Pragmatism and William James


In the late nineteenth century, Pragmatism emerged as America’s first major contribution to philosophy. And like the people of the new country itself, this philosophical movement was concerned more with real problems of life, and “cash-values” of ideas rather than abstract, absolute philosophical issues. Pragmatism was founded by Peirce, it gained popularity through James, and it was applied to a diversity of social arenas by Dewey. This philosophy emerged in the 1860s through the discussion of persons belonging to different fields like science, mathematics, philosophy and psychology. The informal group of thinkers known as The Metaphysical Club in Cambridge, Massachusetts is considered as the birth place of Pragmatism, and this club included people like Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, Oliver W. Holmes and Chauncey Wright. One of the prominent concerns of this philosophy is to treat philosophical issues in a ‘scientific’ manner. Pragmatism is therefore concerned with what ‘works’ in actual practice rather than what idle, metaphysical speculation leads us to believe.

Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) is credited with first using the term Pragmatism. It was taken from Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason in which ‘pragmatic’ is used to describe a judgment for which there is no objective evidence but one is practically certain about it. Peirce considers a belief to be a basis of action. To say that a person believes in something is to say that he has a habit of acting in a particular way under certain circumstances. Peirce also inverted the positions of ‘truth’ and ‘inquiry’. It was previously believed that it is the purpose of inquiry to discover the truth, but Peirce said that it is the other way round. Truth is something which is an outcome of an inquiry which is conducted in a proper, scientific way. Peirce saw pragmatism as a way to clarify ideas, and he attempted to clarify many of ideas like belief, truth and inquiry. Peirce conceived of belief as ‘a habit of action’, enquiry as ‘a process of fixing belief’ considering the scientific method to the only reliable method to fix beliefs, truth as the opinion at which the scientific community arrives at after proper enquiry, and reality as ‘the object of that opinion’[1]. Peirce also believed in the doctrine of fallibilism, i.e. no belief is absolutely certain, and is subject to change, amendment and replacement.

Peirce’s ideas were taken up and modified by the famous American psychologist and philosopher William James (1842-1910), who was the brother of the famous novelist Henry James. James believed that an idea was true if it worked in practice, “it is true if it satisfies, is verifiable and verified in experience.”[2] Peirce was not happy with James’s modification of his philosophy because James had introduced subjective elements into it. James said that an idea was said to have a meaning only if a person’s believing it to be true or false would lead him to behave in different ways, i.e. an idea has a meaning only if it brings a difference in conduct. This was unacceptable to Peirce, because this was against the scientific way of thinking, and because Peirce believed the reality was independent of human speculation. But James on the other hand believed that “reality is malleable and subject to change in accordance with human desires, so therefore is truth”[3]. Peirce was troubled by this, and so he renamed his philosophy as ‘pragmaticism’, commenting that it was a term ‘ugly enough to be safe from kidnappers’ referring to the fact that James had kidnapped ‘pragmatism’. However, it was James whose views gained fame and popularity while Peirce was generally ignored.

So, pragmatism, as we know it, is basically founded by William James. James was influenced by science as well as religion, and both these elements are visible in his works. His major works are Principles of Psychology, The Will to Believe, The Varieties of Religious Experience, and Pragmatism. James dedicated the book Pragmatism to John Stuart Mill, saying that pragmatism applied the same concept of utility to truth, which Mill had applied to good in his theory of utilitarianism.

James believed that it was necessary to determine the “cash-value” of any idea i.e. what difference would it make to a person’s life if that idea were true. In judging various philosophical arguments, it is vital to compare the cash-value of the philosophical positions of both sides. If one of them yields results of more “cash-value” then it is to be preferred but if all possibilities have no significant practical difference at all, then the whole dispute is idle and useless. For example, if it is practically meaningless to either believe in A or B, and that it makes no difference to our lives if we believed in either A or B, then a pragmatist would say that the issue is useless.

James says, “The whole function of philosophy ought to be to find out what definite difference it will make to you and me, at definite instants of our life, if this world-formula or that world-formula be the true one.”[4]

Theories and philosophies are therefore “instruments” which we employ in our lives to solve problems, and their truth is to be judged in terms of how successful they are in solving those problems. An idea is true if it works in our lives, an idea is false if it doesn’t. Pragmatism does not offer certain specific results, but rather it is a method of obtaining results that will vary from occasion to occasion. “No particular results then, so far, but only an attitude of orientation, is what the pragmatic method means. The attitude of looking away from first things, principles, ‘categories,’ supposed necessities; and of looking towards last things, fruits, consequences, facts.[5]

It is clear that Pragmatism aims at giving a new definition of ‘truth’. James maintained that as practical men the scientific concepts because they ‘work’ in practice. Therefore, we must apply the same criteria to all aspects of philosophy. The test of the truthfulness of a belief is not in conformity with a ‘Fact’ because it is unachievable, or as some pragmatists like James would say, it doesn’t exist independent of human thought. The test is the success of the idea in practical matters. A belief is therefore ‘true’ if it brings benefit to us in real life. Truth is what is convenient and successful in practice. Diane Collinson writes, “Truth, for him, is not a fixed and unchanging absolute that is independent of human cognition of it but is invented or created by means of human activity.”[6]

James comes up with a pluralistic conception of universe; “experience is not an object that we examine; instead there is just a ‘humming-buzzing confusion’ out of which we differentiate various aspects that we call ‘ourselves’, ‘physical objects’ etc.”[7] This differentiation is made with reference to particular problems that we face in experience. There is no fixed reality independent of humans to be unveiled or uncovered by experience. The world changes and grows as our knowledge changes and grows.

James has a special interest in religious issues and he believed that application of pragmatism could help resolve a number of issues. It was not an issue of whether a particular religious belief corresponded with some ‘independent, objective reality’ but rather it was matter of which attitude worked best in life. James argued that most religious beliefs pass this pragmatic test of being successful in practice, and are therefore ‘true’; they allow people to live a happy and contended life. If the hypothesis of God works satisfactorily in life, then ‘God exists’.

Another famous and influential philosophical idea of James is ‘the will to believe’. Skeptics had maintained that in cases in which there is no conclusive as to either option, none of which can be proved, it is better to maintain an agnostic attitude and to suspend decision on that issue. James, however, believes that in cases in which a conclusive answer is not possible, and the decision is of such nature that it will affect the person’s whole life [such as the existence of God] then it is better to make a decision on non-rational grounds, on the basis of passion or volition, on the basis of will to believe.

On the psychological side, James denied the existence of ‘consciousness’ as a separate and distinct entity. He doesn’t deny the existence of thoughts or that our thoughts may perform a function which may be called ‘being conscious’. What he is denying is the idea of a consciousness as a thing in contrast with material objects. He believes that there is only one primal stuff or material of which this whole world is made up. This view, known as ‘neutral monism’, maintains that the building material of the world is neither matter nor mind, but something anterior to both and out of which both mind and matter are formed. James calls this primal stuff as ‘pure experience’.

[Bertrand Russell, applying Einstein’s General Relativity to this neutral monism, believes this primal stuff to be ‘events’ in space-time. What was previously thought of as ‘particles’ in physics was substituted by a series of events. Matter was, then, just a convenient way of collecting events into a bundle. Russell argued that mind too is a way of grouping events. Events are classified into mind or matter according to the causal relations between them. Some events may belong only to material group, some only to mental group, while some may belong to both groups, and are therefore at once mental and material.]

American philosopher and educator John Dewey (1859-1952) became the leader of pragmatism after William James’s death. But while James is interested in applying pragmatism to religion, Dewey’s outlook is scientific and social. His pragmatic theory came to be known as Instrumentalism. Dewey concerned himself with broader social issues like education. It was out of Dewey’s philosophy that the idea of ‘progressive education’ emerged in the world of education. Dewey believed that education should not consist of imposing a mass of facts and information on the minds of students, but rather education should be ‘pragmatic’, it should teach them how to deal with problems i.e. the education should be based on the method of problem solving. This type of education would train a child in living a successful life in the practical and scientific world of today.

Despite the popular appeal of pragmatism, pragmatism is not without its critics. First of all, it stands in clear opposition to all the philosophers who consider reality to exist independently of human speculation. In increasing the degree of truth of an idea, we are approximating an ideal that is determined by the Fact existing in reality, not by its practical utility. It is of more benefit to believe in Hinduism in a Hindu society and in Judaism in a Jewish society, then does it mean that Hinduism is ‘true’ in former and ‘false’ in latter? James says that if the hypothesis of God works satisfactorily, then God exists, but the hypothesis of Santa Clause may also work satisfactorily. Does it follow that Santa Clause exists? A belief is supposed to be true on the basis of its causes, not its effects. The fact that Columbus existed is true because there was a real man Columbus in the world in the past, not because belief in Columbus is of practical benefit to us.

Then Pragmatism says that the truth of an idea is determined by whether it ‘works’ in practice or not. But at which exact point can we tell whether an idea has worked or not. Suppose that consequences of an action are beneficial for a short time, but after that its consequences become harmful. The industrialization has greatly increased the comfort of human life, but it has also destroyed the environment and produced harmful consequences like global warming. So has the industrialization ‘worked’ in practice? In response to this, pragmatists say that not only the short-term consequences but also the long-term consequences are to be considered. But we might not be aware of the long-term consequences of a particular action… does that mean that we would have to wait indefinitely to decide whether a particular idea has worked or not?
Pragmatism in its original form might not have survived, but many of its central ideas have been accepted, modified and applied by contemporary philosophers like W. V. O. Quine, and Richard Rorty. Hence, in many ways, pragmatism is still alive and influential even today.


[1] One Hundred Twentieth- Century Philosophers, entry on ‘Peirce’ written by Andrew Reck, Routledge New York 1998, page 152.
[2] One Hundred Twentieth- Century Philosophers, entry on ‘Pragmatism’ written by Marcus Singer, Routledge New York 1998, page 233.
[3] Ibid
[4] What is Pragmatism, from series of eight lectures dedicated to the memory of John Stuart Mill, A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, in December 1904, from William James. Lecture II What Pragmatism Means.
[5] Ibid
[6] Diane Collinson, Fifty Major Philosophers, (Routledge, London, 1998), page 116
[7] Philosophy Made Simple, Richard H. Popkin and Avrum Stroll ,Doubleday & Company, Inc. USA, page 174