Fundamental Questions- Part 2 William James Pragmatism
Pragmatism is a theory of truth (unusual account) and a theory of knowledge. A reaction against other early forms of
modern epistemology and rationalism. Not just a rationalist, but an empiricist too.
Basic hypothesis of empiricist epistemology is experience- firsthand direct observation using the senses.
First principles of knowledge are not what Descartes and other rationalists believed, but empirical observations.
Was unhappy with how the third concepts (experience, truth, knowledge) had been interpreted by early modern
A dynamic, fluid, naturalistic, Darwinian conception of knowledge.
Pragmatism to be the philosophy of the future. Conscious that pragmatism was now an American philosophy.
C.S. Peirce is the founder of pragmatism, and he was very critical + not well liked. Presented as a theory of meaning, and
only that, with narrow application. “How to make our ideas clear.” The concepts of philosophy have vagueness about them.
Praxis- action, in ancient Greek.
Want to know what the idea of any kind means? Need to know the practical, real world consequences. A hypothesis James
thought is also true if it registers certain practical consequences. Turn pragmatism theory of meaning, to a larger theory of
truth/ knowledge. Dewey will follow him in this.
Became something of a philosophical movement, reached a high point in writings of Dewey.
Rationalism: theory of knowledge according to which nothing is true until proven so. Method of discovering the truth of
the world is reason, not the senses (as they can deceive you).
Empiricism: Reason is also imperfect, the senses are flawed and limited but so is reason. It only has a certain domain of
application. We are finite beings, and the senses are all that we have to go on. No idea in your mind was not originally in
your senses. Senses are the only source of knowledge that we have about the world.
Radical Empiricism (James): Takes empiricism about a basic starting point, but will be unhappy about how it was
formulated, it was not radical enough (thinking that goes to the root of something). He wants to examine experience from
the root. Knowledge depends on experience.
What makes it radical? Two ideas distinguish his form of empiricism and classic- we experience things in the world
directly, we do not experience what early empiricists call ideas of representations. British empiricism- the view was
commonly held that by when I look out at the world, what are presented to the mind is not objects, it is perceptions of
objects. The mind is directly in contact with my ideas of the world.
Is the real clock anything like the real clock? His reply is that the mind is immediately confronted with objects in the world.
I see the clock, not a perception of it.
Another way to distinguish: For James, we perceive relations between objects, and not just objects themselves. I do
experience with my senses not only objects, but relations between them. On-ness of the chair on the floor, and experience
of on, or beside, beneath, between, and, so, time and causality (a direct experience of causality, I don’t perceive gravity but
a pen falling is not a coincidence, it is inevitable- constant conjunction of events), etc.
We will define experience in a different way, “stream of consciousness” is James’ invention. Shows continuity in space and
time. I don’t find that my experience is fragmented into discrete units like sense impressions that the mind has to string
together by means of some method.
Knowledge of world limited to what we can experience. Problem because of way question is formulated.
New conception of experience is required, radically empiricist (basis of all human knowledge), we experience time and
relation between objects.
Pragmatist philosophy-optimistic of ridding of dichotomies. Truth vs. falsities; mind vs. world.
We will not set up a belief as 100% true or 100% false. There are degrees of truth. (whole truth highly elusive)
It is a new theory, but underplays how radical a proposal it is. (new + startling, examines the thing from its roots- truth
Pragmatism grounded in British empiricism, roots in thought of Socrates and Plato.
The present dilemma in philosophy
We all have philosophical views on things.
The ideas that you hold defines the kind of person you are. Also defines our culture, ideas that it subscribes to.
Not just academic ideas.
Ideas we hold are as objective as we commonly think. “Our thinking has to be rational and objective.”
Enlightenment- knowledge needs to be objective. Not knowledge if it is merely subjective.
Problem for James: no such thing as objective knowledge, not strictly. When you think it’s you who is doing the thinking,
which is .: subjective. A whole person, not disembodied intellect.
Every human being has a temperament. Different ways of thinking, a particular kind of psychological temperament is
expressing itself in terms of ideas, a worldview. Not an accident, coincidence, that rationalists are a certain type of human
being, empiricists different temperament.
Bracket our beliefs and think from scratch, leave temperament out of it. (Can’t happen). Tough-minded and tender-minded. We tend to be more one than the other.
Empiricists- facts over theories. No a priori speculations. Tough- minded. Non-religion, it is too speculative. Sceptical/
Tender-minded: rational theorizing instead of limiting thought to empirically demonstrable facts. Aesthetic, poetic,
idealistic, religious, dogmatic.
Today, (1900s) philosophy is a very tough-minded discipline.
Entire worldview shaped by science/ technology- highest arbiter of what counts as knowledge.
Price we pay is that our world becomes stripped of meaning.
Regain importance in life, we’ll have to turn back to tender-minded worldviews b/c they are comforting.
Not satisfied with just tender-minded either. Shouldn’t say, I have to reject what science says because my religion prevents
me from thinking that way.
If science knows something, we have to accept it and fit it into our worldview.
Pragmatism appeals to tough and tender minded. A theory of knowledge + truth that reconciles the two ways of thinking.
What Pragmatism Means
Basic idea is that ideas have got to be judged in terms of their connection with practices or actions.
No realm of pure reason by which the philosopher/ scientist, etc. can occupy, because reason is always mixed up with
experience, there is no separating them.
Ideas must be declared or found true, because the ideas allow us to get about better in the world of human action.
All hypotheses, statements, that are true, only in virtue to their connection to praxis (human action, practical projects).
Pragmatic test- what difference does it make? Is it true means what difference does it make in respect to actions.
Question of causality- is it true that there is such a thing as certain events causing other events? James: what does the idea
of cause mean? What practical difference does it make if we believe it or not? It makes a practical difference, because I
couldn’t even walk down the street without having causes.
If I don’t have that prediction, I can’t even cope with the world. Prediction->action->right, becomes true.
All that probability means is that I have an expectation.
An idea that passes as true today, might not be true tomorrow. Someone in the future, someone will come up with a better
worldview, we have to recognize this.
Truths on probation. Free agent but only if you obey the law.
P.30 preliminary definition of pragmatism.
There can be no difference anywhere that does not make a difference elsewhere. (abstract to concrete truth)…function of
philosophy ought to be what? To find out what definite difference it will make to you and me, if that formula, or that one is
the true one.
What practical bearing does this question have on human experience? Pragmatic test of any idea. What relevance for
practices or experience.
Nothing new in pragmatic method, understating how new and radical this proposal is. Roots in British empiricism, roots in
James’ radical empiricism, that much is clear.
Major difference is that British empiricists were all foundationalists (foundationalism- human knowledge has a
foundation, all truth and knowledge claims have to be traced back to a foundation of unquestionable first principles, for
example Descartes cogito).
James is a non-foundationalist. To him, knowledge does not have an absolutely, unquestionably certain, objective
foundation. Knowledge does have underpinnings, or a basis, yet it is not absolute. A contingent basis-human experience.
Human experience is not infallible, indubitable, it does not give a certain basis for our knowledge. All knowledge is
contingent (dependent on ongoing course of human experience).
Knowledge has a method- not a form of empiricism or rationalism.
Pragmatic method: in case of any idea, or theory, what impact does it have? Theory transcends the mere world of practice.
Ancient Greeks separated theory from practice. Strong polarity. Practical action and theoretical reasoning (more proper to
a rational being).
Pragmatism- theorizing about practice. The object of theory is our actual experience of the world, there is no dichotomy.
the purpose of theoretical reasoning, is to establish more rational direction for our practices.
Not ridding theory, but demoting theory from hierarchical structure. They should be dialectic, theory and practice.
Theoretical reflection is not to be god-like, there is no realm of pure reason. There is no such place, no pure philosophy.
Theorizing is always wedded to practical life.
Theory as an instrument by which we accomplish practical purposes.
Evolution for example, a hypothesis (theory), but what made it so successful? It was the empirical evidence behind it that
makes it so strong. In Darwin’s time, it was not granted immediate acceptance. They resisted, because the theory had to
establish itself as true, had to defeat its rivals. So made it true? Its ability to explain our experience (practical end),
explained the evidence more successfully than other theories. We have to go with the evidence, evolution was successful by explaining fossil record. Relevant evidence to that theory,
and give a coherent account of it, explain it. In some cases, explain it in the case where you can make predictions.
Scientific theories are true because they allow us to do practical things, like explain the fossil record, cure diseases.
Theories are instruments to the end of practical and experiential=true.
Causality is also a notion that works, it is also true. There is an experience of causality (opposing Hume’s claim). Hume
doesn’t perceive a necessary connection between cause and event= causality is just speculation.
James gives a reply to this: Prediction. When we see the same two events in the same order, there’s something happening
here that goes beyond coincidence. When I see event 1, I can predict that event 2 will follow. These predictions are true,
and are based on causality because event 2 is an effect. My hypothesis, before event 1 happened, event 2 is coming soon.
Prediction confirmed. (Event 1- pen in air, event 2- letting go, pen falls). Prediction contingent on causality. We have to be
able to make predictions.
Notion of causality works: predictions are necessary from a practical POV.
A relation of correspondence or agreement between a statement and a fact.
James grants them that, but truth is a rather complex notion.
What exactly is a fact? A mysterious notion, according to James. Wants to change the meaning of fact, or supply it with a
meaning. Wants to supply the notion of correspondence with a meaning.
Clarity around correspondence theory: problem is the lack of clarity.
Agreement- 2+2=4 agrees with reality. It can’t mean any simple copying or mirroring of reality. As if true ideas gave us a
map of the world. Agreement must be something more, dynamic, not a static relation. Agreement means the agreeableness
of an idea.
The statement is true if “the cat is on the mat” is true, if the cat is on the mat. He doesn’t see what it means to say a
statement agrees with a fact. It can only mean that when I look in the direction of the mat, I will predict a cat on it, and will
be confirmed. Expect something to be perceived, becomes fact.
Experience is a stream of consciousness, we are always getting ahead of ourselves. One experience leads into another.
Statement “it is cloudy outside” becomes known to be true when you go outside and confirm it. Prediction leads one
experience to the next. True ideas work in this sense.
Interest in consistency, tirelessly compare truth with truth. We have to have consistencies in law. Contradictory ones, one
must be struck down. No contradictions in our knowledge.
Critic: What does it mean to say that the truth is out there? I can say the table is over there because I’ve seen it, but do you
have any experience of the truth? An empty meaningless statement.
James: brought truth don’t to earth, something of this world and non-absolute. When you want to see truth as objective
and other-wordly, you have made it an empty idea. Why do we even value the truth? A relation of correspondence of
sentence and facts, why desire to know the truth? Have a duty to know it? It is properly human to pursue the truth. James
replies if this is true, how are we allowed to understand this? Truth provides us with a map of the world, but why want
Only pragmatism has an answer: we value the truth, because it serves our practical ends. We need to know if it works, if it
Gets this question from Nietzche: Why value the truth? Pragmatist theory is the only one that has the merit of answering
the question properly.
Metaphysical disputes have to have some practical bearing on how we experience the world. If they do not arise from
human experience, it is idle and a non-issue, pseudo-issue.
Don’t take word for it, but ask what makes it an issue?
Human nature- many have explored this issue. Many characteristics change over time, but something endures. I do I know
I am the same person I was ten years ago?
Locke has an empiricist account of being the person that I am. Remembering consciousness. Continuity of my memory
over time. Grounded in practice, James likes it.
You can’t perceive Descartes thinking thing, it should be rejected. No one has ever perceived the thing that thinks.
What practical difference does it make if we say there is design and order in the world? Would we perceive the world
differently? Intelligent design. They experience the same world you do, it is a pseudo-problem according to James.
How we regard the future is quite important, are we entitled to optimism towards the future? Concept of progress. Or are
we required to believe that the future will be pretty much the same as the past (ancient thinkers thought this)?
Free will- or are we determined. Pragmatic question: experiential difference does i