Pragmatism, A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking
by William James, 1907
Lecture III: Some Metaphysical Problems Pragmatically Considered
I am now to make the pragmatic method more familiar by giving you some illustrations of
its application to particular problems. I will begin with what is driest, and the first
thing I shall take will be the problem of Substance. Everyone uses the old
distinction between substance and attribute, enshrined as it is in the very structure of
human language, in the difference between grammatical subject and predicate. Here is a bit
of blackboard crayon. Its modes, attributes, properties, accidents, or affections, - use
which term you will, - are whiteness, friability, cylindrical shape, insolubility in
water, etc., etc. But the bearer of these attributes is so much chalk, which
thereupon is called the substance in which they inhere. So the attributes of this desk
inhere in the substance I wood,' those of my coat in the substance 'wool,' and so forth.
Chalk, wood and wool, show again, in spite of their differences, common properties, and in
so far forth they are themselves counted as modes of a still more primal substance, matter,
the attributes of which are space-occupancy and impenetrability. Similarly our
thoughts and feelings are affections or properties of our several souls, which are
substances, but again not wholly in their own right, for they are modes of the still
deeper substance 'spirit.'
Now it was very early seen that all we know of the chalk is the whiteness,
friability, etc.. all we know of the wood is the combustibility and fibrous
structure. A group of attributes is what each substance here is known-as, they form its
sole cash-value for our actual experience. The substance is in every case revealed through
them; if we. were cut off from them we should never suspect its
existence; and if God should keep sending them to us in an unchanged order, miraculously
annihilating at a certain moment the substance that supported them, we never could detect the moment, for our experiences themselves would be unaltered. Nominalists
accordingly adopt the opinion that substance is a spurious idea due to our inveterate
human trick of turning names into things. Phenomena come in groups - the chalk-group, the
wood-group, etc. and each group gets its name. The name we then treat as in a way
supporting the group of phenomena. The low thermometer to-day, for instance, is supposed
to come from something called the 'climate.' Climate is really only the name for a certain
group of days, but it is treated as if it lay behind the day, and in general we
place the name, as if it were a being, behind the facts it is the name of But the
phenomena] properties of things, nominalists say, surely do not really inhere in names,
and if not in names then they do not inhere in anything. They adhere, or cohere, rather, with each other, and the notion of a substance inaccessible to us, which we think accounts
for such cohesion by supporting it, as cement might support pieces of mosaic, must be
abandoned. The fact of the bare cohesion itself is all that the notion of the substance
signifies. Behind that fact is nothing.
Scholasticism has taken the notion of substance from common sense and made it very
technical and articulate. Few things would seem to have fewer pragmatic consequences for
us than substances, cut off as we are from every contact with them. Yet in one case
scholasticism has proved the importance of the substance-idea by treating it
pragmatically. I refer to certain disputes about the mystery of the Eucharist. Substance
here would appear to have momentous pragmatic value. Since the accidents of the wafer
don't change in the Lord's supper, and yet it has become the very body of Christ, it must
be that the change is in the substance solely. The bread-substance must have been
withdrawn, and the divine substance substituted miraculously without altering the
immediate sensible properties. But tho these don't alter, a tremendous difference has been
made, no less a one than this, that we who take the sacrament, now feed upon the very
substance of divinity. The substancenotion breaks into life, then, with tremendous effect,
if once you allow that substances can separate from their accidents, and exchange these
This is the only pragmatic application of the substance-idea with which I am acquainted
and it is obvious that it will only be treated seriously by those who already
believe in the 'real presence' on independent grounds.
Material substance was criticized by Berkeley with such telling effect that
his name has reverberated through all subsequent philosophy. Berkeley's treatment of the
notion of matter is so well known as to need hardly more than a mention. So far from
denying the external world which we know, Berkeley corroborated it. It was the scholastic notion of a material substance unapproachable by us, behind the external world, deeper and
more real than it, and needed to support it, which Berkeley maintained to be the most
effective of all reducers of the external world to unreality. Abolish that substance, he
said, believe that God, whom you can understand and approach, sends you the sensible world
directly, and you confirm the latter and back it up by his divine authority. Berkeley's
criticism of 'matter' was consequently absolutely pragmatistic. Matter is known as our
sensations of colour, figure, hardness and the like. They are the cash-value of the term.
The difference matter makes to us by truly being is that we then get such sensations; by
not being, is that we lack them. These sensations then are its sole meaning. Berkeley
doesn't deny matter, then; he simply tells us what it consists of It is a true name for
just so much in the way of sensations.
Locke, and later Hume, applied a similar pragmatic criticism to the notion of spiritual substance. I will only mention Locke's treatment of our 'personal identity.' He immediately reduces this notion to its pragmatic value in terms of experience. It means,
he says, so much 'consciousness,' namely the fact that at one moment of life we remember
other moments, and feel them all as parts of one and the same personal history.
Rationalism had explained this practical continuity in our life by the unity of our
soul-substance. But Locke says: suppose that God should take away the consciousness,
should we be any the better for having still the soul-principle? Suppose he
annexed the same consciousness to different souls, should we, as we realize ourselves,
be any the worse for that fact? In Locke's day the soul was chiefly a thing to be
rewarded or punished. See how Locke, discussing it from this point of view, keeps the
Suppose, he says, one to think himself to be the same soul that once was Nestor or
Thersites. Can he think their actions his own any more than the actions of any other man
that ever existed? But let him once find himself conscious of any of the actions of
Nestor, he then finds himself the same person with Nestor.... In this personal identity is
founded all the right and justice of reward and punishment. It may be reasonable to think,
no one shall be made to answer for what he knows nothing of, but shall receive his doom,
his consciousness accusing or excusing. Supposing a man punished now for what lie had done
in another life, whereof he could be made to have no consciousness at all, what difference
is there between that punishment and being created miserable?
Our personal identity, then, consists, for Locke, solely in pragmatically definable
particulars. Whether, apart from these verifiable facts, it also inheres in a spiritual principle, is a merely curious speculation. Locke, compromiser that he was, passively tolerated the belief in a substantial soul behind our
consciousness. But his successor Hume, and most empirical psychologists after him, have denied the soul, save as the name for verifiable cohesions in our inner life, They redescend into the stream of experience with it, and cash it into so much small-change
value in the way of 'Ideas' and their peculiar connexions with each other. As I said of
Berkeley's matter, the soul is good or 'true' for just so much, but no more.
The mention of material substance naturally suggests the doctrine of 'materialism,' but
philosophical materialism is not necessarily knit up with belief in 'matter,' as a
metaphysical principle. One may deny matter in that sense, as strongly as Berkeley did,
one may be a phenomenalist like Huxley, and yet one may still be a materialist in the wider sense, of explaining higher phenomena by lower ones, and leaving the destinies of
the world at the mercy of its blinder parts and forces. It is in this wider sense of the
word that materialism is opposed to spiritualism or theism. The laws of physical nature
are what run things, materialism says. The highest productions of human genius might be
ciphered by one who had complete acquaintance with the facts, out of their physiological
conditions, regardless whether nature be there only for our minds, as idealists contend,
or not. Our minds in any case would have to record the kind of nature it is, and write it
down as operating through blind laws of physics. This is the complexion of present day
materialism, which may better be called naturalism. Over against it stands 'theism,' or
what in a wide sense may be termed 'spiritualism.' Spiritualism says that mind not only
witnesses and records things, but also runs and operates them: the world being thus
guided, not by its lower, but by its higher element.
Treated as it often is, this question becomes little more than a conflict between
aesthetic preferences. Matter is gross, coarse, crass, muddy; spirit is pure, elevated,
noble; and since it is more consonant with the dignity of the universe to give the primacy
in it to what appears superior, spirit must be affirmed as the ruling principle. To treat
abstract principles as finalities, before which our intellects may come to rest in a state
of admiring contemplation, is the great rationalist tailing. Spiritualism, - as often
held, may be simply a state of admiration for one kind, and of dislike for another kind,
of abstraction. I remember a worthy spiritualist professor who always referred to
materialism as the 'mud-philosophy,' and deemed it thereby refuted.
To such spiritualism as this there is an easy answer, and Mr. Spencer makes it effectively. In some well-written pages at the end of the first volume of his Psychology he shows us that a matter so Infinitely subtile, and performing motions as inconceivably quick and fine as those which modern science postulates in her explanations, has no trace of grossness left. He shows that the conception of spirit, as we mortals hitherto have framed it, is itself too gross to cover the exquisite tenuity of nature's facts. Both terms, he says, are but symbols, pointing to that one unknowable reality in which their oppositions cease.
To an abstract objection an abstract rejoinder suffices; and so far as one's opposition
to materialism springs from one's disdain of matter as something 'crass,' Mr. Spencer cuts
the ground from under one. Matter is indeed infinitely and incredibly refined. To anyone
who has ever looked on the face of a dead child or parent the mere fact that matter could
have taken for a time that precious form, ought to make matter sacred ever after. It makes
no difference what the principle of life may be, material or immaterial, matter
at any rate co-operates, lends itself to all life's purposes. That beloved incarnation was
among matter's possibilities.
But now, instead of resting in principles after this stagnant intellectualist. fashion,
let us apply the pragmatic method to the question. What do we mean by matter?
What practical difference can it make now that the world should be run by matter
or by spirit? I think we find that the problem takes with this a rather different
And first of all I call your attention to a curious fact. It makes not a single jot of
difference so far as the past of the world goes, whether we deem it to have been
the work of matter or whether we think a divine spirit was its author.
Imagine, in fact, the entire contents of the world to be once for all irrevocably
given. Imagine it to end this very moment, and to have no future; and then let a theist
and a materialist apply their rival explanations to its history. The theist shows how a
God made it; the materialist shows, and we will suppose with equal success, how it
resulted from blind physical forces. Then let the pragmatist be asked to choose between
their theories. How can he apply his test if the world is already completed? Concepts for
him are things to come back into experience with, things to make us look for differences.
But by hypothesis there is to be no more experience and no possible differences can now be
looked for. Both theories have shown all their consequences and, by the hypothesis we are
adopting, these are identical. The pragmatist must consequently say that the two theories,
in spite of their different-sounding names, mean exactly the same thing, and that the
dispute is purely verbal. [I am supposing, of course, that the theories have been
equally successful in their explanations of what is.]
For just consider the case sincerely, and say what would be the worth of a God
if he were there, with his work accomplished and his world run down. He would be
worth no more than just that world was worth. To that amount of result, with its mixed
merits and defects, his creative power could attain, but go no farther. And since there is
to be no future; since the whole value and meaning of the world has been already paid in
and actualized in the feelings that went with it in the passing, and now go with it in the
ending; since it draws no supplemental significance (such as our real world draws) from
its function of preparing something yet to come; why then, by it we take God's measure, as
it were. He is the Being who could once for all do that; and for that much we are thankful
to him, but for nothing more. But now, on the contrary hypothesis, namely, that the bits
of matter following their laws could make that world and do no less, should we not be just
as thankful to them? Wherein should we suffer loss, then, if we dropped God as an
hypothesis and made the matter alone responsible? Where would any special deadness, or
crassness, come in? And how, experience being what is once for all, would God's presence
in it make it any more living or richer?
Candidly, it is impossible to give any answer to this question. The actually
experienced world is supposed to be the same in its details on either hypothesis,
"the same, for our praise or blame," as Browning says. It stands there
indefeasibly: a gift which can't be taken back. Calling matter the cause of it retracts no
single one of the items that have made it up, nor does calling God the cause augment them.
They are the God or the atoms, respectively, of just that and no other world. The God, if
there, has been doing just what atoms could do-appearing in the character of atoms, so to
speak - and earning such gratitude as is due to atoms, and no more. If his presence ]ends
no different turn or issue to the performance, it surely can lend it no increase of
dignity. Nor would indignity come to it were he absent, and did the atoms remain the only
actors on the stage. When a play is once over, and the curtain down, you really make it no
better by claiming an illustrious genius for its author, just as you make it no worse by
calling him a common hack.
Thus if no future detail of experience or conduct is to be deduced from our hypothesis,
the debate between materialism and theism becomes quite idle and insignificant. Matter and
God in that event mean exactly the same thing -the power, namely, neither more nor less,
that could make just this completed world - and the wise man is he who in such a case
would turn his back on such a supererogatory discussion. Accordingly, most men
instinctively, and positivists and scientists deliberately, do turn their backs on
philosophical disputes from which nothing in the line of definite future consequences can be seen to follow. The verbal and empty character of philosophy is surely a reproach with which we are but too familiar. If pragmatism be true, it is a perfectly sound reproach unless the theories under fire can be shown to have alternative practical outcomes, however delicate and distant these may be. The common man and the scientist say they discover no such outcomes, and if the metaphysician can discern none either, the others certainly are in the right of it, as
against him. His science is then but pompous trifling; and the endowment of a
professorship for such a being would be silly.
Accordingly, in every genuine metaphysical debate some practical issue, however
conjectural and remote, is involved. To realize this, revert with me to our question, and
place yourselves this time in the world we live in, in the world that has a future, that
is yet uncompleted whilst we speak. In this unfinished world the alternative of
'materialism or theism?' is intensely practical; and it is worth while for us to spend
some minutes of our hour in seeing that it is so.
How, indeed, does the program differ for us, according as we consider that the facts of
experience up to date are purposeless configurations of blind atoms moving according to
eternal laws, or that on the other hand they are due to the providence of God? As far as
the past facts go, indeed there is no difference. Those facts are in, are bagged, are
captured; and the good that's in them is gained, be the atoms or be the God their cause.
There are accordingly many materialists about us to-day who, ignoring altogether the
future and practical aspects of the question, seek to eliminate the odium attaching to the
word materialism, and even to eliminate the word itself, by showing that, if matter could
give birth to all these gains, why then matter, functionally considered, is just as divine
an entity as God, in fact coalesces with God, is what you mean by God. Cease, these
persons advise us, to use either of these terms, with their outgrown opposition. Use a
term free of the clerical connotations, on the one hand; of the suggestion of grossness,
coarseness, ignobility, on the other. Talk of the primal mystery, of the unknowable
energy, of the one and only power, instead of saying either God or matter. This is the
course to which Mr. Spencer urges us; and if philosophy were purely retrospective, he
would thereby proclaim himself an excellent pragmatist.
But philosophy is prospective also, and, after finding what the world has been and done
and yielded, still asks the further question 'what does the world prormse?' Give
us a matter that promises success, that is bound by its laws to lead our world
ever nearer to perfection, and any rational man will worship that matter as readily as Mr.
Spencer worships his own so-called unknowable power. It not only has made for righteousness up to date, but it will make for righteousness forever; and that is all we need. Doing practically all that a God can do, it is equivalent to God, its function is a God's function, and is
exerted in a world in which a God would now be superfluous; from such a world a God could
never lawfully be missed. 'Cosmic emotion' would here be the right name for religion.
But is the matter by which Mr. Spencer's process of cosmic evolution is carried on any
such principle of never-ending perfection as this? Indeed it is not, for the future end of
every cosmically evolved thing or system of things is foretold by science to be death and
tragedy; and Mr. Spencer, in confining himself to the aesthetic and ignoring the practical
side of the controversy, has really contributed nothing serious to its relief. But apply
now our principle of practical results, and see what a vital significance the question of
materialism or theism immediately acquires.
Theism and materialism, so indifferent when taken retrospectively, point, when we take
them prospectively, to wholly different outlooks of experience. For, according to the
theory of mechanical evolution, the laws of redistribution of matter and motion, tho they
are certainly to thank for all the good hours which our organisms have ever yielded us and
for all the ideals which our minds now frame, are yet fatally certain to undo their work
again, and to redissolve everything that they have once evolved. You all know the picture
of the last state of the universe which evolutionary science foresees. I cannot state it
better than in Mr. Balfour's words: "The energies of our system will decay, the glory of the sun will be dimmed, and the earth, tideless and inert, will no longer
tolerate the race which has for a moment disturbed its solitude. Man will go down into the
pit, and all his thoughts will perish. The uneasy consciousness which in this obscure
corner has for a brief space broken the contented silence of the universe, will be at
rest. Matter will know itself no longer. 'Imperishable monuments' and 'immortal deeds,'
death itself, and love stronger than death, will be as though they had never been. Nor
will anything that is, be better or be worse for all that the labour, genius, devotion,
and suffering of man have striven through countless generations to effect."
That is the sting of it, that in the vast driftings of the cosmic weather, tho many a
jeweled shore appears, and many an enchanted cloud-bank floats away, long lingering ere it be dissolved -even as our world now lingers, for our joy -yet when these transient products are gone, nothing, absolutely nothing remains, to represent those particular qualities, those elements of preciousness which they may have enshrined. Dead and gone are they, gone utterly from the very sphere and room of being. Without an echo; without a memory; without an influence on aught that may come after, to make it care for similar ideals. This utter final wreck and tragedy is of the essence of scientific materialism as at present understood. The lower and not the higher forces are the eternal forces, or the last surviving forces within the only cycle
of evolution which we can definitely see. Mr. Spencer believes this as much as anyone; so
why should he argue with us as if we were making silly aesthetic objections to the
'grossness' of 'matter and motion,' the principles of his philosophy, when what really
dismays us is the disconsolateness of its ulterior practical results?
No, the true objection to materialism is not positive but negative. It would be
farcical at this day to make complaint of it for what it is, for I grossness! Grossness is
what grossness does - we now know that. We make complaint of it, on the contrary, for what
it is not - not a permanent warrant for our more ideal interests, not a fulfiller of our
The notion of God, on the other hand, however inferior it may be in clearness to those
mathematical notions so current in mechanical philosophy, has at least this practical superiority over them, that it guarantees an ideal order that shall be permanently
preserved. A world with a God in it to say the last word, may indeed burn up or freeze,
but we then think of him as still mindful of the old ideals and sure to bring them
elsewhere to fruition; so that, where he is, tragedy is only provisional and partial, and
shipwreck and dissolution not the absolutely final things. This need of an eternal moral
order is one of the deepest needs of our breast. And those poets, like Dante and
Wordsworth, who live on the conviction of such an order, owe to that fact the extraordinary tonic and consoling power of their verse. Here then, in these different
emotional and practical appeals, in these adjustments of our concrete attitudes of hope
and expectation, and all the delicate consequences which their differences entail, lie the
real meanings of materialism and spiritualism - not in hair-splitting abstractions about
matter's inner essence, or about the metaphysical attributes of God. Materialism means
simply the denial that the moral order is eternal, and the cutting off of ultimate hopes;
spiritualism means the affirmation of an eternal moral order and the letting loose of
hope. Surely here is an issue genuine enough, for anyone who feels it; and, as long as men
are men, it will yield matter for a serious philosophic debate.
But possibly some of you may still rally to their defence. Even whilst admitting that
spiritualism and materialism make different prophecies of the world's future, you may
yourselves pooh-pooh the difference as something so infinitely remote as to mean nothing
for a sane mind. The essence of a sane mind, you may say, is to take shorter views, and to
feel no concern about such chimeras as the latter end of the world. Well, I can only say
that if you say this, you do injustice to human nature. Religious melancholy is not
disposed of by a simple flourish of the word insanity. The absolute things, the last
things, the overlapping things, are the truly philosophic concerns; all superior minds
feel seriously about them, and the mind with the shortest views is simply the mind of the
more shallow man.
The issues of fact at stake in the debate are of course vaguely enough conceived by us
at present. But spiritualistic faith in all its forms deals with a world of promise, while materialism's sun sets in a sea of disappointment. Remember what I said of the Absolute:
it grants us moral holidays. Any religious view does this. It not only incites our more
strenuous moments, but it also takes our joyous, careless, trustful moments, and it
Justifies them. It paints the grounds of justification vaguely enough, to be sure. The
exact features of the saving future facts that our belief in God insures, will have to be
ciphered out by the interminable le methods of science: we can study our God only
by studying his Creation. But we can enjoy our God, if we have one, in advance of
all that labor. I myself believe that the evidence for God lies primarily in inner
personal experiences. When they have once given you your God, his name means at least the
benefit of the holiday. You remember what I said yesterday about the way in which truths
clash and try to'down'each other. The truth of 'God' has to run the gauntlet of all our
other truths. It is on trial by them and they on trial by it. Our final opinion
about God can be settled only after all the truths have straightened themselves out
together. Let us hope that they shall find a modus vivendi!
Let me pass to a very cognate philosophic problem, the question of design in
nature. God's existence has from time immemorial been held to be proved by certain
natural facts. Many facts appear as if expressly designed in view of one another. Thus the
woodpecker's bill, tongue, feet, tail, etc., fit him wondrously for a world of trees with
grubs hid in their bark to feed upon. The parts of our eye fit the laws of light to
perfection, leading its rays to a sharp picture on our retina. Such mutual fitting of
things diverse in origin argued design, it was held; and the designer was always treated
as a man-loving deity.
The first step in these arguments was to prove that the design existed. Nature
was ransacked for results obtained through separate things being co-adapted. Our eyes, for instance, originate intrauterine darkness, and the light originates in the sun, yet see how they fit each other. They are evidently made for each other. Vision is the end designed, light and eyes the separate means devised for its attainment.
It is strange, considering how unanimously our ancestors felt the force of this
argument, to see how little it counts for since the triumph of the darwinian theory. Darwin opened our minds to the power of chancehappenings to bring forth 'fit' results if only they have time to add themselves together. He showed the enormous waste of nature in
producing results that get destroyed because of their unfitness. He also emphasized the
number of adaptations which, if designed, would argue an evil rather than a good designer.
Here all depends upon the point of view. To the grub under the bark the exquisite fitness
of the woodpecker's organism to extract him would certainly argue a diabolical designer.
Theologians have by this time stretched their minds so as to embrace the darwinian
facts, and yet to interpret them as still showing divine purpose. It used to be a question
of purpose aga , against mechanism, of one or the other. It was as if one say
"My shoes are evidently designed to fit my feet, hence it is impossible that they
should have been produced by machinery." We know that they are both: they are made by
a machinery itself designed to fit the feet with shoes. Theology need only stretch
similarly the designs of God. As the aim of a football-team is not merely to get the ball
to a certain goal (if that were so, they would simply get up on some dark night and place
it there), but to get it there by a fixed machinery of conditions - the game's
rules and the opposing players; so the aim of God is not merely, let us say, to make men
and to save them, but rather to get this done through the sole agency of nature's vast
machinery. Without nature's stupendous laws and counterforces, man's creation and
perfection, we might suppose, would be too insipid achievements for God to have designed
This saves the form of the design-argument at the expense of its old easy human content.
The designer is no longer the old man-like deity. His designs have grown so vast as to be
incomprehensible to us humans. The what of them so overwhelms us that to
establish the mere that of a designer for them becomes of very little consequence
in comparison. We can with difficulty comprehend the character of a cosmic mind whose
purposes are fully revealed by the strange mixture of goods and evils that we find in this
actual world's particulars. Or rather we cannot by any possibility comprehend it. The mere
word 'design' by itself has, we see, no consequences and explains nothing. It is the
barrenest of principles. The old question of whether there is design is idle. The
real question is what is the world, whether or not it have a designer - and
that can be revealed only by the study of all nature's particulars.
Remember that no matter what nature may have produced or may be producing, the means
must necessarily have been adequate, must have been fitted to that production. The
argument from fitness to design would consequently always apply, whatever were the
product's character. The recent Mont-Pelée eruption, for example, required all previous
history to produce that exact combination of ruined houses, human and animal corpses,
sunken ships, volcanic ashes, etc., in just that one hideous configuration of positions.
France had to be a nation and colonize Martinique. Our country had to exist and send our
ships there. If God aimed at just that result, the means by which the centuries bent their
influences towards it, showed exquisite intelligence. And so of any state of things
whatever, either in nature or in history, which we find actually realized. For the parts
of things must always make some definite resultant, be it chaotic or harmonious.
When we look at what has actually come, the conditions must always appear perfectly
designed to ensure it. We can always say, therefore, in any conceivable world, of any
conceivable character, that the whole cosmic machinery may have been designed to
Pragmatically, then, the abstract word 'design' is a blank cartridge. It carries no
consequences, it does no execution. What sort of design? and what sort of a designer? are
the only serious questions, and the study of facts is the only way of getting even
approximate answers. Meanwhile, pending the slow answer from facts, anyone who insists
that there is a designer and who is sure he is a divine one, gets a certain pragmatic
benefit from the term - the same, in fact, which we saw that the terms God, Spirit, or the
Absolute, yield us. 'Design,' worthless tho it be as a mere rationalistic principle set
above or behind things for our admiration, becomes, if our faith concretes it into
something theistic, a term of promise. Returning with it into experience, we gain
a more confiding outlook on the future. If not a blind force but a seeing force runs
things, we may reasonably expect better issues. This vague confidence in the future is the
sole pragmatic meaning at present discernible in the terms design and designer. But if
cosmic confidence is right not wrong, better not worse, that is a most important meaning
That mush at least of possible 'truth' the terms will then have in them.
Let me take up another well-worn controversy, the free-will problem. Most
persons who believe in what is called their free-will do so after the rationalistic fashion. It is a principle, a positive faculty or virtue added to man, by which his dignity is enigmatically augmented. He ought to believe it for this reason. Determinists, who deny it, who say that individual men originate nothing, but merely transmit to the future the whole push of the past cosmos of which they are so small an expression, diminish man. He is less admirable, stripped of this creative principle. I imagine that more than half of you share our instinctive belief in freewill, and that admiration of it as a principle of dignity has much to do with your fidelity.
But free-will has also been discussed pragmatically, and, strangely enough, the same
pragmatic interpretation has been put upon it by both disputants. You know how large a
part questions of accountability have played in ethical controversy. To hear some persons, one would suppose that all that ethics aims at is a code of merits and demerits.
Thus does the old legal and theological leaven, the interest in crime and sin and
punishment abide with us. 'Who's to blame? whom can we punish? whom will God punish?'-
these preoccupations hang like a bad dream over man's religious history.
So both free-will and determinism have been inveighed against and called absurd,
because each, in the eyes of its enemies, has seemed to prevent the 'Imputability' of good
or bad deeds to their authors. Queer antinomy this! Free-will means novelty, the grafting
on to the past , of something not involved therein. If our acts were predetermined, if we
merely transmitted the push of the whole past, the free-willists say, how could we be
praised or blamed for anything? We should be 'agents'only, not 'principals,' and where
then would be our precious imputability and responsibility?
But where would it be if we had free-will rejoin the determinists. If a
'free' act be a sheer novelty, that comes not from me, the previous me, but ex
nihilo, and simply tacks itself on to me, how can 1, the previous 1, be responsible?
How can I have any permanent character that will stand still long enough for
praise or blame to be awarded? The chaplet of my days tumbles into a cast of disconnected
beads as soon as the thread of inner necessity is drawn out by the preposterous
indeterminist doctrine. Messrs. Fullerton and McTaggart have recently laid about them doughtily with this argument.
It may be good ad hominem, but otherwise it is pitiful. For I ask you, quite
apart from other reasons, whether any man, woman or child, with a sense for realities, ought not to be ashamed to plead such principles as either dignity or imputability. Instinct and utility between them can safely be trusted to carry on the social business of punishment and praise. If a man does good acts we shall praise him, if he does bad acts we shall punish him -anyhow, and quite apart from theories as to whether the acts result from what was previous in him or are novelties in a strict sense. To make our human ethics revolve about the question of 'merit' is a piteous unreality-God alone can know our merits, if we have any. The real ground for supposing free-will is indeed pragmatic, but it has nothing to do with this contemptible right to punish which has made such a noise in past discussions of the subject.
Free-will pragmatically means novelties in the world, the right to expect that
in its deepest elements as well as in its surface phenomena, the future may not
identically repeat and imitate the past. That imitation en masse is there, who
can deny? The general 'uniformity of nature' is presupposed by every lesser law. But
nature may be only approximately uniform; and persons in whom knowledge of the world's
past has bred pessimism (or doubts as to the world's good character, which become
certainties if that character be supposed eternally fixed) may naturally welcome free-will
as a melioristic doctrine. It holds up improvement as at least possible; whereas
determinism assures us that our whole notion of possibility is born of human ignorance,
and that necessity and impossibility between them rule the destinies of the world.
Free-will is thus a general cosmological theory of promise, just like the
Absolute, God, Spirit or Design. Taken abstractly, no one of these terms has any inner
content, none of them gives us any picture, and no one of them would retain the least
pragmatic value in a world whose character was obviously perfect from the start. Elation
at mere existence, pure cosmic emotion and delight, would, it seems to me, quench all
interest in those speculations, if the world were nothing but a lubberland of happiness
already. Our interest in religious metaphysics arises in the fact that our empirical
future feels to us unsafe, and needs some higher guarantee. If the past and present were
purely good, who could wish that the future might possibly not resemble them? Who could
desire freewill? Who would not say, with Huxley, "let me be wound up every day like a
watch, to go light fatally, and I ask no better freedom. "Freedom, in a world already
perfect could only mean freedom to be worse, and who could be so insane as to
wish that? To be necessarily what it is, to be impossibly aught else, would put the last
touch of perfection upon optimism's universe. Surely the only possibility that
one can rationally claim is the possibility that things may be better. That
possibility, I need hardly say, is one that, as the actual world goes, we have ample grounds for
Free-will thus has no meaning unless it be a doctrine of relief As such, it
takes its place with other religious doctrines. Between them, they build up the old wastes
and repair the former desolations. Our spirit, shut within this courtyard of
sense-experience, is always saying to the intellect upon the tower: 'Watchman, tell us of
the night, if it aught of promise bear,' and the intellect gives it then these terms of
Other than this practical significance, the words God, free-will, design, etc., have
none. Yet dark tho they be in themselves, or intellectualistically taken, when we bear
them into life's thicket with us the darkness there grows light about us. If you
stop, in dealing with such words, with their definition, thinking that to be an
intellectual finality, where are you? Stupidly staring at a pretentious sham! "Deus
est Eris, a se, extra et supra omne genus, necessarium, unum, infinite perfectum, simplex,
immutabile, immensum, aeternum, intelligens," etc.,wherein is such a definition
really instructive? It means less than nothing, in its pompous robe of adjectives.
Pragmatism alone can read a positive meaning into it, and for that she turns her back upon
the intellectualist point of view altogether. 'God's in his heaven; all's right with the
world!'- That's the real heart of your theology, and for that you need no
Why shouldn't we all of us, rationalists as well as pragmatists, confess this?
Pragmatism, so far from keeping her eyes bent on the immediate practical foreground, as
she is accused of doing, dwells just as much upon the world's remotest perspectives.
See then how all these ultimate questions turn, as it were, upon their hinges; and from
looking backwards upon principles, upon an erkenntnisstheoretzsche Ich, a God, a Kausalitatsprinzip, a Design, a Freewill, taken in themselves, as something august and exalted above facts, -see, I say, how pragmatism shifts the emphasis and looks forward into facts themselves. The really vital question for us all is, What is this world going to be? What
is life eventually to make of itself? The centre of gravity of philosophy must therefore
alter its place. The earth of things, long thrown into shadow by the glories of the upper
ether, must resume its rights. To shift the emphasis in this way means that philosophic
questions will fall to be treated by minds of a less abstractionist type than heretofore, minds more scientific and individualistic in their tone yet not irreligious either. It will be an alteration in 'the seat of authority' that reminds one almost of the protestant reformation. And as, to papal minds, protestantism has often seemed a mere mess of anarchy and confusion, such, no doubt, will pragmatism often seem to ultrarationalist minds in philosophy. It will seem so much sheer trash, philosophically. But life wags on, all the same, and compasses its ends, in protestant countries. I venture to think that philosophic protestantism will compass a not dissimilar prosperity.
William James. Pragmatism: A new name for some old ways of thinking. Published in New York by Longman Green and Co. (1907). The text of this document is in the public domain and reproducible without permissiosn.