Pragmatism | Study Guide

William James

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Pragmatism | Lecture 5 : Pragmatism and Common Sense | Summary



James reminds his listeners at the beginning of this lecture that the idea of an Absolute, or absolute oneness, is a hypothesis. Another hypothesis is called noetic pluralism. It holds that "the widest field of knowledge ... still contains some ignorance." He then turns to the subject of his lecture, "Common Sense."

James asserts that our most basic ways of thinking about things are "discoveries of exceedingly remote ancestors, which have been able to preserve themselves throughout the experience of all subsequent time." He calls this "stage of equilibrium" in mental development "common sense." All human conceptions are denkmittel, a German term for the way people handle facts by thinking about them. First people "frame some system of concepts mentally classified, serialized, or connected." They then use it to categorize impressions presented to the mind. These concepts have become so ingrained in human minds that people no longer notice a raw perception, the way a baby or a child might.

Categories are used to organize people's experience so they are not overwhelmed by the multiplicity of perception. Common sense in this regard has proven to be extremely useful. Nonetheless, common-sense perceptions are not "absolutely true." For example, common sense dictates that a thing is a being or an ens rationis—a substance that has certain qualities. Substances are quantifiable, definite in number. But in the world of science, "primary qualities," such as atoms or magnetic fields, are "beyond the common-sense world." In science, "secondary qualities"—substantial forms—are unreal.

In critical philosophy, similarly, common-sense categories "cease to represent anything in the way of being." For James, the philosophies of Locke, Hume, Berkeley, Kant, and Hegel have not shed "any light on the details of nature" and have led to no invention nor discovery. Rather, their "satisfactions" are purely intellectual. Thus, James concludes that common sense is "better for one sphere of life, science for another, philosophic criticism for a third; but whether either be truer absolutely, Heaven only knows." The idea of truth as something the mind duplicates from "a ready-made and given reality" is thus suspect. Each view seems insufficiently true in some way, says James, and leaves a person with some dissatisfaction.

James provides his listeners with two parting thoughts. First, the categories of common sense, "universally used and built into the very structure of language," may simply be a collection of successful hypotheses. Second, since competing theories of knowledge cannot present evidence of their "absolute veracity," it is necessary to conclude that "all our theories are ... mental modes of adaptation to reality." They are not, he says, "revelations or ... answers to some divinely instituted world-enigma."


James begins by stating that pragmatism is in harmony with noetic pluralism, the view that knowledge is incomplete. In such a world some phenomena will be missed and remain unknown. The world may in fact be eternally incomplete, he says. He uses the metaphor of a grease stain to explain how knowledge grows in spots, like the mind. People work to control the spread of the stain, since they are attached to their old habits of mind and wish to keep most of their old knowledge unaltered. In his view, this incomplete world is expanded by those who experience it. People add to this world because they continually make connections between and among phenomena, creating something new that did not exist previously. But what they are creating is flawed.

Much of this old knowledge—fundamental ways of thinking passed on by the primitive ancestors of humanity down through the generations—is common sense. James thinks of common sense as a framework of classification. The mind necessarily creates categories to make sense of the world. For example, people understand the world by using such concepts as "thing; the same or different; kinds; minds; bodies; one time; one space; subjects and attributes; causal influences; the fancied; the real." But since common-sense perceptions are created when raw sensory data are filtered through these categories, those perceptions are not absolutely true. James proves this assertion by bringing in some discoveries of science—specifically, unseen phenomena like atoms or magnetic fields, which are not visible in the common-sense world. Yet these phenomena exist. From the perspective of the atomic world, only atoms and even smaller particles exist, not large objects like chairs, tables, or persons.

Similarly, common-sense categories do not apply in critical philosophy. Furthermore, the philosophies of both empiricists and rationalists are completely useless in uncovering new facts about sensible nature. Thus, James pragmatically concludes that the truth can be different and even contradictory when moving from one sphere of reality to another. In addition, it seems doubtful that the truth of any one sphere can claim to be absolute. James's conclusion calls into question the correspondence theory of reality, which claims that the mind simply duplicates a stable, external world. One weakness in the correspondence theory is that linguistic constructions, such as words and sentences, are made to correspond to things in the external world that are nothing like language. Thus, James rightly points out that the categories of common sense built into the structure of language are most likely hypotheses. Finally, no theory of knowledge can prove itself to be absolutely true, which means that all theories are instruments or tools for adapting to reality as human beings find it.

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