The Pragmatism of Giovanni Papini

Giovanni Papini made his main contribution to pragmatism, one of several philosophies he avowed at one time or another in this life, through two memorable images. The analogy of the hotel corridor is still current because of its inclusion in William James' Pragmatism, and the image of the Man-God is today best known by Freud's use of it in Civilization and its Discontents, later taken up by Marshall McLuhan. The purpose of this writeup is to see what the images tell us about pragmatism and to see whether they can be reconciled.

Papini founded, and with Giuseppe Prezzolini managed, the magazine Leonardo (1903-07). James was wildly enthusiastic about the Italian pragmatists, especially Papini, and their publication. In 1905, James had a chance to visit the Italian group when he was in Rome for the Fifth International Congress of Psychology, and the following year his report on "G. Papini and the Pragmatist Movement in Italy" was published in the Journal of Philosophy (June 1906).

Then in December of 1906 James gave his presidential address to the American Philosophical Association, again praising Papini without much restraint, but for reasons more relevant to the Man-God than the corridor image. Today, the corridor analogy is best known through James' mention of it in the second of the lectures published in Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (1907), originally printed under the title "A Defence of Pragmatism: II. What Pragmatism Means" in Popular Science Monthly for April 1907.

In The Journal of Philosophy article, James complains about the failings of the literary style of American philosophers contemporary with him who are writing about "pragmatism, Deweyism, or radical empiricism." (337) In comparison with the "bald-headed and bald-hearted young aspirants for the Ph.D." in America who "bore one another with ... pedantry and technicality" the Italians are a "refreshing novelty." (337)

James goes so far as to praise Papini for his "frolicsomeness and impertinence that wear the charm of youth and freedom." (338) We get the first hint of the corridor in James' brief initial discussion of The Twilight of the Philosophers (Il Crepuscolo dei Filosofi). James concludes his discussion saying "Reality for Papini exists only distributively, in the particular concretes of experience. In the [rooms of the hotel. Abstracts and universals are only instruments by which we meet and handle these latter. They are the corridor connecting all the rooms."

James next cites an article by Papini from the April 1905 issue of Leonardo. "Fundamentally pragmatism means an unstiffening of all our theories and beliefs by attending to their instrumental value." (338)

James passes over in silence Papini's characterization of "disirrigidimento" as an ugly word. Indeed, he seems particularly fond of "unstiffening" as descriptive of pragmatism. James then follows Papini fairly closely in listing the tendencies associated with pragmatism (nominalism, utilitarianism, positivism, kantianism, voluntarism and fideism) with only a very brief explanation of each. Skipping over several pages, James then introduces the corridor analogy by saying that the chief characteristic of pragmatism is its "armed neutrality in the midst of doctrines," this time disregarding Papini's italics.

This James follows closely in the JP article:

It is like a corridor in a hotel, from which a hundred doors open into a hundred chambers. In one you see a man on his knees praying to regain his faith; in another a desk at which sits some one eager to destroy all metaphysics; in a third a laboratory with an investigator looking for new footholds by which to advance upon the future. But the corridor belongs to all, and all must pass there. Pragmatism, in short, is a great corridor-theory. (339)
In the lectures published as Pragmatism, there is a different version:
All these, you see, are anti-intellectualist tendencies. Against rationalism as a pretension and a method pragmatism is fully armed and militant. But, at the outset, at least, it stands for no particular results. It has no dogmas, and no doctrines save its method. As the young Italian pragmatist Papini has well said, it lies in the midst of our theories, like a corridor in a hotel. Innumerable chambers open out of it. In one you may find a man writing an atheistic volume; in the next some one on his knees praying for faith and strength; in a third a chemist investigating a body's properties. In a fourth a system of idealistic metaphysics is being excogitated; in a fifth the impossibility of metaphysics is being shown. But they all own the corridor, and all must pass through it if they want a practicable way of getting into or out of their respective rooms.
No particular results then, so far, but only an attitude of orientation, is what the pragmatic method means. The attitude of looking away from first things, principles, "categories," supposed necessities; and of looking towards things, fruits, consequences, facts. (Lecture II)

Perry has the most succinct formulation: "Pragmatism of the type represented by the youthful Papini encourages the individual or casual group to become heroes and martyrs in behalf of any cause." (II.579)

Papini supported Mussolini and his fascism, and Mussolini cited James as a formative influence, but Perry insists that fascism would be anathema to James and that pragmatism and fascism are merely ideas which "here and there overlap." (II.578). Be that as it may, it is no mystery why the Man-God, along with the principal themes of "The Will to Believe," would appeal to the fascist Mussolini. Indeed, it is easy to see why all the text of the JP article following the corridor analogy (i.e., pp. 339-341) would appeal to a fascistic mind, and James seems to be (unintentionally, of course) selecting the most fascistic lines both from the Crepuscolo and then from Leonardo again, this time from the article of February 1905, about which James was especially enthusiastic.

James begins with the claim that "The common denominator to which all the forms of human life can be reduced is this: the quest of instruments to act with, or, in other words, the quest of power." (339) So, philosophy itself becomes a discussion "of all the possible programs for man's life when man is once for all regarded as a creative being. As such, man becomes a kind of god, and where are we to draw his limits?" (340)

It is easy to imagine Mussolini taking up such content in his realization that if Italy was to become great again it could only be by those in power acting on the idea that Italy was great, and that if he was to take power it could only be by his acting on the belief that he would be successful.

James' attitude is, if nothing else, Jamesian. He admits that some will reject the Man-God, calling it bullfroggian rather than Promethean (340), foolish rather than sound (341), but he says that since the "unexplored powers and relations of man, both physical and mental, are certainly enormous," there is no reason to "impose limits on them a priori." Indeed, he proposes Papini as a guide for the development of the views of Schiller and Dewey so as to "rally devotees and to make of pragmatism a new militant form of religious or quasi-religious philosophy" (340). This really is uncanny when we remember that Papini himself had energy to spare, becoming a futurist, a fascist, and a Christian, eventually writing a Life of Christ (1921), which became a bestseller in English translation (1923).

Richard M. Gale uses the Promethean/Anti-Promethean distinction as the main organizing principle of his book, The Divided Self of William James, and he is one of the few commentators to discuss the corridor analogy rather than just repeat it uncritically. Unfortunately, Gale does not relate the Promethean image to Papini, and he seems not to be aware of the JP article at all (Gale, 7 n5).

Six months after the JP article appeared, James delivered his American Philosophical Association presidential address, "The Energies of Men," which was promptly published in The Philosophical Review in January of 1907. Apparently, James felt he still had not done enough to promote Papini to American philosophers.

The Papini section of "The Energies of Men" picks up right where the JP article left off. James first spends twelve pages giving a "pretty wide induction" in support of his thesis, viz., "The human individual lives usually far within his limits; he possesses powers of various sorts which he habitually fails to use." (194, Hull, ed.) James claims that everyone must admit the thesis in this vague form. He then calls for a more refined conception of mental work and mental energy and associates Papini with the notion that philosophy is the study of human powers and means, with truths of every kind in the first rank of means, i.e., human instruments.

James then apologizes to the audience for spending an hour dragging them "through so many familiar facts," and comes to his point: he wants to urge his audience to carry out two research projects. The one regards human powers, the other human means. James wants philosophers and psychologists to use historical and biographical material, as opposed to laboratory experimentation, to map the limits of human power and to inventory the paths of access to the different kinds of power. He then acknowledges that Papini alone is responsible for seeing the "topographical survey" and the "methodical inventory" as a generalized program, all previous work being "more or less blind and fragmentary" (196).

There is no mention of the corridor or the Man-God in "The Energies of Men," but the association is clear enough. Pragmatism is not itself any particular doctrine, but rather the corridor off of which activists pursue their chosen activities, required only to push the envelope and see how close humans can come to the powers of God. In James' exposition, Papini has moved rather quickly from being an admirable young man with lots of enthusiasm and an inventive style of writing to being the mastermind of a philosophical project than which none, according to the president of the APA, could be more worthy of attention.

It remained for Freud to supply the technological link. Freud begins with the same point Papini and James (and, of course, Feuerbach before them) make, that humans attribute to gods what they wish to be; the gods are cultural ideals. Freud thinks that today (1930 in his case) "man has come very close to the attainment of this ideal, he has almost become a god himself." But since humans have had to use technological means to attain divinity, they have become only a "prosthetic God." (44)

When he puts on all his auxiliary organs he is truly magnificent; but those organs have not grown on to him and they still give him much trouble at times. Nevertheless, he is entitled to console himself with the thought that this development will not come to an end precisely with the year 1930 A.D. Future ages will bring with them new and probably unimaginably great advances in this field of civilization and will increase man's likeness to God still more. (44-45)

Papini and James have no such enthusiasm regarding the prospects for technology. Papini did an (imaginary) interview with Freud in which he stressed the literary as opposed to the scientific character of his work. In an equally imaginary interview with Thomas Edison, Papini insists that technological progress that will truly benefit humans is still a long way off. All that really interests him are computers and androids since these alone will save "man from the torment of reflection and woman from the burden of maternity." (Gog, 129) The computers will do man's thinking for him, and the droids will be used to save women from the burden of pregnancy. In another of these later essays, Papini says he has no objection to machines that create something, but every objection to childish amusements such as the automobile, the gramophone and the radio (198).

The main point of the corridor analogy is to answer the demand for a clear statement of the doctrines of pragmatism. As with Gilbert Ryle's illustration of colleges as opposed to the university, Papini and James are pointing out there is a category mistake in asking for the doctrines of pragmatism. There are many conflicting doctrines that all come out of pragmatism, just as many rooms may come off of a single hotel corridor.

The hotel corridor and the Man-God are two of the great philosophical analogies. They provide pictures that are of real help in dealing with philosophical problems. This writeup shows how two great pragmatists, Giovanni Papini and William James, used these images not to reject technology but rather to point out that the technological line of research is only one way of attempting to make progress and that it may not ultimately be the most productive.

What James most admired in Papini was by no means a technical skill, just the opposite. He admired Papini's energy and enthusiasm. Papini later said he was calling for a spiritual revolution as great as that of the steam engine. "I pretended to start from a logical precept (pragmatism); but in my secret heart I was jealous of Divinity and eager to become a rival of Divinity!" (The Failure, 131)


Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. translated by James Strachey. New York: W.W. Norton, 1961.

Gale, Richard M. The Divided Self of William James. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

James, William. "The Energies of Men," reprinted in Richard T.Hull, ed. Presidential Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 1901-1910. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1999.
_____. "G. Papini and the Pragmatist Movement in Italy." The Journal of Philosophy (1906) 337-341.
_____. Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. New York:, 1907.

Papini, Giovanni. Crepuscolo dei Filosofi. Firenze: Vallecchi Editore, 1927.
_____. The Failure. translated by Virginia Pope. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1924.
_____. Four and Twenty Minds. translated by Ernest Hatch Wilkins. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1922. Not cited here, but the article on F.C.S. Schiller includes more on Papini's pragmatism.
_____. Gog. translated by Mary Prichard Agnetti. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1931.
_____. Pragmatismo (1903-1911). Firenze: Vallecchi Editore, 1927.

Perry, Ralph Barton. The Thought and Character of William James. two volumes. Boston: Little, Brown, 1935.