Work by William James
, first published in 1907. The text is a transcript of lectures given by James at Lowell Institute
in 1906. The audience consisted of a wide range of people and so James' exposition of his philosophy
is not difficult to understand even for those with little formal training in philosophical concepts and methodologies.
Pragmatism by William James: Preface
Pragmatism by William James: Lecture I: The Present Dilemma in Philosophy
Pragmatism by William James: Lecture II: What Pragmatism Means
Pragmatism by William James: Lecture III: Some Metaphysical Problems Pragmatically Considered
Pragmatism by William James: Lecture IV: The One and the Many
Pragmatism by William James: Lecture V: Pragmatism and Common Sense
Pragmatism by William James: Lecture VI: Pragmatism's Conception of Truth
Pragmatism by William James: Lecture VII: Pragmatism and Humanism
Pragmatism by William James: Lecture VII: Pragmatism and Religion
An Introduction to William James's Pragmatism.
In the book of the name, William James offers pragmatism
as "primarily a methodology
"; as opposed to a philosophical theory
, pragmatism is a method for developing theories, a way of asking and answering questions. In the first chapter, James offers a rhetorical
resituatuion of philosophical discourse
. He discusses the difference between the tough-minded temperament
and the tender-minded temperament, in philosophy, as in life. For James, then, philosophical dispute shouldn't be had at the level of "my theory versus your theory", but rather at the level of "my way of thinking about things versus your way". Philosophical differences are not rootd so much in terms of metaphysical
theories about the way things are or should be, but can be better spelled out in terms of differing ways of appreciating and valuing life -- a difference of temperament. James wrote, "The history of philosophy is to a great extent that of a certain clash of human temperaments... Temperaments with their cravings and refusals do determine men in their philosophies, and always will" (Pragmatism
pages 6 & 19).
James was well aware that his rhetorical gesture of seeing philosophical differences as clashing value systems would not be popular in the academy. James admits that "professional philosophers" may judge his writing to be "crude in an unpardonable, nay, in an almost incredible degree" (Pragmatism
, page 18). Nonetheless, James, and later pragmatists like John Dewey
and Richard Rorty
have always thought it important that pragmatism should offer a true alternative in philosophy, an alternaive that answers to questions that traditional epistemology
-centered philosophies (such as analytic philosophy
do not always concern themselves with.
James writes that the full scope of pragmatism is, "First, a method; and second, a genetic theory of what is meant by truth" (Pragmatism
, page 32). Of course, a pragmatic theory of truth
can be nothing but the fallout of the pragmatic method since all that pragmatism implies is the initial methodological commitment. James's pragmatic theory of truth
is complex and difficult to understand, not the least due to the fact that in his work, James is always striving to offer a new conception of doing philosophy, which involves (as suggested above) rhetorical innovations with which we are not ready-familiar. First of all, writes James, truth is a matter of agreement. It "means their 'agreement,' as falsity means their disagreement, with 'reality'. Pragmatists and intellectualists both accept this definition as a matter of course" (Pragmatism
, page 87). How exactly we unpack this definition, of course, will be a philosophically-sensitive matter. Above all, it will depend on how we understand the terms "agreement
" and "reality
", which are the key terms of the definition. It comes as no surprise, then, that James characterized pragmatism as a method and a theory of truth, for the theory of truth will reveal a great deal of the method's philosophical residue, which will constitute the philosophical 'theories' that pragmatists want to advance.
In the interest of brevity, I will not here offer exegesis
on what James means by "agreeing" and "reality" -- entire books have been written on the subject. Instead, I will offer the following summary of James's theory of truth: truth, according to James, is a function defining working
, or success
. A belief tends to be true insofar as it tends to be succesful in the many ways that success has come to be defined in practical activity. The theory is more complex than just the simple claim that a belief is true when it works, false when it does not. In fact, human behavior
is far more complex than simple single-event tests. True beliefs are true 'in the long run', and they are true according to a community of believers, a community that together constitute a practice. Truth is as complex as the varied relationships we have with our beliefs. For example, at one time, a belief may be true, and at another time false. Yet, as we value consistency in our practices, it is rare for such a shift in truth-value to occur over a short period of time. That geocentric astronomy
was a true theory before Tycho Brahe
's time does not imply a relativism
regarding beliefs that will eliminate any extra-subjective
standards in human conduct. On the contrary, the context of astronomy in ancient Egypt was quite different than the context in the seventeenth century, or even today. It is the dynamic nature of our practices that require us to evolve
with our beliefs, rather than obstinately adhere to old-fashioned ways of thinking.
In his 1909 book, The Meaning of Truth
, James defended the pragmatism he presented in his Pragmatism
, from a variety of charges, including the one suggested above, that pragmatism encourages philosophical relativism.