Pragmatism (William James)

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Pragmatism is a philosophical approach that measures the truth of an idea by experimentation and by examining its practical outcome. Pragmatists believe that truth can be modified; that human values are essential to academic inquiry; that truth is not absolute; that meaning and action are intimately connected; and that ideas are to be evaluated by whether they promote consistency and predictability. One of the staunchest advocates of pragmatism was William James (1842–1910), whose ability to translate difficult philosophical principles for laypersons helped spread the tenets of pragmatism during the 1890s and the first quarter of the twentieth century, although James himself died in 1910. One of James's most important contributions to the study of pragmatism is his concern with religion. According to James, truth should be evaluated based on its impact on human behavior; therefore, one's religious faith can be justified if it makes a positive difference in one's life.

A professor in the Department of Humanistic Studies at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay, Bryan Vescio argues in his introduction to Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking that words such as "pragmatism" and "pragmatist" are used constantly in conversation, but the words have taken on a negative connotation; Vescio suggests that they have come to "denote merely a general willingness to compromise principles, even to the point of selfishness or irresponsibility, not the specific philosophical alternative to essentialism and foundationalism that James articulated" (p. ix).

William James, the son of philosopher Henry James Sr. and brother of novelist Henry James, is considered one of the most influential American philosophers and an example of how theories of knowledge may be applied to contemporary questions. James turned from physiology to psychology when he began teaching at Harvard in 1875. Then he was drawn to the philosophy of Charles Renouvier, and during the 1890s he responded to Renouvier's theories with a series of lectures, which were collected as Pragmatism. The book was James's last major academic achievement: he retired from teaching in 1907 and died three years later.


In both Pragmatism (1907) and The Meaning of Truth: A Sequel to Pragmatism (1909), James argues that the "need of an eternal moral order is one of the deepest needs of our breast" (Pragmatism, p. 47). Written to provide access to the ideals of one philosophical system for those interested in bettering their lives, Pragmatism acquired its subtitle, A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, when James published the collection of eight essays some ten years after he had begun to compose them.

James presented the lectures that constitute Pragmatism at the Lowell Institute in Boston in the winter of 1906 and again at Columbia University in the winter of 1907. According to Bryan Vescio's introduction to the 2003 edition of Pragmatism, the "purpose of the lectures and the book they became was at once to popularize contemporary trends in philosophy and to offer a new position to mediate its disputes" (p. xi). Its publication sparked what Vescio calls "wild popularity among lay readers and resentment among professional philosophers" (p. xi). The book is essential to those interested in philosophy because James's pragmatism suggests that the "foundations of ultimate beliefs are generally non-rational and demands that theory be answerable to concrete experience" (Vescio, p. xi).

Darwinism and other scientific approaches, which held sway among philosophers in James's time, suggested that human beings were controlled by laws of nature. Such an approach left little room for free will. James, a follower of Ralph Waldo Emerson, a nineteenth-century transcendentalist who celebrated individual choice and intellectual inquiry, was concerned about the limitations of such scientific and philosophical theories. He was reassured by Renouvier's argument that the capacity to hold a belief when others are available is proof of the existence of free will. This led to James's famous declaration that his first act of free will would be to believe in free will.

James also turned to the work of his friend Charles Sanders Peirce, who coined the term "pragmatism" during conversations at the Metaphysical Club, a group formed in the 1870s that included writers and thinkers such as Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. "Pragmatism" was the view that a thought's value lay in its practical consequences and it connected James to Socrates and Aristotle, both of whom used ordinary experience as a test for their theories. (Here, incidentally, lies one explanation for the subtitle. James's book relies on ideas held by Peirce but it marks the first time anyone attempted consistently and thoroughly to consider the implications of pragmatist thought.)


In "Lecture I: The Present Dilemma in Philosophy," James puts pragmatism in the context of previous philosophical movements, arguing for its preeminence and suggesting similarities between it and other philosophical approaches. Most important, he addresses his lay audience directly, reassuring them and making them part of his quest for applicable knowledge. For example, James writes, "For the philosophy which is so important in each of us is not a technical matter; it is our more or less dumb sense of what life honestly and deeply means. It is only partly got from books; it is our individual way of just seeing and feeling the total push and pressure of the cosmos" (p. 1). He suggests that there is a "curious fascination in hearing deep things talked about, even though neither we nor the disputants understand them. We get the problematic thrill, we feel the presence of the vastness" (p. 2).

It is this vastness that James's essays address. For example, he writes:

Philosophy is at once the most sublime and the most trivial of human pursuits. It works in the minutest crannies and it opens out the widest vistas. It "bakes no bread," as has been said, but it can inspire our souls with courage; and repugnant as its manners, its doubting and challenging, its quibbling and dialectics, often are to common people, no one of us can get along without the far-flashing beams of light it sends over the world's perspectives. (P. 2)

In his second lecture, "What Pragmatism Means," James explains how pragmatism can provide real approaches to ideas that seem impenetrable, since "new truth is always a go-between, a smoother-over of transitions" (p. 27) and that "pragmatism may be a happy harmonizer of empiricist ways of thinking with the more religious demands of human beings" (p. 31).

The pragmatic method is primarily a method of settling metaphysical disputes that otherwise might be interminable. Is the world one or many?—fated or free?—material or spiritual—here are notions either of which may or may not hold good of the world; and disputes over such notions are unending. The pragmatic method in such cases is to try to interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences. What difference would it practically make to any one if this notion rather than that notion were true? If no practical difference whatever can be traced, then the alternatives mean practically the same thing, and all dispute is idle. Whenever a dispute is serious, we ought to be able to show some practical difference that must follow from one side or the other's being right. (P. 20)

In the third lecture, "Some Metaphysical Problems Pragmatically Considered," James addresses the difference between what he calls material and spiritual substance. The heart of his argument lies in the following paragraph:

Imagine, in fact, the entire contents of the world to be once for all irrevocably given. Imagine it to end this very moment, and to have no future; and then let a theist and a materialist apply their rival explanations to its history. The theist shows how a God made it; the materialist shows, and we will suppose with equal success, how it resulted from blind physical forces. Then let the pragmatist be asked to choose between their theories. How can he apply his test if a world is already completed? Concepts for him are things to come back into experience with, things to make us look for differences. But by hypothesis there is to be no more experience and no possible differences can now be looked for: Both theories have shown all their consequences and, by the hypothesis we are adopting, these are identical. The pragmatist must consequently say that the two theories, in spite of their different-sounding names, mean exactly the same thing, and that the dispute is purely verbal. (P. 42)

In the fifth lecture, James explains "common sense," a phrase that has a different meaning in philosophical discussions than in everyday conversations. "In practical talk, a man's common sense means his good judgment, his freedom from eccentricity, his gumption, to use the vernacular word. In philosophy it means something entirely different, it means his use of certain intellectual forms or categories of thought" (pp. 74–75).

In the sixth lecture, James explains his definition of truth: "True ideas are those that we can assimilate, validate, corroborate and verify. False ideas are those that we can not. . . The truth of an idea is not a stagnant property inherent in it. Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events" (p. 88).

In lectures seven and eight, on humanism and religion respectively, James grapples with the human desire to find one truth—what he calls "all the great single-word answers to the world's riddle, such as God, the One, Reason, Law, Spirit, Matter, Nature, Polarity, the Dialectic Process, the Idea, the Self, the Oversoul" (p. 105)—and suggests new ways of thinking about one's humanity and one's need for belief in a higher being or concept. Here again is evidence of James's best and most distinctive quality as a philosopher and human being. He identifies with his audience and readers, and with vulnerability and wisdom acknowledges how difficult the concepts of pragmatism might be to embrace. "There are moments of discouragement in us all, when we are sick of self and tired of vainly striving. . . . There can be no doubt that when men are reduced to their last sick extremity absolutism is the only saving scheme" (pp. 129–30).

In his final lectures, James argues that pragmatism can be called "religious" if one is willing to embrace a pluralistic faith. He suggests that by virtue of its central truths, it will draw followers who are willing to "postpone dogmatic answer" (p. 133). For those willing to live in the intellectual limbo he describes in Pragmatism, James's philosophical system may be its own reassurance: "Between the two extremes of crude naturalism on the one hand and transcendental absolutism on the other, you may find that what I take the liberty of calling the pragmatistic or melioristic type of theism is exactly what you require" (p. 134).

The impact of Pragmatism is undeniable. The philosophical perspective espoused in the landmark book bears similarities to the modern and postmodern ideas expressed by Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, and Jacques Derrida. For many reasons, not the least its readability, the book remains central to those interested in philosophy. "The unmistakable personal style of William James is everywhere in the book," says Vescio, "from its homey metaphors and examples drawn from ordinary experience to its pleas to its readers for indulgence to its often exultant celebration of human potential" (p. xv).

See alsoPhilosophy; Pragmatism


Primary Work

James, William. Pragmatism. 1907. New York: Barnes and Noble, 2003.

Secondary Works

Allen, Gay Wilson. William James. New York: Viking, 1967.

Ayer, Alfred Jules. The Origins of Pragmatism: Studies in the Philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce and William James. San Francisco: Freeman and Cooper, 1968.

Cooper, Wesley. The Unity of William James's Thought. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2002.

Dooley, Patrick Kiaran. Pragmatism as Humanism: The Philosophy of William James. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1974.

Gale, Richard M. The Divided Self of William James. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Knox, Howard Vicente. The Philosophy of William James. London: Constable, 1914.

Moore, Edward Center. American Pragmatism: Peirce, James, and Dewey. New York: Columbia University Press, 1961.

Perry, Ralph Barton. The Thought and Character of William James. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1996.

Roth, John K. Freedom and the Moral Life: The Ethics of William James. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1969.

Scheffler, Israel. Four Pragmatists: A Critical Introduction to Peirce, James, Mead, and Dewey. New York: Humanities Press, 1974.

Seigfried, Charlene Haddock. Chaos and Context: A Study in William James. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1978.

Suckiel, Ellen Kappy. The Pragmatic Philosophy of William James. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982.

Jan Whitt