Up@dawn 2.0

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Final Report, 1 of 2

On William James and Pragmatism-  

   So a couple weeks back we talked about this interesting question of the squirrel and the hunter.  For those of you that do not remember, a hunter is standing in front of a tree that squirrel is clinging onto on the opposite side.  When the squirrel moves left, the hunter moves an equal amount left so that the two never see each other.  The question is then presented, is the hunter circling around the squirrel or not?  He does circle the tree, which the squirrel is on, but does not actually circle the squirrel itself.  William James, an American philosopher, might have said, ‘Who cares?’  With so many other philosophers that we have studied in class, I chose William James because of his straight forward approach to problems—called Pragmatism in philosophy. 

   The books we have been assigned in class do not really touch on it much, but James had a terrible life.  The man had back, eye, skin, and stomach problems.  He was diagnosed with several different psychological disorders and contemplated suicide on multiple occasions.  At age 24, he contracted smallpox, which was still among the leading causes of death at the time.  That time, of course, was 1860's America—which was during the Civil War; not a great time at all.  In a bit of irony, James received a medical doctorine degree from Harvard but decides instead to become a psychologist, with which he had no schooling.  It is my belief, however, that individuals such as James are among the best suited for the psychology and philosophy fields because of the struggles they have encountered in life.

   Pragmatism was created by a man named C.S. Pierce, who wanted to try and back up all the psychological questions with scientific answers.  Like many other things in life, even though he created it, it did not gain much attention until William James started writing about it in his mid – 20’s.  James was a gifted writer.  So much so that in 1890, he wrote a 1200 page book about the topic of psychology.  In the above question of the squirrel and the hunter, James might try and answer it by stating scientific facts about the situation in both cases.  However, James believed that if the end result was trivial, it did not matter what you believed, so again, ‘who cares?’  If it would somehow make a difference, as he claimed had ‘cash value’, your belief would be right either way as long you thought that way and made sense to you.  Which to me is quite a bit different outlook than most philosophers, who would want you to believe what they say and question everything.

   Of course, with this kind of approach, it became easy to see why so many Americans looked favorably to his viewpoint; American citizens wanted to exercise their freedom of speech and believe what they wanted and not something forced upon them.  If you believed God was real, then indeed he was.  If not, then there was no God.  It is interesting to note that James at one time wished that if there was indeed a God and Heaven, he could be the one to turn non-believers, like those of Pascal, away.  For someone that emphasized personalized beliefs and free will, he did not have much sympathy for those who chose poorly.

   It would also be easy to point out the flaws in James’ arguments.  A British philosopher, Bertrand Russell, suggested that by agreeing with James, nothing would be out of reach.  Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and the Boogie Man would all be real because children all believe they are real.  Aliens exist as well because they can presumably be the only answer to unexplained phenomena.  While this might easily be true for some people in life, James reminds us that what is good for the goose is not always good for the gander; i.e., to each his or her own.


A Little History of Philosophy, Nigel Warburton
Philosophy: the basics, Nigel Warburton

Section 14


  1. Good! But James's squirrel story is about hikers, not hunters. What have those squirrels ever done to us, but teach us the pragmatic method?

  2. "For someone that emphasized personalized beliefs and free will, he did not have much sympathy for those who chose poorly" - actually James had a ton of sympathy for those whose alternative beliefs were rooted in their own personal experience rather than (say) a contrived philosophical argument... hence his disdain for Pascal. In general, though, he said he saw his task as a philosopher to be that of defending experience (and those who have it) AGAINST philosophy.

    One more little thing: James had plenty of maladies, chief among them a recurrent tendency to what we call depression. But on balance I'd say he had a wonderful life, an exemplary one showing how a person can turn adversity to advantage.

    If you're interested, I recommend Robert Richardson's biography of James: http://www.amazon.com/William-James-Maelstrom-American-Modernism/dp/0618919899

  3. I agree with his ability to turn adversity into an advantage. And maybe because of his outlook, he enjoyed life. I wouldn't say that on paper, however.

  4. Fortunately, lives aren't lived on paper. Read his personal correspondence, you'll see clear evidence of his joie de vivre.