William James, Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking

Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of ThinkingPragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking by William James

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Pragmatism is often hailed as the United States’s unique contribution to philosophy. While this school of thought got its name from pioneering semiotic philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, it was popularized by Peirce’s more academically successful friend, William James, who defined and applied the term in ways Peirce eventually rejected. Though luckier in life than the ill-starred Peirce, James also had a peripatetic professional career. A son of the Swedenborgean amateur philosopher Henry James, Sr., and a brother to the major American novelist and literary critic of his generation, James began as a painter, took a medical degree, pursued experimental psychology, turned to comparative religion and philosophy, and became a popular lecturer and author in the latter decades of his life. In Pragmatism, based on a series of public lectures and published in 1907, James elaborates and defends the philosophy implicitly underlying the rest of his work, including his psychological and religious theories.

As if to exaggerate pragmatism’s stereotypically American quality, James defines the philosophy as one that seeks to know not the absolute and eternal truth, as idealist and rationalist philosophers from the Platonists to the Cartesians enjoin us, but rather to understand any given proposition’s “cash-value,” i.e., its practical worth and social function. James doesn’t use pragmatism only to refute idealism; he wants it to mediate between idealism and its opposite in materialism and empiricism. While he does associate pragmatism with some traditional enemies of idealism and rationalism—

It agrees with nominalism for instance, in always appealing to particulars; with utilitarianism in emphasizing practical aspects; with positivism in its disdain for verbal solutions, useless questions, and metaphysical abstractions

—James also hopes to rescue religious faith from the ruins in which Darwinism and a host of other 19th-century scientific developments had left it. Granted, James accepts the central Darwinian insight that living things’ behavior, to include humanity’s most abstract reasoning, is adaptive:

[T]he pragmatistic view [is] that all our theories are INSTRUMENTAL, are mental modes of ADAPTATION to reality, rather than revelations or gnostic answers to some divinely instituted world-enigma…

But James, having defined truth as an adaptive instrument of active man, brings the deity in through the back door: we believe in God not because God is real, nor because we find evidence of His design in nature and natural law, but because it’s too hard to live without faith, especially after Victorian science has burdened us with the second law of thermodynamics and its corollary in the eventual heat-death of the universe:

A world with a God in it to say the last word, may indeed burn up or freeze, but we then think of him as still mindful of the old ideals and sure to bring them elsewhere to fruition; so that, where he is, tragedy is only provisional and partial, and shipwreck and dissolution not the absolutely final things. This need of an eternal moral order is one of the deepest needs of our breast. And those poets, like Dante and Wordsworth, who live on the conviction of such an order, owe to that fact the extraordinary tonic and consoling power of their verse. Here then, in these different emotional and practical appeals, in these adjustments of our concrete attitudes of hope and expectation, and all the delicate consequences which their differences entail, lie the real meanings of materialism and spiritualism—not in hair-splitting abstractions about matter’s inner essence, or about the metaphysical attributes of God. Materialism means simply the denial that the moral order is eternal, and the cutting off of ultimate hopes; spiritualism means the affirmation of an eternal moral order and the letting loose of hope. Surely here is an issue genuine enough, for anyone who feels it; and, as long as men are men, it will yield matter for a serious philosophic debate.

And though determinism perhaps makes more sense in the crystalline realm of logic, where each decision and development further enchains us to a fatal syllogism, we believe in free will for the same reason we believe in God—that we can do nothing new without the hope it provides.

Free-will pragmatically means NOVELTIES IN THE WORLD, the right to expect that in its deepest elements as well as in its surface phenomena, the future may not identically repeat and imitate the past.

James’s highest value is creative, constructive activity. He objects to rationalism and idealism, no less than to an absolute and therefore tragic or deterministic materialism, because they leave us prostrate before a universe already finished, a world that does not need us to collaborate in its ongoing fecundity.

In our cognitive as well as in our active life we are creative. We ADD, both to the subject and to the predicate part of reality. The world stands really malleable, waiting to receive its final touches at our hands. Like the kingdom of heaven, it suffers human violence willingly. Man ENGENDERS truths upon it.

Instead of optimism and pessimism, two passive worldview in which we sit back and wait for the inevitability that good or bad things will happen, James promotes “meliorism,” the belief that the world can become a better place, but only if we rouse ourselves to make it so:

Meliorism treats salvation as neither inevitable nor impossible. It treats it as a possibility, which becomes more and more of a probability the more numerous the actual conditions of salvation become.

Unlike so many despairing mandarins of his era, including his own illustrious novelist brother who liked to bemoan the spread of vulgarity, James embraces the modern. He sees truth, beauty, and goodness—even, in some sense, God—not as eternal forms but as realities we bring into being with our activity on the world, a world more and more humanized and globalized in the early 20th century:

We want water and we turn a faucet. We want a kodak-picture and we press a button. We want information and we telephone. We want to travel and we buy a ticket. In these and similar cases, we hardly need to do more than the wishing—the world is rationally organized to do the rest.

He moreover frames pragmatism both politically and religiously, defining the pragmatist as a “happy-go-lucky anarchistic sort of creature” and the philosophy with “the protestant reformation.” Despite anarchism’s foreign connotation in James’s own period, when it would have been associated with European assassins and bomb-throwers, when named in concert with Protestantism, readers may be reminded of America’s cultural founding by Puritans, not to mention their anarchic outcasts like Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams.

James’s anarchism is as much a matter of form as content. While James professed not to understand his brother’s more rarefied later fictional productions, he himself adopts an irresistibly quotable pugnacious, playful individual literary voice, with its lecturers’ vernacular and aural energy, its vividness and clarity, raising a stylistic maypole in philosophy’s gray precincts. Pragmatism, then, is American not only in its love of cash and its obsession with God, but in its passion for freedom.

What might pragmatism and William James mean to us today? In his magisterial and absorbing work of popular nonfiction, The Metaphysical Club (2001), Louis Menand explains the late-19th- and early-20th-century rise of pragmatism in pragmatic terms. He wants to know what it did for its proponents and adherents and their society. He argues that pragmatism arose after the Civil War because that unprecedentedly bloody conflict filled its children with a dread of non-negotiable moral principles, the kind that had motivated the fervid Great-Awakened abolitionists and eventually the Boston Brahmins themselves—from the complacent Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., to the avant-garde genius Emerson—to wage the war. This seems persuasive only in the case of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.: he served in the war and was wounded three times, unlike James, who was notoriously spared the uniform by his family along with his brother Henry, leaving their two less distinguished brothers to fight.

Luckily, the preternaturally well-informed Menand has a host of other contexts to explain his pragmatist quartet—Holmes, James, Peirce, and John Dewey. Modern scientific developments, for example: not only Darwin’s dysteleological biology of chance and circumstance, but also the development of statistics and probability theory, according to which investigators arrive at scientific truth not through individual insight or discovery but through “the law of errors,” a kind of reliable approximation arrived at by averaging informed observers’ best guesses. Menand suggests that this theory, first formulated in astronomy to answer how we might best discover the precise position of heavenly bodies, leads by application to Holmes’s defense of free speech as a Supreme Court justice over 70 years later. Society, like astronomy, requires everybody to make their best argument if we’re ever to reach something like truth, and therefore we should have the liberty to quarrel and dispute in the public square. This is akin to what James called “pluralism.” (I note parenthetically that this compelling bit of liberal jurisprudence directly contradicts today’s censorious moral panic about “misinformation,” an incoherent concept meaning very little other than “counter-hegemonic ideas,” whether right or wrong.)

Then again, Holmes upheld an order consigning socialist Eugene Debs to prison for his anti-war agitation during World War I, so his commitment to free speech was hardly absolute when social order was in question. Menand also mentions Holmes’s most notorious judgment, his upholding of the state’s interest in eugenics in the Buck v. Bell decision of 1927, though he strangely keeps the damning details out of his book. Holmes based his judgment on the case of an institutionalized woman thought to be “incorrigible” because she’d borne a baby out of a wedlock in her teens, though it turned out she’d in fact been raped by her adoptive cousin and then committed to save her family’s reputation. The jurist nevertheless claimed that “the public welfare” demanded “sacrifices” from the citizenry lest we be “swamped with incompetence.” In a sentence with a perhaps chilling contemporary resonance, this pragmatist judge stood on principle: “The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

This seeming digression leads us to the politics of pragmatism. For Menand, pragmatism had two practical political effects. First, it allowed for the professionalization of academia, which consolidated along modern (i.e., German) and secular lines in the late 19th century in America. Pragmatism elevated procedure over (religious) principle as the governing ethos of the scientific and humanistic disciplines. Therefore, each discipline, discrete in its own department within the research university, could govern itself by refereeing its internal quarrels with reference to the consistent practices by which its adherents arrive at their conclusions. Academic freedom likewise follows from this idea of peer review and faculty governance: the boundaries of what may be said in a given discipline are for that discipline’s own experts to judge, not the timorous public, the moralistic politician, or the meddling trustee. This was surely a momentous and welcome development for freedom of thought—truly, in its way, an extension of the Protestant Reformation, both in Germany and the U.S.—though Menand neglects the downside: the compartmentalization and mechanization of knowledge. The institutions producing and stewarding knowledge were sealed off from the innovations that the amateur, the misfit, and even the madman have always introduced into thought.

This sterilization of the mind is why James doesn’t quite fit into the larger story Menand wants to tell. Menand’s other political context for pragmatism is the way it answered—particularly in Dewey’s career—the need for an ever-expanding technological society to be governed rationally from the top down like the factories it comprised. Menand narrates the late-19th-century move from entrepreneurial to corporate capitalism and the concomitant shift from trade unions to industry unions as the country industrialized; the state likewise grew in response to the modernizing country’s greater complexity. Holmes’s judgment in favor of eugenics makes sense in this light: why shouldn’t the government of an industrial nation take a strong hand in streamlining its work-force? Similarly, Mussolini’s claim to have been influenced by James’s voluntarism—and the pragmatist flirtation with fascism in general—reflect a convergence on the idea of active governance that dominated the 20th century after the liberal laissez-faire doctrines of the Victorian era proved themselves hard to adapt to the later industrial period. For pragmatism, even in a Darwinian cosmos, there’s always something you do to increase power and profit.

Just as professions manufacture needs only they can fulfill—this is why, pragmatically, you can’t always trust the doctor to cure you rather than getting you hooked on chronic and inefficacious therapies—so pragmatism “spoke to a generation of academics, journalists, jurists, and policy makers eager to find scientific solutions to social problems,” as Menand writes. It gave intellectuals something to do, a claim besides mere mentation on the public’s attention and allegiance.

James is certainly complicit in this transformation of the intellectual’s social role. There is no room for the disinterested scholar or artist, someone merely curious, in his philosophy, since we must always be asking, “What is it good for?” Which is, incidentally, the basis for his amusing dispute with his brother over the latter’s difficult fiction. William couldn’t quite fathom the point of a novel that didn’t straightforwardly tell the story, even though Henry’s works embody what William’s psychology textbook had only theorized: the stream of consciousness (see on this topic J. C. Hallman’s beautiful little 2013 book Wm & H’ry: Literature, Love, and the Letters between William & Henry James). William argued the theories in his philosophy—and even enacted them in his lively style—but it was Henry who lived them in his novels. As Hallman notes, Henry wrote to William after reading Pragmatism, “All my life…I have unconsciously pragmatised.”

We come again to a conclusion familiar in these electronic pages about the anti-philosophers and the philosophy-enders. If the end of philosophy is action, the action succeeding philosophy in writing is literature, because it is in literature that the true claims of the plural are realized in contingent aesthetic objects illustrating and even incarnating the totalities of which plurality is capable—a conviction that should come as no surprise, since the founder of the western philosophical tradition, Plato, wrote his philosophy in the form of closet dramas or proto-novels. There is, I am tempted to say, no urgent reason to prefer Nietzsche to Woolf, Heidegger to Rilke, or, in the matter at hand, William to Henry. Yet William writes with such zest for life, with such emergent personality, that he can be recommended not only as philosophy but as literature too.

Accordingly, Menand also contends that James’s pragmatism, unlike that of Holmes or Dewey, “was not a philosophy for policy makers, muckrakers, and social scientists. It was a philosophy for misfits, mystics, and geniuses.” He quotes from one of James’s letters, the philosopher at his most Emersonian:

I am against bigness and greatness in all their forms, and with the invisible molecular moral forces that work from individual to individual, stealing in through the crannies of the world like so many soft rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, and yet rending the hardest monuments of man’s pride, if you give them time. The bigger the unit you deal with, the hollower, the more brutal, the more mendacious is the life displayed. So I am against all big organizations as such, national ones first and foremost; against all big successes and big results; and in favor of the eternal forces of truth which always work in the individual and immediately unsuccessful way, under-dogs always, till history comes, after they are long dead, and puts them on top.

The letter was written in 1899, the year after the Anti-Imperialist League was founded, which James would soon join. Ironically, imperialism was an idea its proponents and champions found pragmatic in the extreme, “cash-value” and all, while James’s practically doomed resistance, in the name of the individual and the underdog, and somewhat against the interests of his own class, can be called what but “principled”?