Lecture Supplement Introducing William James [1842-1910]


     Copyright © 2014 Bruce W. Hauptli


1. A Quick-and-Dirty Overview—borrowed from William Earle:[1]


1869: M.D. in Medicine [Harvard Medical School]. 


1870: “It was indeed a specifically philosophical concern which precipitated James’s profound emotional crisis of 1870.  He had been suffering from a sense of moral impotence which only a philosophical justification of the belief in the freedom of the will could cure. 

  James addressed himself to the people, not especially to other philosophers, and he listened to the people to find out what life meant to them.  He respected not so much their common sense as their common feelings and hopes and would not allow his philosophy to dismiss cavalierly that which figured largely in the experiences of men.”[2] 


He began by teaching anatomy and physiology at Harvard [1873], turned to psychology [1875], and then [1879] to philosophy. 


1890: Principles of Psychology: “...when he spoke of the world as `a world of pure experience,’ he referred to experience as it is described in a chapter entitled “The Stream of Thought” in the Principles.”[3] 


1896: “The Will to Believe.” 


1901-1902: Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh published as The Varieties of Religious Experience in 1902. 


1906: Lowell Institute Lectures and 1907: Columbia Lectures published as Pragmatism in 1907. 


1908-1909: Hibbert Lectures at Oxford published as A Pluralistic Universe in 1909. 


“The majority of James’s books are simply transcriptions of lectures; they have all the virtues and vices of spoken discourse, and the circumstances of their presentation must help to determine the kind of analysis to which they can be fruitfully subjected.”[4] 


2. Pragmatism and Meaning:


With Peirce, he held that the way to understand an idea is to envisage its possible consequences in experience or action.  According to him (again like Peirce), pragmatism is a way of settling metaphysical disputes.  His example of the squirrel and the tree (in “What Pragmatism Means”) clarifies this.  And he regularly castigates metaphysical disputes which turn out to have no difference in experience or action.  Theories are not primarily an end but, rather a beginning (they are like tickets which we can ride on as we seek to understand and act).  But there is a difference between James and Peirce here.  For example, James recognizes that there are no successful proofs of god’s existence and no successful disproofs.  He denies, however, that  dispute between the believers and the agnostic or skeptics is a meaningless one.  He believes that the belief in god’s existence makes a difference in people’s lives.  As Paul Henle notes in his introduction to the James chapter in our text:


...James construes broadly the difference which a statement must make in possible experience to be meaningful.  It may be that there are consequences of the statement subject to scientific test; or it may be that there are no such consequences, but that belief in the statement makes a difference.  In any case, however, the general principle holds; whenever there is meaning there is a difference in some possible experience.[5] 


H.S. Thayer makes a similar point when he contrasts James and Peirce:


...while Peirce sought meaning—and the explication of ideas—in general schema and formulae of (possible) action, James focused upon the function of ideas in experience, upon distinct contributions that ideas or beliefs make in specific human actions.  Peirce was a realist (calling himself a “scholastic realist”) while James was more of a nominalist....[6] 


Cornel West characterizes the differences between James and Peirce on this issue as follows:


both shun the Cartesian problematic; both turn away from foundations, certainties, and bases and toward effects, consequences, and practices; and both view pragmatism as a method for clear thinking, not a new philosophy.  For Peirce, “practical bearings” means the purpose of action, such as to promote “the growth of concrete reasonableness,” whereas for James it means specific sensations that enable particular actions.  In addition, for Peirce agathon (the idea of the good) lies in convergence and coalescence, corporateness and oneness; for James, in diversity and individuality, concreteness and plurality.[7] 


3. Pragmatism and the Role of Our Passional Nature:


For James, given two philosophies that seem equally consistent with the facts, the one that satisfies our impulses and aesthetic demands will be taken as more rational.  No philosophy will be accepted that does not satisfy our needs.  A philosophy must be congruent with our spontaneous powers such as the impulse to “take life strivingly.” 


            Does it make any difference whether we believe either that there are moral obligations or that everything is what it is and there is no better or worse?  What difference does believing in freedom or determinism make to a person’s actual living?  James believed this question to be insoluble from a strictly theoretical point of view.  He suggests that belief in a deterministic world would make regret, for example, impossible (for one only regrets what one thinks might have not been).  If one thinks that tragic events necessarily occur, then one must become either nihilistic or unconcerned (neither of which James believes lead to a very fulfilling life).[8] 


4. James’ Instrumental View of Truth:[9]


Distinguish the views of truth offered by the





Truth as coherence

Truth as correspondence

Truth as instrumentality

Innate/Internal Structures

Minimal internal Structures

Knowing as an activity



Agreeable Leading





Also distinguish relativistic and instrumentalistic views of truth:


 ...relativists are not committed to the position that statements do not have truth-values, but rather it is held that their truth-values are relative to some theoretical frame, whereas instrumentalists do regard it as otiose to talk about truth (or rather, as Rorty puts it Truth), and advocate instead that statements be assessed in terms of their instrumental value (or fruitfulness or the like).[10] 


...A Jamesian instrumentalist also can be a realist, and hold to the notion of `Truth’ (and Popperian `approach to truth’) as a regulative ideal, as an ideal `towards which we imagine that all our temporary beliefs will some day converge’.[11] 


            James rejects the copy theory of truth and maintains that true ideas guide us.  This “guiding” is a matter of degree.  According to him, the function of ideas is to anticipate experiences and to conduct us properly from one experience to others.  Good (“true”) beliefs are not any old arbitrary ones, instead, they must take into account the realities with which we must deal:


...the knower is not simply a mirror floating with no foothold anywhere, and passively reflecting an order that he comes upon and finds simply existing.  The knower is an actor and coefficient of the truth on one side, whilst on the other he registers the truth which he helps to create.[12] 


            An idea or theory is true based on its ability to carry, or be of use to, us.  True ideas or theories:


(1) explain new experience without disrupting old beliefs,


(2) predict future experience better than alternatives,


(3) harmonize with other experiences, and


(4) lead to better and more fulfilling lives. 


At times James suggests that each person could hold as true whatever it is helpful to him to believe.  He also suggests, however, that a theory must work for all in the long run.  There is a conflict here between subjectivistic and objectivistic [or, perhaps better: intersubjectivistic] views of truth here.  Cornell West maintains that:


James’s pragmatic theory of truth, although far less rigorously worked out than that of Peirce, is a serious American intervention into the international philosophical conversation.  The major impact of this theory is to shift talk about truth to talk about knowledge, and talk about knowledge to talk about the achievements of human powers and practices.  Therefore James retains a correspondence theory of truth, yet it is rather innocuous in that rational acceptability is the test for truth claims we accept.  In short, James demotes truth without eliminating it; he temporalizes knowledge and links it to human satisfaction and success.  At times, it seems he is confusing truth with justification or ontological claims with epistemic ones.  This seems so principally because truth and ontology have so little work to do in James’s pragmatism; that is, they principally are explained in terms of justification and epistemology, but not explained away.[13]


5. Knowing As An Activity:


For James (as for Peirce and the other pragmatists), knowing is not a passive activity like seeing—it is essentially a form of activity.  Instead of being concerned with “copying” reality, it is concerned with the anticipation of future experience and, of course, with changing reality if possible and requisite.  Whereas traditional epistemology conceived of the “knower” as a passive picturer of reality (or an active “maker” of reality, for some idealists), James’ pragmatism emphasizes the “knower” as an agent in reality—an agent who must sometimes “adjust” him/herself to the dictates of independent reality, and who may sometimes “adjust” that reality to fit her/his demands or desires. 


6. James’ Psychology:


H.S. Thayer maintains that:


James’ conception of psychology, its real subject matter and method, is central to all of his other philosophic work.  It is the point of departure for his study of religious experience and belief, his view of scientific knowledge, his analyses of the nature of value, meaning, and truth.  In this James is able to encompass what, to some thinkers, was inimical: an exceedingly sensitive, open, and liberal view of the operations and flights of our thinking, with a biological, evolutionary, and bodily (or physically) centered explanation of all our mental activity. 

  James’ functional approach to psychological subject matters is evident in his manner of identifying mental phenomena....[14] 


Thayer cites James who says:


the pursuance of future ends and choice of means for their attainment are thus the mark and criterion of the presence of mentality in a phenomenon.[15] 


William Earle notes that:


he was convinced that pure description in the manner of phenomenology is impossible.  Description cannot be other than conceptual; concepts, in turn, are tools of classification that have inexpungable conventional and theoretical elements.  Concepts do not passively mirror; they select according to human interests and purposes.  Assumptions, James maintained, have a way of establishing themselves `in our very descriptions of the phenomenal facts’.  Naive phenomenology attempts to eliminate assumptions from descriptive statements.  This is an impossible task if for no other reason than that every allegedly assumption-free phenomenology must itself make doubtful assumptions, including the assumption that there can be description without classification.[16] 


The basic assumption of the Principles and its `convenient’ point of departure is the existence of mental states.  The first task of psychology is to describe the conditions of these mental states with as much detail and completeness as possible.[17] 


Mentality, as James defined it, exists wherever we find the choice of means for the attainment of future ends.[18] 


...the principal method of psychology is introspective observation....The truth of any observation, introspective or otherwise, is not to be found in the character of the source of the observation but in the consequent service, especially theoretical service, which the observation and its correlative preservation in description can be made to render.  There is therefore no simple and immediate verification of observations, no once and for all validation of descriptions.  For James `the only safeguard [of truth] is the final consensus of our further knowledge about the thing in question, later views correcting earlier ones until at last the harmony of a consistent system is reached’.  James’ own descriptions in the Principles must lend themselves to this kind of pragmatic coordination.”[19] 


7. Radical Empiricism:


According to James, what is given to us is a world of pure experience, a world in which distinctions are not as yet made (a “booming buzzing confusion”).  We actively seek to emerge from this confusion.  James’ brand of empiricism does not picture the knower as a passive receiver of data as did much of British empiricism, nor does his philosophy postulate an active and independent self (or mind) which “makes” the world.  According to him, in initial, unreflective experience both the self and the world are present.  However, they are not present as two parts that can be distinguished as such but, rather, as two different points of view (two different ways of looking at experience).  My experience of a room, for example, can be viewed in relation to a series of past, present, and future experiences which is my “self” or in relation to the other events in “the history of the room.”  The self is thus simply a stream of interconnected experiences, a flow of consciousness. 


            For James, no “block universe” exists—such a universe would be one in which everything is permanently fixed and tightly connected).  Instead, the universe, as James conceived it is a “pluralistic” one and one in which it is possible for the human freedom within it to make a difference.  James maintains that nature is not a static unchanging “thing,” instead he maintains that it may change and be added to.  Unlike Peirce, however, he does not promote a evolutionary account of nature. 


Notes: [click on the note number to return to text for the note]

[1] Cf., William Earle, “William James,” in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Paul Edwards (New York: Macmillan, 1967), v. 4, pp. 240-249. 

[2] Ibid., p. 241. 

[3] Ibid., p. 242. 

[4] Ibid. 

[5] Paul Henle, “Introduction” to James Chapter in Classic American Philosophers, Max Fisch (ed.) (New York: Appleton, 1951), pp. 155-127, p. 117. 

[6] Ibid.,  p. 124. 

[7] Cornel West, The American Evasion of Philosophy (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin, 1989), p. 56. 

[8] Cf., William James, “The Dilemma of Determinism”, in his The Will To Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy and Human Immortality (books bound as one) (New York: Dover, 1951), pp. 145-183. 

[9] Many commentators maintain that James had a “relativistic” rather than an “instrumental” view of truth (and many confuse the two).  Cf., D.C. Phillips, “Was William James Telling the Truth After All?”, in William James: Pragmatism In Focus, Doris Olin, ed. (London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 229-247. 

[10] Ibid., p. 244. 

[11] Ibid

[12] William James, in a letter to Christine Ladd-Franklin.  Cited by H.S. Thayer in his “Introduction” to the James chapter in Pragmatism: The Classic Writings H.S. Thayer, ed., op. cit., p. 125. 

[13] Cornel West, The American Evasion of Philosophy, op. cit., p. 67. 

[14] H.S. Thayer, “Introduction” to the James chapter in Pragmatism: The Classic Writings, op. cit.,  pp. 126-127. 

[15] William James, The Principles of Psychology (New York, 1890) v. 1, p. 8.  Cited in H.S. Thayer, “Introduction” to the James Chapter in Pragmatism: The Classic Writings, op. cit., p. 127. 

[16] William Earle, “William James,” op. cit., p. 242. 

[17] Ibid., p. 243. 

[18] Ibid. 

[19] Ibid. 

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File revised on 09/18/2014