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Pragmatism: The Flexible Truth Of Consequences

In Pragmatism , William James espouses a ‘radical empiricism’, which weds the perceived opposites of his time: evolutionary science with religious faith. The pairing is an attempt at reconciliation between the two disparate groups of the time, encouraging them each to find the strengths in the other’s perspectives. In Present Philosophical Tendencies, Ralph Perry describes James’s radical empiricism as a philosophy where “ideas are to be tested by direct knowledge, and …

knowledge is limited to what can be presented. ” But Perry qualifies his distinction, suggesting “There is, however, a third consideration which is both an application of these, and the means of avoiding a difficulty … fatal to them. This is what James calls ‘radical empiricism. ‘(Perry, 365). James offers a middle ground, sometimes called pragmatism, where he argues religion is as important to truth as is empiricism.

He reaches this conclusion by defining truth as that which works best, producing good consequences for the evolution of humankind—or just the fate of one person. In The Meaning Of Truth, he summarizes it as “an idea … only [in] its workings”(James, xvi). He gives us a truth which is shape-shifting, and yet ruled by the sluggish nature of progress—wherein humans are prone to change as little as possible, while negotiating with the fittest futures affordable.

He says: “THE TRUE IS THE NAME OF WHATEVER PROVES ITSELF TO BE GOOD IN THE WAY OF BELIEF, AND GOOD, TOO, FOR DEFINITE, ASSIGNABLE REASONS”(James, 28). He draws up his overall thesis from a world-view that approaches an Absolute unity, but which is not yet there, due to us lacking the final answers to everything—and an interconnectedness that approaches singularity, but falls short due to the drastic differences in the directness of relationships, wherein some are based on nothing but ideas or proximities to each other.

It is obvious James is aware of the tricky footing in tackling the dueling paradigms of closed versus open systems, as is a common concern of other authors such as H. Heath Bawden touches on, in his The Principles Of Pragmatism: Two principles of modern science — conservation and evolution — seem to come into fatal conflict. It appears as if we were driven to accept one of two alternatives: the universe is either a closed system or a progressive growth. Yet either view taken by itself involves us in grave difficulties. (Bawden, 290)

In describing the world as still evolving and incomplete, James is allowing for the empiricists to introduce new findings, while not totally blocking high-minded ideals from shining through. Moreover then, James sees the world as predictably unstable as truth itself, being so prone to change—yet plodding along in overall evolution at a snail’s pace. It is the pluralism of the empiricists and the inspirational messages of the idealists that attract James equally—and which fortify his appreciation for pragmatism, and allow him to use the powers of both poles.

He shapes pragmatism to help one free the future through the employment of utilitarian truths that mediate the grounds from spiritual absolutes to the everyday changes of the elements. The sub-title of James’s lectures may allude to the philosophy of pragmatism having been around forever, but as Addison Webster Moore points out in Pragmatism and Its Critics: “We do not read far before we discover that Professor James means that while pragmatism is ‘an old way of thinking’ in science and practical life it has not been the

conscious and avowed method in philosophy”(Webster Moore, 2). So, in the sense that James’s pragmatism transcends the past shackles of religious dogma and scientific simplicity alike—rising above both at once, to the heights of a new philosophy that out-sums its parts by remaining open to change from spot-to-spot, it could be called a more clear and useful way of thinking than the extremes of rationalism or empiricism. In Lecture I, James posits that everyone philosophizes, to the degree that they seek that truth which best works for them.

He claims, however, at the root of all beliefs lie temperaments which bias every unique perspectives—but which are so natural to the fitness of existence, as to almost be necessary. He divides all philosophers into either rationalists or empiricists, but maintains they all contain these temperaments. He calls the rationalists the “tender-minded” and the empiricists the “tough-minded”, but admits most people cherry-pick their truths from either side of the line when deemed necessary.

This becomes a common thread throughout James’s lectures, as he strives to preserve the mutability of the essence of truth—while not blunting its effectiveness as a tool of progress. Ultimately, James seeks to define pragmatism from his particular perspective in history, in order to convey his understanding of a middle-ground between the day’s emerging enemies of thought: religion and darwinism.

He wants to merge the strengths of each side, and show all students of philosophy that the world is not as idealistic as the rationalists might contend—or as coldly analytical as some empiricists espouse: It is strange, considering how unanimously our ancestors felt the force of this argument, to see how little it counts for since the triumph of the darwinian theory. Darwin opened our minds to the power of chance-happenings to bring forth ‘fit’ results if only they have time to add themselves together.

He showed the enormous waste of nature in producing results that get destroyed because of their unfitness. (James, 37) He is chasing a concept he coins as ‘radical empiricism’, in which one’s only condition for a commitment to a belief relies on whether the consequences of holding such a truth to be real in any way diverge from what the opposite might portend. In this way, he draws a parallel between Darwin’s fitness of the species, and philosophy’s fitness of the truth.

He also attempts to show that a world full of disparate orders may yet find common ground in the short-term and short-distance relationships at the micro-level—while remaining wholly irreconcilable at the macro-level. James is intent upon debating for the best test of truth being in how well it serves the future—and for how long it may serve it. In his estimation, if a truth begins to be less useful to a person, then in turn, it begins to become less truthful—and at that point, one is ready again to re-arrange their spectrum of reality, in order to more effortlessly traverse the next divide.

The ultimate bent of James’s argument for the middle-way between the monists and the pluralists is by showing that, some facts aren’t true if they do disservice to a person’s existence—no matter how much they are corroborated by trivia—plus, some beliefs likewise aren’t true, no matter how much they are repeated by the pulpit, if they continue to do one harm. It is the utility of the truth that matters most to James, not its objective reality—or its persistent occurrence in subjective, faith-based doctrines.

But by dividing and dis-empowering these two extremes in this way, James is lending them both hands of encouragement into the center ring of pragmatism, where all roads to the future are open to travel, if their consequences seem the most fit to lead us out of the past. In Lecture II, James attempts to further fortify a bridge of understanding between all antipodes in the world, by relating the metaphorical anecdote of a story about a squirrel that ran around a tree, always staying out of sight of its chaser, who also dashed about the trunk himself.

James poses the question of whether the man circles the squirrel or not. He receives disparate reactions to the question, but eventually leads all thought along the lines of slippery semantics playing a role between why some believed the man only moved about the tree, not the creature—and others contended the squirrel was encircled. For James, the example is further testimony to the fluid nature of truth itself. In his doctrine, the pragmatist enjoys the benefits of being allowed to entertain all possibilities, however improbable deemed by science—and however ridiculous characterized by religion.

James sees that while the pluralistic sciences are correct in their observations of the minutia of everything, they fail to take into account the import of a belief system’s persistence—and how that in itself may substitute as proof for a religion’s truths. He also believes that while the monistic religions are wise in their blind embracing of a positive end to everything—and a significant meaning for all that lies under the sun—they fail to allow for new evidences to shape and shift their ideas,.

For this reason then, according to James, their systems risk growing rigid—and those of faith become unable to believe what would work best for them. He argues that pragmatism un-stiffens the dogmas of faith and science, and allows for the layman to navigate his immediate path with more utility. James is arguing truths are proven if they persist. This is why he feels science does not give religion enough credit for having survived this long—while religion does not give science enough credit for having flourished so splendidly in such a short run.

In bringing this contrast to light, he therefore allows for both modes of achieving the truth. He sees empiricism as a mediator between the extremes of intellectualism and pluralism. James characterizes history as an epic clash of truths, whereby many ideas are left behind along the way that once served us so well—and many possibilities still dwell in our minds unproven yet full of potential to someday show us the lightest way along our human evolution again, out-dancing the certainties of hard-learned facts—while simultaneously out-stripping the dogmas of long-cooled religious paradigms.

“Truths have … this desperate instinct of self-preservation and of desire to extinguish whatever contradicts them”(James, 28). In the end, James acknowledges that belief in an Absolute is helpful, as it inspires us to press onward, but dovetails that with the more likely scenario that union has not yet been achieved, as we still lack total knowledge—yet it nevertheless remains motivating to conceive that an ultimate union is the inevitable result of the process of the human search for truth.

He does admit that as a pragmatist he sides more commonly with the comforting openness of the pluralists—but cleverly carves out the optimism that the will is free to claim all the beneficial consequences of taking moral holidays and believing in at least the loose unity of things. In Lecture III, the question of whether everything is one, or all parts are eternally separate, is further explored.

James describes at length all of the different relationships bodies in the universe possess, which are not uniform in their directness—and therefore suspect in their oneness. He also tackles the question of whether there is a designer to the order of things, which is a common construct of religious discourse—whereby it is pointed out how everything is perfectly interconnected, and suggestions it was all an accident were absurd:

Pending the slow answer from facts, anyone who insists that there is a designer and who is sure he is a divine one, gets a certain pragmatic benefit from the term—the same, in fact which we saw that the terms God, Spirit, or the Absolute, yield us ‘Design,’ worthless tho it be as a mere rationalistic principle set above or behind things for our admiration, becomes, if our faith concretes it into something theistic, a term of PROMISE. (James, 38)

James once again takes a moderate approach here, acknowledging, somewhat akin to an agnosticism, that it is possible there is a designer, but that it does not matter, if the consequences of human actions are the same. He also notes that the argument that elements fit well together is just as easily employed by the scientists as the religious, and by no means nods to the proof of a greater intelligence. James outlines that what truly matters is not if there is a designer, but what are the designs—and who is the designer.

He also underscores the differing outlooks on the free will, whereas the empiricists might find freedom in knowing they have no control, the religious might rightly find utility in taking vacation from their more difficult moral preoccupations. Throughout it all, however, James repeats that the pragmatist need not be entangled by these cumbersome concerns of the different extremes—but rather is emancipated by their very willingness to remain open to the possibilities, and embrace those truths that seem to lead to the most good.

In Lecture IV, James more fully fleshes out his musings that the world is connected by time, space, subject, parts, purpose, story and knowledge—but that ultimately, it is a leap of faith to consider two things that are only related by tenuous metaphysical similarities could be conceived of as being one—and that we should always resist the dogma of the Absolute. Noetic pluralism is favorably explored in Lecture V, where the nature of human knowledge and common sense are considered.

The Noetic philosophy mentioned contends that everything is a great thought, but while Noetic monism argues for a massive thought that is conscious of itself—Noetic pluralism posits a thought that is more like the human mind, that is not fully aware of all its parts and workings at any given time. James admits this concept is alluring, as it offers the glue of oneness—with the much-needed disparateness that is found in nature, where no human omniscience is conceivable.

This also echoes James earlier contentions that an embodiement of all things could more realistically resemble the character of a human—rather than some unfathomable god. It also echoes his allusions to common sense being somewhat of a collective evolution: My thesis now is this, that OUR FUNDAMENTAL WAYS OF THINKING ABOUT THINGS ARE DISCOVERIES OF EXCEEDINGLY REMOTE ANCESTORS, WHICH HAVE BEEN ABLE TO PRESERVE THEMSELVES THROUGHOUT THE EXPERIENCE OF ALL SUBSEQUENT TIME.

They form one great stage of equilibrium in the human mind’s development, the stage of common sense. Other stages have grafted themselves upon this stage, but have never succeeded in displacing it. Let us consider this common-sense stage first, as if it might be final. (James, 54) James talks at length about how common sense rose up through the generations of human evolution, in spots and spurts, whereby advancements and recessions were never uniform or continual—but that the core ideas and categories of thought remained to this day for a reason: they worked.

He lists the different concepts that proved themselves to be most usefully true, from space and time, to the categorization of things, causes, laws—down to our more current truths learned. In Lecture VI, the articulation of how truths are proven is expanded upon, where James discusses how a belief can be tested by its ability to agree with reality, by which he means that the idea can be somehow verified, is useful, lacks further explanation–and is consistent with itself and the truths that can before it.

Considerable emphasis is placed on the concept that new truths are added to one’s overall belief system very carefully and deliberately, in order to smooth the transition from one time to the next, while changing as little of the past paradigms as possible—in order to minimize any upset to the equilibrium of the human spirit, which seems to need balance as much as progress. James claims this is in line with his conception that any Absolute might be in the works for an ultimate conclusion—but cannot exist at the present, as there are still truths which are being added into the mix.

Through this characterization of the evolution of truth, then, James is describing a pattern of small changes over the broad scheme of eternity—that when added up result in our common senses, unsubstantiated faiths—as well as cold hard sciences. Moreover, again, for James, these small changes seem to reflect how truths can shift and change from moment-to-moment, and where one truth may be best for tomorrow—that doesn’t make it right for today.

Plus, while the evolution of these truths seem to all work together in a grand symphony, that doesn’t mean they are by any means aware of the operation of their individual parts—still leaving total omniscience by a designer out of the picture. In Lecture VII, James once again derides the rationalist tendency to think in ideals—as well as the empiricist bent toward rejection of all uniform conclusions. He continues to commend the utility of pragmatism, not only toward daily human life—but also in mediating between the religious person living too much in the clouds, and the scientist dwelling too far down in the mud of existence.

Finally in Lecture VIII, James once more raises pragmatism to the bar of a melioristic outlook, which works well with earlier references to the helpfulness of believing in an end that is Absolute and good in union. While his entire thesis is founded on the bridging of the opposites of the tough and tender minds, James seems to finally side with the free will being as much a slippery concept as he claims truth to be—and that it may very well create our world to an extent, but it must be believed to exist to work for us.

Earlier in the series, he hints at how the question of the presence of free will seems only necessary to answer in regards to the future—not the past, as that cannot be changed. In the end, this tentative and pragmatic employment of the power of a free will dovetails with James continual assertions that it is the utility, effects and consequences of a belief toward a particular person, at a certain place and time, that determines the truth of it.

In his Preface to Pragmatism, and at choice times throughout the series, James notes he realizes his lectures may grow dry at times—and that others who have popularized philosophy by offering it in more palatable forms prior to him may have succeeded in ways communicating to the layman that he could not, yet he still became a beacon of American philosophy despite his lengthy approach to the material.

Also, he admits to not arguing in a totally uniform style—and being guilty at times of providing somewhat asymmetric real-world examples of what he ponders—so he his not entirely without some populist approach. Certainly, his clear delineation between the rationalist and the empiricist—or the tender and tough-minded—show that he is capable of bending to the stream-lined metaphor, in order for a world to better hear his side of the story.

But at the heart of his thesis, after all, it is in the basic nature of his approach to philosophy, that it is ever-present in everyone, on an almost intuitive sub-level, where it shapes belief toward the perceived good ends of consequence. He believes that the utility of a device of thought should justify its truth, and so if he were to word his lectures in a certain way, building from the drier material earlier on—toward the more impactful and consequential climaxes later, he might then more efficiently translate his ideas about the nature of truth to his audience.

It should be of no small surprise then, if the cumulative result of James lectures gives rise to inspiration in the reader, who might have previously been a devout rationalist or empiricist—and who now feels freed from former bonds to beliefs hollow of good ends, and once more open to seizing those systems that work best for them, even if not for their neighbor or close friend. It may be labored over by those new to pragmatism to consider whether it is morally sound to simply switch one’s beliefs from swing-to-swing, as one sees fit—in order to better smooth the transition from A to B.

Some may feel open to persecution or criticism by those who observe them always changing their minds, especially after they receive and process new information given to them by the unfolding of the world. Indeed, James does warn that the religious will stiffen as time wears on, unless they learn to move to the more moderate middle, where new theories like natural selection can be entertained—even if merely for the sake of their made belief being more useful than their outright denial.

In these ways then, it does seem as if James “radical empiricism” may be almost too willing to go-with-the-flow, instead of picking a certitude—whether it be in the gritty details, or the sublime paradigms. But as James admits, the empiricists are too sure nothing exists after it all ends—while the rationalists are too adamant there is an overlying pattern that is completely consistent in every last nook and cranny—and is uniformly conscious or active.

Indeed, it seems James pragmatism may indeed be the most useful approach to living and making decisions about what to believe and what is true—as it is the only mode of thought which allows one to have the best of both worlds in one, where the advancements of the scientists are embraced, while the common sense laws handed down by the religions are not ignored. James claims the empiricists need to let the rationalists stay in the sacred halls of thought while the details of the world are discussed—instead of just being excused for being too idealistic and simple-minded.

Plus, he suggests that the scientists are missing the point of human existence if they think the ultimate denouement of humankind will not be good and meaningful. James is reminding the tough-minded that despite all of their experiments, the religions have lasted thousands of years—and their tested fitness is the proof of their truth, though their doctrines may need to be tempered as new knowledge piles on.

Plus, he is reminding the tender-headed, that despite their long history of being full of useful rules, that does not mean changing their minds might not be better for them now. Certainly, it is interesting to note that, if taken superficially, one might misinterpret James’s conception of pragmatism—and turn to a life of shifting goals that never settle down, or turn in the slightest wind, if a better avenue suddenly seems more sure.

But the fact is, James plainly conveys how the evolution of truth and philosophy—and life in general—is a slow-moving beast of baby-steps and small compromises, as humankind naturally shies away from making risky endeavors or big changes for shallow reasons—and always opts for the shortest, cleanest, quickest connection to a future of better possibilities, while modifying as little of past schema as possible: Pragmatism is willing to take anything, to follow either logic or the senses, and to count the humblest and most personal experiences.

She will count mystical experiences if they have practical consequences. She will take a God who lives in the very dirt of private fact-if that should seem a likely place to find him. (James 29) So then, under James’s world view, pragmatism is the most flexible of the philosophies, as it allows for negotiation and navigation between the poles of rationalism and empiricism, without the tricky hang-ups of always consulting the good book before making a move—or experimenting for evidence before taking a new venture.

Indeed, James sees the tough-minded as too prone to panicking in the face of almighty persecution, while the tender are too likely to pass-over basic universal truths, just because they couldn’t be proven. More than any other argument James makes, however, by the very own logic of his thesis, the most convincing evidence that his take on pragmatism is true is proven only by the usefulness of its consequences. Works Cited Bawden, H. Heath.

The Principles Of Pragmatism. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1910. James, William. The Meaning Of Truth: A Sequel to ‘Pragmatism’. New York: Longmans, Green, and Co. , 1911. James, William. Pragmatism. www. gutenberg. org. Release Date: February, 2004 [EBook #5116] Perry, Ralph Barton. Present Philosophical Tendencies. New York: Longmans, Green, and Co. , 1912. Webster Moore, Addison. Pragmatism and Its Critics. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1910.

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