Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

William James: PRAGMATISM - Lecture 1

The Present Dilemma in Philosophy --

Reading William James isn’t like reading most philosophy, especially most modern philosophy. He does use a few specialized phrases, and he does tend to qualify many of his statements, presumably to protect himself from attack by other professional philosophers. But “Pragmatism” has more of the feel of a long talk with a wise old grandfather or uncle in the family den on a cold winter’s night. Of course this impression can be attributed to the fact that these readings were originally presented as a series of lectures. Even so, the tone is likely to appeal to amateur philosophers, especially American amateurs.

That’s because James makes statements that are easy to get your mind around. Here’s an example: “Philosophy is at once the most sublime and the most trivial of human pursuits.” This sentence rings true somehow. My own amateur reading of philosophy has resulted in the following conclusion: sometimes philosophy rises to the highest levels humanactivity; sometimes it descends to the lowest levels of navel-gazing intellectual gamesmanship.

But I get the sense that James is a straight-shooter: he says what he means in a straightforward manner. Such as, “The history of philosophy is to a great extent that of a certain clash of human temperaments.” That’s interesting, but what does it mean? And is it true? In the first lecture James goes on to defend this statement at great length.

His basic premise seems to be this: most of us make up our minds about a subject first, and only then start looking around for evidence that will confirm our own (admittedly biased) opinion. James says that “Few people have definitely articulated philosophies of their own. But almost every one has his own peculiar sense of a certain total character in the universe.” He goes on to say that we often agree with someone not because he has persuaded us logically, but “simply because we feel his heart to be in the right place philosophically.”

James doesn’t ask you to trust his authority. Check your own experience in the “real” world. Look at certain fields of human endeavor and see if you find the following “clash of human temperaments”: in Manners there are well-bred formalists and those who are more free and easy in the way they act; in Government there are authoritarians who like strong leadership and others who would prefer no leadership at all, and be anarchists if they could; in Literature there are academics who like pure literature, as opposed to realists who go in more for the rough and tumble of street life; in Art there are classic outlooks emphasizing restraint and order and romantic outlooks emphasizing freedom and emotion. And so forth.

In Philosophy, James says this basic human split in world views breaks down along the lines of rationalism and empiricism. Rationalism is “monistic” and takes its start from universal principles, then works outward to make a unity on the basis of the original principle. Empiricism, on the other hand, is “pluralistic.” It starts from observing many individual parts, and then puts the parts together in a way that makes a coherent whole. While not openly declaring himself to be an empiricist, James does make the observation that “The actual universe is a thing wide open, but rationalism makes systems, and systems must be closed.” How can a closed system (rationalism) work in a wide open universe? Presumably, it can’t. So in Pragmatism, there’s apparently a higher premium placed on personal experience rather than universal ideas. James asks “what does thinking about (an experience) come to, compared to directly and personally feeling it…?” It’s hard to argue with a method that teaches learning about life from personal experience.

-- RDP


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