Pragmatism | Study Guide

William James

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Pragmatism | Lecture 3 : Some Metaphysical Problems Pragmatically Considered | Summary



William James begins Lecture 3 by reviewing the philosophical distinction between substance and attribute. For example, a desk may have certain attributes, such as hardness, found in the substance of wood. Nominalists, however, hold that substance is a "spurious idea" that reflects the human tendency of "turning names into things." James points out that the philosopher George Berkeley criticized the idea of material substance, arguing that "God sends you the sensible world directly," to be confirmed through the senses. Therefore, although his idea was religious, it was also pragmatic, since matter is nothing but color, shape, hardness, and the like, discerned by sensory experience.

The philosophers who followed Berkeley—John Locke and David Hume—leveled a "similar pragmatic criticism" at the notion of substance having a divine origin. For example, Locke said that personal identity is consciousness of moments of life remembered as part of one's personal history. Rationalists ascribe this continuity of consciousness to the concept of a soul. But Locke says that if God took away consciousness, it would not matter to individuals whether they had a soul. Personal identity consists in "pragmatically definable particulars," according to Locke, and whether it "inheres in a spiritual principle is mere speculation." Hume went even further, denying the soul and saying it was merely "verifiable cohesions in our inner life."

A discussion of the nature of material substance, James says, naturally suggests the doctrine of "materialism." Materialism in philosophy is the view that everything in existence is material, that is, depends upon matter. Materialism does not necessarily presuppose a belief in matter as a principle. Rather, materialism when understood more broadly is the opposite of spiritualism or theism, which holds that the mind does not just witness and record matter but gives it meaning.

James applies pragmatic thinking to the question of what people mean when they say "matter." As it turns out, it makes no difference to "the past of the world" whether life as we know it is the work of matter or spirit. "Calling matter the cause of ... [the world] retracts no single one of the items that have made it up, nor does calling God the cause augment them," says James. Such philosophical disputes, he says, make no difference. Philosophers like Herbert Spencer suggest using a term without religious connotations to refer to the one power or "unknowable reality" behind the manifest world. James says Spenser's philosophy could be called pragmatist if philosophy only dealt with the past. But it is also forward-looking and must ask what the world promises. An honest answer to this question is that everything in the material world is headed toward death and dissolution. Thus, Spencer "confin[es] himself to the aesthetic" in his idea of perfect cosmic evolution. Spencer has "really contributed nothing serious" to the question of materialism.

From a pragmatic perspective, James says, theism and materialism lead to two "wholly different outlooks." Scientific materialism must end in tragedy, with the "lower and not the higher forces" becoming "the eternal forces," or at any rate the last surviving forces in the last cycle of evolution. The notion of God, however, "guarantees an ideal order that shall be permanently preserved," in which "tragedy is only provisional and partial." Materialism denies an eternal moral order, while spiritualism affirms it, and this is a major difference in outcome. In practical terms, faith in God, like a belief in the Absolute, allows people to take a "moral holiday" in which they do not need to worry about the universe. It is in more capable hands than theirs.

In prescientific days people believed nature was consciously designed by God. However, evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin revealed "the power of chance-happenings to bring forth 'fit' results." Darwin demonstrated how nature evolves its creatures through trial and error. Theologians have been able to fit Darwin's science into their belief in divine purpose, saying for example that God uses the "vast machinery" of nature to get the job done. But the more is learned of God's "vast" designs, the more they become incomprehensible to humans. In James's view, the most important question is now "what is the world," rather than whether it has a designer. Those who insist on a divine designer receive "a certain pragmatic benefit," since belief predicts a promise of a more sanguine future (beyond death).

Another controversy related to belief in God is the problem of free will, which has embedded within it the problem of accountability. "Who's to blame? Whom can we punish? Whom will God punish?—these preoccupations hang like a bad dream over man's religious history," James states. He says the grounds for a belief in free will is novelty, or the right to expect that "the future may not identically repeat and imitate the past." Free will is also a religious theory of promise and has no meaning unless it is "a doctrine of relief"—that is, a promise that an imperfect world will get better. In this sense, ideas about God and free will have some "practical significance." James concludes by saying pragmatism "looks forward into facts themselves" and asks such questions as "What is the world going to be?" and "What is life eventually to make of itself?"


Lecture 3 begins with an ontological discussion—that is, one related to the nature of being—of substances and their attributes. A substance is anything with form and matter, while attributes are the qualities of a substance. Like the philosophers he mentions—George Berkeley, John Locke, and David Hume—James takes a nominalist view of the subject. Nominalists reject the idea of substance and universal categories, which are abstract ideas. Rather, they argue that every object is particular and concrete. In other words, nominalists accept that objects have attributes but not substance.

James moves on from the abstract theory of substance to the notion of philosophical materialism, which does not assume a belief in matter as a substance. Rather, materialism as James uses the term can be understood to be the opposite of a spiritual outlook, which explains lower phenomena (the things of the world) with higher phenomena (substance, spirit, God, and so forth). James is indirectly accusing the spiritualists of maintaining the dualism of French philosopher René Descartes, in which mind and matter are separate substances, and the higher substance rules the lower. The distinctions made between matter and spirit are absurd to James because, from his perspective, the world can be perfectly understood without resorting to speculation about entities that may or may not exist beyond the natural world discernable through the senses.

Scientists and empiricists (who believe that knowledge is derived from sense experience) do not engage in useless debates about the cause behind the manifest, or visible, world because such arguments cannot be proved. Moreover, whether the world is only a result of a natural evolutionary process or was created by a God-like power will make no difference in the facts of the world as they are known so far. James criticizes Herbert Spencer for attempting to substitute one religious concept for another, since he posits an "unknowable power" behind the material world. Spencer's philosophy allows for a belief in perfect cosmic evolution, but when looking toward the future, neither Spencer's philosophy nor the philosophy of the theists makes sense. For the materialists (and pragmatists), the universe must end in tragedy, since everything winds down and heads toward death. While previously people believed the world was perfectly designed by God, Darwin's theory about how life evolves has called this idea into question. Nature engages in a lot of trial and error to arrive at those subjects fit to survive and carry the genes that will result in the next mutation or evolutionary leap.

Between materialism and spiritualism, James says, two different outcomes are predicted. Materialists acknowledge only the world that comes in through the senses and ends in individual and collective death. For the pragmatist, the spiritual perspective has its use. It allows people to worry less about the universe, since it is in God's hands. Those who retain a belief in God's design may perhaps be happier in the knowledge that God controls the manifest world, despite appearances to the contrary, and that there is a life beyond death, lived in God. This is a good outcome, and a religious truth James can sanction. But he warns against the "moral holidays" that any religious view can provide. When people believe that God will make everything turn out all right, they may abdicate their own moral responsibility for making the world a better place.

James ends by saying that free will is another problem that cannot easily be resolved with religious thinking, since from a pragmatic perspective there is no way to know with certainty who is to blame or who is meritorious in the eyes of a hypothetical God. Certainly people must be punished for their bad deeds, says James, but not because society can know with certainty whether their acts were freely chosen or determined. Thus, free will is best looked at as a promise that the future will not exactly repeat the past and that things will get better. In this sense, the belief in free will can have some value and will be endorsed by the pragmatist.

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