Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking Analysis

William James


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Occasionally a book succeeds in giving influential expression to an attitude and a set of principles that eventually make up a historically important philosophical movement. This is the case with William James’s Pragmatism. Borrowing the term from his philosophical contemporary Charles S. Peirce, James attempted in a series of published lectures to popularize and defend “a number of tendencies that hitherto have lacked a collective name.” Pragmatism came to dominate the American intellectual scene as well as to gain recognition as a uniquely American philosophical position. James’s book still serves as a sympathetic if sometimes polemical introduction to the pragmatic movement. Its eight related essays discuss the origin and meaning of pragmatism as well as suggest how the pragmatic method can be applied to troublingly perennial problems in metaphysics and religion. The contents give evidence of James’s belief that philosophizing, as a technical concern, must always involve consequences for the life of common sense and ordinary people.

The Need for Pragmatism

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Given the question “Can a philosopher settle all philosophical disputes disinterestedly?,” James replies in the negative. The point is not that philosophers ought to ignore claims of logic and evidence. Rather, the point is that philosophical “clashes” involve more than logic and evidence. James insists that no philosopher can wholly “sink the fact of his temperament,” however responsibly one seeks to give “impersonal reasons only for [one’s] conclusions.” A philosophical attitude necessarily becomes colored by a person’s temperament. In “The Dilemma in Philosophy,” which opens Pragmatism, James argues that a fundamental opposition in temperament has marked the history of thought: that between rationalism and empiricism. The rationalist values “abstract and eternal principles”; the empiricist, “facts in all their crude variety.” Aware that so hard and fast a distinction can serve only a rough-and-ready use, James suggests that clusters of traits tend to distinguish the rationalist from the empiricist. Rationalists are tender-minded, intellectualistic, idealistic, optimistic, religious, free-willist, monistic, dogmatical. Empiricists are tough-minded, sensationalistic, materialistic, pessimistic, irreligious, fatalistic, pluralistic, skeptical.

This rule-of-thumb distinction between two attitudes James applies to his view of the existing philosophical situation. This situation is one in which even children “are...

(The entire section is 485 words.)

Pragmatism as Method

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Pragmatism is both a method and a theory of truth. The method can be used by widely different philosophical persuasions. Its function is chiefly that of settling metaphysical disputes. Metaphysical arguments involve “notions” about which one can always ask whether the notions lead to any practical consequences. Such notions must be shown to make a difference in human conduct if they are to prove meaningful. Two Jamesian examples can illustrate what is meant here. One example concerns an argument about whether, if a person circles a tree around whose trunk a squirrel is also moving, one can say the person “goes round” the squirrel. James shows how the answer depends on what is meant by “round.” If one means by “going round” that the person is in successive places to north, east, south, and west of the squirrel, then he does go round the animal. If one means, on the other hand, that the person is behind, then to the right of, then in front of, and then to the left of the squirrel, then the person may not actually go round the squirrel, since the animal may move simultaneously with the person’s movements. James concludes that an argument of this kind, if analyzed, turns out to be a verbal one.

Another example illustrates how the pragmatic method is compatible with many possible results. James asks his readers to view the method as being like a corridor in a hotel, whose doors open into many rooms that contain thinkers involved in a variety of intellectual pursuits. These pursuits may be metaphysical, religious, or scientific. Metaphysically, one room may harbor a person working out an idealistic system, while another may shelter a thinker attempting to show that metaphysics is an impossibility. James insists that the pragmatic method is neutral regarding the kinds of thought going on in the rooms. Nevertheless, he insists that as a theory of truth, pragmatism favors the nominalist’s preference for particulars, the utilitarian’s stress on what is useful, and the positivist’s dislike of metaphysical speculations and merely verbal solutions of problems. James believes that when people employ words such as “God,” “Matter,” “the Absolute,” “Reason,” and “Energy,” they should use the pragmatic method in seeking to show how such notions can have practical effects.

Pragmatism as Theory

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As an instrumentalist theory of truth, pragmatism views sharp distinctions between logic and psychology with great suspicion. Ideas are instruments that help to dispel doubt when inherited bodies of opinion no longer produce intellectual ease. Belief means the cessation of doubting. However, what makes a belief true? James asserts that an idea is true if it permits the believer to attain “satisfactory relations with other parts of our experience.” This genetic conception of truth—influenced by Darwinian biology—sees ideas as true for specified situations, always in principle subject to change and reevaluation. Some critics interpret James’s emphasis on the contextual truth of an idea as meaning people may believe whatever happens to make them comfortable. James rejects any wish-fulfilling conception of pragmatic truth. He states conditions that any idea must satisfy to qualify as workable. These conditions are quite conservative: Ideas must prove consistent with other ideas (including old ones) conformable to existing facts, and subject to experiential corroboration and validation.

James is mostly critical of rationalistic metaphysical ideas leading to no observable differences in domains of human conduct. He rejects claims about the Truth. Nevertheless, he will consider even theological ideas as possibly true as long as their proponents can show them to affect some actual person’s behavior. “Truth lives, in fact, for the most part on a credit system.” Truth concerns matters of fact, abstract things and their relations, and the relations of an idea to the entire body of one’s other beliefs. Ideas unable to conform to men’s factual knowledge simply cannot have what James calls “cash-value.”

James’s relevant essays about truth sometimes raise questions that they do not satisfactorily answer. Some critics accuse him of advocating a subjectivist theory of truth. Elsewhere, James defends his views by suggesting two kinds of criteria for testing the meaning of any proposition. First, a proposition has meaning if it leads to observable consequences in experience. Second, a proposition is meaningful if someone’s belief in it leads to behavioral consequences. James seems to employ the first view when he writes about scientific and factual knowledge. He uses the second view when discussing certain moral and religious beliefs. It is the second view that worries some critics, who think that, if taken literally, it can justify as true any psychologically helpful belief.

Applications of Pragmatism

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Most of the remaining essays in Pragmatism seek to illustrate how the pragmatic method and theory of truth may be applied to specific problems. These are predominantly philosophical rather than scientific problems. In “Some Metaphysical Problems” and “The One and the Many,” James applies his generous theory of meaning to such problems as the meaning of substance, the relative values of materialism and spiritualism, the problem of evil, the debate about freedom of the will, and the merits of monism and pluralism as cosmological notions. “Pragmatism and Common Sense” discusses three kinds of knowledge whose truth-claims are perennial. “Pragmatism and Humanism” and “Pragmatism and Religion” indicate how pragmatism can mediate in disputes among hard-headed empiricists and abstract rationalists.

Taking the traditional puzzles about substance, design in nature, and free will, James argues that such metaphysical issues often lead to no genuine consequences for action if treated in solely intellectual terms. “In every genuine metaphysical dispute some practical issue, however conjectural and remote, is involved.” Metaphysical arguments thus concern something other than what seems the case. Influenced by the thing-attribute aspect of grammar, people worry about substance because they suppose a something must support the external and psychological objects of our perceivable world beyond what these objects are...

(The entire section is 419 words.)

The Design Question

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The question of whether there is design in the world is also pointless if raised with scientific intent. The design issue is really a religious one. It is not open to purely rational solution. The significant aspects of the issue concern what that design may be, as well as the nature of any possible designer. James applies a similar treatment to the determinism-versus-free-will controversy. To decide in favor of free will means to accept a faith that the universe can be improved through human effort. James calls this faith in improvability “meliorism.” In turn, such a belief requires rejection of any absolute monistic conception of the cosmos. It requires belief in the notion that reality is a multiverse. The universe is neither simply one nor an absolute randomness. It is a pluriverse that contains specific kinds of unity as well as directly experienced “gaps.” It is not now an absolute unity in light of our experience, but we may hope for such a completed unity as a possible future cosmic event.

James insists on the misleading nature of traditional metaphysical disputes. Metaphysical arguments seem to concern problems that human intellect can solve if only that intellect “gets them right.” Yet, they are really practical problems. They are significant only when found to express hidden religious and moral issues. The pragmatist favors a decision for free will, belief in God’s existence, faith in an increasing unity in a pluralistic universe, and hope that elements of design exist as grounds for one’s belief in meliorism. Faith may rightfully decide when human reason proves insufficient. The reason is that such faith expresses confidence in the promise of the future and results in beneficial consequences for our present living.

James rejects metaphysical monism for moral and religious reasons. Monism implies a...

(The entire section is 764 words.)

Additional Reading

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Allen, Gay Wilson. William James. New York: Viking Press, 1967. This reliable and readable biography situates James in his social and historical context.

Barzun, Jacques. A Stroll with William James. New York: Harper & Row, 1983. Instructively discusses important subtleties surrounding the terms “pragmatism” and “pragmatic” in this readable introduction to James’s intellectual world.

Bauerlein, Mark. The Pragmatic Mind: Explorations in the Psychology of Belief. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997. A helpful treatment of James’s views about the relationships among belief, consciousness, the human will, and knowledge, and claims about truth.


(The entire section is 600 words.)


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Additional Reading

Allen, Gay Wilson. William James. New York: Viking Press, 1967. This reliable and readable biography situates James in his social and historical context.

Barzun, Jacques. A Stroll with William James. New York: Harper & Row, 1983. Instructively discusses important subtleties surrounding the terms “pragmatism” and “pragmatic” in this readable introduction to James’s intellectual world.

Bauerlein, Mark. The Pragmatic Mind: Explorations in the Psychology of Belief. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997. A helpful treatment of James’s views...

(The entire section is 596 words.)