education have–I don’t want to say completely determine—but they do have predictive power on where, on the philosophical spectrum, they will land. So I quite concur with James’s thoughts on how the temper of one’s minds has a capacity to determine the temper of one’s philosophy.”

Spencer continues, “James then wrote the traits of the two temperaments down and labeled them as the tender-minded and the tough-minded:

The Tender Minded

Rationalistic (going by ‘principles’)








The Tough Minded

Empiricist (going by ‘facts’)








            Daniel sat back in his chair and began to size up his company. As a man of the cloth, Matthew must lean towards tender-minded; and as a man of science, Albert must lean towards tough-minded.


             “James believed,” Spencer said, “philosophy has come to the point where once you enter into a philosophy classroom you leave the muddied reality behind you, and enter into a vacuum where everything seems perfected, simple, clean, and noble. James wrote, “The contradictions of real life are absent from it. Its architecture is classic. Principles of reason trace its outlines, logical necessities cement its parts. Purity and dignity are what it most expresses. It is a kind of marble temple shining on the hill.” He contrasts this world to the gothic world of concrete facts. Through this perfected lens philosophy has turned away from reality and has become escapism.


            Frank then spoke, “Escapism for whom?” with tongue in cheek.


            Spencer scratched the side of his face and said, “For the tender-minded rationalist, Frank. German Idealism and the theory of the “absolute” was spreading through America and began making its way into Harvard with Josiah Royce as its messenger.”


            What was the “absolute” then? Daniel asked.


            “Daniel,” Matthew said, “There’s a trace of Christianity in the tender-minded notion of the “absolute” given in German Idealism, Hegel in particular. The absolute is an omnipresent, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent entity which is responsible for everything. This absolute entity, which I call God, would be the arbiter of all that there is and makes its way through history making itself the ultimate moral force in the universe.”


            Spencer regained control of the group and said, “Let’s understand what pragmatism is and then we can observe how it travels through the tough-minded and tender-minded corridors of our thoughts. This is what James has to say of pragmatism:


The pragmatic method is primarily a method of settling metaphysical disputes that otherwise might be interminable. Is the world one or many?—free or fated?—material or spiritual?—here are notions either of which may or may not hold good of the world; and disputes over such notions are unending. The pragmatic method in such cases is to try to interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences. What difference would it practically make to any one I these notion rather than that notion were true? I no practical difference whatever can be traced, then the alternatives mean practically the same thing and all disputes are idle. Where a dispute is serious, we ought to be able to show some practical difference that must follow from one side of the others being right. …Theories thus become instruments, not answers to enigmas in which we can rest.


James gives us a concrete illustration on how pragmatism works. Here it is:


If I am lost in the woods and starved, and find what looks like a cow-path, it is of the utmost importance that I should think of a human habitation at the end of it, for if I do so and follow it, I save myself. The true thought is useful here because the house which is its object is useful. The practical value of the true ideas is thus primarily derived from the practical importance of their objects to us. (Pragmatism pg. 93)


So truth on pragmatic grounds is not an abstract principle or idea, but a consequence that is in the concrete world here being the house that would save him from starvation. It’s anchored to reality. “Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events” (Pragmatism 92)


Let’s march backwards for a moment and look at the metaphysical dispute of whether there is a god or not. God’s existence is an interminable metaphysical problem, which the tender-minded and the tough-minded wrestle over. We can’t see a god empirically, but it seems we may be able to prove its existence rationally. James wrestled with this question himself. Remember, his father was a theologian which had deep resonance in James’s life. Before we decide if god exists though, let’s examine the philosophy of the absolute a little closer.  The ‘absolute’, which is unimaginable to the human mind, creates a block-like universe of fixed eternal laws leaving free will and individuality impossible to fathom as James understands it.  Of the philosophy of the absolute James says:


The “through and through” philosophy, as it actually exist… seems too buttoned-up and white chokered and clean shaven a thing to speak for the vast slow-breathing Kosmos with its dread abysses and its unknown tides. (Perry pg. 163)


Everything is in its right place within this absolutist cosmos. The drama has already been written, and the characters are left to play their predestined parts. On pragmatic grounds, James rejects the ‘absolute’ in favor of a pluralistic universe, with a temporal, finite god. James chooses to believe in god on pragmatic grounds because the spiritual life can bring with it rich meaning and hope, hope in one’s future and in humanity. So, if James were in the woods he would choose the path that leads to God. However, his god is not the traditional omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent entity given in Hegelian or scholastic philosophy. James has this to say about his concept of god:


He [God] need not be an all-including “subjective unity of the universe” … all I mean is that there must be some subjective unity in the universe which has purpose commensurable with my own, and which is at the same time large enough to be, among all the powers that may be there, the strongest. … In saying “God Exists” All I imply is that my purposes are cared for by a mind so powerful as on the whole to control the drift of the universe.


            He continues:


[T]he truth is too great for any one actual mind, even though that mind be dubbed “the absolute,” to know the whole of it.  There is no point of view absolutely public and universal. … the practical consequences of such a philosophy is the well-known democratic respect for the sacredness of individuality.


James pragmatism creates the foundation for his vision of a pluralistic universe. Pluralism leaves the noble nature of the democratic respect for the sacredness of individuality, something which is engrained into his American mind.


Spenser continued, “We perceive the universe as partly unhinged, James believes. We see ugliness and evil in the world, and a cosmos with exploding stars and dead planets. With pluralism, a drama is going on, but one which we can edit some of our own lines and change the course of our character so to strive for a better destiny. In a pluralistic universe there are conflicting purposes such as God’s will, religion, evolution, the laws of physics, human interests and our aims etc.


As Spencer was talking Albert took a long sip of his coffee then responded, “The world as the physicist sees it, in mathematical equations and abstract concepts, is only a substitute for how we actually perceive the world. The world as we perceive it is much messier. The ‘absolute’ of the Hegelians would suggest that there is a complex equation that would have universal explanatory power for the cosmos. It of my personal view that what we try to do as physicists is to discover patterns and designs which hold some explanatory power. However, what we actually do is roughly graph laws, laws are only true to a certain capacity. The proof of the messiness of how we perceieve the cosmos is given in the fact that physic’s very foundation is built upon probablism. So, I believe there is room for James view of a pluralistic universe which might be partly unhinged with conflicting, cross purposes of evolution, physical laws, and for James belief in God’s will.”


            “Matthew, what do you think of this view on God?” Spencer asked.


            “I see the struggle in James’s heart. Nietzsche and James were roughly born during the same period and both were trying to wrestle with scientific discoveries and the impact they had on faith. Nietzsche goes one route and James takes the other. Jamesv accepts scientific discoveries and concrete facts, but he weaves his way through the corridors of the tender-minded rationalists and the tough-minded empiricists to give reason to believe in god. It’s quite extraordinary what he is accomplishing. His accomplishment is a synthesis between the two dominant perspectives that oppose each other vehemently. He isn’t just another empiricist or rationalist, he is a paradigm shift. As for his concept of god, he’s accounted for the dappled world, and has brought God closer to reality, and I think that is noble and I think there is wisdom in this. I’ve read his book The Varieties on Religious Experience and that gives further reason for the acceptance of God on empirical grounds.


“Quite right, Spencer said, “James accepts religious experiences on radical empiricist grounds. On radical empiricism James writes:


            To be radical, an empiricism must neither admit into its constructions any element that is not directly experienced, nor exclude from them any element that is directly experienced. (Essays on Radical Empiricism Pg. 42)


So, these religious experiences, key word ‘experiences,’ are empirical just like any other experience. So, we have just as much a responsibility to study religious experiences as we do scientific ones. James thesis for The Variety of Religious Experience is:


The problem I have set myself is a hard one, to defend… ‘experience’ against ‘philosophy’ as being the real backbone of the world’s religious life… and the second, to make the hearer or the reader believe, what I myself invincibly do believe, that, although all the special manifestations of religion may have been absurd (I mean its creeds, and theories), Yet the life of it as a whole is mankind’s most important function. (Perry pg. )


“Spirituality,” Matthew said, “adds something to the whole of human life. The religious string throughout human history is proof of the yearning for a spiritual life. Pious and reverential attitudes towards something bigger than themselves can make one see life as alive, beautiful and prepare to take one’s blessings and struggles in stride with the understanding that there may be purpose found even in the darkest of times.”


“Thank you for that, Matthew,” Frank said. “Well if we can believe in the existence of a god, let’s take the metaphysical dispute between freewill and determinism now. Science says freewill is an illusion; however, we have this innate sense that we are free, and, also, for there to be morality we must believe in the freedom of the will. Daniel, let me ask you, which metaphysical conclusion is in our highest virtue to believe and why?“


Daniel was listening intently the entire time. He no longer was a passive thinker, he is an active one now. He spoke, “Free will, hands down, is in our best interest to believe. Science can’t quite find freewill in any of the material machination of the brain; nevertheless, we must go on with our day believing that in fact our will is free to act or forbearing from acting. We must believe our actions make a difference in the world or we would live static lives, right?  Furthermore, we each must take responsibility for our own actions. Criminal law’s entire foundation is built upon this responsibility.


“Exactly what James believes!” Spencer said. “However, for a belief, on the pragmatic account, to be true, it’s not enough that the idea be consequential. It also must run the gauntlet with our other beliefs so that they do not contradict each other. Having explanatory and predictive power solidifies the belief. James’s pluralism is compatible with free will for the universe is filled with a chaos of cross purposes and conflicts that overlap and crash into each other. The world as partly ‘unhinged’ means that there is room for free will and individualism. So, we begin to see William James’s philosophy come together now.


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