Pragmatism: An Analysis of William James


One of the longest standing quests in philosophy has been the search for truth. From Plato to Kant, every serious philosopher has taken an epistemological stand. In William James’ Pragmatism, a series of lectures, he presents a compelling pragmatic theory, one that argues our truths ought to remain truths only if they provide useful consequences. James’ conception of truth is a radical deviation from our standard ways of thinking, and has the potential to result in rather fruitful effects.

In lecture one, James begins with an overview of the two primary approaches to philosophy. Rationalism, he argues, is diametrically opposed to empiricism. Rationalism is monistic, idealistic, religious, and dogmatic. Empiricism is pluralistic, materialistic, irreligious, and skeptical. Ultimately the rationalist is labeled as “tender-minded,” and the empiricist as “tough-minded” (James, Pragmatism, 4). These characteristics make up their tempers—that is, their inability to question their “radical idiosyncrasies” operating as premises under all epistemological claims—that produces a “certain insincerity in our philosophic discussions” (James, 1). Thinkers such as Plato, Locke, and Hegel are all temperamental thinkers. While most of us have a combination of these two approaches, the most influential and followed philosophers have been those who chose a side and stuck to it. He then observes that when two ideas conflict, or when a dispute arises between interlocutors, there must be some “practical difference that must follow from one side or the other,” or else there would be no reason for the dispute (James, 18). This is where pragmatism finds itself moderating between the two sides’ fight for truth.

Next, in lecture two, James turns to Charles Pierce, a 19th century philosopher, who points out that “our beliefs are really rules for action,” and herein lies the principle laid forth. Where there is practical difference to a dispute, James offers a solution: use any and all characteristics of thought, so long as the truth of these thoughts produces a viable “cash value” (James, 21). The “pragmatic method” means thus: “The attitude of looking away from first things, principles, ‘categories,’ supposed necessities; and of looking towards last things, fruits, consequences, facts” (James, 22). An idea we hold is only true if it is beneficial in our relations and experiences with the world around us. A failure to operate under this framework is what produces the greatest enemy of truth: our “stock of old opinions” (James, 24). When a new opinion is formed, it goes through a very specific process. First, our prior convictions are contradicted or put to the test, and the subject realizes that the two may be incompatible. This results in an “inward trouble…from which [one] seeks to escape by modifying his previous mass of opinions” (James, 24). But because our currently-held truths inhere vital benefits, all people undergo this inward trouble as conservatively as possible, holding on to old truths until the new idea is proven more beneficial. Though the new idea still holds on to the older truths with “a minimum of modification,” it is at this point that the new idea becomes the true idea (James, 24). Pragmatism is a recognition of this struggle and a firm “no” to keeping the “notion of what is better for us, and what is true for us, permanently apart” (James, 30). This is the only way to meet the demands of the rationalist and empiricist.

In lectures three and four, James looks at some practical applications for metaphysical problems. One such example is asking whether the world is run by matter or a spirit (God). The first question that must be asked is: “What practical difference can it make now that the world should be run by matter or by spirit?” (James, 37). James implores us to consider what about the world would change, were it a being who created the world and imposed the laws of nature, versus the matter itself being the locus of our world. If we eliminated God from the explanation and kept matter alone as responsible for the laws of the world, what practical losses would be had? If there are none, then “God’s presence in [the world doesn’t] make it any more living or richer” (James, 38). Therefore, there is no real debate between materialism and theism. If both describe the same, unchangeable laws of nature, “matter and God in that event mean exactly the same thing” as far as pragmatic truth is concerned (James, 38). Similarly, the fourth lecture deals with a pragmatic unity of the universe. Where monism theorizes the universe as one, absolute, and logically necessary, pluralism allows for degrees of change with “no need of this dogmatic rigoristic temper” (James, 61-62). Though the pragmatic model is open to the possibility of the universe being “perfectly unified,” monism is closed shut to any challenge to its truths, for any crack in the slightest would be enough to shatter its fundamental accord (James, 62). These two examples and more make up the pragmatic considerations of the world.

In the fifth lecture, James examines pragmatism and common sense. Common sense derives its concepts from experience, which include: kinds, minds, bodies, one time, one space, and many others (James, 66). But to suggest that common sense is the end of our quest for knowledge is patently false and pragmatically detrimental. Instead, we must retain a “suspicion about common sense,” which is the driving force behind historical intellectual minds such as Archimedes and Galileo who presented us with new, more beneficial truths that modified the old truths our common sense produced. Second, James makes the point that all our common sense and the theories they produce are but “mental modes of adaptation to reality, rather than revelations or gnostic answers” (James, 74). In other words, the cause of our common sense is the value of the theories about reality they produce. Considering the world as one time and one space has been helpful in adapting to reality and surviving, and consequently is a truth, but not necessarily a principled or divine revelation about the universe.

The sixth lecture aims to tackle truth, or what it means to be in agreement with reality. While there may be disagreement over the meaning of the words, James offers that an idea or belief is true when its thinking can be demonstrated experientially. Old truths “at any time are so much experience funded,” and new truths are “mutation [of reality]…towards a definite goal” (James, 87). Thus, truth is a result of a pragmatic process made from experience. Because it is a process, the truths are also revisable if a new experience challenges an old truth. This is again a push away from the rationalist tendency to hold truths as unchanging and monistic (James, 88).

Similarly, because truth is a pragmatic, changeable process, James is quick to warn and be skeptical of “the Truth, conceived as the one answer, determinate and complete” in lecture seven (James, 92). Laws, languages, rights and wrongs, are all man-made things (James, 93). If this is where our truths are derived, then it must also be the case that truths, at least to an extent, are man-made (James, 93). Philosopher F.C.S. Schiller’s name of “Humanism” is adopted for this doctrine. To this doctrine of reality, three components are proposed: reality is generally what truths take account of, truth is composed of relations between our sensations and the ideas our minds produce, and previous truths shape and effect how we approach and acquire new truths (James, 94).

I am in wholehearted agreement with James’ conception of pragmatism, to the point where I have willingly replaced many of my old truths about the world with that of James. One such quandary is knowledge of the entire universe, of which I previously supported Kant’s noumenon, that there are some things which are not knowable through human sensation. While I certainly don’t profess to have fully understood Kant’s position, I am comfortable with a pragmatic approach, that asks: “So what?” Does it matter if I can’t make a complete revelation about the universe? If I can’t, then the subsequent noumenal beliefs about faith and the soul boil down to their consequences—their pragmatic effects. As of now, I don’t see any benefit in faith or the soul, and as such there is no reason to believe in them. Another problem is that of free will and determinism. As far as dogmatic truths go, I have long held a firm belief in a deterministic universe. However, James’ pragmatism compels me to reconsider. Adopting free will as truth is drastically more helpful in assigning moral responsibility, the primary factor keeping our justice system running. On the other hand, adopting determinism as truth would allow more empathy and compassion towards those with addiction problems, the LGBTQ+ community, and anyone else otherized by society. A recognition that it isn’t their choice to be this way would help to destigmatize these groups and better their lives. At the moment, I have not made a choice, as I need to continue weighing the comparative benefits of these truths and minimize clash with vital benefits another truth may produce (James, 31). What is clear, however, is that only through pragmatism is the free will versus determinism debate directive and meaningful.

In conclusion, William James provides a persuasive approach to how we can experience reality. Pragmatism works to create a synergistic fusion of old and new truths, all in the pursuit of maximizing benefits and minimizing detriments. I am convinced of this philosophical strategy, and look forward to applying it in the future.


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