Pragmatism | Study Guide

William James

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Pragmatism | Lecture 8 : Pragmatism and Religion | Summary



James begins his last lecture, which is on religion, by reminding his listeners of the difference between rationalism and pragmatism with regard to religion. He quotes lines from Walt Whitman's 1900 poem "To You," in which the speaker glorifies its subject, and explains there are two ways of understanding the verses. One is the monistic way: the subject being addressed is truly and absolutely perfect. The other is the pluralistic way. Perhaps the speaker addresses the possibilities inherent in the subject and encourages them to be their best. Plainly, James says, the latter, pluralistic way best agrees with the pragmatic view.

The discussion of the poem is a jumping-off point for the notion of the world's possibilities. Rationalists allow for the possibility of multiple facts grounded in a principle of unity. However, unity must then necessarily be a limiting "container" making "all good things certain and all bad things impossible (in the eternal)." Thus, it is easy to see the religious differences between those who think the world must be saved and those who believe it might be saved. "The whole clash of rationalistic and empiricist religion is ... over the validity of possibility," James says.

James then asks what world salvation might mean from a pragmatic perspective. Between pessimism and optimism about the fate of the world is "the doctrine of meliorism." This doctrine holds that salvation is "neither necessary nor impossible." Clearly, pragmatism "must incline towards meliorism," he asserts. Salvation may be given any number of interpretations. For example, if one person works toward an ideal and reaches it, that can be "one moment in the world's salvation." People's acts or "turning-places" are where they grow and where their "knowledge is the most intimate and complete." Why not consider such turning places the "workshop of being, where we catch fact in the making?" James asks. Things happen in the world because someone wishes them so. This is a "living reason" for the world's forward movement, unlike the "material causes and logical necessities" of the rationalists, which are "spectral things."

The world as people find it is one of uncertainty, an imperfect place that can get better as a result of people's individual acts. In contrast to this pluralistic view, there are absolutists who wish to merge with the One. This is because, in James's view, they are afraid of life and seek safety at the expense of individuality.

James asks if the pluralistic view, which he ascribes to tough-minded (empiricist) thought, and the absolutist one, which he associates with tender-minded (rationalist) thought, must be incompatible. He says that in the end, it is faith, not logic, that must decide. From his view, pragmatism must side with the "moralistic view" of pluralism and give up the "total reconciliation" promised by the monists. He prefers a world with losers and losses and can believe in the ideal "as an ultimate, not an origin." The pragmatist is willing to trust in "uncertified possibilities" and to "pay with his own person, if need be, for the realizations of the ideals he frames."

Since the hypothesis of God works for many, it is deemed true by the pragmatist. At the same time, James himself believes that human experience is not "the highest form of experience extant in the universe." For him "the proof that religious experience affords" is a reason enough to believe God-like powers exist in the universe and are also at work to save the world. Thus, "pragmatism can be called religious," if religion is allowed to be pluralistic or melioristic. Between the two extremes of pluralism and absolutism, a person may find James's system of "pragmatistic or melioristic ... theism" exactly what they require.


The last lecture returns to religion, perhaps James's favorite subject. He acknowledges that there are profound differences between the tender-minded rationalists and the tough-minded empiricists when it comes to the issue of salvation. James ties possibility to salvation, because salvation presupposes that the possibility exists for being saved. Readers might wonder: what does James mean by salvation? He explains it can be defined in any number of ways, but for him it seems to be one person successfully achieving a worthy ideal—one moment in the world's salvation that contributes to the greater good. For James the world's salvation depends not on God but on people who make room for creative moral acts. Thus, to use James's language from Lecture 7, people push against reality's plasticity and cause a new category to form in the presence of the world's sensible core. These are the turning places where people become larger and gain access to a more complete form of knowledge. James calls this the "workshop of being" because for him, being is not separate from the material facts of reality.

Since James believes in free will, he says that things happen because of people's wishes. The right wishes can move the world forward much more successfully than the ghostly material causes and logical necessities of the rationalists. The world is far from perfect, but James believes it can be improved as a result of each person's individual acts. The pluralist view, then, is the moral one, while the monist view simply relinquishes responsibility out of fear of life, hoping for the reconciliation only God can provide. Pragmatism must side with the pluralist view, according to James. He prefers his free will and a game of chance with winners and losers. He chooses to take responsibility for his actions and hopes to live up to his own ideals.

James's parting remark is that the God hypothesis is useful for many, and therefore it is true. Further, he himself is inclined to believe in a higher power, especially because of the prevalence of religious experience among people. Moreover, there is no reason why God cannot work in tandem with human beings to save the world. Finally, pragmatism can steer a path between opposites and find a place for melioristic theism, one made better by human effort.

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