Who is William James and why should you care?

From the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

William James (1842—1910)

‘William James is considered by many to be the most insightful and stimulating of American philosophers, as well as the second of the three great pragmatists (the middle link between Charles Sanders Peirce and John Dewey). As a professor of psychology and of philosophy at Harvard University, he became the most famous living American psychologist and later the most famous living American philosopher of his time. Avoiding the logically tight systems typical of European rationalists, such as the German idealists, he cobbled together a psychology rich in philosophical implications and a philosophy enriched by his psychological expertise. More specifically, his theory of the self and his view of human belief as oriented towards conscious action raised issues that required him to turn to philosophy. There he developed his pragmatic epistemology, which considers the meaning of ideas and the truth of beliefs not abstractly, but in terms of the practical difference they can make in people’s lives.

A organization dedicated to the study and impact of William James is : The William James Society

From: Pragmatism

(orig. copyright 1907) Harvard University Press, 1978 ed.

Lecture VI Pragmatism’s Conception of Truth

…the classic stages of a theory’s career. First…a new theory is attacked as absurd; then it is admitted to be true, but obvious and insignificant; finally it is seen to be so important that its adversaries claim that they themselves discovered it. (p. 95)

[GMJ: This is sort of a brief stages of a new idea that is successful, ie it is accepted because it works in some practical way.]

Truth, as any dictionary will tell you, is a property of certain of our ideas. It means their ‘agreement’ as falsity means their disagreement, with ‘reality’. Pragmatists and intellectualists both accept this definition as a matter of course. They begin to quarrel only after the question is raised as to what my precisely be meant by the term ‘agreement’, and what by the term ‘reality’, when reality is taken as something for our ideas to agree with. (p. 96)

[GMJ: James is pointing out that his pragmatic approach means that what someone considers as real is whatever is useful and important, and therefore is assumed to agree with what is real.]

But the great assumption of the intellectualists is that truth means essentially an inert static relation. When you’ve got our true idea of anything, there’s an end of the matter. You’re in possession; you know; you have fulfilled your thinking destiny. (96) …The truth of an idea is not a stagnant property inherent in it. Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events. Its verity is in fact an event, a process: the process namely of its verifying itself, its veri-fication. Its validity is the process of its valid-ation. (p. 97)

[GMJ: James recognized that things change. Words and therefore ideas are not fixed and static but are fluid and dynamic in a living social setting. People make ideas and they change as social situations change over time. What is considered ‘true’ is what is useful to some group or person at some specific point in time and some specific place.]

Meanwhile we have to live today by what truth we can get today, and be ready tomorrow to call it falsehood. Ptolemaic astronomy, Euclidean space, aristotelian logic, scholastic metaphysics, were expedient for centuries, but human experience has boiled over those limits, and we now call these things only relatively true, or true within those borders of experience. ‘Absolutely’ they are false; for we know that those limits were casual, and might have been transcended by past theorists just as they are by present thinkers. (p. 107)

[GMJ: There is a field of study called the history of ideas that is dedicated to exploring how ideas are shaped and changed over time. The trouble with many traditional cultures, such as the ancient Greek philosopher and most religious traditions, is that their map of reality is biased toward static, the changeless, and the eternal. That for them is good. Change for them is bad, and hence their belief that ideas do not change. Something that is easily disproved once you examine how the idea is actual used in any specific place and time.]

It is astonishing to see how many philosophical disputes collapse into insignificance the moment you subject them to this simple test of tracing a concrete consequence. There can be no difference anywhere that doesn’t make a difference elsewhere—no difference in abstract truth that doesn’t express itself in a difference in concrete fact and in conduct consequent upon that fact, imposed on some body, somehow, somewhere, and somewhen. The whole function of philosophy ought to be to find out what definite difference it will make to you and me, at definite instants of our life, if this world-formula or that world-formula be the true one. …A pragmatist…turns towards concreteness and adequacy, towards facts, towards action, and towards power. …At the same time it does not stand for any special results. It is a method only. (30-31)

If you follow the pragmatic method…you must bring out each word its practical cash-value, set it at work within the stream of your experience. It appears less as a solution, then, than as a program for more work, and more particularly as an indication of the ways in which existing realities may be changed. Theories thus become instruments, not answers to enigmas, in which we can rest. (31-32)

[GMJ: emphasis added. ]