William James And American Pragmatism

The whole idea of pragmatism was named and framed in America.

It’s the idea that ideas, beliefs, and philosophies should be judged by their results. If it works – really works – it’s good.

But this is not the pragmatism of “deals in the dark.” It means honestly lifting humanity and pushing forward.

And the great champion of pragmatism was the philosopher William James. He was maybe the most free-ranging thinker in American history. And he settled on this: what works.

In our time of high-ideology, we can use a dose of that. We look at American pragmatism, and William James.

-Tom Ashbrook


Robert Richardson, American historian and biographer. He has edited a just-published collection of essays called “The Heart of William James.” His other books include “William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism” and “Emerson: The Mind on Fire.”

Jack Beatty, On Point news analyst.

Here’s an excerpt from Richardson’s “The Heart of William James,” courtesy of Harvard University Press. It’s James’s essay “Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results.” Richardson gives an overview first:

“Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results” is, despite the flat-footed title, the “first blast of the trumpet of action against the abominable absolutists.” It is the opening announcement, given as a talk at Berkeley, California, in 1899, of what would be elaborated on in James’s Pragmatism in 1907. The philosophy of pragmatism, which James insisted on laying on the doorstep of his good friend and associate Charles S. Peirce, was for James a philosophy of action. He believed that the meaning of thought is “the production of belief,” and that “beliefs… are really rules for action.” He argues that we can evaluate actions better by their results than by their initial intentions or by their origins. “To develope a thought’s meaning,” he wrote, “we need only determine what conduct it is fitted to produce: that conduct is for us its sole significance.” James’s argument is “fruits not roots.” He goes on: “to attain perfect clearness in our thoughts of an object, then, we need only consider what effects of a conceivably practical kind the object may involve—what sensations we are to expect from it, and what reactions we must prepare.” He wanted to avoid verbal quibbles. “There can be no difference which doesn’t make a difference.”

Most of the Berkeley talk is, perhaps surprisingly, devoted to examining what pragmatism means for religion. If we examine “the meaning of conceptions by asking what difference they make for life,” then what difference does it make whether this world was made by God or by evolution? If we love creation, should we not be as grateful to the one possible cause as to the other? Here, as in so many places, William James’s way of looking at things is just as challenging now as it was a hundred years ago.

“Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results”

By William James

An occasion like the present would seem to call for an absolutely untechnical discourse. I ought to speak of something connected with life rather than with logic. I ought to give a message with a practical outcome and an emotional musical accompaniment, so to speak, fitted to interest men as men, and yet also not altogether to disappoint philosophers—since philosophers, let them be as queer as they will, still are men in the secret recesses of their hearts, even here at Berkeley. I ought, I say, to produce something simple enough to catch and inspire the rest of you, and yet with just enough of ingenuity and oddity about it to keep the members of the Philosophical Union from yawning and letting their attention wander away.

I confess that I have something of this kind in my mind, a perfectly ideal discourse for the present occasion. Were I to set it down on paper, I verily believe it would be regarded by everyone as the final word of philosophy. It would bring theory down to a single point, at which every human being’s practical life would begin. It would solve all the antinomies and contradictions, it would let loose all the right impulses and emotions; and everyone, on hearing it, would say, “Why, that is the truth!—that is what I have been believing, that is what I have really been living on all this time, but I never could find the words for it before. All that eludes, all that flickers and twinkles, all that invites and vanishes even whilst inviting, is here made a solidity and a possession. Here is the end of unsatisfactoriness, here the beginning of unimpeded clearness, joy, and power.” Yes, my friends, I have such a discourse within me! But, do not judge me harshly, I cannot produce it on the present occasion. I humbly apologize; I have come across the continent to this wondrous Pacific Coast—to this Eden, not of the mythical antiquity, but of the solid future of mankind—I ought to give you something worthy of your hospitality, and not altogether unworthy of your great destiny, to help cement our rugged East and your wondrous West together in a spiritual bond,—and yet, and yet, and yet, I simply cannot. I have tried to articulate it, but it will not come. Philosophers are after all like poets. They are path-finders. What everyone can feel, what everyone can know in the bone and marrow of him, they sometimes can find words for and express. The words and thoughts of the philosophers are not exactly the words and thoughts of the poets—worse luck. But both alike have the same function. They are, if I may use a simile, so many spots, or blazes,—blazes made by the axe of the human intellect on the trees of the otherwise trackless forest of human experience. They give you somewhere to go from. They give you a direction and a place to reach. They do not give you the integral forest with all its sunlit glories and its moonlit witcheries and wonders. Ferny dells, and mossy waterfalls, and secret magic nooks escape you, owned only by the wild things to whom the region is a home. Happy they without the need of blazes! But to us the blazes give a sort of ownership. We can now use the forest, wend across it with companions, and enjoy its quality. It is no longer a place merely to get lost in and never return. The poet’s words and the philosopher’s phrases thus are helps of the most genuine sort, giving to all of us hereafter the freedom of the trails they made. Though they create nothing, yet for this marking and fixing function of theirs we bless their names and keep them on our lips, even whilst the thin and spotty and half-casual character of their operations is most evident.

No one like the path-finder himself feels the immensity of the forest, or knows the accidentality of his own trails. Columbus, dreaming of the ancient East, is stopped by poor pristine simple America, and gets no farther on that day; and the poets and philosophers themselves know as no one else knows that what their formulas express leaves unexpressed almost everything that they organically divine and feel. So I feel that there is a center in truth’s forest where I have never been: to track it out and get there is the secret spring of all my poor life’s philosophic efforts; at moments I almost strike into the final valley, there is a gleam of the end, a sense of certainty, but always there comes still another ridge, so my blazes merely circle towards the true direction; and although now, if ever, would be the fit occasion, yet I cannot take you to the wondrous hidden spot to-day. To-morrow it must be, or to-morrow, or to-morrow; and pretty surely death will overtake me ere the promise is fulfilled.

Of such postponed achievements do the lives of all philosophers consist. Truth’s fulness is elusive; ever not quite, not quite! So we fall back on the preliminary blazes—a few formulas, a few technical conceptions, a few verbal pointers—which at least define the initial direction of the trail. And that, to my sorrow, is all that I can do here at Berkeley to-day. Inconclusive I must be, and merely suggestive, though I will try to be as little technical as I can.

I will seek to define with you merely what seems to be the most likely direction in which to start upon the trail of truth. Years ago this direction was given to me by an American philosopher whose home is in the East, and whose published works, few as they are and scattered in periodicals, are no fit expression of his powers. I refer to Mr. Charles S. Peirce, with whose very existence as a philosopher I dare say many of you are unacquainted. He is one of the most original of contemporary thinkers; and the principle of practicalism—or pragmatism, as he called it, when I first heard him enunciate it at Cambridge in the early ’70’s—is the clue or compass by following which I find myself more and more confirmed in believing we may keep our feet upon the proper trail.

Peirce’s principle, as we may call it, may be expressed in a variety of ways, all of them very simple. In the Popular Science Monthly for January, 1878, he introduces it as follows: The soul and meaning of thought, he says, can never be made to direct itself towards anything but the production of belief, belief being the demicadence which closes a musical phrase in the symphony of our intellectual life. Thought in movement has thus for its only possible motive the attainment of thought at rest. But when our thought about an object has found its rest in belief, then our action on the subject can firmly and safely begin. Beliefs, in short, are really rules for action; and the whole function of thinking is but one step in the production of habits of action. If there were any part of a thought that made no difference in the thought’s practical consequences, then that part would be no proper element of the thought’s significance. Thus the same thought may be clad in different words; but if the different words suggest no different conduct, they are mere outer accretions, and have no part in the thought’s meaning. If, however, they determine conduct differently, they are essential elements of the significance. “Please open the door,” and, “Veuillez ouvrir la porte,” in French, mean just the same thing; but “D—n you, open the door,” although in English, means something very different. Thus to develope a thought’s meaning we need only determine what conduct it is fitted to produce: that conduct is for us its sole significance. And the tangible fact at the root of all our thought-distinctions, however subtle, is that there is no one of them so fine as to consist in anything but a possible difference of practice. To attain perfect clearness in our thoughts of an object, then, we need only consider what effects of a conceivably practical kind the object may involve—what sensations we are to expect from it, and what reactions we must prepare. Our conception of these effects, then, is for us the whole of our conception of the object, so far as that conception has positive significance at all.

This is the principle of Peirce, the principle of pragmatism. I think myself that it should be expressed more broadly than Mr. Peirce expresses it. The ultimate test for us of what a truth means is indeed the conduct it dictates or inspires. But it inspires that conduct because it first foretells some particular turn to our experience which shall call for just that conduct from us. And I should prefer for our purposes this evening to express Peirce’s principle by saying that the effective meaning of any philosophic proposition can always be brought down to some particular consequence, in our future practical experience, whether active or passive; the point lying rather in the fact that the experience must be particular, than in the fact that it must be active.

To take in the importance of this principle, one must get accustomed to applying it to concrete cases. Such use as I am able to make of it convinces me that to be mindful of it in philosophical disputations tends wonderfully to smooth out misunderstandings and to bring in peace. If it did nothing else, then, it would yield a sovereignly valuable rule of method for discussion. So I shall devote the rest of this precious hour with you to its elucidation, because I sincerely think that if you once grasp it, it will shut your steps out from many an old false opening, and head you in the true direction for the trail.

One of its first consequences is this: Suppose there are two different philosophical definitions, or propositions, or maxims, or what not, which seem to contradict each other, and about which men dispute. If, by supposing the truth of the one, you can foresee no conceivable practical consequence to anybody at any time or place, which is different from what you would foresee if you supposed the truth of the other, why then the difference between the two propositions is no difference,—it is only a specious and verbal difference, unworthy of further contention. Both formulas mean radically the same thing, although they may say it in such different words. It is astonishing to see how many philosophical disputes collapse into insignificance the moment you subject them to this simple test. There can be no difference which doesn’t Make a difference—no difference in abstract truth which does not express itself in a difference of concrete fact, and of conduct consequent upon the fact, imposed on somebody, somehow, somewhere, and somewhen. It is true that a certain shrinkage of values often seems to occur in our general formulas when we measure their meaning in this prosaic and practical way. They diminish. But the vastness that is merely based on vagueness is a false appearance of importance, and not a vastness worth retaining. The x’s, y’s, and z’s always do shrivel, as I have heard a learned friend say, whenever at the end of your algebraic computation they change into so many plain a’s, b’s, and c’s:—but the whole function of algebra is, after all, to get them into that more definite shape; and the whole function of philosophy ought to be to find out what definite difference it will make to you and me, at definite instants of our life, if this world-formula or that world-formula be the one which is true.

Electronically reproduced by permission of the publisher from THE HEART OF WILLIAM JAMES, edited by Robert Richardson, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, Copyright © 2010. The essay “Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results” reprinted by permission of the publisher from THE WORKS OF WILLIAM JAMES – PRAGMATISM, Frederick Burkhardt, General Editor, Fredson Bowers, Textual Editor, Ignas K. Skrupskelis, Associate Editor, pp. 257–270, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, Copyright © 1975 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.

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