Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking

by William James
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1541

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William James’s Pragmatism is likely the most illuminating and entertaining account of pragmatism ever composed. It is, however, more than a popular exposition prepared for the academic audiences of the Lowell Institute and Columbia University during the winter of 1906-1907. It is historic philosophy in the making. Although profoundly influenced by Charles Sanders Peirce, who invented the basic statement and name of pragmatism, James was an independent thinker with a creative direction of his own.

Peirce’s essay “How to Make Our Ideas Clear” (1878) introduced the pragmatic notion that ideas are clarified by considering what would be expected in the way of experience if certain actions were to be carried out. The concept of the “sensible effects” of an object is the extent of the human conception of the objects, according to Peirce. His clear, radical, entertaining essay appeared in Popular Science Monthly, but professional philosophers were not interested in theory advanced by a mathematician, particularly when the theory went against the prevailing idealism of American philosophers. It was not until James revived the idea in 1898 with a talk on “Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results” that pragmatic philosophy began to stir up controversy. With his lectures on meaning and truth that were published under the titles Pragmatism and The Meaning of Truth, the former in 1907 and the latter in 1909, James brought pragmatism into the forefront of American thought.

In his first lecture on “The Present Dilemma in Philosophy,” James distinguished between the temperamentally “tender-minded” and “tough-minded.” The former inclines toward a philosophy that is rational, religious, dogmatic, idealistic, and optimistic, the latter toward a philosophy that is empirical, irreligious, skeptical, materialistic, and pessimistic. James went on to state his conviction that philosophy can satisfy both temperaments by becoming pragmatic.

James’s lecture on the pragmatic method begins with one of the most entertaining anecdotes in philosophical discourse. James describes a discussion by a group of philosophers on the question, Does a man go around a squirrel that is on a tree trunk if the squirrel keeps moving on the tree to keep the trunk always between himself and the man? Some of the philosophers claimed that the man did not go around the squirrel, while others claimed that he did. James settled the matter by saying, “Which party is right depends on what you practically mean by ’going round’ the squirrel.” It could be said that the man goes around the squirrel since he passes from the north of the squirrel to the east, south, and west of the squirrel. On the other hand, the man could be said not to go around the squirrel since he is never able to get on the various sides of the squirrel itself. “Make the distinction,” James said, “and there is no occasion for any further dispute.”

James then applied the method to a number of perennial philosophical problems, but only after a careful exposition of the meaning of pragmatism. He described the pragmatic method as a way of interpreting ideas by discovering their practical consequences, that is, the difference the truth of the idea would make in human experience. He asks, “What difference would it practically make to anyone if this notion rather than that notion were true?” and he replies, “If no practical difference whatever can be traced, then the alternatives mean practically the same thing, and all dispute is idle.”

In his lecture, James argued that the pragmatic method was not new: Socrates, Aristotle, John Locke, George Berkeley, and David Hume had used it. What was new was the explicit formulation of the method and a new faith in its power. Pragmatism is to be understood, however, not as a set of grand theories but as a method that turns attention away from first principles and absolutes toward facts, consequences, and results in human experience.

A bare declaration would hardly have been enough to make pragmatism famous. James devoted a considerable part of his lectures to brief examples of the application of the pragmatic method. He cited with approval Berkeley’s analysis of matter as being made up of sensations. Sensations, he said, “are the cash-value of the term. The difference matter makes to us by truly being is that we then get such sensations.” Similarly, James claimed, Locke applied the pragmatic method when he discovered that unless “spirit” is defined as consciousness, the term means nothing.

Is materialism or theism true? Is the universe simply matter acting and interacting, or is God involved? James considers this problem pragmatically and reaches a curious result. As far as the past is concerned, he says, it makes no difference. If rival theories are meant to explain what is the case and if it makes no difference which theory is true, then the theories do not differ in meaning. If one considers the difference now and in the future, however, the case is different: “Materialism means simply the denial that the moral order is eternal. . . . Spiritualism means the affirmation of an eternal moral order and the letting loose of hope.”

To this kind of analysis some critics have answered with the charge that James is one of the “tender-minded” philosophers he chastised in his earlier lectures. Yet throughout the course of this series of lectures and in subsequent books, James continued to use pragmatism as a way of combining the tough and tender temperaments. He extended the use of the term “difference” so that the meaning of an idea or term was no longer to be understood merely in terms of sense experiences, as Peirce had urged, but also in terms of passionate differences, of effects upon human hopes and fears. The essays in Pragmatism show this liberalizing tendency hard at work.

The temperate tone of James’s suggestions concerning the religious hypothesis is clear in one of his later lectures in the book. In “Pragmatism and Religion,” he writes that “Pragmatism has to postpone dogmatic answer, for we do not yet know certainly which type of religion is going to work best in the long run.” He states again that the tough-minded can be satisfied with “the hurly-burly of the sensible facts of nature,” and that the tender-minded can take up a monistic form of religion; but those who mix temperaments, as James does, prefer a religious synthesis that is moralistic and pluralistic and allows for human development and creativity in various directions.

Pragmatism is important not only as a clear statement of the pragmatic method and as an illustration of its application to certain central problems but also as an introductory exposition of James’s pragmatic theory of truth. His ideas were developed more fully two years later in The Meaning of Truth.

Beginning with the common notion that truth is a property of ideas that agree with reality, James asked what was meant by the term “agreement.” He decided that the conception of truth as a static relation between an idea and reality was in error, that pragmatic analysis shows that true ideas are those that can be verified, and that an idea is said to be verified when it leads usefully to an anticipated conclusion. Because verification is a process, it becomes appropriate to say that truth “happens to” an idea, and that an idea “becomes true” and “is made true by events.” A revealing summary statement is the following: “’The true,’ to put it very briefly, is only the expedient in the way of our thinking, just as ’the right’ is only the expedient in the way of our behaving.”

The ambiguity of James’s account, an ambiguity he did not succeed in removing, allows extremes of interpretation. On the one hand, a reader might take the tender-minded route, something in the manner of James himself, and argue that all kinds of beliefs about God, freedom, and immortality are true insofar as they lead people usefully in the course of their lives. Tough-minded readers, on the other hand, might be inclined to agree with James that an idea is true if the expectations in terms of which the idea makes sense are expectations that would be met, if one acted—but they might reject James’s suggestions that this means that a great many ideas that would ordinarily be regarded as doubtful “become true” when they satisfy the emotional needs of a believer.

One difficulty with which James was forced to deal resulted, it might be argued, not from his idea of truth as the “workableness” of an idea but from his inadequate analyses of the meanings of certain terms such as “God,” “freedom,” and “design.” James maintained that, pragmatically speaking, these terms all meant the same thing, that is, the presence of “promise” in the world. If this were so, then it would be plausible to suppose that the idea that the world is promising would be true if it were shown to have worked out. If, however, James’s analysis is mistaken, if “God” means more than the possibility of things working out for the better, then James’s claim that beliefs about God are true if they work loses its plausibility. Whatever its philosophic faults, Pragmatism offers readers the rare experience of confronting first-rate ideas by way of a clear and entertaining, even informal, style.