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

William James


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 1541 words.)