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Pragmatism | Quotes


The philosophy which is so important in each of us is ... [our] sense of what life honestly and deeply means.

Narrator, Lecture 1

William James points out that each person lives his own philosophy, according to a deep feeling about the meaning of life. This philosophy colors both the person's thinking and actions. Therefore, he is less interested in philosophical discussions about theory and more interested in practice, because those types of philosophy determine how we live.


Absolutism has a certain sweep and dash about it, while the usual theism is more insipid, but both are equally remote and vacuous.

Narrator, Lecture 1

James criticizes both absolutism (the philosophy that everything can be reduced to one essence) and theism (a philosophy that posits a God ruling over the world) as being distant and empty, or irrelevant to human experience. In both instances, God lives on "purely abstract heights." James prefers a philosophy that will make "some positive connection" with the real world and human lives.


The greatest enemy of any one of our truths may be the rest of our truths.

Narrator, Lecture 2

James points out that people generally hold contradictory beliefs. Moreover, people hold on to their truths and wish to "extinguish whatever contradicts them." James goes on to explain that any new truth must be grafted onto old truths, and he wishes his reader to see that we hold many contradictory truths simultaneously and without barrier to action.


To treat abstract principles as finalities, before which our intellects may come to rest in a state of admiring contemplation, is the great rationalist failing.

Narrator, Lecture 3

James presents an extended critique of rationalism. In this instance he criticizes a philosophy that holds certain abstract principles as immutable, almost as if they should be worshipped by the human mind. James doesn't believe the world is a closed system based on enduring truths, but rather that truth, or at least our understanding of it, is a moving target and reality is constantly changing.


We can with difficulty comprehend the character of a cosmic mind ... [with its] strange mixture of goods and evils ... Or rather we cannot by any possibility comprehend it.

Narrator, Lecture 3

James is pointing out that some people assert that they understand the cosmic mind (God) and its purposes, while others declare they cannot comprehend the mind of God. But neither position is consequential. In James's view, the important thing is to study nature to discover what the world is made of. Only by the study of facts can a philosopher begin to formulate answers to questions about the world's design or its designer. We should neither assume we have mastered an understanding of the world or despair for failure to do so.


The real ground for supposing free-will is indeed pragmatic, but it has nothing to do with this contemptible right to punish.

Narrator, Lecture 3

Free will has nothing to do with the fact that people who do bad are punished and people who do good are praised. In truth it is impossible to know the true merits of a man or a woman, if they have any. From a pragmatic point of view, free will is "the right to expect ... [that] the future may not identically repeat and imitate the past." Free will allows the possibility for improvement.


Whoever says that the whole world tells one story utters another of those monistic dogmas that a man believes at his risk.

Narrator, Lecture 4

In examining the value of monism, or the reduction of the world to a single essence, William James concludes that the world has innumerable partial stories. These stories run parallel to one another but begin and end at different times. Thus, to say that the world tells only one story (or has one meaning) is absurd. In this instance, pluralism is a much more feasible philosophy.


Pragmatism ... must obviously range herself upon the pluralistic side.

Narrator, Lecture 4

Although William James wishes to keep an open mind, in Lecture 4 on "The One and the Many," he must admit his philosophy sides with the pluralists. This is because monism or absolutism allows not the slightest deviation from its belief in one essence or "union." Pluralism has no need for such dogmatic beliefs, and pragmatism is non-dogmatic. Pluralism reflects the world as it is, "partly joined and partly disjointed."


New truths thus are resultants of new experiences and of old truths combined and mutually modifying one another.

Narrator, Lecture 5

William James asserts that new truths cannot rest only in new experience. They must also be grounded in old truths, since it is necessary for a human mind to assimilate a new truth by grafting it on to old truths or ideas. In this way a person gradually adjusts to new ideas.


All our theories are instrumental, are mental modes of adaptation to reality, rather than revelations or gnostic answers to some divinely instituted world-enigma.

Narrator, Lecture 5

Like other pragmatists, such as John Dewey, William James sees theories as instruments—tools for adapting to reality. Theories are not messages from God or sacred knowledge that answers the puzzles of life. Theories help shape reality as it is encountered through the senses. The fact that various types of thinking exist, each good for certain purposes and often in contradiction to one another, is evidence enough for calling theories instruments.


True ideas are those that we can assimilate, validate, corroborate and verify. False ideas are those that we cannot.

Narrator, Lecture 6

This is William James's central idea about the nature of truth. It is distinctly different from the rationalist's idea of truths that are constant or the correspondence theory of truth, which says something is true if it corresponds with the facts. True ideas for James are those that can be assimilated with old truths already accepted by the mind and which can be verified and corroborated based on a person's experience.


We can hardly take in an impression at all, in the absence of a preconception of what impressions there may possibly be.

Narrator, Lecture 7

James points out that it is very hard for people to take in a pure impression without imposing on it everything they have learned so far about the world. For this reason people are slow to revise their ideas, and the process of changing one's mind is gradual. James agrees with Ferdinand Canning Scott Schiller's idea of a sensible core of reality that people encounter but do not process because of preconceived notions.


The world stands really malleable, waiting to receive its final touches at our hands. ... Man engenders truths upon it.

Narrator, Lecture 7

In James's view, human beings do not create reality, but they add to it. For rationalists reality is ready-made and complete, while for empiricists humans create the world through their impressions of it. Pragmatists take a middle ground, arguing that the world has an existence of its own, but that our understanding of it is mediated through our experience.


I am willing that there should be real losses and real losers, and no total preservation of all that is.

Narrator, Lecture 8

William James objects to monism, a philosophy in which everything is redeemed in the end, since both good and evil are subsumed in the One. He rather prefers a pluralistic universe, with high stakes—and real losers and winners. He believes that only the latter system entails true free will, in which people feel a moral responsibility to act for the good.


Our acts, our turning-places, where we seem to ourselves to make ourselves and grow, are the parts of the world ... [where] our knowledge is the most intimate and complete.

Narrator, Lecture 8

For William James, those places where people grow in their knowledge are the "workshop of being." In his view, each person contributes to moving the world forward, and individual acts in which people realize their ideals create the world's salvation, piece by piece.

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