Pragmatism | Study Guide

William James

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Pragmatism | Lecture 2 : What Pragmatism Means | Summary



In the second lecture, William James offers an anecdote to demonstrate the pragmatic approach. During a camping party in the mountains, James arbitrates a metaphysical argument among friends. Does a person circling a tree while trying to get a glimpse of a squirrel going around that same tree in the opposite direction also go around the squirrel? James settled the dispute by saying it depended on what is "practically" meant by "going round" the squirrel. "Going round," he points out, could mean either a person has followed the animal around the compass directions, or instead has found himself in front, in back, and to the side of the squirrel during the chase. Thus, both views of the matter are correct. The pragmatist asks what the practical difference would be if one notion or another were true. If there is no practical difference, as is the case of the squirrel, then "the dispute is idle." James quotes Charles Sanders Peirce, the founder of pragmatic philosophy, who says that to "develop a thought's meaning," people need only determine "what conduct it is fitted to produce," which is "its sole significance." Further, "many philosophical disputes collapse into insignificance the moment you subject them to this simple test of tracing a concrete consequence."

Pragmatism is not new, in James's estimation, and its method was practiced by many philosophers, including Socrates, Aristotle, John Locke, George Berkeley, and David Hume. Pragmatism represents an empiricist attitude but without its worst parts. A pragmatist "turns away from abstraction and insufficiency, from verbal solutions, from bad a priori reasons, from fixed principles, closed systems, and pretended absolutes and origins." Instead, a pragmatist embraces concreteness and adequacy, facts, action, and power. Pragmatism is not dogmatic and is unaccompanied by a temperament, since it seeks no special results. Moreover it allows for metaphysics and science to "work hand in hand." Words must have "cash value," which refers to their worth, practically, in "the stream of experience." Theories must become instruments that can be put to good use. James sees his stance as anti-intellectual, meaning he is not interested in useless ideas. Referencing Italian pragmatist Giovanni Papini, James says pragmatism is like the corridor in a hotel that opens on "[i]nnumerable chambers." Many types of thinkers may inhabit these chambers so long as they pass through the corridor to get in and out of their rooms.

In addition to being a method, pragmatism is also a theory of truth. First, James argues that scientific logic has developed in such a way that investigators assume there is no absolute "transcript of reality." Building on that idea are those of Ferdinand Canning Scott Schiller and John Dewey, who teach "that ideas (which themselves are but parts of our experience) become true just in so far as they help us to get into satisfactory relation with other parts of our experience." This is an "instrumental" view of truth, which can carry a person practically from one part of an experience to another, simplifying things and saving labor. James defends this view by saying that when people encounter a new experience that strains or contradicts old ideas in some way, they generally retain as much of their old notions as possible. They graft onto those old notions something new with the "minimum of disturbance" to the old ideas. Thus, people are conservative in adopting new truths. "The most violent revolutions in an individual's beliefs leave most of his old order standing," James says, to maintain a "maximum of continuity." A new opinion is considered true to the degree in which it can be easily melded with beliefs already held to be true.

The "plastic" nature of truth also applies to earlier truths, in which things are true for "human reasons." James notes that Schiller's and Dewey's theories have been pummeled by the rationalists, who champion "an absolute correspondence of our thoughts with an equally absolute reality." He accuses the rationalists of remaining in the realm of pure abstraction, while pragmatists cling to the facts.

James now returns to religious philosophy, noting that Darwinism had displaced theism, which has been replaced with pantheism. In rationalist philosophy, the absolute mind has replaced God. While such ideas may "yield religious comfort," they still are remote and abstract ideas, in James's view. But pragmatism, lacking the "materialistic bias" of empiricism, does not find these new religious ideas objectionable so long as they have some purpose. Theological ideas having value for concrete life will be considered true to the extent that they create some good and meld with previously acknowledged truths. Rationalism restricts itself to "logic and the empyrean," or the celestial, while empiricism relies solely on the sense organs. Pragmatism, however, will follow any trail that leads to something with practical consequences—including religious experiences.


One important attribute of pragmatism is its ability to resolve philosophical disputes. The anecdote about the squirrel is something like an optical illusion in which the viewer sees either one image or another, but not both at the same time. The identification of either image is equally correct, but it makes no practical difference which image the viewer sees. Often philosophers have opposing views of reality, which can be infinitely argued. But these disputes may be laid to rest when a pragmatist asks whether the outcome of one or another view would be different. Ideas are instruments in the pragmatist's view, wielded for a particular purpose, to produce a particular outcome. "Theories thus become instruments, not answers to enigmas, in which we can rest," James says. Pragmatism "unstiffens" theories, he says, and puts them to work.

In James's view, the pragmatist project is nondogmatic and has no temperament. This is another way of saying pragmatism is not metaphysics (the study of the essence of reality). In fact, despite what James says, pragmatism has a metaphysical side, since it is concerned with truth, something to which James devotes an entire lecture. He also reveals pragmatism's metaphysical side in Lecture 2. First, he acknowledges that pragmatism is not new and is a kind of empiricism, since it is mostly concerned with facts and actions that result from beliefs. Second, he specifically references the empiricist philosophers John Locke, George Berkeley, and David Hume to show pragmatism is related to empiricism. Third, by using pragmatist Giovanni Papini's metaphor of a corridor accommodating many rooms—in which one person may be praying, another writing an atheistic treatise, and a third performing a laboratory experiment—James asserts that pragmatism is only a method rather than a philosophy. Yet, after making a case for pragmatism as a method, he provides his own instrumental view of truth, which clearly makes pragmatism more than a method. Moreover, in equating pragmatism with other empirical philosophies, he admits that it is more than a method and certainly has a temperament.

In addition to being a philosopher, James was also a psychologist. In his landmark work, The Principles of Psychology, he wrote about habits—learned methods of automatically responding to particular environmental and social scenarios. Habits form after repeated exposure to the same stimuli. Personality is a bundle of habits, in James's view, and not easily changed. These ideas are carried over into Pragmatism, when James describes how, when encountering new experiences that somehow contradict an old view of reality, a person slowly modifies his or her old view with new information. While James claims that even extreme revolutions in a person's belief system leave the old ideas intact, this is not true in all cases. In fact, sometimes a new belief system changes a personality so much that the individual in question appears to be a "new person." But James's assertions are generally true, as evidenced in the shock people feel when the personality of someone they know well radically changes.

James defends the ideas of Ferdinand Canning Scott Schiller and John Dewey against their detractors. In defending Schiller and Dewey, James says the pragmatists' talk about "truths in the plural" is "second-rate" thinking to the rationalists. They believe in Truth, with a capital T, which must be "non-utilitarian, haughty, refined, remote, august, exalted." But, while rationalists see truth as an abstraction, pragmatists such as Schiller and Dewey follow truths back to their origin in human beliefs about experience.

Two important theories of truth in Western philosophy help to shine a light on James's defense of Schiller and Dewey. They are the correspondence theory, which says something is true if it corresponds with the facts, and the coherence theory, which says a proposition is true if it coheres with other propositions already determined to be true. In the pragmatist view, these two theories are instruments that can be applied to beliefs to see if they work, and they are not mutually exclusive.

In the last portion of the lecture, James returns to religion, noting that new scientific ideas, particularly Darwin's theory of evolution, have called traditional religious beliefs into question. Religious beliefs strongly informed philosophy up until the 17th century. Evolution is an example of a scientific theory that challenges the notion of a personal God who created the world in seven days, as asserted by the Biblical Book of Genesis. Not surprisingly, philosophers of the rationalist cast have replaced the old theism with a new absolutism, which James calls pantheism. Pantheism is a doctrine that sees everything in the universe as a manifestation of God or imbued with the spirit of God. Absolutism or monism along these lines (for example, the philosophy of Hegel or the absolute idealists that followed him) is not something James can ascribe to. However, he allows that nondogmatic pragmatism can acknowledge religious truths if they are useful and can be successfully melded with previously acknowledged truths.

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