Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

William James: PRAGMATISM – Lecture 8

This is the last lecture in William James’ series on pragmatism. Having defined what pragmatism is and what its method is, James now goes on to discuss its relationship with religion. He once again states the basic principle: “On pragmatic principles we can not reject any hypothesis if consequences useful to life flow from it.” And it’s obvious to James that religion can be useful because “the use of the Absolute is proved by the whole course of men’s religious history.” In other words, religion is important to the pragmatist only because it has useful consequences. It can be useful in one of two ways: (1) by providing a firm foundation of belief (a “static One” as James puts it), or (2) as an evolving process that contains “plural, genuine possibilities” that are constantly changing. Which of these views is correct?

James clearly states that “the pluralistic way agrees with the pragmatic temper best.” Why is this? Because the two different ways of looking at religion appeal to different temperaments. These two temperaments revolve around the whole notion of “the world’s possibilities.” One possibility is that the world will eventually turn out for the best. The other possibility is that things may turn out alright in the end, or they may not. The first view is called optimism; the second view meliorism. Optimism sees the world as turning out alright in the end because it must turn out that way. It can’t do otherwise. Meliorism sees the world as still in the process of becoming either better or worse. It’s not impossible that things will turn out for the best in the end, but they could just as well fall apart and all of life would end in tragedy.

No human being can be neutral concerning these alternatives. If some people claim not to care one way or the other, then it’s because they don’t realize the stakes involved. Can we change our collective fate? The pragmatist’s view is that we can change the world, but our actions are either cooperating or competing with thousands of others before they all merge into what we call reality. For example, we may think a thousand thoughts a day, but only a few of those thoughts ever see daylight. And even though our actions can change the world it’s always a risk for the pragmatist because there are no guarantees that they will change things for the better. That means every day is an adventure and this is the kind of world James prefers. He wants to experience life at its fullest. On the other hand, he believes that Hindus and Buddhists (and presumably Christian or Jewish contemplatives) want to withdraw from life and retreat into the safe havens of their own thoughts and meditations. James thinks they want to withdraw because they are “simply afraid, afraid of more experience, afraid of life.”

Whether this is a fair assessment depends on your point of view. The Zen Buddhist monk may believe that James is afraid to look deeply inside and confront his innermost being. Who’s right – William James or the Zen Buddhist monk? James does admit that “in the end it is our faith and not our logic that decides such questions…pragmatism has to postpone a dogmatic answer.” Since pragmatism can’t give us a definitive answer and our faith has to make the final decision, we have to make up our own minds. And it’s ironic that we end up right where we began in Lecture 1: the Tough-minded vs. the Tender-minded. If you’re tough enough to live in an adventurous world that can potentially end in disaster, then you may not need religion at all. But if you’re “tender-minded” you’ll want the security of knowing that we live in a universe that is ultimately good, and will be much more comfortable with a radical devotion to the notion of God (monotheism). Pragmatism offers a middle path between these two alternatives (but only if you have enough faith in pragmatism).

-- RDP


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