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William James Lecture Notes

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PHIL 115
Paul Fairfield

th th Weeks 16-17 January 27 – February 8 , 2013 William James: Pragmatism Works of James – Principles of Psychology (1890) – The Will to Believe (1897) – Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (1907) – A Pluralistic Universe (1909) – Essays in Radical Empiricism (1912) Most of James' works, including “Pragmatism: are based on a series of public lectures given mainly to universities, in particular philosophy professors and students but occasionally to other students and the general public as well. His essays were published unrevised from his lectures. This meant that they were not edited to be clear and precise so some definitions are carelessly put, which was okay for a public audience, but not for philosophical academics. William James James was born in New York City to affluent and religious parents. His brother was Henry James, a famous novelist. James' father was a friend of Mill, Tennyson, Thoreau who were frequent visitors to his household. James was educated by private school and tutors, which required a cross-world search for the best schools. From 1855-58, James lived in England and France. In 1958 James and his family returned to Rhode Island and James announced that he wanted to be a painter, which his father was not keen on. In 1859-60 James lived in Germany and Switzerland. From moving around so much, James became fluent in 5 languages. James gave up on being a painter and went to Harvard to study chemistry, then medicine. 1861 marked the American civil war. Two of James' brothers enlisted while the others did not citing health reasons (depression and vision problems). From 1867 to 1868 James returned to Europe. In 1968 he got his degree in medicine, but he never practiced it. He began to study psychology. In 1870 James had a psychological breakdown and had to financially rely on his father. The president of Harvard offered James a job to teach physiology and anatomy at Harvard for 35 years (this was due to connections James' father had). James' main interests were in psychology and philosophy. At the time he was the president of the American Psychological Association and the American Philosophical Association. He was also interested in religious and psychic experiences. In 1909 he announced that he'd had a conversation with a dead friend and published a 100 page account. He married a woman named Alice and they had 5 children together. James died in 1910 from a heart condition. Origin of Pragmatism James wanted to make philosophy as empirical as science. His main criticism of philosophy is that it is too rationalistic, which he wanted to replace with pragmatism. His philosophical book on pragmatism would be criticized immediately, but some would catch on th (John Dewey, C.S. Peirce). Pragmatism would eclipse, but came back at the end of the 20 century. Pragmatism was the first major contribution of an American to the world of philosophy. There were three major figures of pragmatism. C.S. Peirce focused on clarifying philosophical ideas and concepts. He believed that a philosophical idea/concept is defined by th th Weeks 16-17 January 27 – February 8 , 2013 the consequences it holds for human practices. We can not define something out of context. We don't need to know what it is as much as we need to know what it does. Peirce's pragmatism was the theory of giving things meaning by explaining it's function. James thaught this theory of meaning also functions as a theory of knowledge and truth. Peirce didn't like this, so he gave his old theory a new name – pragmaticism – so the two theories would not be associated. The Conventional Theory of Truth Not all, but most philosophers agree in the first 3 centuries of the modern era on the definition of truth. The correspondence theory of truth implies that only a proposition/sentence can be true or false. It is true if it corresponds to a fact in the world. James thinks it's mysterious and odd that there's an objective mirroring between a sentence and fact. He thinks this is not clear enough so he tries to clarify it. Radical Empiricism James and Dewey were supporters of radical empiricism. British empiricists like Hobbes, Hume, and Locke weren't radical enough. We need to make empiricism more radical. Pragmatism is based on the principle of the primacy of human experience (not human ideas like Descartes suggested). We need to begin with our perception of the external world. James thought that everything real must be experiencable somewhere. Every kind of thing experienced must somewhere be real. This is why James was so into religious experience and psychic phenomena. He wanted to find the object of these experiences (since it follows that every experience involves an object being experienced). The basis of human knowledge is experience. James takes some issue with the idea that human experience can be broken down into simple impressions as Human suggested. This gave rise to the problem of how these impressions become unified – why we perceive these discrete moments as continuous. James thinks that this problem doesn't have to be a problem if we simply think of human experience as fluid through time and space – a stream of consciousness. We need to think of experience as fluid, complex, and dynamic. We don't have an impression at one moment in time, and another, and another that we string together. That's not how we experience the world. Every moment flows into the next. There are no discrete boundaries between experiences, they are not fragmented or disjointed. We experience causality directly (unlike Hume says). We also experience time and relations between things. For example, we see a mitt on a table, not a mitt; table. When we speak of the world we speak like this, about relations. We speak of it as one experience that unfolds over time, and we experience life like this too. What makes empiricism radical? James thinks that Hume applied his scepticism in the wrong direction. James is not necessarily a sceptic, but he's considered a radical empiricist for two reasons: – He believes the mind experiences objects directly, not ideas/sense impressions – He believes we directly experience relations between objects including causality and time. James thinks that Hume's problem of causality is a question that can't be answered because he poses it in the wrong way. In philosophy, questions, the meaning of words, terminology, and distinctions are all very important. If we ask the wrong question we'll embark th th Weeks 16-17 January 27 – February 8 , 2013 on a line of enquiry that is a dead end. Hume's conundrum of causality is a direct result of how he describes human experience. Hume claims that the mind experiences discrete, separate ideas (sense impressions) of an object, and no relation of objects. James counters this saying that we experience a pen on a table, not just a pen and a table. We experience the relations between objects, not just the objects themselves. We also don't experience a perception of a pen or table, we experience them directly. James thinks we do experience causality, or one event causing another. This is because our consciousness flows continually over time and space. Consciousness is not fragmented into small units of ideas and impressions. But we have never seen an impression of an object. When we see a skier going down a hill, we don't see it in stop-frame, we see it continuously. The average human experience is not a split second long. Hume's problem is that he's viewing experience as fragmented and he can't figure out how to unify them to prove causality. James' stream of consciousness bypasses this problem because we don't need to unify individual impressions. Lecture 1: The Present Dilemma in Philosophy We all have a philosophical view or a worldview set of ideas which are the most important or interesting thing about a person. Our whole culture is organized around ideas. Our philosophical opinions are not academic, but urgent. The dilemma is that philosophy is not as objective and rational as philosophers want it to be to find pure knowledge. Since the Enlightenment, philosophers have been encouraged to follow a rational line of argument where it leads and let this conclusion be your belief. To say that this line of thinking is objective means that it does not reflect the thinker and their personal wishes and identity. All of these factors should be bracketed in order to follow an objective, rational line of thought to conclusions of the same sort. We should not create an idea and then try to justify it. James disagrees, saying that no one is perfectly objective. No one can bracket their temperament. James describes the two types of philosophical temperaments. They aren't mutually exclusive, people just tend to exhibit one more than the other. The two temperaments are the tough- and tender-minded. Tough-minded people are like Hume: they prefer hard facts, are empiricists, they don't like theories and speculation, they are materialists, fatalistic, pessimistic, and they are not religious. Tender-minded people are like Plato: the are optimistic and religiously inclined, rational, dogmatic, speculative, theorizing, and imaginative. James thinks that tough-minded philosophers outnumber the tender-minded philosophers. James wants to split the difference between the two in his own work. Having a tough-minded temperament isn't a bad thing, and we can't help our temperament (we have it by nature). It is also impossible to bracket your temperament. Every philosopher ends up with a worldview that reflects their temperament. We find that we choose to be either tough or tender, there is no middle ground (we can't be rational and empirical). Our temperament is a non-choice. We go with the worldview that reflects our temperament. Our modern society values science and technology much more than art or poetry so we value the philosophy that reflects science. If a field of knowledge isn't scientific, we don't take it seriously. Lecture 2: What Pragmatism Means James gives a preliminary and rough outline of what pragmatism is. Pragmatism comes from praxis. Peirce defined it as a theory of meaning and consequence of meaning. James extended it to be a theory of truth and the consequences of holding a certain belief. th th Weeks 16-17 January 27 – February 8 , 2013 Ideas are not just rational contemplations, they have ends and consequences. Descartes said that for an idea to be true, we must only clearly and distinctly perceive it (it doesn't need to be tested in practice, an action has no bearing on the truth of ideas). James thought that we must regard ideas as tools in service of practical projects, not in the realm of rational thought alone. When a scientist tests a hypothesis, he brings the idea to bear in the concrete world to solve practical problems. All ideas in service of pragmatic actions. Theories are instruments by which we enhance our practices and allow us to act better. Theorizing also helps us to make predictions about the future. From a practical point of view, we must be able to make predictions in order to cope with the world (ex. predict that the sidewalk will lead tomorrow where it led today) and also to deal with it in creative ways. Thinking is not removed from action and if it is, it is useless and truthless. On page 30 James writes that “there can be no difference anywhere that does not make a difference elsewhere – no difference in abstract truth that doesn't express itself in a difference in concrete fact and in conduct consequent upon that fact, imposed on somebody, somewhere, and somewhen. The whole function of philosophy ought to be to find out what definite difference it will make to you and me, at definite instances of our life, if this world- formula or that world-formula be the true one.” James is saying that we must focus on what is at stake in the real world. James also says that there is nothing new in the pragmatic method. He understates how radical it is. In reality, his definition of truth is not related whatsoever with the conventional correspondence definition, it is new. James says that if an idea doesn't help our practices, it has no value and no truth (this is the pragmatic theory of truth). He claims that he is only refining the old theory of truth, but really he is rejecting and replacing it. James also claims that Socrates, Hobbes, Locke, all have roots in pragmatism, trying to back up his claim that pragmatism is really just a new name for an old way of thinking. But these philosophers all believed in the conventional definition of truth and were foundationalists – two things James does not have in common with them. James thinks we need to stop thinking of knowledge as having a foundation. Our experience is fallible and our senses are flawed – but these two things are the basis of human knowledge. James thinks that Descartes' scepticism regarding the senses is extreme, tough- minded, and goes too far. We want our beliefs to be justified, but it is not possible to be 100% certain in our knowledge as Descartes wanted. Knowledge is uncertain and contingent on human experience and enquiry. Knowledge is never final, absolute, or unquestionable, but we don't need to worry about this. Descartes would interpret this as meaning that there is no real knowledge, but James would find that over-the-top. All human capacities are flawed – not only the senses, but rationalism too. Descartes and Hume were sceptics. Jame is not a sceptic in the same way Descartes was and not to the same extent that Hume was. James is an empiricist and want knowledge to be rigorous. James' pragmatic method required that with every theory, idea, statement we must first ask if it's true, and second, what difference does it make to human practice? James reverses the age-old depreciation of praxis. Philosophy is not a rational theory like it was with the Greeks where they believed anyone can do practical undertaking, but theorizing is for the properly rational being only. The Greeks gave praxis a bad name. James and other pragmatists respond to this saying that theory arises from praxis. We don't theorize for theory's sake, but for practice's sake. Theory and practice are inseparable and dialectical – the two mutually inform each other. A true theory is a hypothesis that is universally accepted, like evolution. How do we th th Weeks 16-17 January 27 – February 8 , 2013 know a theory is true? Evolution was not self-evidently true to most people. But this theory solves a specific problem that rises from a specific experience (which is what a theory is supposed to do). In the case of evolution, we had fossil records that required a theory to assemble all the evidence in a coherent way to explain how things came to be. Furthermore, a true theory must be superior to its competitors (in this case, creationism). Evolution is superior because it can explain the evidence (fossils, dinosaurs, etc.) while creationism can't. This superiority is not self-evident – the theory must be submitted to biologists, scientists, and society and is not considered true until it passes for true. This means until it generates consensus among all confident enquirers (in this case, biologists). A theory must be tested, re-tested, and withstand criticism and if it is still considered true, it must be true. An idea is true if it serves a practical purpose or end. This does not mean that any idea that provides us with comfort (as a practical end) is true. A theory that solves a specific problem, not an array of issues, is true. An idea is true if it “works” - but not in the sense that it “works” for me to believe in Santa Clause. With regards to causality, Hume believed that we had no experience of, so no knowledge of, necessary connection between events. James thought that the idea of causality is true (we experience and knowledge of it). James' stream of consciousness and radical empiricism means that we experience of objects and relations between objects. We can make a prediction that when someone lets go of a pen in mid-air, it will fall to the ground. This prediction comes true every time. We made this prediction because of causality. We don't see causality, but we see the same sequence of events times after time. These predictions are a practical end. We make predictions in every aspect of our lives. Causality is true because it leads us to predict and expect what will happen, which is a practical end. We are always imaging what will happen next based on past experience. Experience shows continuity over time (we don't have fragmented sense impressions) and we are always anticipating what will happen. True ideas are ones that help us cope with the world (so they “work” in the pragmatic sense). Causality is true because it helps us make predictions, which is a practical end. Is truth correspondence between a statement and reality, as it is conventionally considered? James thinks this definition is too unclear. For example, what does evolution correspond to? Or 2+2=4? We are told these correspond to facts. But has anyone ever perceived a fact? This is a very mysterious notion. The theory of evolution doesn't correspond to anything, but it is still true. James thinks that the statement “the cat is on the mat” is true if it works, not if it agrees with a fact. By “agrees” he means that is makes an agreeable connection with one experience and another – making one flowing coherent experience, free of contradiction. We are not quick to change our minds about ideas, especially ones that require a radical overhaul of our worldview. We add new beliefs and subtract old ones gradually – we don't accept a new worldview all together. A new truth has to cohere with older truths that we already have. If two truths contradict, one is untrue. Truth has to fit into our worldview. James' critics wondered if he was denying truth altogether. Truth was thought to be objective, not a subjective invention. Truth is to be discovered; it's “out there”, but what does that mean? Where is the truth? Truth is not physically out there. It is said that it's “out there” in the sense that it's objective and absolute – but this really just empty and a refusal to answer the question. Declaring that the truth is absolute is useless. Even if the truth is out there, why would I value it? Why would I want to know if a statement corresponds to a fact? Any theory of truth should be able to explain why we value th th Weeks 16-17 January 27 – February 8 , 2013 it. The correspondence theory fails to do this. The pragmatic theory does: truth allows us to cope practically with the world and to get what we want. James says that “I'm well aware how odd it must seem to some of you to hear me say that an idea is true so long as to believe it is profitable to our lives.” “The true is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief, and good, too, for definite, assignable reasons.” James' critics also jumped on this statement, since it could be interpreted that James is saying we should believe whatever is “profitable” to our lives. A lot of beliefs are false, but nice to to believe because they make us feel comfortable and meaningful. But what matters in the realm of ideas is if an idea is true. James' critics thought he was putting an end to truth in philosophy. Lecture 3: Some Metaphysical Problems Pragmatically Concerned There are questions to be asked of any philosophical problem. We shouldn't take a philosopher's word for it that there is a problem, especially because these problems take centuries to work through. A philosopher must show it's a problem and show that it
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