Pragmatism | Study Guide

William James

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Pragmatism | Lecture 7 : Pragmatism and Humanism | Summary



William James begins Lecture 7 by returning to the popular prejudice about Truth (with a capital T), "conceived as ... one answer, determinative and complete." Such single word answers like God, the One, Reason, Nature, and the like represent the world as a "petrified sphinx," that is, as if it were not constantly changing. To ask "'what is truth?' is no real question," since the idea of truth is "an abstraction from the facts of truths in the plural."

James notes that Ferdinand Canning Scott Schiller proposes a similar idea in his doctrine of "Humanism," which states, "to an unascertainable extent our truths are man-made products." Human motives seem to color all our accumulated store of knowledge, Schiller seems to imply, and the world "is what we make of it." James quotes Schiller as saying "the world is plastic." People can learn the limits of this plasticity only by trying or taking action. James then announces his intention to defend Schiller's humanist position, which is very similar to pragmatism.

Saying he will recall a bit of Lecture 6, James says truths must account for reality, and people's sensations are part of reality. Such sensations simply exist and are neither true nor false, although what people say about them may be true or false. Also part of reality are the relations among sensations, some of which are mutable and some fixed. Fixed or mutable relations among sensations are an important part of reality and help create theories of knowledge. A third part of reality is previous truths, which sometimes give way to new truths. Fixed elements of reality are still subject to human perspective and may have different meanings, therefore, for different people. Thus, when it comes to reality, "We receive ... the block of marble, but we carve the statue ourselves." A reality "'independent' of human thinking" would be "hard to find." As Schiller holds, reality has a "sensible core" in that we encounter but do not possess it. While this might sound like the transcendental idealism of Immanuel Kant, James says, in fact it is very different. The empiricist approach of Schiller does not posit categories prior to nature's beginning, but rather sees them "forming themselves in nature's presence." Human beings make "an addition to some sensible reality" which may agree with it and "build it out." Moreover, these additions can differ by person, and the "more true" addition "depends altogether on the human use of it."

Clearly, the difference between rationalism and pragmatism is that the first philosophy sees reality as "ready-made," while the second sees it as "still in the making." While rationalists say that behind the facts of the manifest world are "the ground of facts," a tough-minded empiricist says that behind the facts are nothing. The pragmatist stands between these two views. The "absolute edition of the world" can be treated as a reasonable hypothesis by the pragmatist. The empiricist sees the finite edition of the world as perfect, finished, and full of possibilities, and this is an equally reasonable hypothesis. Thus, the pragmatist is "a mediator between tough-mindedness and tender-mindedness."


William James begins Lecture 7 by reiterating that those who would insist on one truth that never changes are creating a representation of the world as something fixed and frozen, when in fact the world is in continual flux, which is why it is best represented by a multiplicity of truths. James takes up the ideas of his friend and fellow pragmatist, the English philosopher Ferdinand Canning Scott Schiller, whose humanism is pragmatism in a different set of clothes. Schiller goes so far as to say the world is plastic, and people can learn the limits of reality's changeability only by testing it with action.

Next James names three important dimensions of reality, which constitute the block of marble from which we carve our selfhood.

  • "Reality is in general what truths have to take account of," and the first part of reality is our changing sensations. There is no reality independent of human thinking, although Schiller allows that a "sensible core of reality" is encountered by human beings. James says this is different from Kant's idea. In Kant's view, human beings have access only to the appearance of the noumenal world, a version of ultimate reality. In Schiller's empiricist view, however, categories are forming in the real presence of nature. Thus, human beings are adding to sensible reality, and if their additions agree with reality, they expand it or build it out.
  • Second, reality must account for relations between what we experience through the senses and their "copies in our minds." While rationalists see reality as a completed product, pragmatists see the world as a work in progress, and James notes that the Italian pragmatist Giovanni Papini goes so far as saying that human participation in this process is no less than a "divinely-created function."
  • Third, every new inquiry must take previous truths into account. Rationalists and empiricists are on opposite sides when it comes to whether there is an additional set of facts behind the manifest (visible) world. Pragmatists, on the other hand, do not feel a need to join either camp, since rationalists and empiricists entertain equally reasonable hypotheses.
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