Issue #54 July 2022

The Pragmatism of William James

Gerardo Dottori - Aurora volando (1933)

A philosophy, according to William James, does not arise out of thin air.1placeholder It always responds to a problem that insists with an urgency, but which does not itself originate in philosophy. If he named the first of his Pragmatism lectures “The Present Dilemma in Philosophy,” it is not only to guide us towards the problem that pragmatism responds to, but also to affirm the reflection on the pre-philosophical ‘demand’ as the very beginning of philosophy. As we will see, uncovering the underlying motivations of choices, beliefs, or ways of thinking, how they are produced, is the core principle of the pragmatic method.

What is this “present dilemma in philosophy”? It is an aporia, a blocked situation, which philosophy needs to escape out of sheer self-preservation. Philosophy, as we will see, finds itself in an antinomy, but only because it has lost itself in false problems. The “present dilemma” is therefore not merely a theme or subject that philosophy is presently working on, but a problem that is posed for philosophy, but also within philosophy, in as much as it is only through philosophy that this problem can be resolved, even though it does not originate from it. It is in that sense that pragmatism is a genuinely philosophical movement. How does this dilemma express itself within philosophy? Through a symptom, says James, namely the mutual disdain between empiricists and rationalists. It is namely the antinomy of empiricism or rationalism – an age-old discussion that Kant already set out to resolve – that is only producing fruitless discussions, a circularity that philosophy cannot escape from. If pragmatism proposes itself as the mediator between these two, it tackles a task that situates it well within the history of philosophy, and Bergson, a friend and contemporary of James, was setting out to do the same. But unlike Kant and Bergson, James does not treat this aporia as a genuinely philosophical debate that can be resolved by philosophical means, but treats it precisely as a symptom, which is produced by something else, something that surpasses philosophy as a discipline. Rationalism and empiricism, says James, are in themselves perfectly consistent philosophies – which is precisely the reason why neither of them can ‘win’ against the other on philosophical grounds – but they both fail to fulfil the task that philosophy itself is called upon to tackle, namely to be a guide for life.

It is for this reason that James doesn’t begin his first lecture by contrasting rationalism against empiricism. He begins outside of philosophy, or, rather, outside of philosophy as a discipline, proposing a vaster meaning of it: “it is not a technical matter; it is our more or less dumb sense of what life honestly and deeply means. It is only partly got from books; it is our individual way of just seeing and feeling the total push and pressure of the cosmos.” This does not mean, as we will see, that he refutes philosophy as a discipline, but rather that philosophy itself begins outside of “philosophy,” in the lives and experiences of each one of us, as a problem that insists and necessitates the emergence of this specific discipline. Just as philosophies do not arise out of thin air, neither do philosophers, who are pushed towards it through a vital need.

If philosophy is “our individual way of just seeing and feeling,” it amounts to the way we experience the world in our daily lives, which is why James can claim in the beginning of the first lecture that everyone ‘has’ a philosophy. But this means that the dilemma “in” philosophy does not merely concern the philosophical discourse, but afflicts already this vast definition of philosophy as the profound way in which we experience the world in which we live. If, in this sense, there is a crisis, it does not merely concern the discipline, but contemporary life as such – the age of modernity that was replacing the Victorian age at the time James lived. What is this crisis? That we have become uncapable to choose a philosophy as a way of life. In that sense, it touches each one of us, even today: we are unable to respond to the question “what life honestly and deeply means.” The Pragmatism lectures were first presented in 1907, at a time where the old authorities, the Church, the State, were finally crumbling, leaving the place to a plethora of opinions, at a time where profound changes like industrialisation, urbanisation, modernisation, and the global market made individuals feel small and powerless. But James’s response to these symptoms of nihilism was not to look for new points to hold on to, anchors or havens, but to throw us out into the sea, the flux of the world, an acentric world of permanent change, where meaning is not found but created.

It is this crisis that engenders the desire of “amateurs” to seek answers from philosophy. They ask the philosophers: What is the meaning of life? “Is Life Worth Living?” (a title of one of James’s essays). But philosophy cannot answer because it also is torn by a crisis. Is it the same one? In a certain sense, yes. In the history of philosophy, two grand lines of thought have emerged: empiricism and rationalism. As they developed further, each one producing a remarkable number of masterpieces, they were less and less capable to communicate between each other. Not only did they by consequence close themselves off further and further, what has also been lost is a way to choose between these two. Both are presented and elucidated to a young philosophy student in the beginning of their studies, but never are they also offered a philosophical means to choose between these two. Sure, rationalists have offered plenty of arguments against empiricists, and vice versa, but at best these have led to an adaptation to the criticism, and a counter attack. The dualism itself, it seems, is to remain unresolved. Nevertheless, in most cases, such a choice is made throughout one’s university career, as complex as these positions often are. There is something that is making us becoming Hegelians, Platonists, Humeans. How does a student choose between these two (if we assume, in a simplifying manner, that all philosophers can be affiliated with one of these options), if no definite way of choosing is ever offered? On what grounds to we prefer philosopher A over philosopher B? It is, according to James, due to an unacknowledged and unconscious element: the temperament. A ”tender-minded” student, he says, will tend towards the rationalist position, and a “tough-minded” is bound to become an empiricist. And the less philosophers are able to settle the disputes by philosophical means, the more are they forced to bear upon this pre-philosophical factor. How does one become an empiricist or a rationalist? Neither one of them can be proven to be inconsistent, and both have created profound insights that prove their value. James does not say it to discredit philosophy as such, claiming that it’s all based on opinion and personal preferences; this connection to a pre-philosophical desire is, as we will see, be on the contrary the very value of philosophy.

Neither is James aiming for a critique that says that academic philosophers actually base their positions of feelings, and that philosophy proper, pragmatism, is completely rational. No, pragmatism also originates from a temperament, and the temperament itself is not just our current feeling, but our very “ways of seeing and feeling.” The choice is not between temperament and a rational principle. Otherwise, James would himself turn out to be a rationalist: he’d propose a rational (philosophical) category to choose between empiricism and rationalism. That was Kant’s solution: a third position between these two that can be attained on philosophical grounds (by a purification of philosophy: the critique). If James says that philosophy is necessarily a question of temperament, it is rather because philosophy begins somewhere else: in our daily life, with vital questions that are existential. The temperament, it is clear, is not something we are born with and that decides our course of life but something fundamental that shapes our “ways of seeing and feeling”, and which either becomes something like a carapace that limits our perspective (as we become “tough-minded” or “tender-minded”), or the malleable, curious open-mindedness, as James imagined the pragmatic temperament to be. We choose our philosophy based on our ways of living, and if we are unable to choose a philosophy, it is not because its “schools” are lacking, but precisely because we no longer feel capable to choose a way of living. Why? As the old authorities have crumbled, there is no more way to decide, which ways of living are the correct ones, and which ones are false. James sees this as a positive sign, as a democratization: as soon as we posit that a certain way of life is ‘objectively’ superior to others, we close ourselves up within an ideology and cut ourselves off from the openness of the world. The crisis of choice, therefore, is a necessity, because the old authorities were all based on false premises. It is for that reason that they are ultimately incapable to serve us as guides for life: they might give us comfort, but they also damning us to passivity.

We are getting closer to the source of the crisis, the “present dilemma” as it affects philosophy as a discipline. Being unable to choose between empiricism and rationalism was only the symptom, what is actually going on is that we are unable to re-establish the profound connection between philosophy as a way of life and philosophy as a discipline, as a science. Rationalism – this is the core of James’s criticism – has cut its ties to the real world completely. It doesn’t “touch” it anymore. It has become a refuge, a “way of escape”, because it wants to separate itself from a reality that is too cruel and chaotic. The reason why rationalism is barren is not that it is inconsistent, but rather that it has, in amputating itself from its origins in the daily life, become autonomous, and does therefore no longer “touch” the world. But this amputation is psychologically motivated: it is based on fear.

Empiricists, on the contrary, have the tendency to lose themselves in the facts, to become fatalist by relying completely on the natural sciences as they discover eternal laws that decide the course of the universe from the beginning to the end. But a fatalist philosophy, in its materialist pessimism, can no longer become a guide for life, because we become completely powerless to intervene in the world and, more essentially, to change our way of life. Philosophy as James understands it, is necessarily comprised of two things: first of all, it originates from life, from vital questions, but it also needs to serve as a long-term guide, push us beyond the everyday hustle, where it is everyone for themselves: “no one of us can get along without the far-flashing beams of light it sends over the world’s perspectives”. And this is the necessity of philosophy as a discipline.

Academic philosophy has a certain force, a necessity of consequence and consistence, of connecting ideas and thereby avoiding that they isolate themselves in dogmatisms: these are its great advantages to tackle the question, how we ought to live our lives. Without it, we’ll let ourselves be convince by no matter who, ideologues and advertisements. Philosophy, in that sense, gives us the tools to choose. It gives us the means to surpass our small-minded individual perspectives, go beyond our individual lives, which are the reason for our nihilism, to make us see the interconnectedness of everything. This is the aspect of religion that is so important to James: not as a dogma, but in its function to guide us in life, our actions, and to affirm our liberty and our power of transformation. If philosophy gives us back the capability to choose, it doesn’t do so by giving us pre-established solutions. It does not tell us how to choose between professions, hobbies or lifestyles. It is not offering us correct or wrong choices, but affirms the choice to choose, so that we always choose that which gives us the capability to continue choosing. A choice can only choose what is open, what continues affirming the liberty that we are acting out in choosing. You might choose to become addicted, but once you’ve chosen, you are uncapable to choose further. You cannot, in that sense, choose to be imprisoned or confined, because once you’ve made this choice, your ability to choose further is nullified (you cannot ‘undo’ being a prisoner once you’re in the cell). It is for this reason that dogmas, “schools,” and ideologies can never be truly chosen according to James, that they are false by their very nature. Which is also why it is always wrong to become a Hegelian, a Platonist, a Heideggerian, or a Deleuzian. Each time we will close ourselves off to a certain way to view the world, which isolates us once again from the questions of life.

It is in that sense the task of philosophy as James understands it to affirm the openness of the world and the individual power of choosing. But an open world is one that is in permanent flux, that transforms us but that is also transformed by us through our vital activity. We are not subjects of eternal laws, but active participant in a universal “commerce”. If there is a way of life that philosophy offers us, it does not lie in specific activities or beliefs that we ought to adopt, but in a profound stance towards the world, in opening ourselves up, in remaining open and connecting our ideas. This is the pragmatist “temperament”. A consistency within our world-views but also a communication with the world-views of others, adopting ways of seeing that go beyond our individual lives, and affirming their multiplicity, resulting from the individual’s capacity to transform the world.

It is in that sense that pragmatism can serve as a mediator, within philosophy (between empiricism and rationalism), and between philosophy and our daily lives. Its ultimate task is to re-establish the connections and affirming at the same time our power to choose – by creating a vision that satisfies our vital questions, by recreating the connection between life and thought. It does not tell us if we ought to choose to become empiricists or rationalists, neither that we ought to join this fancy new school called pragmatism – it tells us, that this is a false problem, because it is the very act of choosing a “school” that is futile: it closes us off in a specific way of seeing that bars us from seeing the world in a different way.

Gerardo Dottori - Città-festa (1921)

We can see how James affirms that the problem of choice in philosophy is deeply connected to the problem of choice in our daily lives: one must find a way of thinking that corresponds to a way of living. The whole “dilemma” of philosophy, the problem of choice, originates from the cutting away of connections so as to close oneself off in an autonomous and circular territory. The world, in short, is a world of relations. There are no separated territories found there, only denser knots or relative centres that are like stars with a great gravitational pull. It is a world where everything is connected and where new relations are being created as it goes. As you read this essay, a connection is made between me and you, as inconsequential as it might turn out to be. For a short moment, you and all the people waiting at the train station breathe in the same air, exchange molecules, and – as we are painfully aware now – viruses and bacteria. Should the train arrive late, you might even become the most rudimentary form of a community: united by annoyance. The world of relation has as its corollary the critique of isolation and separation, where you close yourself in in dogmatic systems. Both are fundamental to James’s pragmatism, united by the notion of experience: we enrich our experience by opening ourselves up, by experiencing more of the world. If, therefore, philosophy found itself in a “dilemma”, an aporia, it is because it has betrayed this connectivity, because it has isolated itself, not only from the daily life, but also in separate “schools” that are unable to talk to each other. Obviously, then, that there cannot be a ‘right’ school that can vanquish the ‘wrong’ one: the mere notion of philosophical schools betrays its heart and soul – and just as obviously, pragmatism cannot propose itself as a new school, as it is merely “a new name for some old ways of thinking,” the subtitle that James gave to the collection of his lessons. By closing itself off in schools, philosophy becomes unable to open up perspectives, to serve as a guide. The amateur that asks a philosopher for answers will only receive the opinion of a bureaucrat.

Pragmatism, as we can see, means nothing less than that all our choices are motivated. James insists that it is nothing new in philosophy – is it not even the core of the Socratic method to ask the interlocutor for his motivations to believe or say a certain thing? – but that it has merely been applied unsystematically, which is what pragmatism corrects. It affirms that each choice is produced by something that is responsible for its urgency, a certain demand, but that comes from outside of the area of the choice. We become philosophers not due to philosophical reasons, because we perceive the superiority of the philosophical life, but because we have a demand to philosophy, a need to receive answers from her. And if we choose to become empiricists or  rationalists, it is not because we find either position philosophically convincing (this cannot be founded on philosophical grounds, each position being equally ‘feasible’), but because there is a pre-philosophical need that pushes us into a certain direction. The difference between empiricism and rationalism, then, is that they reply to different demands, that they are motivated differently.

Indeed, empiricism and rationalism have their own ways of separating themselves from the world, of closing themselves off from the vital questions. Rationalism, too “tender-minded” to tackle the evil and chaos of the world, seeks to create a protective “sanctuary,” which is held by eternal rational laws. All novelty that can disrupt the course of our lives is excluded: the world is given and pre-established. But empiricism also tends to diminish our role in the world by closing the world in a system governed by eternal natural laws, thereby becoming just as fatalist as rationalism. All fatalism cuts us off from the future, from novelty, the openness of the world, and thereby the capacity to change the course of things. To be able to “choose to choose,” the first choice must be possible. But if evil people do evil because of genetics, if poverty is created by necessary economic laws, then liberty has no place in the world. If James is nevertheless closer to empiricism, it’s because this fatalist tendency is not necessary to it, and it breaks down whenever empiricism remains close to science and the facts, which remain essentially multitudinous and unpredictable (ask a chemist how difficult it is to replicate exactly the same results in two experiments).

It is important to note that if James wants to re-establish the tie between philosophy and life, it is not to dissolve the difference between them. A world of connectivity is not a world of indifference, but of singular multiplicities: densified centres of connections that never cease to be connected to their outside, just like our skin never ceases to touch the external world. In that sense, the goal is not that the whole world become philosophers, and neither that philosophers become something like life coaches. Rather, the connection between the vital questions and philosophy will bring academic philosophy back to life, as it has become too dry and barren with its unending quarrels. And the amateurs will find in philosophy answers to how to live their lives, how to open themselves up to the world and to regain their individual power of action, without needing to worry about more technical questions that occupy academic philosophers. If the latter feel the need to devout themselves to philosophy, it is due to a certain temperament that demands more consistency, systematicity, and depth, a desire to go to the limits and foundations of the universe that the non-philosophical mind doesn’t worry about. But these searches for deeper truth become themselves barren and circular the moment they stop being connected to the vital questions, where the philosopher no longer seeks answers for living, but seeks to hide from it. If the ways of thinking ought to correspond to the ways of living, it is in the sense of their plurality and irreducible richness that make the beauty of the world. And is not the wealth and beauty of philosophy the multiplicity of its ideas and positions that burn like stars on the night sky?

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As we can see, James starts out his presentation of pragmatism by showing us, to which vital problems it responds to. And this problem, as we can see, this crisis, is one of a lost connectivity, a world that has become too closed off and isolated, because the individuals are closing themselves off from the world. The problem, then, is not nihilism in the sense that the old authorities have crumbled. It is not that the structures of a meaning of life are lost. Quite the contrary: the dogmatisms of the old authorities have only hidden this fundamental issue by creating sanctuaries that seemingly kept us safe from tackling the big questions of life. Pragmatism is a philosophy that fundamentally accepts the changes of modernity, with its flux and transformations, its pure immanence. It is not the openness of the world that calls the meaning of our life into question, but our desires and temperaments that for some reason prefer the powerlessness of protection over the responsibility of liberty.

But does pragmatism offer a way out of this conundrum, does it resolve the age-old question of freedom vs. security? How can it prove to us that the openness of connectivity is better than the homeliness of the sanctuary? Is there a right way to choose between these two? Here, we need to go further and try to understand pragmatism as a method. We could already guess where that goes, and we now can formulate it explicitly. What this method begins with and what it ultimately aims for, is distinguishing true problems from false ones. The dispute between empiricism and rationalism, as we’ve seen, stems from a false problem in as much as it leads to fruitless discussions, whereby we perpetually move in circles. In that sense, a false problem is a problem where, no matter what we choose, the result ends up having the same consequences: “If I can find nothing that would become different, then the alternative has no sense.” Here, James brings up the example of the world ending this very moment, offering us to choose between empiricism and rationalism: if there is no further future, it does not matter at all, if the world has been created by an omnipotent God or random laws of nature. Identifying a false problem means escaping its endless quarrels, meaning that we can finally stop talking about it.

A true problem, consequently, is one where a difference in consequence can be made out, which means that we can build on the solution it offers and thereby transform the world. This means that in a true problem, it matters what we choose, which means also that with our choice we have the power to change the outcome. We can see immediately that the pragmatic method is incompatible with determinism of any nature. It affirms the possibility of choice as a difference that it produces towards the future, as a matter of consequence. If there is no future, all the alternatives are the same. The pragmatic method immediately opens up perspectives, it gives us room to breathe, it offers us possibilities. A false problem is one that closes us off, that makes us turn in circles. By asking us to choose, by being posed with a certain urgency, true problems activate us, force us to open ourselves towards a future that we are to build. James affirms the existence of liberty not due to dogmatic or even rational reasons, but because liberty itself is produced by a vital necessity. All living beings ultimately choose to stay alive instead of all the other alternatives that lead to their demise (can a living root “choose” not to absorb water? Maybe not, but why would it, given that it needs the water to survive?). If pragmatism tells us that everything is motivated, then this pertains also to liberty, but also life itself that is always motivated by the desire to stay alive…

What is a fruitful debate? It is one that creates new ties, opens up new connections, connects us immediately to the New, to the world. From a fruitful debate, we all leave enriched, it is an experience that enriches us. If every problem, as Bergson says, has the solutions it deserves, a true problem will not lead to definite solutions, as those will only lead to silence, back to death. Just like science, at its best, is not about finding a true theory that is valid once and for all but keeps on searching for new insights and to improve our lives, it is at the limits of science that the interesting things happen, those that quench our thirst for knowledge, that lead to further insights that will improve our daily lives, and that will overthrow our prejudices and false opinions. Just the same, pragmatism is most interested in the limits of experience, which is lived experience as we live it right now: every day will potentially offer us new things to learn and connect us to new people to learn from.

It is for this reason that the categories of satisfaction and of the interesting are central for James: they connect us to novelty, but also guide us to creating a life that satisfies us, that offers the best opportunities to develop our forces. They give us the means to change the world, to act. There is a deep political thread running through James’s pragmatism, because it affirms this expansive movement to all individuals, without exception. If there is indeed a satisfaction in dominating others and exploiting them, it is an inherently limited one, limited to an individual perspective which cuts itself off from others, and which feeds from the limitation of the liberty of others. All dogmatisms that presume that the world is given and decided affirm at the same time our powerlessness to change its course. Limiting our perspectives is living in a closed world. Accepting to live in a world of poverty, exploitation, and suffering, means closing oneself off from these experiences that are all also lived presently, but which we choose not to see. Affirming our capability to change the world means affirming the possibility to annul evil. This is why James’s critique of rationalism is essentially a moral one: rationalism is perfectly compatible with the perpetuation of evil through the affirmation of individual powerlessness. What James calls meliorism is, in contrast, a perspective of individual liberty, the capacity of each individual to improve (ameliorate) the world. But this liberty is not given. We need to plunge into the world, confront it, regain our activity in a world that tends towards its own closure. Creating new ties and relation is turning oneself towards the new. By identifying true problems, then, pragmatism permits us to break the circles, advance in a potentially endless apprenticeship. It puts us in motion in a world in motion.

Gerardo Dottori - Trasvolatore (1931)

This leads us directly to the pragmatist notion of truth. It comes as no surprise that what interests James is not truth as an eternal monolith, but rather the limit of truth, where we assimilate new truths, where we are confronted with something unknown. What is central here is therefore the process of becoming-truth as it becomes incorporated in lived experience, and James calls that verification. There is, he says, novelty that is simply additive, in the sense that each sunrise is, strictly speaking, unique, and that each morning we potentially board a train that we’ve never been on before. But such novelties are merely additive and don’t really change anything in our lives, we can live them through our habits. But there are also novelties that pose a problem, that resist our old “stock” of knowledge and common sense, that threaten to overthrow all we know. These are not as rare as one might think. A street artist appears to be floating two meters above the ground, holding himself up with a simple cane. We have the choice to try to assimilate this experience into our common knowledge of the world, or, if we want, to believe that this artist is somehow exempt from the natural laws, a true magician, or even that the law of gravity has been a hoax all along. But if pragmatism denies the existence of truth as an eternal monolith, does it not open itself up to the follies of random opinions?

Here, the connectivity of everything kicks in again. James notes a resistance that we have towards new truths, what he calls our “conservatism,” as every new truth is confronted with our common sense that has given our lives a certain normality. Lived experience is never just punctual, it is the whole net of what we’ve seen and felt, and this great mass shifts only reluctantly. What James refuses, then, is not truth itself, but a notion of truth that claims to separate itself from the human perspective. If truth is separated from our lives, if it doesn’t concern us, he says, it cannot be truth, because then it betrays the interconnectedness of the world: we are also a part of it. Therefore, the rationalists’ search for a truth “without conditions” is vain from the start. What they are looking for, is a correspondence, a completely static and unilateral relation, which amounts to a passive adaptation to a fixed and given world. The idea of truth as correspondence is enormously important in the history of philosophy, and we can see, how polemic James is here. He opposes correspondence to the pragmatic concept of commerce, a metaphor coming from economy, but which expresses the dynamic, mutual, and most importantly connected character of all experiences, thoughts, and truths. An idea comes never alone, there is an inner push to connect it to others, to create a certain consistency of all the elements of experience. This is what James calls common sense.

The connection of truth to human experience does not bring James to a solipsistic individualism, because the perspective here is not the one of the individual. What makes a problem fruitful, as we’ve seen, is that it originates from vital questions, which certainly concern the individual, but only in as much as it is connected to its outside, to others and the world. The totality of our individual experience directly connects to the people around us that have played even a minimal role in our lives, that we’ve seen, met, talked to, liked, hated, and loved. Our experiences connect to those of others. If truth responds to a vital demand, it does nonetheless not lead to an atomic individualism. What we look for in truth, is an enrichment of our experience, which, as we can see, goes always beyond our own personal lives. This is its “cash-value,” which is what motivates us to seek out truth.

James has often been accused of proposing a utilitarian philosophy, a reduction of rationality to economic reason, precisely because of the metaphor of the “cash-value”. Does truth need to be profitable? It is more complex than that. For example, he says, there is a “cash-value” in the comfort of taking a “moral holiday”: not worrying all the time about the moral consequences of our actions, something that can make us constantly anxious, and which can block our actions. And James admits that theological ideas, for example of a benevolent God that will punish all injustices in a distant future, can offer us such a comfort: we are no longer morally responsible for our actions, and can thereby act without losing ourselves in such worries. But, as he says, an idea, just like our experience, is never isolated, and comes along with unexpected consequences. Potentially, we have beliefs that will clash with others. And the idea of an Absolute, even though it can offer us vitally necessary comfort, might clash with other beliefs, as it presupposes a world where everything is given and decided, thereby denying, for example, our belief in our liberty. It is true that in our daily lives we don’t always care about inconsistencies in our beliefs, but at least when it comes to philosophy, these are unacceptable. So, as James says, other beliefs might offer us the possibility for a moral holiday as well, without forcing us to accept unwanted consequences. Even for an atheist it is perfectly valid to take a moral holiday. An isolated belief that does not connect to the others blocks the free flow of the “commerce” and will potentially force us to turn in circles. We see, how the question of choice always brings us back to the question of ways of living. It is for this reason that James compares truth to healthy food: only that can be true which is good for us to be believed. This is the vital aspect of truth. If it’s “helpful in life’s practical struggles,” we ought to adopt it as a belief, given that it can be integrated into what we already believe: or if what we already believe can be transformed so as to include this novelty, which creates a new connection.

It is due to this that James can say that pragmatism has no prejudice regarding where a truth comes from, its source: it may be scientific, spiritual, or common. Contrary to empiricism, it doesn’t exclusively accept sensory data, and contrary to rationalism, it does not exclusively accept logic. It can integrate personal and mystic experiences because each one of them has something to offer: it is all about enriching our experience, and all that opens ourselves up to the world and others enriches us. This is the democratic aspect of pragmatism that James underlines on many occasions.

But of course, the relation of experience to the world yet remains to be specified. Here, James invites us to begin with a very broad understanding of truth, namely one of an “agreement” with reality. This, he says, is an uncontroversial definition, but the question remains, what we understand with “agreement” and “reality”. The rationalists, he says, understand “agreement” as a mere copy of reality, which, itself, is given and unchangeable. But in what way is this understanding false? Here, James does the pragmatic ‘trick’ again by asking, how such a notion is produced. The notion of truth as a copy of reality comes from a purely visual understanding of perception (and experience), with the main image being the one of the objects being “copied” on the retina of our eye. By doing this, we reduce the richness of our experiences to merely one sensory organ that we take to be the exemplary one. And by extending this visual notion of experience to our notion of truth, we arrive at a concept of reality that appears to be filled with fixed objects, “substances”, that are themselves eternal and immutable, and that can only be displaced within a cartesian space. Thereby we arrive at a concept of reality as being “objective”, filled with objects that merely change their relative positions, but that “essentially” stay the same.

Such a reality is merely contemplated by a subject seemingly from the outside – transcendent to it. Such a visual notion of truth, contemplated by the “mental” or “spiritual” eye, plays a central role in the philosophic tradition that begins with Parmenides, continues with Plato and his notion of the Ideas, and is further reinforced further by Plotin, for example. We can see once again, how under James’s simple style, there lies a great polemical undercurrent. But he does not criticise this notion of truth to invalidate it, visual perception being indeed an important part of our “being in the world”; he criticises it for its limitation, its inability to express our daily experience, one that is much richer than that. The visual model hides other facets of how we experience the world.

There is an important practical consequence that makes the visual model not only limited, but also potentially dangerous. In reducing us to passive observers that only perceive a reality that is given, it robs us of our active intervention in the world. In our daily experience, we not only perceive the objects around us, we utilise them. We’re coming to James’s famous example of the “clock yonder wall”. Being seen, it is indeed copied on our retinas, but we do not merely look at it for the mere fun of it. The very reason to look at a clock is to use it, to read the time, which we do to structure our days and our daily habits. If it is true that it is noon right now, it is not merely something that is “contemplated”, but also acted out: in lunch breaks, in cooking, meeting friends, or going to the gym. The “agreement” thereby becomes a practical category that is socially created, for example in the sense that we all “agree” that noon is the time for taking a break and eating. Reality, therefore, is created through intersubjective conventions, common practices within social groups, and even reading the time on a clock is far from being a simple affair. In all this, reality go far beyond what we merely see.

What James essentially wants to do then, is to enrich and enlarge our notion of truth, which is no longer based on the visual model, but also on other modes of “verification” that we use in our daily lives. The demise of the old authorities, of the monopolies of truth, does not throw us into a meaningless world, but revitalizes notions of truth that have become barren in their isolation. This multitudinous aspect of our experience is central to pragmatism, because the poorer we make our experience to be, the weaker our capacity to intervene in the world becomes. Regaining our capacity to act and transform necessitates a revaluing of our individual experiences. It assumes that we as individuals matter. If James is therefore interested in the limits of truth, the part of our knowledge and experience where we are confronted with something new, it is because as long as we experience new things, it means that we are actively participating in the transformation of the world; and the end of experience, the discovery of an ultimate truth, would amount to nothing but death. It is our vital interest that pushes us toward new experiences, towards affirming our own liberty.

In that sense, we can see that James fundamentally shifts the notion of “agreement”: it is not made between a contemplating individual and a given reality, but between several parts of experience or between different experiences. There is, for James, nothing that goes beyond experience, experience being something that surpasses our individuality. There is a plane of experience on which multiplicities of experiences exchange themselves in a universal “commerce”. We are coming back to the interconnectedness of things, where the totality – reality as such – is nothing but the relation between elements that doesn’t cease to change. It is for that reason that in our experience, everything connects with everything, and that all that we learn needs to connect with our past experiences. All isolation, therefore, is ultimately artificial and deathly, and even if an organism is a relatively closed system, it is one that doesn’t cease to exchange with its surrounding. If there is a vital interest to learn and to understand things, it is not merely due to survival, but due to a profound connection to a permanently transforming flux. It is true, says James, that we rarely truly verify things, and we are ok with using clocks without ever knowing how they work. The central importance of the common sense is that we accept things as they come, as long as they integrate themselves harmoniously into our previous experience. The machine runs almost automatically. But sometimes, something is “off,” and we’re confronted with something new that throws us out into the open. This is the moment where are pushed to verify something, to intervene in the world and transform it: even if it’s just to take apart a clock to finally see how it works. Something new happens when the automatism is interrupted: this might just be one of the primal experiences of modern thought, from Bergson to Heidegger, to Brecht, to the Russian Formalists. It is the feeling of powerlessness in a rapidly changing world whose meaningfulness we feel we have lost. What James’s pragmatism offers us, is a vision of modernity that no longer necessitates passiveness and obedience, but where each individual develops its productive forces, where it is capable of choosing to choose, and therefore be an active member of a transforming world.

Timofei Gerber has an MA in philosophy from the University of Heidelberg, Germany, and an MA in film studies from the University of Zurich. He is currently writing his PhD at Paris 1 Sorbonne. He is also a co-founder and co-editor of this magazine.

Works Cited

All references are from William James’s Pragmatism lectures from 1907 (Penguin edition).


This essay is based on the preparatory notes for a course I was giving on James. All citations are from William James’s Pragmatism lectures from 1907 following the Penguin edition.


July 2022


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