Monday, June 12, 2017
Week one essay June 12, 2017 - Don
Week one essay June 12, 2017
William James dedicated Pragmatism as follows: “To the Memory of John Stuart Mill from whom I first learned the pragmatic openness of mind and whom my fancy likes to picture as our leader were he alive today.” Mill died on May 7, 1873. William James was only thirty-one, his grandfather “was a multi-millionaire, and, following his death, James’s father Henry enjoyed financial independence.” James’s privileged lifestyle allowed him to pursue various interests and travel extensively. It also afforded him an opportunity to receive an exceptional education including learning to speak several languages, but while he tried to find himself, his devotion to philosophy was probably still in the developmental state when Mill died.
Mill’s Autobiography was published in October of 1873 and it is almost certain that James was familiar with it, because we find a reference in his essay, “Great Men and Their Environment,” published in 1880. In it he states, “Suppose I say that the singular moderation which now distinguishes social, political, and religious discussion in England and contrasts so strongly with the bigotry and dogmaticism of sixty years ago, (that would be 1820) is largely due to J.S. Mill’s example.”
The second half of the nineteenth century was filled with technological and scientific breakthroughs and social upheaval. From the mass production of steel, the invention of the phonautograph to the discovery of Neanderthal man and Cro-Magnon man to Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species. In America, the Civil War end in 1865, but the transatlantic telegraph cable was successful laid in 1866, and the first transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869. Maxwell wrote “A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism,” “Mendeleev created Periodic Table’” and Mendel “formulates his laws of inheritance” in 1865, six years after Darwin published The Origin of Species. The first commercial car was produced in 1886 and Edison tested the light bulb in 1879.”
When I considered James’s dedication, I tried to evaluate it in the context of everything that happened or was happening in Europe and the United States in the late nineteenth century. New technology and discoveries challenged one’s beliefs and values and left one searching for answer to questions that had rarely if ever been proposed. They created conflicts and intolerance reminiscent of our own time.
As I began to read Mill’s Autobiography, I imagined how James must have felt as he first read it. He related to his father’s encouragement of dining table discussions on a multitude of new subjects like Mill’s father taught his son, but he must have paused when he pondered the severity of the demands placed on Mill even as a young three-year old child and wondered about how that affected Mill’s relationship with his father, which we know was strained. Mill expressed in his autobiography, that it was one based more on respect than on feelings. If he had not already read other essays by Mill, it is almost certain that after reading his autobiography, James would have been motivated to learn more about this remarkable man and to read some of the authors that he had read. While James considered Mill as his foundation for Pragmatism, it is worth noting that Mill would have given credit to those who preceded him as well as so many that he personally knew.