The most influential philosophy in America in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Viewed against the widely diversified intellectual currents that have characterized American life, pragmatism stands out as an energetically evolved philosophical movement. As a movement it is best understood as, in part, a critical rejection of much of traditional academic philosophy and, in part, a regard to establish certain positive aims. It is in these respects, rather than because of any one idea or exclusive doctrine, that pragmatism has been the most distinctive and the major contribution of America to the world of philosophy. The historical occasion of the birth of pragmatism is complicated by the fact that it was to some extent the product of co-operative deliberation and mutual influences within the 'Metaphysical Club', founded by Peirce, James and others in the 1870s in Cambridge. Peirce and James often gave very different accounts of what they understood by 'pragmatism'. Nevertheless, despite different influences of Peirce, James, and John Dewey, pragmatism is to be viewed as a group of associated theoretical ideas and attitudes developed over a period of time and exhibiting rather significant shifts in direction and formulation.

Plato, Sophocles, Voltaire, Hobbes, Locke, Camus; throughout the ages there have been many who proposed ways of understanding the world. Some took abstract or theological perspectives, others empirical, fact-based evaluations. Doubt and faith are championed in equal measure in the annals of intellectual discourse. But despite these contrasts, the whole lineage of study can still rightly be called philosophy. At the turn of the last century, William James attempted something new in the realm of philosophic inquiry through his lectures on Pragmatism. His goal was to bridge the gap between empiricism and rationalism with a metaphilosophy that could ground both in immediately applicable reality. His thesis was that by harnessing its practical, pragmatic potential, philosophy could both be united and universalized to ultimate benefit, an argument I believe he succeeded in defending.

William James begins the lecture series by laying out definitions, history, and general information about the state of philosophy. He goes into detail about the conflicts between "tender-minded" rationalists and "tough-minded" empiricists (11), summarizing the evidence and justifications for both positions to an adequately thorough degree. Once this has been done, he posits the concept of a uniting philosophy that can soothe the tensions between schools of thought: they are both right. Cop out that this may sound, further explaination reveals the opinion to be more than that. To William James, "the pragmatic method is primarily a method of settling metaphysical disputes that otherwise might be interminable.. to try to interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences" (24). Thrusting past intricate logic, past emotional appeals and fundamental dogma, William James gets to the root of the matter; What is the consequence of this philosophic notion? What changes if this is considered true? If there are no practical changes to the world around us, the problem is solved.

In subsequent lectures, William James broadens and justifies these statements. He applies the pragmatic method to select philosophical quandries, such as free will vs. fate, religion vs. atheism, and other important questions of both the ancient and modern world. Using the agreeable results of analysis as evidence, he then shows how pragmatism can take philosophy to the common man from its ivory tower through illustratin of practical consequences. Finally, he devotes time to applying pragmatism to whole classes of philosophy, like humanism, in order to better clarify and offer new perspectives from a pragmatic perspective.

I found William James' defence of his philosophy impressive. He used lucid explaination, wry humor, and sold logical deduction to provide support for his position. Since the audience at the time of speaking was composed of both philosophers and laypersons, he made sure that all terms were amply defined and understood before moving on. "Dumbing down," was never an issue, however, following the racing paths of his mind was always an envigorating challenge. Mixing both scientific and religious concepts into his lecture helped to contribute an objective, unversal quality. My only qualm was in the excitement of the moment William James would sometimes quote Latin, German, or other foreign languages from philosophers well-known at the time without proper translation of what he meant. An assumption that the reader would be fluent in those languages is gratifying, but not particularly conductive towards comprehension. Footnotes in my copy of the book cleared things up immensely, however, so it was not an impenetrable obstacle.

Turning philosophy into a tool for everyday life, William James attempted to show how his philosophy of Pragmatism could unify warring factions of inquiry and sucessfully bring about fuller understanding of the world and its gradual improvement. The book containing his lectures was an enjoyable read, not only interesting for its posits on philosophy but also for the concise summary of different aspects of the field provided in early lectures. I would certainly reccommend it to anyone interested in the field, even merely for a glimpse into the intellectual currents of early 20th century America and nothing more. The reading might be a tad dry without interest going into, however. This applies to most intellectual works, so it's no detriment on the part of William James. His philosophy was a worthy and important contribution to the search of the human mind within and without for meaning.


James, William. ed. Gunn, Giles. Pragmatism and Other Writings. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 2000.

Prag"ma*tism (?), n.

The quality or state of being pragmatic; in literature, the pragmatic, or philosophical, method.

The narration of this apparently trifling circumstance belongs to the pragmatism of the history. A. Murphy.

 

© Webster 1913.

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