- Historic Sites
The Return Of Pragmatism
WILLIAM JAMES’S EXHILARATING movement to sweep aside all philosophies is making a surprising comeback a century later
October 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 6
What is pragmatism’s account of the way people think, and how did it arise? The term was introduced to the world by William James in a lecture called “Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results,” which he delivered on a visit to the University of California at Berkeley in 1898. James presented what he called “the principle of Peirce, the principle of pragmatism,” which he defined as follows: “To attain perfect clearness in our thoughts of an object… we need only consider what effects of a conceivably practical kind the object may involve—what sensations we are to expect from it, and what reactions we must prepare. Our conception of these effects, then, is for us the whole of our conception of the object, so far as that conception has positive significance at all.” He went on to suggest that this principle might be expressed “more broadly,” and he proceeded to do so: “The ultimate test for us of what a truth means is indeed the conduct it dictates or inspires. … the effective meaning of any philosophic proposition can always be brought down to some particular consequence, in our future practical experience, whether active or passive; the point lying rather in the fact that the experience must be particular, than in the fact that it must be active.”
What James was doing was stretching a principle of scientific inquiry to cover thinking generally. The principle of scientific inquiry is the “principle of Peirce.” It states that if we want our conception of an object to be meaningful—or, as Peirce put it, to be “clear”—then we should limit that conception to the real-world behavior the object will exhibit under all possible conditions. To use one of Peirce’s examples, what we mean when we call a substance “hard” is that it will scratch glass, resist bending, and so on. “Hardness” is not an abstract property or invisible essence; it is just the sum total of what all hard things do.
James’s idea was to extend this way of understanding scientific concepts to all our beliefs. What makes any belief true? he asked. It is not, he thought, its rational self-sufficiency, its ability to stand up to logical scrutiny. It is that we find that holding the belief leads us into more useful relations with the world. James thought that philosophers had wasted huge amounts of time attempting to derive truths from general first principles, trying to prove or disprove rationally the tenets of various philosophical systems, when all they needed to do was to ask what practical effects our choosing one view rather than another might have. “What is its cash-value in terms of practical experience?” James thought the philosopher ought to ask of any idea, “and what special difference would come into the world according as it were true or false?” Or as he put it more famously, nine years later, in Pragmatism: “The true is the name for whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief, and good, too, for definite and assignable reasons.”
Words like practical and cash-value may make James seem an advocate of materialism and science. But one of his chief purposes in introducing pragmatism into philosophy was to open a window, in what he regarded as an excessively materialistic and scientific age, for faith in God. We needn’t ask, he thought, whether the existence of God can be proved; we need only ask what difference believing or disbelieving in God will make in our lives. If we wait for absolute proof that there is or is not a God, we will wait forever. We have to choose whether to believe on other criteria—that is, on pragmatic criteria. For this is, James thought, how we make all our choices. We can never hope for absolute proof of anything. All our decisions are bets on what the universe will do.
In crediting the “principle of pragmatism” to Peirce, James was, characteristically, doing a favor for a friend. But he was also helping to establish a genealogy for pragmatism that may contain more legend than history. The attribution was a favor because in 1898 Charles Sanders Peirce was an almost wholly forgotten figure. James had known him well in the 1860s, when both were students at the Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard. Peirce was the son of a distinguished Harvard professor, the mathematician Benjamin Peirce, and he had already, when James met him, acquired a reputation as a prodigy of mathematics, science, and logic. But his career unfolded disastrously. He lost his academic appointment, at Johns Hopkins University, because of a scandal involving his remarriage. (He had begun living with the woman who would become his second wife after he had separated from but before he had legally divorced the woman who had been his first wife.) He lost his other job, working for the Coastal Survey, a government scientific agency, soon afterward. In 1898, having spent part of the decade in New York City, sleeping on the streets and cadging food from the Century Club (until he was evicted) while on the lam from creditors and assault charges, Peirce was living in poverty and neglect in Pennsylvania, on anenormous dilapidated estate that he had purchased in an illconsidered moment of financial optimism.