William James’s Philosophy: Meta-Philosophy and Pragmatism

In this essay, we are going to examine William James’s understanding and hopes for philosophy. James argues that philosophy must have a pragmatic purpose, that helps us live good lives. We will start by evaluating James’ meta-philosophy as well as his concerns with philosophy, then we will consider James’ pragmatism alongside social constructivism. Finally, we will consider what some objections to James’ philosophy are, along with possible responses.

Explaining James’ meta-philosophy

In contrast with Hegel that argues that philosophy is an act of combination, James argues that “the progress of society is due to the fact that individuals vary from the human average in all sorts of directions”. Furthermore, James contests that the discipline is concerned with the big picture as opposed to details; “philosophy in the full sense is only man thinking, thinking about generalities rather than about particulars”. These generalities are thought of in creative and sometimes unintuitive ways; “It philosophy sees the familiar as if it were strange, and the strange as if it were familiar”. This quote Some Problems of Philosophy is arguable quite an accurate description of the act of philosophizing, as many questions within the discipline, investigate the nature of the inquiry itself, as well as new questions that may seem arbitrary or ‘strange’ at face value.

James also discusses the historical significance of philosophy as the “love of wisdom” and philosophers as “preoccupied with theory”, as well as passing on valuable information; “Philosophy, thus becomes a racing heritage, forms in its totality a monstrously unwieldy mass of learning”. For instance, Greek philosophers were also scientific, political, and theological; “the men who began this work of emancipation were philosophers in the original sense of the word, universal sages”. In addition to this James explains that truth, is being expanded with time;

“That new idea is truest which performs most felicitously its function of satisfying our double urgency. It makes itself true, gets itself classed as true, by the way, it works; grafting itself then upon the ancient body of truth, which thus grows much as a tree grows by the activity of a new layer of cambium.”

This suggests that the history of philosophy is integral to the discipline, as our knowledge is passed on and grows with each generation. James also writes of Auguste Compte’s ‘positive’ philosophy, in three parts; the ‘theological stage’, which encompasses the conception of an idea, the ‘metaphysical stage’, which is when the “abstract idea” is formed, and finally the ‘positive’ scientific stage, which goes in detailed inquiry. These stages take us through the birth and development of theories and ideas.

“I propose in this book to take philosophy in the narrow sense of metaphysics, and to let both religion and the results of the sciences alone”. Let the separation stay, as this is more organic. One could argue here that historical knowledge is therefore integral to human growth.

James goes on to describe philosophy as an initial source of inquiry, in which specifications are born and eventually “drop off from the parent stem”. Furthermore, James explains that after the scientific stages of investigation (or “drop off from the parent stem”), there is a tendency for thinkers to denounce philosophy and to be drawn towards empiricism, leaving the so-called unanswerable questions behind. It is important to note here that James is not of the opinion that questions that haven’t been answered for a significant period of time are unanswerable or unworthy of consideration; “it does not follow that because some of these questions have waited two thousand years for an answer no answer will ever be forthcoming”. James goes as far as saying that “in some respects, indeed, ‘science’ has made less progress than ‘philosophy’”. Moreover, James makes the important point that “to disparage all inquiry into the other sorts of question, is to forget the extreme diversity of aspects under which reality undoubtedly exists”. This goes back to the idea initially discussed about the many different pathways that can be taken because of the diversity of human beings.

Another important point that James makes goes against empiricist thinking; “explanation of the universe at large, not description of its details, is what philosophy must aim at”. James argues her that philosophy must remain with the big questions, and let the details be passed on to specializations. Indeed, with specialization comes answers, while philosophy still remains in a vast and undefined space; “what men call ‘philosophy’ today is but the residuum of questions still unanswered”. Under this view, philosophy has a taxonomical role, creating and confirming questions for various disciplines.

Pragmatism and what Philosophy should be

The key contention in James’ philosophy, is that the said practice must yield “results emotionally valuable … a man with no philosophy in him is the most inauspicious and unprofitable of all possible social mates”. The idea is that one’s philosophy has a pragmatic and emotional purpose in a person’s life, which makes personal philosophy quite unique. This does not mean however that philosophy is fragmented, there is a vastness within the discipline of philosophy because of the plethora of different people. Additionally, the concept of truth is tethered to the idea of Pragmatism in James. James makes the audacious point that the reason behind branding something as true, is central to why they are true; “The reasons why we call things true is the reason why they are true, for 'to be true' means only to perform this marriage-function.”. Furthermore, new truths have the potential to emerge in the individual; “new opinion counts as 'true' just in proportion as it gratifies the individual's desire to assimilate the novel in his experience to his beliefs in stock”. These contentions are understandably difficult to accept, as we’d like to think that the truths that we hold are universally valid, however, some applications bring legitimacy to this bold claim.

James argues for an enriching experience of philosophical thinking, contesting that “the most interesting and important thing about you is the way in which it philosophy determines the perspective in your several worlds”. Philosophy is not only individual, but the key characteristic to consider; “For the philosophy which is so important in each of us is not a technical matter; it is our more or less dumb sense of what life honestly and deeply means”. There is a personal reason to engage in philosophical reason that is universal, but unique, the really controversial point with James, is that he goes as far as to think of truth as fitting the purpose of a person in a given context; “an idea is 'true' so long as to believe it is profitable to our lives”. Although at first glance we could contest that this claim is problematic, as someone’s life could theoretically be enriched at the expense of another (for example; a wealthy businessman finding tax loopholes, strongly benefiting his lifestyle at public cost). However, it can be argued that humans are already shaping truth, and the fight is for the most humanitarian version of it. For example, Sally Haslanger proposes a social constructivist understanding of race and gender, and argues that it is a society that bears the burden of deciding the meaning of race and gender; “the world itself can’t tell us what gender is, or what race is; it is up to us to decide what in the world if anything, they are”. Social constructivism specifically investigates concepts in the framework that they are not hard truths, but socially created ones; “something is a social construction if it is an intended or unintended product of a social practice”. Philosophers that have and still are investigating issues of gender, arguably make contentions on gender to further the progressive agenda, and thus to make a fairer world. Although this moves away from James’ contention that we are all on our own path, it is perhaps in alignment with pragmatic thinking that we also form groups and are able to identify with others and learn from one another.

Objections and Replies

One possible objection to James’ pragmatism is the question of whether pragmatism is always going to be genuine. James’ view may appear as disregarding empirical understanding altogether, as the pragmatic consequences are placed as more important under James’ thinking. If we consider Pascal’s wager, the argument is that belief in God is pragmatic whether or not God is real, as belief can enrich your life as well as possibly get you into heaven. Bertrand Russell raises this concern as a point of concern in A History of Western Philosophy, explaining that pragmatism is not satisfactory;

“this simply omits as unimportant the question whether God really is in His heaven; if He is a useful hypothesis, that is enough. God the Architect of the Cosmos is forgotten: all that is remembered is belief in God, and its effects”.

This is in response to James’ following hypothesis from the chapter ‘Pragmatism and Religion’ in Pragmatism: A New name for Some Old Ways of Thinking; “if the hypothesis of God works satisfactorily in the widest sense of the word, it is true”. Labeling what is useful is unsatisfactory to Russell, and this unsatisfaction may also be present in someone trying to practice pragmatism. Indeed, one could object that this belief lacks realness and that someone taking this approach is not a true convert, but simply tabulating the odds as is advocated in Pascal’s wager. On the other hand, a belief in God is never going to be justifiable so to speak, as it is ‘belief’, and even though we could attempt to rationalize this belief (as is attempted by rationalist philosophers such as Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz), the justifications will arguably always remain in the mind. Therefore, James’ claim is potentially useful in understanding religion, and while perhaps arriving at religion from pragmaticism may not be initially genuine, it could lead to genuine belief and subsequent fulfillment.

James provides a partial response to this concern explaining that teachings can either support following a certain view or support personal thinking and development; “things can be taught in dry dogmatic ways or in a philosophical way”. And furthermore, that “philosophy must, in any case, complete the sciences, and must incorporate their methods”. To the objection that philosophy is not grounded in reality, which is Russell’s concern with James, he proposes the fooling response; “The thin and noble abstractions may give way to more solid and real constructions … in the end philosophers may get into as close contact as realistic novelists with the facts of life”. This is in alignment with Compte’s stages of philosophy discussed in the first part of the essay, as under James’ philosophy, philosophy and science feed one another.

In conclusion, while James’ philosophy of philosophy is particularly unique in its pragmatism, there remain important questions to keep in mind, especially on whether a pragmatic way of life can truly lead to genuine fulfillment and philosophy. The objection raised by Russell is arguably important to keep in mind as a potential problem with pragmatism. 

07 July 2022
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