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Pragmatism | Summary




William James informs the reader that his lecture notes, delivered at the Lowell Institute in Boston and Columbia University in New York over a four-month period, are printed as delivered, "without development or notes." The pragmatic movement has gained momentum, he says, and it is time to provide a unified picture of this philosophy so that people can clearly understand its value.

Lecture 1: The Present Dilemma in Philosophy

Each person has their own philosophy that speaks to their deeply held feelings about life and the world. Philosophers are no different, and for this reason James says he wishes to distinguish between two major philosophical temperaments. They are the tender-minded and the tough-minded, corresponding roughly with the philosophy of rationalists and empiricists. Rationalism is always monistic, reducing all phenomena to one principle. It deals in universals and wholes, while empiricism is pluralistic and deals in parts. Rationalism is generally associated with theism, the belief in the existence of God. Such views, however, are being replaced with a concept of God as an absolute reality.

James criticizes rationalist philosophy for being divorced from the world of day-to-day life and for categorizing evil as a necessary part of the absolute, which empiricists might call a callous disregard for people's suffering. This is because the absolutist view seems to rationalize evil and suffering as something that will be resolved in the eventual union with the absolute. James's pragmatism—which he introduces here without defining it—offers an alternative view to both rationalism and empiricism.

Lecture 2: What Pragmatism Means

The pragmatist is concerned with the practical difference a theory makes. James quotes Charles Sanders Peirce, whom he considers the founder of pragmatic philosophy, who says that to "develop a thought's meaning," people need only determine "what conduct it is fitted to produce," which is "its sole significance." Not surprisingly, many philosophical disputes collapse into insignificance the moment they are put to the test of concrete consequences. Pragmatism was and is practiced by many great philosophers. Generally, it represents an empiricist attitude, but absent its worst parts. Pragmatism is not dogmatic, seeks no special results, and allows religion and science to work together. Theories must become instruments that can be put to good use.

Pragmatism is also a theory of truth. Ideas, which are parts of people's experience, become true when they help human beings enter a satisfactory relationship with other parts of their experience. When people have a new experience that contradicts their old ideas, they try as much as possible to retain those old notions and simply graft on the new idea without disturbing the existing mental constructs. A new opinion is considered true only so far as it can be integrated into a belief system.

James returns to religion, noting that Darwinism has displaced theism, and the Absolute Mind—the rationalists' "substitute for God"—has replaced theism in rationalist philosophy. While such ideas may comfort people, they are still remote and abstract. Nonetheless, these new religious ideas are not objectionable to pragmatists if they have some purpose.

Lecture 3: Some Metaphysical Problems Pragmatically Considered

Lecture 3 begins by reviewing the philosophical distinction between substance and attribute. For example, a desk may have certain attributes, like hardness, found in the substance of wood. However, nominalists—who do not believe in universal or abstract concepts—claim that substance is a useless idea. Furthermore, the idea of material substance has been criticized by both rationalist philosopher George Berkeley and empiricist philosophers John Locke and David Hume. Thus, materialism—the view that everything in existence depends upon matter—does not necessarily presuppose a belief in matter as a principle. Rather, materialism when understood more broadly is the opposite of spiritualism or theism.

In fact, James says, it makes no difference if the world arose from matter or spirit, and scientists and wise philosophers withdraw themselves from such useless disputes. There is, however, a practical difference between scientific materialism and absolutism or theism. The former must end in tragedy, while the latter guarantees an ideal, eternal order. In other words, materialism denies an eternal moral order, while spiritualism affirms it. Moreover, the world must end in decay and death, according to the scientific materialist's final analysis.

In practical terms, faith in God allows people to take a "moral holiday" in which they do not need to worry about the universe. Before the advent of science, and in particular Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution, people believed God had designed the universe. However, Darwin has shown how evolution occurs through trial and error. Still, religious people can cling to the notion that God designs the world through his intermediary—nature. In James's view, the most important question is "what is the world," rather than whether it has a designer. Those who insist on a divine designer get the benefit of a belief in a happy 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 for wrongdoings. But James says a belief in free will is a belief in the right to expect that "the future may not identically repeat and imitate the past." Free will as a religious theory has no meaning unless it promises an imperfect world will get better. In this sense, ideas about God and free will have some "practical significance."

Lecture 4: The One and the Many

People often feel intuitively that the world is one, so James returns to the pragmatic method to determine if the world is indeed unified and whether unity makes a difference. He determines that parts of the world hang together, including people (for example, in social networks). While things "cohere and adhere," at the same time connections can fall apart or fail. Thus James argues that neither oneness nor manyness is more excellent than the other.

Unity of purpose allows people to form systems of organization and governance, which has some use, but James notes that to claim there is one end purpose to which everything is pointed is mere dogma. Aesthetic unity regards the entire world as holding together in one coherent story, which makes much less sense than the pluralistic view that the world is full of partial stories. Absolute aesthetic union is therefore another monistic dogma.

The last consequence of oneness James discusses is "the one Knower," also called the Absolute. This all-knowing being is a hypothesis, as is the pluralistic notion that no one point of view exists through which the entire universe may be seen all at once.

In James's view, the world is neither a universe nor a multiverse (an alternate reality in which an infinite number of parallel universes may exist). To be interpreted worthily, monism must be interpreted by a mystic. James singles out Vedanta philosophy, which is based on the Indian treatises called the Upanishads, as the "paragon" of monistic systems. According to Vedanta philosophy, separation from the absolute is not overcome but completely erased, since the world is thought to be a temporary illusion.

Pragmatism, James says, must reject the extremes of monism and pluralism. The world is one when its parts hang together, and it is many when they do not. While a theory of the absolute must be based and held on faith, pluralism does not demand such a rigid view. Thus pragmatism must side with the pluralists, concludes James.

Lecture 5: Pragmatism and Common Sense

James asserts that "our fundamental 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 "common sense." Human beings develop a conceptual frame for handling facts, which is then used to categorize impressions presented to the mind.

Categories are needed so that people are not overwhelmed by innumerable impressions, and common sense is extremely useful for this purpose. Nonetheless, common-sense perceptions are not "absolutely true." For example, in the scientific world the "secondary qualities" of common sense must give way to the "primary qualities," such as gravity or electromagnetism. These things are not visible, yet they are real.

James uses critical philosophy as his example, which seeks to understand how human reason determines those conditions that make experience possible. From the perspective of this philosophy, common-sense categories are meaningless for representing being. On the other hand, he says, critical philosophy is useless for uncovering the secrets of nature and science. Thus, James concludes that various views of reality are suitable for various purposes. The idea of truth as something the mind duplicates from the whole cloth of reality is thus suspect.

James ends by saying common sense categories, "universally used and built into the very structure of language," are likely no more than a collection of successful hypotheses. Second, competing theories of knowledge cannot prove they are absolutely true. Therefore it is necessary to conclude that all theories are "mental modes of adaptation to reality." They are neither revelations nor answers.

Lecture 6: Pragmatism's Conception of Truth

The pragmatist is interested in the utility of truth in "experiential terms." Therefore, "true ideas are those that we can assimilate, validate, corroborate, and verify. False ideas are those that we cannot," says James. In this view, truth is not static, but rather an action that happens to an idea, which is made true by events. Its verity is a process in which truth verifies itself.

Truth is not an end in itself, but a means toward some aim or object. James calls whatever starts the verification process true, and he calls the completed function of this process in experience useful. Mostly truth "lives ... on a credit system" and stands until a truth is challenged. Many truths are gained secondhand but verified by somebody, and these are the posts for the whole "superstructure" of truth. In the realm of mental ideas, beliefs must be absolute—for example, in mathematics.

James then asks what consists of agreement in determining the truth. One-to-one correspondence, in which the mind copies an object, works only in some cases. Therefore, any idea that helps people to manage reality meets the requirement of agreement. James next addresses rationalist objectors, who claim that truth exists before verification. For James the notion of absolute truth is about as likely as "the perfectly wise man" and "absolutely complete experience." For now he will be satisfied with the truth he can get today and be ready to give it up tomorrow, should it turn out to be false.

Lecture 7: Pragmatism and Humanism

James notes that "Mr. Schiller" (German-British philosopher Ferdinand Canning Scott Schiller, 1864–1937) proposes a similar idea to pragmatism in his humanistic philosophy. Schiller says "the world is plastic," and people can learn the limits of this plasticity only by taking action in the world.

Truths must account for reality, and people's sensations are part of reality. The relations among sensations are also part of reality. A third part of reality is previous truths, which sometimes give way to new truths. Thus, reality is like a block of marble that people carve like a statue to create a self. While reality is not independent of thinking, it has a "sensible core." Human beings make "an addition to some sensible reality." These additions can differ by person, and the truth of such an addition hinges on the way it is used.

In summary, rationalism and pragmatism differ in that rationalism sees reality as "ready-made," while pragmatism sees reality as becoming, or in the making. While rationalists say that behind the facts is the "ground of" or possibility of the facts, empiricists say that nothing exists behind the facts. The pragmatist stands between these two views and can mediate tough-mindedness and tender-mindedness. If the world existed before manifest reality—and that can be shown to have consequences for life—then such a notion is meaningful.

Lecture 8: Pragmatism and Religion

Between pessimism and optimism about the fate of the world is "the doctrine of meliorism," which holds that salvation is "neither necessary nor impossible." Clearly, pragmatism is partial to meliorism. Salvation may be interpreted in a number of ways. If one person works toward an ideal and reaches it, they can account for a moment in the world's salvation. In James's view people's acts create the world's salvation. The "turning-places" where people grow are the "workshop of being." Things happen in the world because of someone's desire, and that moves the world forward.

The world as people find it is uncertain and imperfect, but it can improve as a result of people's individual acts. Pragmatism must side with this pluralistic and moralistic view and give up "total reconciliation" promised by the monists. James wants real losers and losses and, as a pragmatist, is willing to trust in "uncertified possibilities." He will "pay with his own person, if need be," to realize his ideals.

Since the hypothesis of God works for many people, the pragmatist allows it is true. At the same time, James himself believes in God. Therefore, pragmatism can be religious if religion is allowed to be pluralistic or melioristic. "Between the two extremes" of rationalism and empiricism, pragmatism can chart its course.

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