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

Start Your Free Trial

Context

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Download Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking Study Guide

Subscribe Now

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 almost born scientific.” Positivism and scientific materialism tend to dominate the scene, favoring the empirically minded outlook. Yet people also seek to preserve an element of religiousness. James insists that a philosophical dilemma arises that is unacceptable to his contemporaries: to adopt a positivistic respect for empirical facts that ignores religion, or to keep a religiousness that is insufficiently empirical. James will settle for neither alternative. He asserts that the common person as philosopher demands facts, science, and religion. Ordinary people cannot find what they need in the philosophical country store. Materialists explain phenomena by a “nothing but” account of higher forms in terms of lower, while religious thinkers provide a choice between an empty transcendentalist idealism (whose Absolute has no necessary relation to any concretely existing thing) and traditional theism (whose compromising nature lacks prestige and vital fighting powers). Rationalist elements in idealism and theism emphasize refinement and escape from the concrete realities of ordinary, everyday life. The result is that for the common person’s plight, “Empiricist writers give him a materialism, rationalists give him something religious, but to that religion actual things are blank.’”

For this dramatically staged intellectual predicament, James has a philosophical hero ready in the wings. It is “the oddly-named thing pragmatism.” Pragmatism...

(The entire section is 3,793 words.)