- James defends pluralism* against monism, the idea that the world cannot be reduced to single principle of explanation and that it includes many real things/ideas/points of view that must be acknowledged and respected. Moreover, a pluralistic world is incomplete. It's still growing, and we still have potentially-relevant and constructive choices to make about how we want it to change and grow. It's not over and done with, not a complete unity, not perhaps yet fully realized in the divine mind of a creator or implicit in all the laws of nature (known and unknown). Is this a bad thing? Or would you rather believe (with James) that the universe is in some sense open-ended, still subject to change, still somehow responsive to what we think and do?
- "The very fact that we debate this question shows that our KNOWLEDGE is incomplete at present and subject to addition. In respect of the knowledge it contains the world does genuinely change and grow." True?
- Comment: Is this what "common sense" means to you? "My thesis now is this, that OUR FUNDAMENTAL WAYS OF THINKING ABOUT THINGS ARE DISCOVERIES OF EXCEEDINGLY REMOTE ANCESTORS, WHICH HAVE BEEN ABLE TO PRESERVE THEMSELVES THROUGHOUT THE EXPERIENCE OF ALL SUBSEQUENT TIME. They form one great stage of equilibrium in the human mind's development, the stage of common sense."
- Comment: Is common sense in ordinary life really "entirely different" from common sense in philosophy? "In practical talk, a man's common sense means his good judgment, his freedom from eccentricity, his GUMPTION, to use the vernacular word. In philosophy it means something entirely different, it means his use of certain intellectual forms or categories of thought. Were we lobsters, or bees, it might be that our organization would have led to our using quite different modes from these of apprehending our experiences. It MIGHT be too (we cannot dogmatically deny this) that such categories, unimaginable by us to-day, would have proved on the whole as serviceable for handling our experiences mentally as those which we actually use."
- Comment: If "heaven only knows," how do we know when to prefer common sense to science or philosophy, or vice versa? "Common sense is BETTER for one sphere of life, science for another, philosophic criticism for a third; but whether either be TRUER absolutely, Heaven only knows."
- In LEC VI James defends the pragmatic theory of truth, according to which it's unhelpful to be told that true ideas "copy" reality. Rather, they "work" in helping us cope with reality even when we can't form a good ideal "copy" in mind (as with the grandfather clock example). Why do you think pragmatism's critics find the pragmatic theory so objectionable? Do our true ideas really copy their objects? How would we know the copy was accurate, other than by the pragmatic criterion of "working"?
- Comment: Is pragmatism's usual question a good one? Is "cash-value" a good metaphor? "Pragmatism... asks its usual question. "Grant an idea or belief to be true," it says, "what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone's actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth's cash-value in experiential terms?"
- Comment: "...'it is useful because it is true' or that 'it is true because it is useful.' Both these phrases mean exactly the same thing, namely that here is an idea that gets fulfilled and can be verified." True? Can you think of truths that are not useful, or useful ideas that are not true in the pragmatic sense?
- Comment: "The 'absolutely' true, meaning what no farther experience will ever alter, is that ideal vanishing-point towards which we imagine that all our temporary truths will some day converge. It runs on all fours with the perfectly wise man, and with the absolutely complete experience; and, if these ideals are ever realized, they will all be realized together. Meanwhile we have to live to-day by what truth we can get to-day, and be ready to-morrow to call it falsehood..." True?
- In LEC VII James defends his English (Oxford) friend Schiller's "humanism," according to which the world is "plastic"... but he says this is an unfortunate "butt-end-foremost" description of that view. Can we speak of the world's plasticity while still acknowledging stubborn facts and realities? Or is it too hard to find "reality 'independent' of human thinking"?
- Comment: Is James being fair to rationalists like Bradley when he says "On the pragmatist side we have only one edition of the universe, unfinished, growing in all sorts of places, especially in the places where thinking beings are at work," implying that rationalists are out of touch and irrelevant?
- Comment: Do you prefer a tight rationalist "belly-band" or a loose pragmatic "tub"? "The rationalist mind, radically taken, is of a doctrinaire and authoritative complexion: the phrase 'must be' is ever on its lips. The belly-band of its universe must be tight. A radical pragmatist on the other hand is a happy-go-lucky anarchistic sort of creature. If he had to live in a tub like Diogenes he wouldn't mind at all if the hoops were loose and the staves let in the sun."
- Do you read the Whitman poem in LEC VIII the way James does, pluralistically? What concrete difference does it make how you read (and act on) a poem like "To You"?
- Are you an optimist, pessimist, meliorist, or none of the above? Why? "(T)here are unhappy men who think the salvation of the world impossible. Theirs is the doctrine known as pessimism. Optimism in turn would be the doctrine that thinks the world's salvation inevitable. Midway between the two there stands what may be called the doctrine of meliorism..."
- How would you answer? "Suppose that the world's author put the case to you before creation, saying: "I am going to make a world not certain to be saved, a world the perfection of which shall be conditional merely, the condition being that each several agent does its own 'level best.' I offer you the chance of taking part in such a world. Its safety, you see, is unwarranted. It is a real adventure, with real danger, yet it may win through. It is a social scheme of co-operative work genuinely to be done. Will you join the procession? Will you trust yourself and trust the other agents enough to face the risk?"
- "...pragmatism can be called religious, if you allow that religion can be pluralistic or merely melioristic in type." Would you call James's pragmatism religious? What practical difference does that make?
- COMMENT: What do you think of what James wrote to H.G.Wells about American notions of "success"? (See below**)
- Suggest your own Discussion Questions... and comment on you classmates'...
A couple of my pals from Vandy have insisted that pragmatists cannot be pluralists, in a sense they specify as connected with more recent technical discussions in contemporary philosophy journals. In a broader sense, James clearly disagreed.
A helpful William James site... William James Society... Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy...
**To H. G. Wells.
To Henry James.
To Henry James.
[The Walpurgis Nacht letter]
To Mrs. James.
Keene Valley, July 9, 1898.