The Promise and Limits of William James’s Pragmatism

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William James (Wikimedia Commons)

One of the many surprises upon re-reading William James’s late lectures, collected under the title Pragmatism: a New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, was his sympathetic citation, at the beginning of Lecture One, of G.K. Chesterton’s Heretics. It is hard to imagine two more uncongenial minds than Chesterton, the diehard Thomist, and James, the lapsed liberal Protestant, and it is hard to think of a book more at odds with James’s religious phenomenology, The Variety of Religious Experience, than Heretics.

On closer inspection, however, James’s invocation of Chesterton makes sense because it references two slender points of contact between them: their shared belief that the most important thing to know about a man (sic) is his philosophy, and that the important thing about said philosophy is the way it inevitably shapes the life of the human being who inhabits it. “It [philosophy] 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.”

James’s imagery here is that of Newtonian Physics — we live in a universe that wraps us in its causal webs, and our ability to respond to the nodes of this web constitutes our mute attempt to understand how we cope with life. It is not the kind of imagery Chesterton regularly employed, but if one understands James’s problematic, as explicitly expressed in Pragmatism and implicitly in “The Will to Believe”, we can also understand why James found physical imagery congenial, as well as why Chesterton would not.

For all his reliance on Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae, Chesterton remained a kind of philosophical Romantic, of a piece with fellow Roman Catholic Gerard Manley Hopkins. He evinces a kind of aimiable, untroubled acceptance of Catholic dogma because of his prior acceptance of Catholic sensibility, that faith was a gift directed at the heart rather than the head. He would agree with James that one embraces a philosophy out of temperament, and that his temperament, again like James’s, had a soft spot for religion.

But James had different fish to fry. His well-known trope of “the tough minded” and “the tender minded” reflects a concern with the place of religious faith in a world understood through scientific inquiry, a problem that his more easygoing predecessor Emerson negotiated by giving faith over to a transcendentalist vision of the godliness dwelling in the human spirit. This was something of which James — the melancholic, the scientific psychologist — was temperamentally incapable. If James was right to think that philosophy is more like an expression of temperament than playing secretary to the Absolute, then Emersonian transcendentalism would appear to be as obtuse as Catholic and Anglo-Catholic dogmatism, and for much the same reason. They are two modes of giving everything over to tender-mindedness. And while James was consistent in giving tender-mindedness its due, it is pretty clear that his radical empiricism generated tough-minded judgments, conclusions, and sensibilities. Emerson nodded to Kant and Fichte; James dedicated Pragmatism to John Stuart Mill — celebrated in his Preface as an open minded pragmatist avant la lettre “whom my fancy likes to picture as our leader were he alive today”.

Whereas Emerson’s transcendentalism put him thoroughly at odds with the tradition of British Empiricism, James’s appeal to “radical empiricism” put him at odds only with the “atomism of input”, and its consequent associationist psychology, common to Hobbes, Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. Indeed, Hume can be viewed as the reductio of psychological atomism, in that it inexorably leads to epistemological skepticism, at least about causality, induction, substance, psychological unity, and God. Hume was easygoing about his skepticism — it can safely be ignored since even if lacking in rational warrant, our commitment to causal regularity etc. comes “naturally” to us, hence we should have no problem invoking it in both practice and theory. But James, though empiricist, was not Humean. Hume’s “atomism of input” ultimately rests on prior epistemological — and indeed metaphysical — assumptions about evidence that do not survive tough-minded inspection. For James, there are real relations within experience. Experience is not a loose bundle of discrete impressions that we link together through reflection and abstractive association. It is a meaningful stream of interrelated particulars. James’s “pluralistic universe” is nothing other than this radically interconnected stream of experience.

For all this, though, James remained a nominalist, precisely because his radically holistic construal of experience was still firmly empiricist. He was not an “unum nomen, unum nominatum” (“one name per one thing-named”) empiricist in the like of Ockham, Locke, and Berkeley, committed to a distinction between “real” and “nominal” essences. But names are a function of how we organize experience — radical experience as such is a “blooming, buzzing confusion” that responds to our rage for order, a rage answerable to our own human interests, and really nothing else. James’s empiricism is far from that of the classic British Empiricists, or for that matter of Bertrand Russell and G.E. Moore. But, although “radical”, he remains empiricist to the core, even if only a distant cousin to its central figures.

My problem with James, then, is that his radical empiricism is insufficiently radical because still essentially empiricist. Furthermore, it sits uncomfortably with the pragmatic method he champions.

As Donald Davidson pointed out, the scheme/content distinction is baked into empiricism as a dogma, alongside the analytic/synthetic dichotomy and epistemic reductionism. But if this “third dogma of empiricism” goes by the boards, there is very little “empiricism” left to defend. For Davidson, any organizing scheme that pays its way by fitting scheme to content presupposes a content already determinate and definite enough to have already been organized by a scheme. And any organizing scheme that pays its way by organizing content the way a cookie-cutter organizes dough — structuring a chaos, which seems to be James’s position, a holistic nominalism, a higher nominalism of will and human interest — presupposes the intelligibility of “radically incommensurable conceptual schemes”. Davidson argues, persuasively in my opinion, that this is incoherent, since translatability between linguistic schemes would be ruled out at the start, which undercuts the idea that the target language/scheme is a language/scheme to begin with. James is, I think, clearly committed to a scheme/content distinction (radical experience as content, our concepts as scheme, a scheme that we willfully impose on experience), as well as the possibility of radically incommensurable schemes (science v. religion, determinism v. free will, etc.). But Davidson has, I think successfully, exposed this third dogma as an arbitrary and indefensible dogma. What, then, can we make of James’s attempts to vindicate radical empiricism pragmatically?

James’s pragmatic method is cited as a means for settling seemingly intractable “metaphysical” disputes; read “metaphysical” as the tender-minded assumption that some kind of transcendental reasoning can determine which conceptual scheme is the correct one. His parable of the squirrel running around the tree trunk, and the corresponding question of “Does the man go around the squirrel or not?” is designed to tough-mindedly undercut the metaphysical assumption that there must be one and only one correct description, using the correct set of concepts, of this case. And there isn’t: the answer depends on what you mean by “around”, and what you aim to accomplish in asking the question. The squirrel-tree experience can go either way, depending on what sense we are trying to make of it. And what we make of it is entirely up to us.

Viewed thus, pragmatism is a kind of tough-minded way of clearing the ground of metaphysical hogwash for conclusions that might even wind up in the tender-minded camp. Thus, regarding religious belief, it is clear that no rational proofs can be given for the existence of the God of Jerusalem-based monotheism, and that any attempt to invoke said God as a scientific explanans is illegitimate (James would have loathed “Intelligent Design” even more than Biblical literalism, since the latter makes no claims to being “scientific”). That said, there is no reason not to embrace a God that is consistent with scientific inquiry; as he argues in “The Will to Believe”, one has a cognitive right to believe in God if it is not ruled out by science (and it isn’t). Likewise with the belief of human freedom, or freedom of the will, versus determinism. In short, one can use a pragmatic method that is temperamentally tough-minded to endorse tender-minded convictions, e.g., Kant’s triad of “God, Freedom, Immortality”, without reliance on the standard, and useless, metaphysical argumentation.

Therein lies the promise of James’s Pragmatism: if beliefs are, in Peirce’s words, “habits of action” or tools that enable us to stabilize experience, nothing that the tender-minded desire can be ruled-out a priori. In a sense, James wants to champion science the same way Wilfred Sellars did, as “the measure of all things”, while also making space for those humanistic values that comprise “the manifest image” of persons pursuing ends that make life meaningful. He gives us a tough-minded defense of science as well as an equally tough-minded critique of scientism. In this, he makes common cause with many 19th century philosophers and essayists who accepted the Darwinian challenge to faith yet lamented the loss of the intellectual basis for Christian orthodoxy, whether Catholic or Protestant. He catches the same worries that Matthew Arnold did in “Dover Beach”, or Thomas Hardy in “Hap.” And he provides a very different escape route from those of John Henry Newman or Chesterton, in that the adherence to dogma they championed is relinquished in favor of the appeal to religious experience and the pragmatic right to believe. Jamesian pragmatism is a defense of Romantic Religion by decidedly non-Romantic means. It would drive the New Atheists up the wall: it is hard not to respect this.

Yet James’s pragmatism has limits — limits inherent in James’s radical empiricism. John McDowell, who like Davidson could justly be called a “post-empiricist”, came up with the perfect metaphor for what ails all attempts, whether rationalist or empiricist, whether realist or idealist/anti-realist, whether essentialist or nominalist, to grasp the relationship between mind and world. All of the above attempt a “sideways-on” view of this relation, an attempt that is doomed from the start, since any such attempt is already in the mind-world relationship that it purports to describe. It may be stretching things to characterize Jamesian radical empiricism, and its correlative holistic nominalism, as another sideways-on attempt. But I think it is such an attempt, and gives views of “what works”, of the nature of truth, and the place of individual human willing in belief-formation that betray a “sideways-on” agenda — a metaphysical agenda, to boot.

Like Arnold in Culture and Anarchy, James’s Pragmatism is a muscular doctrine: a doctrine centered on the steeling of individual will to endure and prevail in a challenging and confusing world. This is not a bad thing at all. But it is not the whole picture, a picture that can be viewed sideways-on.

There is no sideways-on perspective on the mind-world relationship. We are immersed in world-disclosing practices, what Heidegger called Mit-Sein (being-with) others in a relationship of care, or what Wittgenstein called shared Forms-of-Life within which we are attuned to each other’s judgments and sensitivities. If, as James said, “the trail of the human serpent is on everything”, so to is the mark of what Heidegger called “the world”, the totality of significances in which our thrown-projections take place. World and self are gleichurspringlich, equally primordial, and the self not only creates social-linguistic practices but inhabits them. Likewise Wittgenstein’s Forms-of-life are not decisions on our part. Sound linguistic practice — what Wittgenstein called grammar — seizes us before we can seize it.

For all his sincere advocacy of pragmatism, James seemed very quiet about actual practices, and thus exhibited an individualism quite opposed to that of Dewey, who I think actually succeeded in overcoming empiricism by understanding individuality as emerging from sociality. Contrasted with Dewey, James’s pragmatism is almost solipsistic: the muscular individual confronting the “blooming, buzzing confusion” of radical experience with steely resolve. With Dewey, however, pragmatism morphs from a method to a way of life, one that is social as well as individual, and therefore political as well. So perhaps the greatest promise of Jamesian pragmatism was contained in its limitations — its “higher nominalism of the will” and muscular individualism. Its limitations were overcome in Dewey’s aufhebung of pragmatism into radical liberal social democracy.

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