Posts Tagged ‘Philosophy of Religion’

Some Thoughts About Different Approaches to Pragmatism (pt. 4)

October 29, 2012

Some Thoughts About Different Approaches to Pragmatism (pt. 4) 


Although “coherence theory” of truth is more commonly associated with rationalism than with empiricism, James’ rejection of the “correspondence theory” is not enough to justify his claim that pragmatism can be a mediating position between “tough-minded” empiricism and “tender-minded” rationalism.  Instead, it is in his last two lectures that he most thoroughly breaks with empiricism, and with the idea that all our knowledge ultimately rests on empirical pillars.  In Lecture VII, James argues in support of what fellow pragmatist F. C. S. Schiller calls “humanism:”


Mr. Schiller… proposes the name of ‘Humanism’ for the doctrine that to an unascertainable extent our truths are man-made products too. Human motives sharpen all our questions, human satisfactions lurk in all our answers, all our formulas have a human twist. This element is so inextricable in the products that Mr. Schiller sometimes seems almost to leave it an open question whether there be anything else. “The world,” he says, “is essentially …what we make of it. It is fruitless to define it by what it originally was or by what it is apart from us; it IS what is made of it. Hence … the world is PLASTIC.”[1]

Clearly, this is not what we normally call “humanism.”  It almost seems like Nietzsche’s claim in “Truth and Lie in a Nonmoral Sense,” where he argues that the individual’s psychological needs and personal projects shape that individual’s world.  Instead of basing our categories on our encounter with the world, Schiller seems to base our encounter with the world on our categories, which are themselves based on our own natures.  James defends this position, while also qualifying what he means by it.  True, he does admit that we shape our experience of the physical world; we attend to this fact rather than that, we value this more than that, we interpret.  The word “Waterloo” means something different to a Frenchman than it does to an Englishman.  But James is not particularly interested in this, and admits that our “truths” are beliefs about reality, and our first and primary source for these are sensations.  We cannot prevent or control the flux of our sensations.  Nor can we willy-nilly shape the relations between our ideas concerning these sensations.  I experience the light to come on after I feel the switch click, not before.  However, even though the fact that some aspects of our truths are simply given, and even though our later truths must usually find some accommodation with our previous truths, there is still a lot each one of us does to shape his or her world.  We never encounter the world as it is in itself, but only as shaped by our minds.  James even admits this has a certain resemblance to Kant’s view, though he points out that Kant saw these categories as inborn while pragmatism takes them to be based on experience; as he writes, “Superficially this sounds like Kant’s view; but between categories fulminated before nature began, and categories gradually forming themselves in nature’s presence, the whole chasm between rationalism and empiricism yawns.”

So even to this point, James cannot claim to really mediate between empiricism and rationalism.  Even in his most Kantian moments, he is still conceding that experience shapes our categories at least as much as our categories shape our experience.  It is in his motivation for raising this whole “humanist” argument that James really takes on his appointed task as mediator.  James describes the empiricist position as “tough-minded,” and the rationalist as “tender-minded.”[2]  The rationalist, he says, is motivated by principles, by an optimistic belief that the universe is ultimately united and meaningful, and ultimately by a religious or spiritual faith.  The empiricist inclines towards facts, observations, and materialism.  As an archetype of this and an example of where it leads, consider David Hume’s theory of language.  For Hume, all meaning is based on sensation.  Any word that cannot be traced to a sensation is meaningless.[3]  Hence the “tough-minded” verdict he offers:


When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.[4]


It is not surprising then that James takes empiricism as essentially atheistic, while equating both rationalism and religion as “tender-minded.”  And while much of his epistemology is founded on empirical principles, he has a good deal of sympathy for the religious impulse.  For William James, pragmatism is not only a theory of meaning; it is also a philosophy of life.  A person should believe what allows him or her to function well; and that means that one has every right to religious faith, where this can be sufficiently integrated with one’s other beliefs.  As he writes:


At the close of the last lecture I reminded you of the first one, in which I had opposed tough-mindedness to tender-mindedness and recommended pragmatism as their mediator. Tough-mindedness positively rejects tender-mindedness’s hypothesis of an eternal perfect edition of the universe coexisting with our finite experience.

On pragmatic principles we cannot reject any hypothesis if consequences useful to life flow from it. Universal conceptions, as things to take account of, may be as real for pragmatism as particular sensations are. They have indeed no meaning and no reality if they have no use. But if they have any use they have that amount of meaning. And the meaning will be true if the use squares well with life’s other uses.

Well, the use of the Absolute is proved by the whole course of men’s religious history. The eternal arms are then beneath. Remember Vivekananda’s use of the Atman: it is indeed not a scientific use, for we can make no particular deductions from it. It is emotional and spiritual altogether.[5]


If I try to use my religious belief to draw scientific claims, then my beliefs will inevitably collide and I will end up with a schizophrenia of the intellect:  following cause and effect and scientific reasoning almost all the time and particularly when I rely on any aspect of technology, medicine, or scholarship of any sort, but willfully ignoring reason when it conflicts with some pseudoscientific claim based on my perception of my faith.  But if I use it to give me a reason to keep living, as an organizing or justifying principle for my experiences, or as an ideal to strive towards, etc. then it need not conflict with any useful empirical claim.  Thus James recommends pragmatism as a middle ground between the fatalistic, materialist and pessimistic elements of the “tough-minded” and the free-willst, optimistic, and idealistic aspects of the “tender-minded.”  Because he believes that we create our reality, he can say that we do in fact have a right to hold beliefs that have a pragmatic use contributing to one’s psychological and spiritual health; and because he believes that ultimately our minds and our categories are rooted in our experiences of reality, he says we should not simply embrace the “tender-minded” rationalism wholeheartedly, but consider how these two sides can be reconciled.

To be continued…..

[1] Pragmatism, lecture VII, “Pragmatism and Humanism.”

[2] Pragmatism, lecture I

[3] David Hume, Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, chapter II, “Of the Origin of Ideas.”

[4] Enquiry, chapter XII, “Of the Academical or Sceptical Philosophy,” part III

[5] Pragmatism, lecture VIII, “Pragmatism and Religion.”