- 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
James asked, What makes any belief true? His answer: Simply that it leads us into more useful relations with the world.
James, on the other hand, was a Harvard professor and an international academic celebrity. The publication in 1890 of his Principles of Psychology , a book twelve years in the making, had secured his reputation. So an announcement by him of a new approach to philosophy was assured of attention, as was his attribution of the “principle of pragmatism” to Peirce. In his lecture James referred to an article Peirce had published twenty years before in The Popular Science Monthly (a more scholarly journal than the name suggests), entitled “How to Make Our Ideas Clear.” The word pragmatism does not appear in that article (or anywhere else before 1898), but James mentioned that Peirce had formulated his principle and begun calling it pragmatism even earlier. “I first heard him enunciate it,” James said, “at Cambridge in the early seventies.”
Within just a few years of James’s lecture, pragmatism became a full-fledged intellectual movement, attracting adherents and detractors around the world, and Peirce, still isolated on his Pennsylvania estate, wrote a number of papers—some published, most unpublished or unfinished—in the hope, largely unmet, of being recognized as a participant in the debate. In some of the unpublished papers, composed between 1905 and 1908, Peirce amplified James’s remark about the origins of pragmatism. “It was in the earliest seventies,” he wrote in one of them, “that a knot of us young men in Old Cambridge, calling ourselves half-ironically, half-defiantly, ‘The Metaphysical Club’ … used to meet, sometimes in my study, sometimes in that of William James.” He listed the names of the other participants in this discussion group: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Joseph Warner, Nicholas St. John Green, Chauncey Wright, John Fiske, and Francis Ellingwood Abbot. (Holmes, Warner, and Green were lawyers; Wright, Fiske, and Abbot, like Peirce and James, were scientists and philosophers.) It was within this circle, Peirce suggested, that pragmatism developed.
This has proved an influential account, although corroboration is thin. Whatever the truth of it, James and Holmes (and, for that matter, Wright and Green, the other figures whose work is associated with pragmatism) had already formulated what is distinctively pragmatic in their views before 1872. Peirce may have given James the name, but he could not have given him the idea.
In 1872 James was just emerging from a nervous collapse that had lasted almost three years. After a wildly peripatetic education in Europe and America, he had finally graduated from the Harvard Medical School (the only course of study he ever completed) in 1869, at the age of twenty-seven, and immediately fallen into a state of lassitude, depression, and chronic ill health. Whatever the causes of his various symptoms, James seems to have explained them to himself in intellectual terms. He treated his depression as a kind of philosophical problem that might be relieved by coming up with a philosophical solution, and one day in 1870, in his diary, he announced a breakthrough. “I finished the first part of Renouvier’s second ‘Essais,’” he wrote (Charles Renouvier was a nineteenth-century French philosopher), “and see no reason why his definition of Free Will—‘the sustaining of a thought because I choose to when I might have other thoughts’—need be the definition of an illusion. At any rate, I will assume for the present—until next year—that it is no illusion. My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will. … Hitherto, when I have felt like taking a free initiative, like daring to act originally, without carefully waiting for contemplation of the external world to determine all for me, suicide seemed the most manly form to put my daring into: now, I will go a step further with my will, not only act with it, but believe as well; believe in my individual reality and creative power.” The breakthrough did not prove definitive; James’s complaints persisted. But this passage, with its admonition to act on beliefs without waiting for philosophical confirmation of their validity, is the germ of the doctrine James would announce, twenty-six years later, in “The Will to Believe.” And it is the essence of his pragmatism.
Holmes underwent his own crisis in a very different setting. In 1861, at the end of his senior year at Harvard, he enlisted in the Union Army (something James seems scarcely to have contemplated), and he served for three years and in some of the bloodiest fighting of the Civil War. Although he later gave speeches in which he glorified the soldier’s blind allegiance to duty, Holmes hated war itself. He was seriously wounded three times; the third wound was in the foot, which he hoped would have to be amputated so he could be discharged before his commission was up. That hope was disappointed, but Holmes did emerge from the war purged of illusions. He thought he had paid a high price for the privilege of losing them, and he was careful never to acquire any again.