William James – The most insightful and stimulating American philosopher.

Dr. V.K.Maheshwari, M.A(Socio, Phil) B.Sc. M. Ed, Ph.D

Former Principal, K.L.D.A.V.(P.G) College, Roorkee, India

You see by this what I meant when I called pragmatism a mediator and reconciler……. She has in fact no prejudices whatever, no obstructive dogmas, no rigid canons of what shall count as proof. She is completely genial. She will entertain any hypothesis, she will consider any evidence. It follows that in the religious field she is at a great advantage over both positivistic empiricism, with its anti-theological bias, and over religious rationalism, with its exclusive interest in the remote, the noble, the simple, and the abstract in the way of conception.— William James

William James is considered to be the most insightful and stimulating American philosopher, and the great pragmatist. As a professor of psychology and of philosophy at Harvard University, he became the most famous living American philosopher of his time.

James’s philosophy is so individualistic that it does not allow for a robust theory of community.  Still, he offers us some interesting insights and views one’s society as not only a context in which great individuals emerge, but even as playing a selective role in allowing their greatness to develop. In turn, that social environment is affected by them.  Whether or not an individual will be able to have an impact is, to some extent, determined by society.  Thus socially significant individuals and their communities have a dynamic, correlative relationship.

William James arrived on the scene at a critical time in America thought. As Americans reacted to the increasing technological and scientific changes in this country they turned philosophically to “science”. As Morton White has pointed out, “He came upon the scene when philosophy was being bullied by a tough and militant scientism, but he only organized alternative seemed to be the absolute idealism of the neo-Hegelians [sic] which he could not stomach. James entered the arena in which a battle between religion and science was being waged. Or, in more philosophical terms, he entered the conflict between what he aptly characterized as the “tender-minded” and the “tough-minded”. On the side of the “tender-minded” were found the religious, idealistic, optimistic, and rationalistic; while on the side of the “tough-minded” were found the irreligious, materialistic, pessimistic, and empirical.

James is the most significant American philosopher of religion in intellectual history, and many of his writings offer provocative insights into that area.Perhaps the most controversial aspects of James’ philosophy relate to his application of the pragmatic principle to religion. James, said, “The pragmatic method is primarily a method of settling metaphysical disputes that otherwise might be interminable.” His potion, simply state, was that ideas were of value to the degree that they were useful and functional and were not in conflict will other truths that could be empirically substantiated. Using this as his intellectual touchstone, James was able to support much of religion, including the hypothesis of God. The last several paragraphs of James’ essay, “What Pragmatism Means,” are the best available statement of the view of pragmatism as the great mediator between empiricism and rationalism; the “tough-minded” and the “tender-minded.”

Religious faith is not to be reduced to arbitrary whimsy (the “will to make believe”), it must rest on some sort of personal experience.  James deliberately defines “religion” broadly as the experiences of human individuals insofar as they see themselves related to whatever they regard as divine.  This definition indicates that religion does not require faith in a transcendent, monotheistic God, and that it does not mandate the social dimension of religious community.  James distinguishes between “healthy-mindedness” and the “sick soul” as two extreme types of religious consciousness, the former being characterized by optimistic joy and the latter by a morbid pessimism.  In between these extremes are “the divided self” and the stable, well-integrated believer.  James develops lengthy analyses of religious conversion, saintliness, and mysticism. He draws conclusions regarding three beliefs that experience finds in religions in general:

(1) that our sensible world is part of and derives its significance from a greater spiritual order;

(2) that our purpose is fulfilled by achieving harmonious union with it; and

(3) that prayer and spiritual communion are efficacious.

Furthermore, religions typically involve two psychological qualities in their believers:

(1) an energetic zest for living; and

(2) a sense of security, love, and peace.  Given that thought and feeling both determine conduct, James thinks that different religions are similar in feeling and conduct, their doctrines being more variable, but less essential.

The sword with which James hoped to slay the dragons of “tough-mindedness” and “tender-mindedness” was the system of pragmatism. For James, pragmatism became more than a method It became his central philosophical principle. As White has so aptly said of James, “He wanted facts but he also wanted a religion.” And it was through pragmatism that he hoped to achieve both. James was brilliant, concise, and perhaps most important, an independent thinking is highly original. He has been described as “original, exciting, and cosmopolitan.

William James  was influenced in his thinking by his biological studies, by English empiricism, and by the teaching of Charles Renouvier. It was Renouvier’s masterly advocacy of pluralism, he himself tells us, that freed him from the monistic superstition under which he had grown up. The ” block-universe,” the rigoristic, deterministic systems of both materialistic and spiritualistic monism did not satisfy him: ” if everything, man included, is the mere effect of the primitive nebula or the infinite substance, what becomes of moral responsibility, freedom of action, individual effort, and aspiration ; what, indeed, of need, uncertainty, choice, love, and strife? ” Does not the individual become a mere puppet in the hands of the absolute substance, whether conceived as universal matter or as universal mind? Such a system cannot satisfy all the demands of our nature, and hence cannot be true. The test, then, of a theory, of a belief, of a doctrine, must be its effect on us, its practical consequences. This is the pragmatic test. Always ask yourself what difference it will make in your experience whether you accept materialism or spiritualism, determinism or free will, monism or pluralism, atheism or theism. One is a doctrine of despair, the other a doctrine of hope.

For James anything knowable must be true. .  He begins with a standard dictionary analysis of truth as agreement with reality.  It seems that the “reality” with which truths must agree has three dimensions:

(1) matters of fact,

(2) relations of ideas , and

(3) the entire set of other truths to which we are committed.

To say that our truths must “agree” with such realities pragmatically means that they must lead us to useful consequences.  As the facts, and  experience , change one must beware of regarding such truths as absolute, as rationalists tend to do .  This relativistic theory generated a firestorm of criticism among mainstream philosophers of that time. James believes in multiple worlds, specifying seven realms of reality we can experience:

(1) the touchstone of reality is the world of physical objects of sense experience;

(2) the world of science, things understood in terms of physical forces and laws of nature,

(3) philosophy and mathematics expose us to a world of abstract truth and ideal relations;

(4) as humans, we are all subject to the distortions of commonplace illusion and prejudices;

(5) the realms of mythology and fiction;

(6) each of us has his or her own subjective opinions, which may or may not be expressed to others; and

(7) the world of madness can disconnect us from the reality in which others can readily believe.  Normally we can inhabit more than one of these and be able to discriminate among them.

The only test of probable truth is what works best in the way of leading us, what fits every part of life best and combines with the collectivity of experience’s demands, nothing being omitted. The test of truth, then, is its practical consequences , the possession of truth is not an end in itself, but only a preliminary means to other vital satisfactions. Knowledge is an instrument ;  is for the sake of life, life not for the sake of knowledge.

William James, made pragmatism a wider public view. He believed that an idea must be tried before it can be considered good.Ethical values are a product of the transactional functioning of man and society. The good is that which resolves indeterminate situations in the best way possible. Thus, the use of the intellect in the solving of problems is considered good by the pragmatists while total avoidance of human problems or unthinking reliance on some “higher” authority would be considered bad. Values emerge from the process of reflective deliberation and the accepted only after reflective deliberation. In each generation must create new values and new solutions to deal with new problems. The values of the crossbow, the pragmatists would say, are no longer necessarily applicable or relevant to the day of the hydrogen bomb.

James enlarges this pragmatic or instrumental conception so as to include in the idea of practical utility: logical consistency and verification. True ideas are those that we can assimilate, validate, corroborate, and verify. Ideas that tell us which of the realities to expect count as the true ideas. You can, therefore, say of truth that it is useful because it is true, or that it is me because it is useful. ” Truth in science is what gives us, the maximum possible sum of satisfactions, taste included, but consistency both with previous truth and novel fact is always the most imperious claimant.”

Even with these important additions to the pragmatic formula, it is anti-intellectualistic in the sense that, in order to be true, a philosophy must satisfy other than logical demands. And the practical moral and religious demands favour pluralism, freedom and individualism, spiritualism, and theism, according to James. These are the conceptions in which he will believes and to save which our pragmatist repudiates the intellect as the absolute judge of truth. Still, consistency is always the most imperious claimant.

Although the absolutistic hypothesis that perfection is eternal, aboriginal, and most real, has a perfectly definite meaning and works religiously, the pluralistic way agrees with the pragmatic temper best. For it sets definite activities at work ; a pluralist world can only be saved piecemeal and de facto as the result  the behavior have a lot of caches. We may believe, also, that there is a higher form of experience extant in the universe than our human experience ; on the proofs that religious experience affords, we may well believe that higher powers exist and are at work to save the world on ideal lines similar to our own.

James reaches the same results from another side, from the side of radical or pure empiricism, which opposes both the] classical rationalism and the classical English empiricism. It is not true that whatever is rational is real ; whatever is experienced is real. Only, we must take experience as it exists before it has been manipulated by conceptual thinking, experience in its purity and primitive innocence, if we would reach reality. We must go behind the conceptual function altogether and look to the more primitive flux of the sensational life for reality’s true shape. Philosophy should seek this kind of living understanding of the movement of reality, not follow science in vainly patching together fragments of its dead results. Philosophy is more a matter of passionate vision than of logic, logic only finding reasons for the vision afterwards.

Even if philosophically interesting matters cannot be scientifically resolved, some sort of epistemological methodology is needed if we are to avoid arbitrary conclusions.  Whatever approach is chosen, it is clear that James repudiates rationalism, with its notions of a priori existential truths.  The “tender-minded” approach tends to be rationalistic, intellectualistic, idealistic, optimistic, religious, committed to freedom, monistic, and dogmatic; by contrast, the “tough-minded” approach tends to be empirical, grounded in sensations, materialistic, pessimistic, irreligious, fatalistic, pluralistic, and skeptical.  He thinks that most of us want a philosophical method that is firmly anchored in empirical facts, while being open to, rather than dismissive of, moral and religious values.  He offers pragmatism as a philosophy that coherently meets both demands.  Before we invest much time or effort in seeking the meaning of anything, we should consider what practical difference it would make if we could find out.  From that pragmatic perspective, James rejects the Hegelian notion.  Undoubtedly, philosophy provides us with only one legitimate approach to belief, as he observes in his fifth lecture, others being common sense (with its basic concepts derived from experience) and science.

With German idealism James agrees that the scientific understanding mutilates reality, and he agrees with it, also, in the view that our ordinary sense-experience does not reveal it in its true colors. But, not unlike Bradley, he puts his faith in a living unsophisticated human experience. Reality is pure experience independent of human thinking; it is something very hard to find; it is what is just entering into experience and yet to be named, or else it is some imagined aboriginal presence in experience, before any belief about the presence has arisen, before any human conception has been applied. It is what is absolutely dumb and evanescent, the merely ideal limit of our minds. We may glimpse it, but we never grasp it; what we grasp is always some substitute for it which previous human thinking has peptonised and cooked for our consumption. Yet, this immediate experience is a unity in diversity; the unity is as original as the diversity. Empiricism is, therefore, wrong in saying that our psychic life consists of a multiplicity of independent sensations, and rationalism is wrong in saying that these are combined by categories in the unity of a soul. The lotion of a combining medium called soul is superfluous because there are no independent elements to combine. Both conceptions are abstractions. Reality is, in part, the flux of our sensations, coming we know not whence; partly, the relations that obtain between our sensations or between their copies in our mind ; and, partly, previous truths. Some of these relations are mutable and accidental, others are fixed and essential, but both are matters if immediate perception. Relations, categories, are matters of direct experience, not different from the things or phenomena: ideas and things are ” consubstantial, ” made of the same stuff.

James seems to vacillate between two views: reality is pure experience, experience independent of all thought, to which the life of the infant or semi-comatose person approximates; and reality is the entire field of the adult consciousness, experience permeated with thought. Perhaps his meaning is that the latter form of it grows out of the former. There is a sensible flux, he tells us, but what is true of it seems from first to last largely a matter of our own creation. The world stands really malleable, waiting to receive its final touches at our hands. Reality is not ready-made and complete from all eternity, but still in the making, unfinished, growing in all sort of places where thinking beings are at work. Truth grows up inside of all the finite experiences; they lean on each other, but the whole of them, if such there be, leans on nothing. Nothing outside of the flux secures the issue of it ; it can hope salvation only from its own intrinsic promises and potencies. Behind the bare phenomenal facts there is nothing, no thing-in-itself, no Absolute, no Un- knowable ; it is absurd to attempt to explain the given concrete reality by an assumed reality of which we can form no idea except through symbols drawn from our experience itself. This sounds like subjective idealism, but is not intended as such by James, who never doubted the existence of an extra-mental world; the pure original experience is not subjective, but objective; it is the primordial stuff which grows conscious.

James defines  the issue of the one and the many, which is arguably the oldest problem of Western philosophy.  Monism, pursued to its logical extreme, is deterministic, setting up a sharp dichotomy between what is necessary and what is impossible, while pluralism allows for possibilities that may, but need not, be realized.  The former must be either optimistic or pessimistic in its outlook, depending on whether the future that is determined is seen as attractive or unattractive.  In contrast, pluralism’s possibilities allow for a “melioristic” view of the future as possibly better, depending on choices we freely make.  Pluralism need not specify how much unnecessary possibility there is in the world; by contrast, monism must say that everything about the future is locked in from all eternity—to which pluralism says, “Ever not quite.”  James is advocating what he calls the possibility of “novelty” in the world.  Pluralism, being melioristic, calls for our trusting in and cooperating with one another in order to realize desirable possibilities that are not assured . James claims that the “philosophy of pure experience” is more consonant with the theory of novelty, indeterminism, moralism, and humanism that he advocates, though it is less than clear why.  Radical empiricism makes for pluralism : experience shows us multiplicity, diversity, opposition, and not a block-universe, not the completely organized harmonious system of the Absolotists or Monists, in which all differences and oppositions are reconciled. Besides, the pluralistic universe satisfies the demands of our moral nature, which the absolutistic universe does not : it is justified by the pragmatic method. Indeed, monism, too, it is not a mere doctrine of the intellect ; its acceptance depends j on its consequences: it satisfies the aesthetic and mystical impulses of some natures. But it does not account for our finite consciousness; it creates a problem of evil; it does not account for change; and it is fatalistic. Pluralism takes perceptual experience at its face value, and the concrete perceptual flux, taken just as it comes, offers in our own activity-situations perfectly comprehensible instances of causal agency or free will.

There is room for change, for novelty, for the unconditioned in the world (tychism or fortuitism). And pluralism is melioristic : the world may be saved on condition that its parts shall do their best. The melioristic universe is conceived after a social analogy, as a pluralism of independent powers. It will succeed just in proportion as more of these work for its success. If none work, it will fail ; if each does his best, it will not fail. And in such a world man is free to risk realizing his ideal.

As we do not naturally experience the supernatural, James, the radical empiricist, thinks of faith in God as falling short of knowledge.  For James, the logical philosopher trained in science, both logic and science have limits beyond which we can legitimately seek the sentiment of rationality.  His “Will to Believe” essay is designed to be a defense of religious faith in the absence of conclusive logical argumentation or scientific evidence.  It focuses on what he calls a “genuine option,” which is a choice between two hypotheses, which the believer can regard as “living” (personally meaningful), “forced” (mutually exclusive), and “momentous” (involving potentially important consequences).  Whether an option is “genuine” is thus relative to the perspective of a particular believer.  James acknowledges that in our scientific age, there is something dubious about the voluntaristic view that, in some circumstances, we can legitimately choose to believe in the absence of any objective justification.

James believes that if we call the supreme being “God,” then we have reason to think the interpersonal relationship between God and humans is dynamic and that God provides us with a guarantee that the moral values we strive to realize will somehow survive us.  James describes himself as a supernaturalist (rather than a materialist) of a sort less refined than idealists and as unable to subscribe to popular Christianity.  He is unwilling to assume that God is one or infinite, even contemplating the polytheistic notion that the divine is a collection of godlike selves  In “Reflex Action and Theism,” James subscribes to a theistic belief in a personal God with whom we can maintain interpersonal relations, who possesses the deepest power in reality  and a mind .  We can love and respect God to the extent that we are committed to the pursuit of common values.  In “Is Life Worth Living?” James even suggests that God may derive strength and energy from our collaboration .  Elsewhere, rejecting the Hegelian notion of God as an all-encompassing Absolute, he subscribes to a God that is finite in knowledge or in power or in both, one that acts in time and has a history and an environment, like us .

Theism is the only conception of God that will satisfy our emotional and volitional nature. God is a part of the universe, a sympathetic and powerful helper, the great Companion, a conscious, personal, and moral being of the same nature as ourselves, with whom we can come into communion, as certain experiences (sudden conversions, faith-cure) show. To be sure, this theistic hypothesis cannot be completely proved, but neither can any system of philosophy be proved; every one of them is rooted in the will to believe. The essence of faith is not feeling or intelligence, but will, the will to believe what cannot be scientifically demonstrated or refuted.

Avoiding the logically tight systems typical of European rationalists, James cobbled together a psychology rich in philosophical implications and a philosophy enriched by his psychological expertise. .  He explored the implications of this theory in areas of religious belief, metaphysics, human freedom and moral values, and social philosophy  His theory of the self and his view of human belief as oriented towards conscious action raised issues that required him to turn to philosophy.  He developed his pragmatic epistemology, which considers the meaning of ideas and the truth of beliefs not abstractly, but in terms of the practical difference they can make in people’s lives. His contributions in these areas included critiques of long-standing philosophical positions on such issues as freedom vs. determinism, correspondence vs. coherence, and dualism vs. materialism, as well as a thorough analysis of a phenomenological understanding of the self and consciousness, a “forward-looking” conception of truth (based on validation and revisable experience), a thorough-going metaphysical pluralism, and a commitment to a full view of agency in connection with communal and social concerns. Thus he created one of the last great philosophical systems in Western thought.

Works of James:

The Principles of Psychology, 2 vols., 1890;

The Will to Believe, 1897;

Talks to Teachers, 1899;

Varieties of Religious Experience, 1902;

Pragmatism, 1907;

The Meaning of Truth, 1909;

A Pluralistic Universe, 1909;

Some Problems of Philosophy, 1910;

Memories and Studies, 1911 ;

Essays in Radical Empiricism, 1912.




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