William James's Pragmatism

William James’s Pragmatism

William James’s Pragmatism is a series of eight lectures which were delivered at the Lowell Institute in Boston in 1906 and at Columbia University in New York in 1907. The complete series was published in 1907, and was dedicated to the memory of John Stuart Mill, whose pragmatic openness of mind was for James a source of inspiration.

The titles of the lectures are: “Lecture One: The Present Dilemma in Philosophy,” “Lecture Two: What Pragmatism Means,” “Lecture Three: Some Metaphysical Problems Pragmatically Considered,” “Lecture Four: The One and the Many,” “Lecture Five: Pragmatism and Common Sense,” “Lecture Six: Pragmatism’s Conception of Truth,” “Lecture Seven: Pragmatism and Humanism,” “Lecture Eight: Pragmatism and Religion.”

James informs us that the term pragmatism comes from the Greek word “pragma,” meaning action, and that the words “practice” and “practical” are also derived from this word. Thus, pragmatism emphasizes practical consequences in determining the criterion of meaning, truth, or value. Pragmatism is defined by James as primarily a method of settling metaphysical disputes which would otherwise be the source of interminable debate.

Pragmatism is a form of radical empiricism. It affirms that experience is the only source of knowledge. Reason alone cannot be a source of knowledge. Knowledge is derived from discernable facts and actions, rather than from logical proofs or abstract, rigid principles.

Pragmatism agrees with nominalism, in its concern for the particular rather than the universal; with utilitarianism, in emphasizing practical utility; and with positivism, in rejecting speculation upon final causes or ultimate ends.

Pragmatism is not only a method, but is a theory of truth as well. According to James, ideas become true to the extent that they help us to get into satisfactory relation with other parts of our experience. True ideas work when applied to our experience, false ideas do not. Old ideas that no longer work are replaced by new ideas that work when applied to practical situations.

Truth is not something abstract. Truth is what we say about ideas that work when we apply them to our experience. False ideas do not help us to meet the demands of experience.

Pragmatism does not reject theological ideas if they have pragmatic consequences. If theological ideas or mystical experiences help us to meet the demands of practical situations, they are true insofar as they help us to achieve a satisfactory relation with other parts of our experience.

In the past, philosophy has been concerned with a quest for, or a vision of, the world’s unity. James asks why philosophy should not be concerned as well with the world’s disunity. We cannot understand the world by looking only at its unity or disunity, but must look at its totality. The diversity of reality is as important as the connectedness of reality. We cannot understand our experience by viewing it only in terms of a universe or multiverse, or by relying on a philosophy of strict monism or strict pluralism. The world is both the one and the many.

Unity is necessary for us to understand our experiences. We try to bring unity to our experiences in order to understand them. If no two things in the world were alike, we would be unable to learn from our past experiences in order to respond to present or future situations. But, in order for this unity to have any pragmatic value, we also have to understand the world’s disunity.

The world is one, by as many definite conjunctions as appear, and is not one, by as many definite disjunctions as appear.

According to the pragmatic criterion of truth, true ideas have practical value, false ideas do not. Truth has “cash-value” in experiential terms. If we know the truth, we can cash it in, or make use of it.

True ideas are those that can be validated, corroborated, and verified. False ideas do not withstand this test.

Truth is dynamic. The truth of an idea is not a static property inherent in it. Truth is something that happens to an idea. An idea becomes true, or is made true by events. Truth itself is an event.

True ideas can be verified, directly or indirectly. The importance of verification is that true thoughts are instruments of action. An idea that cannot be verified cannot become a rule for action.

Truth emerges from facts, but also adds to facts. Facts are not true or false. Facts simply exist. Ideas may be true or false. True ideas or beliefs start among facts, and are determined by facts. Truth is the function of beliefs that start and end among facts. New truths may be formed from previous truths.

Pragmatism is a method of investigating the world’s possibility. The “possible” is something that is neither true nor false; but it is also more than that. The possible is not impossible, it is capable of being. A possibility may, under certain conditions, become a fact. Thus, when we say that something is a possibility, we are making a pragmatic judgment.

James’s philosophy is remarkable for its flexibility, and for its concern with adapting and responding to the world of possiblity. James’s approach is also remarkable for its ability to resolve questions of metaphysical controversy. His theory of knowedge is concerned with the utility or practical application of ideas, concepts, or value judgments, and is thus an instrumental approach to reality.

James’s theory presents us with the question of whether the utility of an idea is defined by its truth, or whether the truth of an idea is defined by its utility. Both are correct, according to James’s theory. An idea is useful because it is true, and an idea is true because it is useful. Truth is seen as equivalent to utility.

Copyright© 2000Alex Scott

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