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William James: The Father of Pragmatism

William James philosophy of pragmatism

Dive into the life and works of William James, widely known as the "Father of Pragmatism" and a prominent figure in the history of philosophy. 

William James was an American philosopher and psychologist, widely considered one of the most influential thinkers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He is known for developing a philosophy called pragmatism, which emphasizes practical consequences over abstract theorizing. In addition to his contributions to philosophy, James also made significant contributions to psychology and was a pioneer in the field of psychical research. 

William James philosopher

William James contribution to philosophy

WILLIAM JAMES ( 1842-1910)was primarily a psychologist, but was important in philosophy on two accounts: he invented the. doctrine which he called "radical empiricism," and he was one of the three protagonists of the theory called "pragmatism" or "instrumentalism." In later life he was, as he deserved to be, the recognized leader of American philosophy. He was led by the study of medicine to the consideration of psychology; his great book on the subject, published in 1890, had the highest possible excellence. I shall not, however, deal with it, since it was a contribution to science rather than to philosophy.

William James: The Father of Pragmatism

William James was a renowned American philosopher and psychologist who is credited with developing the philosophy of pragmatism. Born in New York City in 1842, he was the brother of the famous novelist Henry James. James attended Harvard University, where he later became a professor of psychology and taught some of the most important figures in psychology and philosophy. He was also one of the founders of modern psychology and made significant contributions to fields like psychical research, which focused on paranormal experiences such as telepathy and spiritualism. Today, James is widely regarded as one of America's greatest thinkers, particularly for his contributions to pragmatism, which has had a profound impact on American society and culture.

William James view on religion

There were two sides to William James's philosophical interests, one scientific, the other religious. On the scientific side, the study of medicine had given his thoughts a tendency towards materialism, which, however, was held in check by his religious emotions. 
His religious feelings were very Protestant, very democratic, and very full of a warmth of human kindness. He refused altogether to follow his brother Henry into fastidious snobbishness. "The prince of darkness," he said, "may be a gentleman, as we are told he is, but whatever the God of earth and heaven is, he can surely be no gentleman." This is a very characteristic pronouncement.

His warm-heartedness and his delightful humour caused him to be almost universally beloved. The only man I know of who did not feel any affection for him was Santayana, whose doctor's thesis William James had described as "the perfection of rottenness." There was between these two men a temperamental opposition which nothing could have overcome. Santayana also liked religion, but in a very different way. He liked it aesthetically and historically, not as a help towards a moral life; as was natural, he greatly preferred Catholicism to Protestantism. To James, such an attitude could not but appear immoral. 

He retained from his Puritan ancestry a deep-seated belief that what is of most importance is good conduct, and his democratic feeling made him unable to acquiesce in the notion of one truth for philosophers and another for the vulgar. The temperamental opposition between Protestant and Catholic persists among the unorthodox; Santayana was a Catholic free-thinker, William James a Protestant, however heretical. 

William James radical empiricism

James doctrine of radical empiricism was first published in 1904, in an essay called "Does 'Consciousness' Exist?" The main purpose of this essay was to deny that the subject-object relation is fundamental. It had, until then, been taken for granted by philosophers that there is a kind of occurrence called "knowing," in which one entity, the knower or subject, is aware of another, the thing known or the object. The knower was regarded as a mind or soul; the object known might be a material object, an eternal essence, another mind, or, in self-consciousness, identical with the knower. Almost everything in accepted philosophy was bound up with the dualism of subject and object. The distinction of mind and matter, the contemplative ideal, and the traditional notion of "truth," all need to be radically reconsidered if the distinction of subject and object is not accepted as fundamental.

For my part, I am convinced that James was right on this matter, and would, on this ground alone, deserve a high place among philosophers. I had thought otherwise until he, and those who agreed with him, persuaded me of the truth of his doctrine. But let us proceed to his arguments. 

According to James there is no logical connection between radical empiricism and pragmatism. One may reject radical empiricism and continue to be a pragmatist. 

What did William James say about consciousness?

Consciousness, he says, "is the name of a nonentity, and has no right to a place among first principles. Those who still cling to it are clinging to a mere echo, the faint rumour left behind by the disappearing 'soul' upon the air of philosophy." There is, he continues, "no aboriginal stuff or quality of being, contrasted with that of which material objects are made, out of which our thoughts of them are made." He explains that he is not denying that our thoughts perform a function which is that of knowing, and that this function may be called "being conscious." What he is denying might be put crudely as the view that consciousness is a "thing." He holds that there is "only one primal stuff  or material," out of which everything in the world is composed. This stuff he calls "pure experience." 

William James varieties of religious experience

One of James' most famous works is "The Varieties of Religious Experience," where he explores the nature of religious experiences across different cultures and how they impact individuals.

William James left an enduring mark on philosophy, psychology, and many other fields. In perhaps his best-known work, "The Varieties of Religious Experience," James provides a sweeping analysis of the nature of religious experiences around the world. He argues that religious experiences are best understood as subjective and personal encounters with something transcendental or divine. According to him, these experiences have transformative effects on individuals, which may alter their perspectives on life, morality, and spirituality. The book remains a classic in its field and continues to provoke debate among scholars and laypeople alike.

Knowing, he says, is a particular sort of relation between two portions of "pure experience." The subject object relation is derivative: "experience, I believe, has no such inner duplicity." A given undivided portion of experience can be in one context a knower, and in another something known.

He defines "pure experience" as "the immediate flux of life which furnishes the material to our later reflection." 

It will be seen that this doctrine abolishes the distinction between mind and matter, if regarded as a distinction between two different kinds of what James calls "stuff." Accordingly those who agree with James in this matter advocate what they call "neutral monism," according to which the material of which the world is constructed is neither mind nor matter, but something anterior to both. James himself did not develop this implication of his theory; on the contrary, his use of the phrase "pure experience" points to a perhaps unconscious Berkeleian idealism. The word "experience" is one often used by philosophers, but seldom defined. Let us consider for a moment what it can mean.

Common sense holds that many things which occur are not "experienced," for instance, events on the invisible side of the moon. Berkeley and Hegel, for different reasons, both denied this, and maintained that what is not experienced is nothing. Their arguments are now held by most philosophers to be invalid--rightly, in my opinion. If we are to adhere to the view that the "stuff" of the world is "experience," we shall find it necessary to invent elaborate and unplausible explanations of what we mean by such things as the invisible side of the moon. And unless we are able to infer things not experienced from things experienced, we shall have difficulty in finding grounds for belief in the existence of anything except ourselves. James, it is true, denies this, but his reasons are not very convincing. 

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What do we mean by "experience"? 

The best way to find an answer is to ask: What is the difference between an event which is not experienced and one which is? Rain seen or felt to be falling is experienced, but rain falling in the desert where there is no living thing is not experienced. Thus we arrive at our first point: there is no experience except where there is life. But experience is not coextensive with life. Many things happen to me which I do not notice; these I can hardly be said to experience. Clearly I experience whatever I remember, but some things which I do not explicitly remember may have set up habits which still persist. The burnt child fears the fire, even if he has no recollection of the occasion on which he was burnt. I think we may say that an event is "experienced" when it sets up a habit. (Memory is one kind of habit.) It is obvious that habits are only set up in living organisms. A burnt poker does not fear the fire, however often it is made red-hot. On common-sense grounds, therefore, we shall say that "experience" is not coextensive with the "stuff" of the world. I do not myself see any valid reason for departing from common sense on this point.  Except in this matter of "experience," I find myself in agreement with James's radical empiricism.

It is otherwise with his pragmatism and "will to believe." The latter, especially, seems to me to be designed to afford a specious but sophistical defence of certain religious dogmas--a defence, moreover, which no whole-hearted believer could accept. 

William James the will to believe explained

The Will to Believe was published in 1896; Pragmatism, a New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking was published in 1907. The doctrine of the latter is an amplification of that of the former. The Will to Believe argues that we are often compelled, in practice, to take decisions where no adequate theoretical grounds for a decision exist, for even to do nothing is still a decision. Religious matters, James says, come under this head; we have, he maintains, a right to adopt a believing attitude although "our merely logical intellect may not have been coerced." This is essentially the attitude of Rousseau's Savoyard vicar, but James's development is novel. 

The moral duty of veracity, we are told, consists of two coequal precepts: "believe truth," and "shun error." The sceptic wrongly attends only to the second, and thus fails to believe various truths which a less cautious man will believe. If believing truth and avoiding error are of equal importance, I may do well, when presented with an alternative, to believe one of the possibilities at will, for then I have an even chance of believing truth, whereas I have none if I suspend judgement. 

The ethic that would result if this doctrine were taken seriously is a very odd one. Suppose I meet a stranger in the-train, and I ask myself: "Is his name Ebenezer Wilkes Smith?" If I admit that I do not know, I am certainly not believing truly about his none; whereas, if I decide to believe that that is his name, there is a chance that I may be believing truly. The sceptic, says James, is afraid of being duped, and through his fear may lose important truth; "what proof is there," he adds, "that dupery through hope is so much worse than dupery through fear?" It would seem to follow that, if I have been hoping for years to meet a man called Ebenezer Wilkes Smith, positive as opposed to negative veracity should prompt me to believe that this is the name of every stranger I meet, until I acquire conclusive evidence to the contrary.

"But," you will say, "the instance is absurd, for, though you do not know the stranger's name, you do know that a very small percentage of mankind are called Ebenezer Wilkes Smith. You are therefore not in that state of complete ignorance that is presupposed in your freedom of choice." Now strange to say, James, throughout his essay, never mentions probability, and yet there is almost always some discoverable consideration of probability in regard to any question. Let it be conceded (though no orthodox believer would concede it) that there is no evidence either for or against any of the religions of the world. Suppose you are a Chinese, brought into contact with Confucianism, Buddhism, and Christianity. You are precluded by the laws of logic from supposing that each of the three is true. Let us suppose that Buddhism and Christianity each has an even chance, then, given that both cannot be true, one of them must be, and therefore Confucianism must be false. If all three are to have equal chances, each must be more likely to be false than true. In this sort of way James's principle collapses as soon as we are allowed to bring in considerations of probability.

It is curious that, in spite of being an eminent phychologist, James allowed himself at this point a singular crudity. He spoke as if the only alternatives were complete belief or complete disbelief, ignoring all shades of doubt. Suppose, for instance, I am looking for a book in my shelves. I think, "It may be in this shelf," and I proceed to look; but I do not think, "It is in this shelf" until I see it. We habitually act upon hypotheses, but not precisely as we act upon what we consider certainties; for when we act upon an hypothesis we keep our eyes open for fresh evidence. 

The precept of veracity, it seems to me, is not such as James thinks.  It is, I should say: "Give to any hypothesis which is worth your while to consider just that degree of credence which the evidence warrants." And if the hypothesis is sufficiently important there is the additional duty of seeking further evidence. This is plain common sense, and in harmony with the procedure in the law courts, but it is quite different from the procedure recommended by James.

 William James on pragmatism

It would be unfair to James to consider his will to believe in isolation; it was a transitional doctrine, leading by a natural development to pragmatism. Pragmatism, as it appears in James, is primarily a new definition of "truth." There were two other protagonists of pragmatism, F.C.S. Schiller and Dr. John Dewey. I shall consider Dr. Dewey in the next article ; Schiller was of less importance than the other two. Between James and Dr. Dewey there is a difference of emphasis. Dr. Dewey's outlook is scientific, and his arguments are largely derived from an examination of scientific method, but James is concerned primarily with religion and morals. Roughly speaking, he is prepared to advocate any doctrine which tends to make people virtuous and happy; if it does so, it is "true" in the sense in which he uses that word. 

The principle of pragmatism, according to James, was first enunciated by C. S. Peirce, who maintained that, in order to attain clearness in our thoughts of an object, we need only consider what conceivable effects of a practical kind the object may involve. James, in elucidation, says that the function of philosophy is to find out what difference it makes to you or me if this or that world-formula is true. In this way theories become instruments, not answers to enigmas.

Ideas, we are told by James, become true in so far as they help us to get into satisfactory relations with other parts of our experience: "An idea is 'true' so long as to believe it is profitable to our lives." Truth is one species of good, not a separate category. Truth happens to an idea; it is made true by events. It is correct to say, with the interectualists, that a true idea must agree with reality, but "agreeing" does not mean "copying." "To 'agree' in the widest sense with a reality can only mean to be guided either straight up to it or into its surroundings, or to be put into such working touch with it as to handle either it or something connected with it better than if we disagreed." He adds that "the 'true' is only the expedient in the way of our thinking . . . in the long run and on the whole of course."  In other words, "our obligation to seek truth is part of our general obligation to do what pays."

In a article on pragmatism and religion he reaps the harvest. "We cannot reject any hypothesis if consequences useful to life flow from it." "If the hypothesis of God works satisfactorily in the widest sense of the word, it is true." "We may well believe, on the proofs that religious experience affords, that higher powers exist and are at work to save the world on ideal lines similar to our own."

I find great intellectual difficulties in this doctrine. It assumes that a belief is "true" when its effects are good. If this definition is to be useful--and if not it is condemned by the pragmatist's test--we must know (a) what is good, (b) what are the effects of this or that belief, and we must know these things before we can know that anything is "true," since it is only after we have decided that the effects of a belief are good that we have a right to call it "true." The result is an incredible complication. Suppose you want to know whether Columbus crossed the Atlantic in 1492. You must not, as other people do, look it up in a book. You must first inquire what are the effects of this belief, and how they differ from the effects of believing that he sailed in 1491 or 1493. This is difficult enough, but it is still more difficult to weigh the effects from an ethical point of view. You may say that obviously 1492 has the best effects, since it gives you higher grades in examinations. But your competitors, who would surpass you if you said 1491 or 1493, may consider your success instead of theirs ethically regrettable. Apart from examinations, I cannot think of any practical effects of the belief except in the case of a historian. But this is not the end of the trouble. You must hold that your estimate of the consequences of a belief, both ethical and factual, is true, for if it is false your argument for the truth of your belief is mistaken. But to say that your belief as to consequences is true is, according to James, to say that it has good consequences, and this in turn is only true if it has good consequences, and so on ad infinitum. Obviously this won't do. 

There is another difficulty. Suppose I say there was such a person as Columbus, every one will agree that what I say is true. But why is it true? Because of a certain man of flesh and blood who lived 450 years ago--in short, because of the causes of my belief, not because of its effects. With James's definition, it might happen that "A exists"  is true although in fact A does not exist. I have always found that the hypothesis of Santa Claus "works satisfactorily in the widest sense of the word"; therefore "Santa Claus exists" is true, although Santa Claus does not exist. James says (I repeat): "If the hypothesis of God works satisfactorily in the widest sense of the word, it is true." This simply omits as unimportant the question whether God really is in His heaven; if He is a useful hypothesis, that is enough. God the Architect of the Cosmos is forgotten; all that is remembered is belief in God, and its effects upon the creatures inhabiting our petty planet. No wonder the Pope condemned the pragmatic fence of religion.

We come here to a fundamental difference between James's religious outlook and that of religious people in the past. James is interested in religion as a human phenomenon, but shows little interest in the objects which religion contemplates. He wants people to be happy, and if belief in God makes them happy let them believe in Him. This, so far, is only benevolence, not philosophy; it becomes philosophy when it is said that if the belief makes them happy it is "true." To the man who desires an object of worship this is unsatisfactory. He is not concerned to say, "If I believed in God I should be happy"; he is concerned to say, "I believe in God and therefore I am happy." And when he believes in God, he believes in Him as he believes in the existence of Roosevelt or Churchill or Hitler; God, for him, is an actual Being, not merely a human idea which has good effects. It is this genuine belief that has the good effects, not James's emasculate substitute. It is obvious that if I say " Hitler exists" I do not mean "the effects of believing that Hitler exists are good." And to the genuine believer the same is true of God. 

William James theory summary

William James was a key figure in the development of the philosophical movement known as pragmatism. He believed that true knowledge could only be obtained through direct experience, and that beliefs should be tested against reality rather than relying on abstract reasoning alone. Furthermore, James emphasized the power of individual experience in shaping beliefs and attitudes towards life, morality, and spirituality. His works remain an important contribution to philosophy and continue to inspire new generations of thinkers around the world.

James's doctrine is an attempt to build a superstructure of belief upon a foundation of scepticism, and like all such attempts it is dependent on fallacies. In his case the fallacies spring from an attempt to ignore all extra-human facts. Berkeleian idealism combined with scepticism causes him to substitute belief in God for God, and to pretend that this will do just as well. But this is only a form of the subjectivistic madness which is characteristic of most modern philosophy.

James' work laid the foundation for much of western philosophy's development throughout the 20th century. His ideas on pragmatism, which he defined as a practical rather than theoretical approach to problem-solving, influenced many other prominent philosophers such as Bertrand Russell and John Dewey.

William James philosophy quotes

  • “Action may not always bring happiness, but there is no happiness without action. ”
  • “The art of being wise is knowing what to overlook.”
  • “We are like islands in the sea, separate on the surface but connected in the deep.”
  • “A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.”
  • “Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.”
  • “The greatest discovery of any generation is that a human can alter his life by altering his attitude.”
  • “To change one’s life:
  • 1. Start immediately.
  • 2. Do it flamboyantly.
  • 3. No exceptions.”
  • “The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.”
  • “Whenever two people meet, there are really six people present. There is each man as he sees himself, each man as the other person sees him, and each man as he really is.”
  • “Seek out that particular mental attribute which makes you feel most deeply and vitally alive, along with which comes the inner voice which says, 'This is the real me,' and when you have found that attitude, follow it.”
  • “Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.”
  • “If you can change your mind, you can change your life.”
  • “The great use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it.”
  • “The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated.”
  • “Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task.”
  • “Whenever you're in conflict with someone, there is one factor that can make the difference between damaging your relationship and deepening it. That factor is attitude.”
  • “I am done with great things and big things, great institutions and big success, and I am for those tiny, invisible molecular moral forces that work from individual to individual, creeping through the crannies of the world like so many rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, yet which if you give them time, will rend the hardest monuments of man's pride.”
  • “To perceive the world differently, we must be willing to change our belief system, let the past slip away, expand our sense of now, and dissolve the fear in our minds,”
  • “Anything you may hold firmly in your imagination can be yours.”
  • “Good-humor is a philosophic state of mind; it seems to say to Nature that we take her no more seriously than she takes us. I maintain that one should always talk of philosophy with a smile.”
  • “Our view of the world is truly shaped by what we decide to hear.”
  • “Begin to be now what you will be hereafter. ”
  • “If you believe that feeling bad or worrying long enough will change a past or future event, then you are residing on another planet with a different reality system.”
  • “Wherever you are, it is your friends who make your world.”
  • “We may be in the Universe as dogs and cats are in our libraries, seeing the books and hearing the conversation, but having no inkling of the
  • meaning of it all.”
  • “There are no differences but differences of degree between different degrees of difference and no difference.”
  • “Human beings, by changing the inner attitudes of their minds, can change the outer aspects of their lives.”
  • “Procrastination is attitude's natural assassin. There's nothing so fatiguing as an uncompleted task”
  • “My experience is what I agree to attend to.” 
  •  “Beyond the very extremity of fatigue distress, amounts of ease and power that we never dreamed ourselves to own, sources of strength habitually not taxed at all, because habitually we never push through the obstruction”

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