Friday, 22 January 2016

William James - Father of Pragmatism

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William James is by all accounts a truly outstanding and original philosopher. He was, along with Schelling and Pierce, one of the founders of the pragmatist movement. According to James, truth was a matter of what works, but he left room in his pragmatism for substantial metaphysical inquiries. For example, neutral monism, which Bertrand Russell adopted enthusiastically across the pond.

Born in 1856 to a wealthy American family, William James was always in the shadow of his more talented brother Henry, who went on to become a novelist and short story writer of great note. At this time he started reflecting on the problems of philosophy, and no doubt was kindled some intimation of how these could be solved with pragmatic reflections. Kant and Aristotle had some good ideas but were arguably too rigid and abstract, and James's insight was to take those philosophers and rework them into a new set of ideas more in keeping with the emerging modern world.

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    Immanuel Kant
    Immanuel Kant was a German philosopher.

It wasn't until the late 19th century that the pragmatic idea of truth dawned on James's mind. In a series of articles, he revolutionised the debate with his new idea. Pierce was also thinking of similar ideas but from a more formal mathematical perspective, and the two soon became fast friends. To this day people like to read both philosophers at the same time. John Dewey also made numerous appearances in James's life, even dropping in on social calls. Dewey went on to use pragmatism to invent a new system of catalogues for use in libraries, which many universities have retained down to the present day, and also experimented with children. Pragmatism truly was vital philosophy.

Later on, dissatisfied with his ideas about truth, William James became a notable scholar of religion and psychology, and produced such telling works as The Varieties of Religious Experience, which the European Wittgenstein carried with him during the war and told Russell (already mentioned) to read carefully. As far as we can tell, he never did.

I wanted to say something here about my own experience of this beautiful philosopher and his ideas. In grad school, I needed a topic for a paper and my supervisor said, as nothing more than an offhand remark, 'You seem to be interested in the concept of truth from a pragmatist perspective. You should have a read of William James's papers and books. Here's one to start off with.'

Whole new vistas of thought opened up before me that night. I thought 'Yes! If I prefer this idea and it works wonders for me, then what more do you want from philosophy! I should try to get this perspective into a fruitful collaboration with such more conservative hard-headed thinkers in the analytic tradition, such as Moore (defender of common sense) and Quine (who became a pragmatist shortly before he died).

I am still working to unravel the full implications of pragmatist thought. I have created an environment in my home town where scholars can come and borrow books, publish articles about James's rich legacy, and meet for discussion of his fascinating idea. Sometimes the truth really is what you make it!

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  1. Thanks. When I first learned about William James, he seemed like such a vulgar, American sort of thinker to me. No no no, give me the austere logical rigors of a Frege or a Bertrand Russell any day! But then as I began to age I saw something warm and appealing in thhe thought of this wonderful man. He has ideas about all the major concepts in our intellectual life. Truth, beauty, realit and mind. Putting these all together into a pragmaticsm fleshed out with the metaphysics of neutral monism is a powerful poswerful cocktail to my mind. I think it's reasonable that James has been ignored by the analytic establishment with their orthodox concentration on reason and argument, but uin coming years we are - or may be! - due for a well-nigh, much needed reappraisal. I hope to be part of this in the coming year's!

  2. I just can't accept William's ideas about truth. It may be good to believe something, but that doesn't make it true. Someone might kill me if I don't believe that the sun won't rise tomorrow, in which case I would to well to believe it. But that doesn't make it true. I said this argument to my teacher, who is a pragmatist, and he said there's more to it than that, but I can't see how. This whole doctrine is just wrong-headed through and through.

    1. Just to chime in here: you are invited to submit to the William conference we are organizing for next year! (See below.) We like all perspectives here, including criticisms.

  3. Sorry if this is off topic, but I am holding a William James conference at New York University in 2017. Please send us your abstracts so we can see if you're able to talk about William and hear what you have to say.

  4. At times it feels like the life of the mind is under attack from all quarters. The rationalistic, scientistic trend is making philosophers pretend to be scientists to get money, and truly pragmatic or real world philosophy for people today is left in the cold. So I left the profession after nine years of adjuncting and publishing up a storm but not getting anywhere. Still read a lot of William James though!

  5. Some really interesting points here, it's going to take me a while to work through all of it. Even at my small community college with my 5-6 teaching load, I always make sure to read William James! Then I go out with my wife and my family, before it's right back to teaching and research. Thanks for this post - makes me know I'm not alone, and I'm really enjoying both it and these wonderful comments.

  6. Funny anecdote about William James: hr got a job lecturing at the University of Connecticut, but his arch nemesis Simon Newcombe arranged a group of people to protest his lectures on the ground that they would undermine the moral fibre of the intellectuals. William showed up anyway and confronted Newcombe, who said 'Welcome to Connectivut William!' - William just shrugged and said 'Some people never change'!

  7. I have a 4-4 teaching load at a small school and would really love to do more pragmatism with my students, e.g. William James on Truth. However we are forced to teach logic and so called "critical thinking". What about practical thinking that actually effects people's lives!