Pragmatism | Study Guide

William James

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Pragmatism | Lecture 4 : The One and the Many | Summary



James now turns his attention to the "ancient problem of 'the one and the many.'" Philosophy is thought of as a quest for a "vision of the world's unity." James notes that those who can take factual details and reduce them to a system are thought to exhibit mental genius. But in his view, what the intellect really aims at is "neither variety nor unity taken singly, but totality." The apprehension that "the whole world forms one great fact" feels like a great insight, and people have an emotional response to such monism, or oneness. People also feel intuitively that the world is one, and empiricists would not disagree, although unity doesn't "quench their curiosity for special facts." On the other hand, rationalists "admire and worship" unity as a principle. James pokes fun of this attitude, calling it "number-worship."

James returns to the pragmatic method to determine if the world is unified and whether unity makes a difference. Certainly, "parts of the universe hang together," and people are joined in social networks. The result is that there are innumerable "hangings-together," or worlds within the one world. Things "cohere and adhere," but at the same time, connections fail. Thus James argues that neither oneness nor manyness is more "essential" or "excellent" than the other.

Systems of influence or noninfluence, James says, fall under the general problem of "causal unity." This is the idea that cause and effect relationships point toward "one great first cause" in the past, such as God's creation of the world. This is the position of transcendental idealists, although they refer to "the divine act" of creation as "eternal" rather than "first." In contrast is the pluralistic idea of "an eternal self-existing many in the shape of atoms or even spiritual units of some sort." For James, the most important unity in pragmatic terms is generic unity, or the categorization of things that have like attributes. If no two things were alike, the world would become meaningless, and people would not be able to use their experience to predict the future. For this reason, generic unity is useful.

Unity of purpose allows people to form systems of organization and governance, which surely have utility. Nonetheless, different purposes often are at war with one another within these systems. James notes that the claim of absolute teleological unity—the idea that there is one end purpose to which everything is tending—is a dogma. That is, there are no grounds to support it. This doctrine necessarily assigns evil as an instrument of ultimate perfection. Such transcendental idealism can no more explain God's ways to man than can the Book of Job in the Hebrew Bible. Aesthetic unity, similarly, requires the entire world to hold together as one coherent story. But "the point of view of a many is the more natural one to take," says James, since the "world is full of partial stories that run parallel to one another, beginning and ending at odd times." Absolute aesthetic union is therefore another monistic dogma.

The last consequence of oneness James discusses is "the one Knower." James treats the one Knower (also called the Absolute) as a hypothesis. It is on the same level as the pluralistic idea that there is no one point of view through which the entire universe may be "visible at once." Empiricists, on the other hand, satisfy themselves with unity on a human level.

In James's view, the world is neither a universe nor a multiverse, "pure and simple." The belief in oneness takes various forms. Mystical states of mind generally lead to a monistic view, he says, naming Indian Vedanta philosophy as "[t]he paragon of all monistic systems." James then quotes Swami Vivekananda, the first exponent of Vedanta to Western audiences, at length. Vivekananda sees unity among all things: "Man and man, man and woman, man and child, nation from nation, earth from moon, moon from sun." To believe this, the mystic says, is to end misery. James describes this view as "radical" monism.

In the end, however, pragmatism must reject both "absolute monism and absolute pluralism." The world is one because its parts hang together, and it is many when its parts fail to connect. While a theory of the absolute must be based on faith and held dogmatically, pluralism does not demand such a rigid view. Pluralism allows for separation among things, along with novelty and chance, while at the same time it allows for some union. Pending the final assessment of "just what the balance of union and disunion among things may be," James says, pragmatism must "obviously range herself upon the pluralistic side."


Lecture 4 returns to James's obsession with and objection to oneness, a thread that runs through all his writings. He begins by objecting to the natural tendency of human beings to generalize and ultimately desire unity on every level. While in one sense the world may be one, it is clearly in parts in people's everyday experience. To further understand people's craving for unity, James examines whether looking at the visible world as a unity has any practical value. To him, perceiving that parts of the world hang together is a valuable way to gain knowledge of the physical world. People also join themselves with others and form networks of support and influence, which helps them survive and get things done. At the same time, when a person looks at the world, they can see both union and disunion in equal measure, so to say one is better than the other is simply a bias.

People also observe chains of cause and effect, which can lead to the idea of a "first cause" as posited by the transcendental idealists. The claim that there is one end purpose to which everything in the world is tending is something that James strongly objects to, for the same reason he objects to monism and similar spiritual concepts of oneness. These doctrines necessarily subsume evil under the larger category of ultimate perfection. This would make evil an instrument of the ultimate good, something James cannot tolerate. He references the Book of Job because it offers the archetypal story of man attempting to account for evil in the world. In this story, God makes a bet with the devil, in which he tests his best and most faithful servant Job with numerous and severe trials to see if he will remain loyal. In the end Job asks God why he has put him through such pain and misery, and God chastises his servant with harsh and eloquent words, saying he has no right to question the master of the universe, given the depth of a man's ignorance. Thus, the Book of Job has no answer to this perennial question any more than does a philosophy of oneness. James puts aesthetic unity, or the idea that the world tells one story, in the same category as causal unity. It is more dogma that contradicts the direct experience of the world as the setting for innumerable partial stories that begin and end at various times and are not coordinated with one another.

James ends with the unity that is the basis for all the others, which is the idea of one Knower or one Absolute in which all things are unified. The pragmatist in James cannot say unilaterally that the world is a universe or a multiverse. It depends on the point of view a person may be taking in any given moment. When James talks about the monism of the Indian sage Swami Vivekananda, an exponent of Vedanta philosophy, he adds another wrinkle to oneness. In the Vedanta, it is not a question of the visible world of multiplicity being subsumed in the knower. Rather, the manifest world does a magic trick and disappears. This is because Vedanta philosophy sees the world as merely an appearance, created by maya, or the power of illusion. In Vedanta there is only the one, called Brahman, which exercises the power of maya to create the manifest world.

This concept of Indian monism is dealt with in more depth in James's The Varieties of Religious Experience. In both Varieties and Pragmatism, James acknowledges that certain types of religious people, such as Vivekananda, experience states of oneness during mystical experiences. Vivekananda's vision of unity has utility, says James, since it overcomes people's feelings of moral separateness and gives them the apprehension of union with all beings. Moreover, James demonstrates a better understanding of the Vedanta in Pragmatism than he does in Varieties, since he seems to indicate in Pragmatism that Vedanta's monism is different from other types of absolutism. More specifically, since the manifest world is an illusion in Vedanta, it does not create the same problem of justifying evil as an instrument of God's ultimate good. In the end, however, the pragmatist in James must reject all absolute philosophies that create closed systems. Instead he embraces a pluralism that allows for separation, novelty, and some forms of union—all of which are part of every person's day-to-day experience in the sensible world.

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