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James: Pragmatism and Empiricism

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William James was a fellow-member of the "Metaphysical Club," where Peirce established the pragmatist movement. But James had greater academic success than his friend, using his M.D. as the basis for a respectable career teaching in the Department of Philosophy and Psychology at Harvard. Wide-ranging interests in human life, behavior, and religion led James to develop the pragmatic method more explicitly as a foundation for a thoroughly empiricist alternative to the prevailing idealism of his era.

James vigorously supported the development of psychology as an academic discipline independent of philosophy at Harvard. His own most significant contribution to the scientific study of mind was The Principles of Psychology (1890), a monumental compendium of psychological research. Although James presumed the reliability of an introspective method, his emphasis on empirical foundations helped to foster more narrowly experimental approaches.

Thus, for example, James's study was tempered by his firm supposition that the self is invariably embodied. Sensation of the external world, memory, the formation of habit, and personal identity all therefore rest upon organic features of the living body. Such realism standpoint clearly differentiated James from the idealistic theories of his American philosophical contemporaries.

Nevertheless, James himself identified consciousness as the central object of psychological investigation and devoted great attention to the "stream of thought" as experienced by the individual thinker. Most dramatically, James analyzed human volition as a the result of a deliberate exercise of will that not only secures the freedom presupposed by moral agency but also established the person as an independent being. For James, free will is both theoretically and personally essential to the character of human life.

Pragmatic Meaning

James willingly incorporated many of Peirce's pragmatic principles as part of his own conception of the philosophical method. In "What Pragmatism Means" (1907), for example, he offered a simple story about someone chasing a squirrel around a tree and suggested that a verbal dispute over whether or not the person "goes round" the squirrel can best be resolved by asking disputants about the practical bearing of each alternative. Thusly exemplified, the "pragmatic method" seems little more than the time-honored philosophical demand for precision in the use of language. As James noted,

A pragmatist . . .
 . . . turns away from abstraction and insufficiency, from verbal solutions, from bad a priori reasons, from fixed principles, closed systems, and pretended absolutes and origins
 . . . turns towards concreteness and adequacy, towards facts, towards action and towards power.
Here it is clear that pragmatism not only reacts againts the excesses of absolute idealism, but is likely to oppose rationalism in any form; it is small wonder that James published his later work in Essays in Radical Empiricism (1912) as radically empiricist.

Appealing to Dewey and Schiller as well as Peirce in "What Pragmatism Means," however, James described the acquisition of new beliefs and their assimilation to old opinions as a complex process whose features somewhat resemble traditional idealistic applications of the coherence theory of truth. Ultimately, he supposed, the crucial issue is what it would be "better for us" to believe in every instance.

Pragmatic Truth

This amounts to the development of a distinctively pragmatic theory of truth. In a later lecture from the same series ("Pragmatism's Theory of Truth") James wrote:

Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events. Its verity is in fact an event, a process: the process namely of its verifying itself, its veri-fication.
Although he accepted the most general definition of truth as a correspondence with reality, James supposed that the most crucial aspect of reality is experiential regularity. It is, then, by reference to what we (pragmatically) expect to happen that any belief acquires its use for us.

Decrying as trivial all rationalistic efforts to define truth as a system of interconnected beliefs, James baldly asserted that "'The true' . . . is only the expedient in the way of our thinking." Some reasonable qualifications follow, of course. The "payoffs" may take any number of different forms, and long-term outcomes matter more than those in the immediate present. There remains a clear sense that truth is the characteristic feature of beliefs that tend to help us to be ready for what happens in our experience. That is, belief has a function in the life of human beings—namely, to prepare us for successful action in the face of recurrent circumstances—and beliefs that best fulfil that function are the ones most deserve to be called true.

The Will to Believe

In some instances, naturally, we don't yet have enough experiential evidence upon which to base a reliable judgment. English mathematician W. K. Clifford had argued in "The Ethics of Belief" (1879) that the proper response in such cases is an agnostic one: given the social consequences of adherence to particular beliefs, it would be immoral to accept the truth of any proposition about which we cannot be wholly certain. In "The Will to Believe" (1897), James took a very different approach, explicitly defending the exercise of faith.

Note well that James here considered only those cases in which the usual methods of arriving at the truth have not (yet) yielded satisfactory results. A genuine option between two (or more) undertain hypotheses arises only when:

  1. each hypothesis is living (rather than dead) in the sense that it holds some minimal degree of appeal;
  2. the choice among them is forced (rather than avoidable) in the sense that some course of action is inevitable; and
  3. the outcome is momentous (rather than trivial) in the sense that the alternatives are significant to the whole of life.
James argued that it is appropriate to resolve such cases on non-rational grounds, as a matter of choice, passion, or volition.

The goals or aims of human cognition include both "Believe truth" and "Shun error," James pointed out, even though the two purposes may be contrary to each other in particular applications. According to James, Clifford honored the second maxim so rigidly as to risk violating the first, while a dogmatist would do the reverse. James himself supposed it vital at least to allow for a deliberate decision to believe in the absence of rational demonstration or scientific confirmation.

As a description of how many human beings do, in fact, arrive at beliefs upon which they are willing to live their lives, of course, this view is hard to dispute. But James clearly meant to recommend "the will to believe" as a practice, especially with regard to religious convictions. Like Pascal, he supposed that belief in the existence of god is, if undemonstrable, nevertheless a good wager.

Religious Experience

The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)

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