J. Wesley Robbins
Indiana University South Bend
From lecture notes for P358 American Philosophy

James: What Pragmatism Means

I. A method (210)

A way of settling metaphysical disputes that otherwise might be interminable: the world, Is it one-many; fated-free; material-spiritual.

A. Distinguish between (i) idle disputes and (ii) serious disputes - ones that involve a real difference between ideas.

This involves interpreting each notion involved in the dispute.

B. What differentiates one idea from another idea?

Peirce, "How to Make Ideas Clear."

1. Beliefs are habits of action, a determination to act in some specific way.

2. The tangible fact that distinguished one idea from another: differences in practice, in behavior (regardless how abstract the idea is).

C. The function of philosophy (212): find out what definite difference it will make to you and me, at definite instances of our life, if this or that world-formula be the true one.

Do this kind of pragmatic interpretation of the meaning of beliefs for WORLD-FORMULAS: determine what, if any, differences in practice they involve. If none, then they are merely matters of idle dispute.

D. Two different views of formulas, words (213)

1. Traditional metaphysics: the world already has a pre-existing name. Discover what that is = gain power over it by knowing its real name. When you discover its real name, you have completed the metaphysical quest.

2. Pragmatic method: names are temporary stopping places, "less a solution...than a program for more work." "An indication of the ways in which existing realities may be changed."

Inquiry is less a matter of discovering what is already there (the real name of the world), and more a matter of making do (adaptation).

As a method, pragmatism is an attitude or orientation (214); "looking away from first things...looking towards last things."

II. A theory of truth

A. Tradition definition of "objective truth" (220)

1. A pre-existing order of some sort

2. Human thoughts, beliefs

3. The correspondence of our thoughts (2) with the pre-existing order (1).

B. Example of modern science (215)

1. The pre-existing order: God's thoughts when he created the world.

2. The thoughts of people like Kepler (that the planets move in elliptical orbits around the sun) and Newton (that each bit of matter attracts every other bit of matter according to a certain ratio).

3. These theories are true: these (human) thoughts correspond to the thoughts of God, the creator.

C. The subsequent proliferation of scientific theories.

1. Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometries

2. Classical (Newtonian) and relativity physics, quantum mechanics.

3. In any given case, which one of these is THE ONE that corresponds to God's thoughts?

An embarrassment of riches. Give up trying to plot all of these in terms of a one-to-one correspondence between human thoughts and some pre-existent structure.

4. Their value lies in what can be done with them: "ANY ONE of them may from some point of view be useful." (215)

"Thus human arbitrariness has driven divine necessity from scientific logic."

D. Instrumental (re)definition of "truth." (216)

1. Instead of correspondence to some pre-existent structure.

2. The usefulness of an idea or belief in some respect, for some purpose.

III. The observation on which this new theory of truth is based: the "process by which any individual settles into new opinions." (216)

Re-weaving one's web of beliefs.

1. Already has a number of beliefs.

2. A strain (tension) of some sort is introduced into the system.

-new experience, unanticipated

-conflict between several beliefs

3. Seek to reduce the tension by modifying (reweaving) the system of beliefs = inquiry (Peirce).

-come up with a new belief (as opposed to merely rearranging one's old beliefs) that, e.g., serves to incorporate the unexpected experience into the belief system (so that it is no longer unanticipated).

-"some idea that mediates between the [ancient] stock and the new experience and runs them into one another most felicitously and expediently." (216)

4. The NEW idea that performs this strain-reducing function is, in virtue of that performance, "the true one." (217)

(218) "A new opinion counts as 'true' just in proportion as it gratifies the individual's desire to assimilate the novel in his experience to his beliefs in stock."

-In which case, truth is a matter of human satisfaction:

a. The establishment of a satisfying relationship between older and newer "parts of experience." (The reduction of tensions within a person's web of beliefs.) - Subjective reasons.


b. A relationship between a person's beliefs and a pre-existing order, regardless of human satisfactions = Purely objective truth, truth independent.

5. Current beliefs in the web ("old truths") (218).

-Beliefs that performed this tension-reducing function in the past (a long time ago) and have been retained ever since.

"They also once were plastic... They also mediated between still earlier truths and what in those days were novel observations."

6. Beliefs that have something more to them (in the way of truth) than this tension-reducing, providing "human satisfaction," function?

-No such thing

-Truth just is a matter of performing this linking between older and newer experience to the satisfaction of human beings.

"The trail of the human serpent is thus over everything."

-Even the oldest truths could, if need be, be subject to this sort of reweaving: (219) e.g., recent changes in logic, mathematics, and physics - beliefs that were considered to be the best examples of truths in the sense of correspondence to pre-existing reality.

This entire discussion of change in a person's "web of beliefs" is consistent with James's earlier Darwinian account of social and mental evolution.

a. The fund of beliefs that one has to start with: no doubting all of them to find the indubitable one - Peirce.

b. No one way to modify one's system of beliefs to reduce strain: no set method. Muddle through, hit and miss - unlike Peirce.

c. No such thing as the state of completion of this process (its end). (i) The beliefs that correspond to reality. (ii) The beliefs within which no further strain is possible.

IV. Pragmatism as a harmonizer, mediator between

(i) empiricist, scientifically minded, ways of thinking

(ii) the religious demands of human beings. (221)

-An example of the reweaving of a system of beliefs.

A. Classical theism

God - one entity

The natural world - a second entity, dependent on God for its existence and order. The design argument: a quasi-scientific empirical argument for the existence of God.

B. Modern science: explain more and more aspects of the natural world (its order) without reference to an independent entity, God.

-Darwinism: demise of the design argument as a plausible scientific explanation of the existence of order in the natural world. "Darwinism has once for all displaced design from the minds of the "scientific.'" (221)

What is to become of the idea of God? Drop the idea from one's belief system entirely?

C. The current popularity of "some kind of immanent or pantheistic deity working in things rather than above them."

-God, as a dimension or factor in the natural world rather than something separate from it.

-Absolute idealism (Hegelian). The world, and everything in it, is an Absolute mind (spirit) in the process of becoming fully conscious of itself. The natural world, processes occurring in it (including biological evolution) are aspects of this universal process of the World Spirit becoming fully conscious of itself.

D. Of what value for concrete life is this belief in the Absolute Mind? (222)

-We humans can relax from time to time, "take a moral holiday," because the overcoming of evil in the world is out of our hands and in the hands of a "higher power."

E. If what we do with the aid of a particular idea is good, then to that extent the idea is a good one (we are better off having it than not having it). (223)

-But, isn't there more to TRUTH than that?

-According to James not: "whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief...for definite, assignable reasons."

F. So, to the extent that what people do with the idea of the Absolute Mind is "take moral holidays" from time to time (that's a good thing to do); that idea is a true one.

G. The trouble in this case: this belief in an Absolute Mind (and what it is good for) clashes with other beliefs (and what they are good for). (224-5)

-"I find that it entangles me in metaphysical puzzles that are unacceptable." e.g., How can things that seem so obviously not to be mental at all (rocks) really be mental after all? How can a seemingly independent mind (mine) really be only a little piece of an even larger mind (Absolute)?

-"The greatest enemy of and one of our truths may be the rest of our truths."

-find some other way to justify "taking moral holidays" than belief in an Absolute Mind.

H. A finite, less than Absolute, God: super-human, but one that is benefited by human contributions. E.g., James's remarks at the end of "Is Life Worth Living?" about cases in which believing in something helps to create what is believed in.

-A case in point: the nature of the world in which we live. Whether the world is a place to be mistrusted (pessimism) or trusted (optimism): in part determined by the attitude with which we live our life.

"I confess that I do not see why the very existence of an invisible world may not in part depend on the personal response which any one of us may make to the religious appeal. God himself may draw vital strength and increase of very being from our fidelity."

I. The point is that James's version of pragmatism has no prior bias against religious beliefs, as unprovable or merely subjective.

-If they are of value for concrete life

-If they can be made to fit in with other (beneficial) beliefs: that is all that you can ask of ANY true belief.

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