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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


JAMES

(1842 — 1910)

 

'RADICAL EMPIRICISM'/ PRAGMATISM

William James was born in New York. His father was a philosopher and Swedenborgian theologian; his brother was Henry James the novelist. He was brought up in a liberal atmosphere, and received a wide education in a number of schools in Europe before studying medicine at Harvard and experimental physiology under von Helmholtz at Heidelberg. He gained his M.D. degree in 1869. From 1873 he lectured at Harvard, initially in physiology and psychology and then from 1879 in philosophy, in which he had been becoming increasingly interested for a number of years after an intellectual and emotional crisis. He was appointed full professor of psychology in 1889 and of philosophy in 1897. He gave the Gifford Lectures at Edinburgh in 1901/2 and the Hibbert Lectures at Oxford in 1908/9.

 

METHODOLOGY/ KNOWLEDGE

[1] [See Pragmatism.] James's pragmatism is a procedure for determining the 'meaning' of concepts and theories [a]. We look to the particular practical effects of an object or theory to achieve clarity in our thoughts about it. If two different theories bring about the same consequences they are really the same thing. But more importantly his pragmatic method is a theory of truth.

Truth for James is a property of some of our beliefs expressed in statements, whereby they relate to things, objects in the world, that is, possible experiences [Lecture VI; also The Meaning of Truth]. The 'correspondence' is accounted for not through any kind of 'picturing' but in terms of the way our ideas are made true. He thinks of an idea as a plan of action, producing consequences. The idea, which is the starting-point (terminus a quo), will — if it is true — lead to the consequences (the terminus ad quem). Unverified 'truths' are therefore true only potentially. If a given truth or theory works, then it must 'mediate', that is, be consistent with previous truths and the appropriate new experiences. This usually gives a 'satisfaction' as a sign of truth [b]: but this is not a sufficient condition, for subsequent evidence may show the idea to be false.

James explains his general philosophical position [see also Radical Empiricism] with reference to (1) a 'postulate', (2) a 'statement of fact', and (3) a 'generalized conclusion'. The postulate is that philosophers should consider only those matters which are definable in terms of experience; therein lies the utility of concepts [c]. But what does he mean by 'experience'? Firstly he accepts the distinction between 'relations of ideas' and 'matters of fact' [d]. With reference to the latter, he distinguishes between 'pure' and 'ordinary' experience. Pure experience is pure immediate feeling or sensation before it is categorized through reflection, that is, before we differentiate between consciousness and content, or mind and matter. As for ordinary (phenomenal) experience, this is of reality as a plurality ordered by mind and revealed to us through our categorization. Our experience is a unity in a formal or psychological sense rather than an ontological sense [e]. James is critical of traditional a priori metaphysics, and of Absolute Idealism in particular. He says that there can be no realizable 'final' or 'absolute' truth, because all beliefs are open to the possibility of revision. None of them is definite or determinate; they are all inter-dependent and relative to human experience. He calls this his 'humanism' [f]. And he also rejects the doctrine that relations are internal with its consequence that the world is unreal or only partially real [g]. For him relations are external and real; the concepts they relate are not changed by their being related in conjunctive or disjunctive judgements. Indeed, such relations are themselves objects of experience just as 'things' are (this is his 'statement of fact'); and we can be said to have knowledge in the relating of the parts of pure experience. Nevertheless he maintains a certain openess in his attitude to metaphysical problems and does not dismiss them as so much nonsense [h]. Instead he says that various claims or beliefs (for example, about the existence of God, 'things in themselves', or consciousness) are simply not provable (or indeed disprovable) by purely intellectual processes [see Varieties of Religious Experience]. The 'generalized conclusion' of what he calls his 'radical empiricism' is that the knowable universe has in itself a continuous unified structure which is independent of our categories [i]. As for knowledge itself, he says (quoting Grote) each act of cognition implies the existence of a 'feeling' (that is, Lockean 'idea') which we can be said to have acquaintance with. This knowledge is 'phenomenal'. But we also have knowledge about these ideas which is more conceptual or intellectual and expressed in judgements or propositions. All qualities of feeling, so long as there is anything outside of them which they resemble, are feelings of qualities of existence, and perceptions of outward fact — they point to the reality. Solipsism is avoided because we believe our percepts are possessed by us in common; and this is tested out in practice [j]. James thus supports his philosophical position by his pragmatic method — though he grants that it could also be held by non-pragmatists. He also allows that one can reject his radical empiricism and still be a pragmatist [Preface].

Although a 'radical empiricist' James is not committed to determinism. He affirms the (trans-categorial) reality of causal connections but at the same time he wants to find a place for human free will. This is accommodated within the general context of his account of chance and continuity in the universe [k]. Chance is illustrated by novelty which emerges from processes of continuous change although not logically or ontologically already implicit in them. But it may be not fully understood in terms of scientific laws and may be ultimately inexplicable.

 

PHILOSOPHY OF MIND/ PSYCHOLOGY

[2] [See Principles of Psychology.] James was a psychologist as well as a philosopher. What he says about the 'mind' is therefore of considerable interest. Starting from the fact that man is a living functional unity and rejecting all a priori metaphysics, James develops a generally descriptive approach, that is, he selects, classifies, and analyses assumptions in the light of our own interests (for example, as scientists, philosophers), and articulates the consequences of such classification. He appeals to introspection, but he says this reveals no special infallible status for mental contents; they can be assessed only in relation to what he calls the 'final consensus' of our later knowledge. According to James, what is revealed to introspective observation is thoughts, feelings, and sensations [a]. He draws attention to thought in particular, which he says is characterized by five features. Thought belongs to an active personal consciousness or 'self'; it is constantly changing; it is a continuous stream; it deals with objects independent from itself; it is selective and has 'interests'. He rejects views which analyse thought as passive, the 'object' of perception and unambiguously categorizable. Thought is a function of a purposive and ordering mental life. And, indeed, in the context of his purposive instrumentalism in general he seems to argue that there is no clear dividing line between the mental and the physical [b]. He calls this view 'neutral monism'.

 

PHILOSOPHY OF RELIGION

[3] [Pragmatism, Lecture VIII; also The Varieties of Religious Experience.] Given James's commitment to 'experience', how can he account for belief in God? Consistent with his method his answer is pragmatic. It might seem that religious belief goes beyond experience; and James certainly rejects the possibility that God's existence (or non-existence) can be proved intellectually. But he appeals instead to "inner personal experiences" which put him in touch with a "wider self", "a superhuman life", "higher part of the universe" with which we are "co-conscious", and which has an effect in the world [a]. At the same time, such a being must be finite in view of the presence of moral and natural evil [b]. Our aim must therefore be to cooperate with God to make things better, though the outcome is not certain. James therefore calls his approach 'meliorism' rather than 'optimism'. If we believe, then at least we must test our ethical and religious beliefs in action [c]. This is his doctrine of "the will to believe". But he advocates no commitment to any particular religious orthodoxy.

 

CRITICAL SUMMARY

James is notable for his emphasis on openness to all kinds of experience, for the monist features of his philosophy, and for his pragmatic account of truth. With reference to the latter, however, he does seem to oscillate between a view that 'true' is defined in (practical) terms of 'verifiability' (or successful 'working') and the view that truths are in some sense 'made' by the verification of a belief (verification thus being a test or sign). The latter approach fits in better with his 'anti-realist' and nominalist tendencies. The former view also raises the problem of truths as yet unverified — how can we know? Nevertheless, it can be said that James's blending of an implicitly realist correspondence theory with a coherence theory of truth (expressed in terms of consistency and 'satisfaction' — despite the ambiguity of this term) has much to commend it. On the debit side, his employment of a wide notion of experience might suggest that anything is admissible to support verification. What does constitute an adequate test? This problem becomes particularly acute in his treatment of religion and God.

His general monism — that everything is made of a 'primal stuff', namely pure experience — has the merit of avoiding difficulties associated with both rationalist dualism and narrow empiricism. But it can be questioned whether, by referring to different 'functions' within the totality of 'pure' experience, he has accounted satisfactorily for the distinction between the knower and the known, the subject and the object. His distinction between 'pure' and categorizing 'ordinary' experience, which leads to formal monism, is, however, a potentially fruitful one, although it needs more working out than he provided.

 

READING

James: [of many works] The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (1902); Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (1907); The Meaning of Truth (1909); A Pluralistic Universe (1909); Essays in Radical Empiricism (1912). There are numerous editions of some of these texts. There is a useful single volume edition of Pragmatism and The Meaning of Truth, with and introduction by A. J. Ayer

Studies

G. Bird, William James (The Arguments of the Philosophers).

G.E. Moore, Philosophical Studies, "William James' 'Pragmatism' ".

R. B. Perry, In the Spirit of William James.

B. Russell, Philosophical Essays, "William James' 'Conception of Truth' and 'Pragmatism' ".

T. L. S. Sprigge, James and Bradley: American Truth and British Reality.

Collection of essays

R. A. Putnam (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to William James.



 

CONNECTIONS

James

 

[1a] Pragmatism to determine meaning of concepts and theories    Peirce [1f]

 

[1b]

Pragmatism as theory of truth: truth a property of beliefs; 'correspondence' relation between ideas and possible experiences; truth as way ideas are made true (consequences); 'satisfaction' as sign, consistency of experiences with previous truths primary criterion ('coherence')

   Peirce

Bradley

Royce

Dewey

Santayana

   Scheler

Russell

[1j 1f]

[6a b]

[1c]

[1b 2b c]

[4c]

[1c]

[1g]

 

[1c e] Philosophy grounded in experience (therein lies utility of concepts): 'ordinary' (phenomenal) experience of real plurality through mental categories, derived from 'pure' experience (immediate uncategorized feeling/ sensation)

   Locke

   Hume

   Kant

   Mill

Bradley

Royce

Dewey

   Whitehead

Russell

 

[2a]

[1c 2c]

[2c d]

[2a]

[3a 5c]

[1c e]

[1a 2a]

[4g]

[3a]

 

 

[1d] Distinction between 'relations of ideas' and 'matters of fact'    Hume [1g]

 

[1f h; see also 3a] Revisability — no realizable final truth; beliefs interdependent, relative to experience (hencerejection of idealist absolutism) but openness to metaphysical problems

   Hume

   Kant

   Mill

   Peirce

Bradley

Royce

Dewey

 

[1b 2e]

[2d]

[2a]

[2a c]

[2a]

[1b c f]

[1a 2b 2c]

 

 

[1g] Critique of doctrine of internal relations; relations and world are real

   Hume

   Peirce

Bradley

Whitehead

[1d]

[1j]

[1d]

[4f]

 

[1i; cf. 1c e] Knowable universe as unified structure independent of our categories

   Kant

Bradley

Royce

[2c 3c]

[3a]

[1a b]

 

[1j] Knowledge as acquaintance and 'knowledge-about'; common percepts tested in practice

   Locke

Russell

[2a]

[3a]

 

[1k] Causal connections real, but rejection of determinism; free-will implicit as 'chance' in processes of continuous change

   Hume

   Kant

   Peirce

   Bradley

   Bergson

[1h]

[3e 5c]

[3a b]

[7a]

[3b]

 

[2a] Man as living unity, rejection of a priori metaphysics; descriptive methods; introspection reveals only thoughts/ feelings; no infallibility in mental contents

   Descartes

   Hume

   Mill

Dewey

   Scheler

[2a]

[2d]

[2c]

[2c]

[4a c d]

 

[2b] Thought (personal consciousness) as active, continuous, changing 'stream' (= 'self'); no clear division between mental and physical ('neutral monism'); instrumentalism

   Descartes

   Hume

   Kant

   Mill

   Peirce

Bradley

   Husserl

   Bergson

Whitehead

Russell

   Scheler

Ayer

[2a 3g]

[2d]

[3b]

[2c]

[3c]

[4a]

[6b]

[1b c 2a 4a]

[4h]

[2f]

[4a c d]

[3c]

 

[3a] God's existence (or non-existence not provable, but belief in God grounded in inner experience — co-consciousness with 'wider self', 'higher part of the universe'

   Hume

   Kant

Royce

   Dewey

[5a]

[11a]

[2a e]

[6a]

 

[3b] Incomptibility of infinite being with existence of evil in world

   Mill

Royce

[5c]

[2g]

 

[3c] 'Meliorism' — improvement of world through man's cooperation with God; belief (ethical, religious) tested in action

   Mill

   Peirce

Royce

Whitehead

   Santayana

   Scheler

[5b]

[4a]

[2a 2f]

[5b]

[2a]

[3c]