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Title: Blog by Novelist William S. Frankl, MD

William James

My friend, Sol Shalit, sent me a reminder that Jan 11, 2017 was the birthday of William James who was born 175 years ago in New York City. Sol included this wonderful tribute to James’ life and work. I think it is worth republishing for others to read.
It’s the birthday of William James, (books by this author) born in New York City (1842). As a young man, he studied art, then went on to Harvard University and earned a medical degree there. But he was never a practicing doctor — instead, he stayed on as a member of the Harvard faculty. He said: “I originally studied medicine in order to be a physiologist, but I drifted into psychology and philosophy from a sort of fatality. I never had any philosophic instruction, the first lecture on psychology I ever heard being the first I ever gave.”

In 1872, a group of Harvard intellectuals, including James, began a conversation group. Charles Sanders Pierce wrote: “It was in the earliest seventies that a knot of us young men in Old Cambridge, calling ourselves, half-ironically, half-defiantly, ‘The Metaphysical Club,’ — for agnosticism was then riding its high horse, and was frowning superbly upon all metaphysics, —used to meet, sometimes in my study, sometimes in that of William James.” Members came from various academic disciplines, including law, medicine, and philosophy. William’s younger brother, Henry James, wrote about Oliver Wendell Holmes: “He, my brother, and various other long-headed youths have combined to form a metaphysical club, where they wrangle grimly and stick to the question. It gives me a headache merely to know of it.”

William James’ most famous contribution to philosophy is an idea called pragmatism. Pragmatism was first conceived of by Charles Sanders Peirce, but it didn’t catch on. James himself had a hard time understanding Peirce. He wrote to his brother: “I am amused that you should have fallen into the arms of C.S. Peirce, whom I imagine you find a rather uncomfortable bedfellow, thorny and spinous, but the way to treat him is after the fabled ‘nettle’ receipt: grasp firmly, contradict, push hard, make fun of him, and he is as pleasant as anyone; but be overawed by his sententious manner and his paradoxical and obscure statements, wait upon them as it were, for light to dawn, and you will never get a feeling of ease with him any more than I did for years, until I changed my course and treated him more or less chaffingly. I confess I like him very much in spite of his peculiarities, for he is a man of genius and there’s always something in that to compel one’s sympathy.”

Unlike Peirce, William James was not a philosophical genius, and he didn’t see anything wrong with taking a complex concept and oversimplifying it for the sake of making it more accessible. The term “pragmatism” was first used in a lecture James gave at the University of California Berkeley in 1898. But James was quick to give the credit for the term to Peirce, who he said had thought of it about 20 years earlier.

According to James, pragmatism valued the practical outcome of an idea above the idea itself. He saw a huge divide in philosophy between what he called “tough-minded” and “tender-minded” ways of looking at the world. He associated a “tough-minded” view with science, empirical evidence, atheism, pessimism, skepticism, and materialism. “Tender-minded,” on the other hand, went along with idealism, optimism, religion, dogma, and free will. James thought that pragmatism was a way of getting beyond this divide, and plenty of other dualities that caused conflict.

The way that pragmatism bridged these divides was to ask, with every idea, what the practical outcome of two opposing sides would be. If there was no significant difference in a practical outcome, then there was no significant conflict between two sides. One of James’ examples was the conflict that philosophers perceived between free will and determinism. James pointed out that there was no clear practical difference between having free will and believing in determinism — therefore, there was no fundamental conflict.

James also said that pragmatism was a philosophy of truth. He said, “The true is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief, and good, too, for definite assignable reasons.” In James’ pragmatism, “truth” was a large concept — something could be true because it was actually experienced in a direct way, or it could be true because it contributed to overall happiness. So he allowed for a lot of religious and spiritual beliefs to coexist with empirical thinking, because religion was true in the sense that it added meaning to life. He said: “If theological ideas prove to have a value for concrete life, they will be true, for pragmatism, in the sense of being good for so much. How much more they are true, will depend entirely on their relations to the other truths that also have to be acknowledged.” That was another idea of his — that abstract ideas (like religious beliefs) were fine, and could coexist with empirical observations, as long as they did not “clash with other vital beliefs.” So until they started to get in the way, they were true enough.

James’ pragmatism was based in empiricism, in the sense that experience should be the ultimate context for everything. But unlike some of the more rigid empirical philosophers like David Hume, who thought experience was only what was experienced by the senses, James said that experience could also include metaphysical ideas, religion, or anything at all that was part of our experience as human beings.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, it made sense that Americans embraced pragmatism — a new approach, a practical approach, and an attempt to reconcile seemingly opposing sides. Pragmatism was popularized by James, Peirce, and John Dewey, one of Peirce’s students. Dewey lived until 1952, and he had a long and prolific career. By the time he died at the age of 92, he had published 40 books and hundreds of articles. Dewey called his philosophy “instrumentalism” rather than “pragmatism,” but he is generally considered the third major pragmatist. He helped make the philosophy seem even more relevant to Americans, writing about education, art, civic life, and government.

Even though it is such a complex philosophy, today we use the word pragmatism in an offhand way, to mean “practicality.”

Another term that James coined and popularized was “stream-of-consciousness,” which he meant as a psychological term. He said, “It is a fact that in each of us, when awake (and often when asleep), some kind of consciousness is always going on. There is a stream, a succession of states, or waves, or fields (or of whatever you please to call them), of knowledge, of feeling, of desire, of deliberation, etc., that constantly pass and repass, and that constitute our inner life. The existence of this stream is the primal fact, the nature and origin of it form the essential problem, of our science.” But eventually he settled on “stream-of-consciousness,” an idea that other scholars lifted from psychology and used to talk about literature.

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