Table of Contents

William James (January 11, 1842 – August 26, 1910) was an American philosopher and psychologist who had initially trained as a physician, and along with Charles Pierce and John Dewey was one of the central figures in the development of the American Pragmatist movement in Philosophy. Of the three major pragmatists his philosophical work touched on religion more than the others and has contributed to both religious and secular conceptions of belief.

Analysis and Themes

For much of the modern history of western philosophy a hard line was drawn between the believer and the skeptic, those who hold ideas and those who reject what they cannot confirm. The philosophy of William James is notable for its introduction of the idea that even a person aspiring to uphold high standards of rigor in inquiry may hold, and often should hold instrumental beliefs that assist them in living in the world. The greatest time in Jame’s own philosophy is given to beliefs of a religious nature, but the idea holds to other endeavors.

When returning to one’s home at a late hour a person often proceeds to enter with a set of ideas about the residence to which they are entering. Take for example the belief that the contents of one’s home have not been rearranged by a prankster. In most cases a person does not necessarily actively entertain that though, but there is a conditioned expectation that when returning to their home the arrangement of things within the home will be as it was upon their departure from their home with certain allowances made for the activities of any cohabitants of their residence. If they were to return home to find their major furniture bonded to the ceiling with industrial adhesive materials by a most ambitious prankster, as the belief they had been holding in the form of their conditioned expectation that their home would not be disturbed has been shattered.

In the course of everyday life, it is common to hold many such expectations that are integral to the smooth operation of one’s everyday goings on. When ascending a staircase there is normally an expectation that the stairs will retain their structural integrity and that you will not be knocked out of balance by an earthquake to fall backwards down the stairs. Similarly while in a building there generally is an expectation that the building will not collapse suddenly, though this expectation may be challenged or brought to the foreground when a storm bearing strong winds and a potential to bring tornadoes and their associated destructive powers is occurring or imminent.

These expectations seem to be translatable to a propositional content of a sort, but would it be meaningful to do so. One could survey the portion of the population consumed by various neuroses to see what concerns so trouble them where the healthy minded individual proceed throughout their day since in the place of these neuroses they hold implicit often unexamined expectation for the general operation of the world in their experience which will remain unchallenged unless confronted by extraordinary circumstances. In the prologue to his biography William James in the Maelstrom of American Modernism, feels it sufficiently important to include the experience of James in the San Francisco earthquake and the zest with which James sought to explore the experiential effect of the earthquake on everyone he could find to consult.

The earthquake is an interesting phenomenon in the way it pushes and challenges an individual’s expectations. It shakes the ground which serves as the foundation on which people go throughout their lives. Even a small quake which leaves little to no damage to lives and property has a general ability to impart unease in people as it challenges their expectation that the ground upon which they stand or lie is solid. What can a person trust if not the surface which bears their weight as they go about their lives? For James the radical experimenter often pushing the boundaries of his own consciousness through experimentation with substances, to have the experience of being a witness to great act of treachery and majesty by the ground upon those who live on it must have been unparalleled opportunity to explore this tremendous shattering of expectations on a tremendous scale.

It seems very reasonable that in pre-scientific era such disasters would be woven into religious literature or taken as action by a divine actor or actors. That systems of belief would form or be shaped by the events that shatter expectation, or that before journalism or widespread reporting one could live their entire life with a disbelief of the possibility of such an event as an earthquake or volcanic eruption and live justified in a system of expectations that precludes such occurrences by virtue of their local geology and period in history.

These ideas on expectations seem to permeate the philosophy and the psychology of James. Looking as his ideas on the formations of habits it can be seen that the dependability of certain outcomes promotes or deters certain actions. That touching an object burning bright results in a burn dissuades one from reaching out to touch a candle flame while the heat felt may condition a person to warm their hand by holding them a controlled distance from the flame. That the consumption of coffee in the morning promotes wakefulness may lead to a pattern of consistently consuming coffee in the morning to receive this desired effect.

Similarly, in the section of Principles of Psychology concerning necessary truths James investigates the nature of propositions that seem to have a necessarily implied predication. His investigation follows three core assumptions with regard to the nature of seemingly a priori judgments. The first involves the idea that it is no more possible to hold racial experience be attributed greater accord as to the development of such judgments than individual experience. Following this is the presentation of a lack of evidential support for the thesis that certain individual reactions of instinct are the result of transmission of learned knowledge from ancestors. Third he offers that not our being in intercourse with the environment explains organic mental structure, but congenital variation by accidents later fixed in the class of inheritable features do.

In the discourse on expectations it can be raised whether the structure of the brain leads to certain necessary expectations persons hold to be true or whether they are wholly conditioned. It seems to be that many of our expectations are conditioned. A lifelong resident of an area of California prone to frequent tremors may be completely unphased by these tremors a visitor may upon the arrival of one be sufficiently unsettled to the point of seeking cover in anticipation of calamity. Contrast this though with the idea of whether a red pigment is necessarily red. Is it not unreasonable that it may have been evolutionarily expedient to develop certain receptors which detected certain prominent wavelengths of light to be decoded by the brain represented by the colors? In the example of this pigment red a pigment which tends to be associated with certain things encountered in nature while green would be commonly found in other situations in nature. James offers two hypotheses of the reflection of mental contents in the mirror of outside nature. That if a certain feeling impressed upon the mental contents does not correspond to the external world that the nature of the impression is purely mental, and that if the reflection is indeed perfect that the mental impression is still not real but rather duplication. The second is deemed a harmony of the interior of mind and the exterior world, but the world still does not exist in actuality within the mind but as a corresponding reflection.

Following that James illuminates the philosophical battleground as the forms of combinations of experiential impressions. On one side the empiricist crows that forms must strictly follow their order of awakening by impression in by combination, while the apriorist stands steadfast that there are elements for which their very natures dictate the order of the form in which they are combined. It is only after setting up the troops in opposition for battle that James finally offers his definition of experience, “Experience means experience of something foreign supposed to impress us, whether spontaneously or in consequence of our exertions and acts.”(1) The orders of experiential impression are then having no uncertain affect of our orders in which we sequence and coexist with and around the external world.

James presents a critique of the position that ‘experience philosophy’ as a competitor to theological though, which merits some consideration considering the weight of force that has historically been characteristic of such a position. He appears to undertake this criticism at the moment to clarify the means by which he uses experience to cover a certain kind of natural agency, without the exclusion of other natural agencies. This is the lead up in his discussion on Two modes of the origin of brain structure(2) James set up a situation where a front and a back door may be used to impress an experience on the brain. Going in the front door are experiences that reflect the external world, while in the back door certain biological or chemical anomalies. Some of the examples he gives seem a bit dated in the aftermath of the 1960s, but the system he lays out seems to have been vindicated rather than shattered by the history that followed him in this instance, with a fairly solid degree of certitude.

Immediately following this he dives into a postulation of a natural origin of thought given a set of seven statements on the nature of the elemental categories.(3) James attacks simple notions on the origins of the brain and psyche with the scathing admonition, “the manner in which we now become acquainted with complex objects need not in the least resemble the manner in which the original elements of our consciousness grew up.”(4) James raises the wholly intriguing point that many elements that compose our consciousness at some point may have snuck in the back door on their way to becoming the high and mighty elemental categories that they are now. He bring this back to the earlier mentioned point that the contents of consciousness are merely subjective duplications of a sort resembling things outside the brain. That time and space are impressed from without James readily concedes with other things of seemingly universal quality such as the property of burning inhered in fire, but can the criticism be raised as to whether space need be necessarily so primarily impressed visually as seems to be so dominant among humans. That the blind may primarily be impressed by space in a tactile manner or acoustically seems suggest that some necessarily external categories such as space or time may be impressed in ways other than commonly conceived seems to be a point that seems to be well addressed by James.

From the necessary truth it is no small move to the truth in general, which for James must be something that happens to an idea as opposed to something which is hiding in an idea. The unexplored ideas neither hold any property of truth nor falseness, as they have remained unexamined. An idea may acquire truth as it passes tests of inquiry or lose that truth as it fails. It may be replaced by a more acceptable reformulation of that idea that responds better to inquiry, or it may to replaced by a radically different idea if the paradigm in which the world is considered changes as happened throughout the history of the sciences. This is related to the idea put forward by the physicist Richard Feynman that the goal of physics is to find how thing work as opposed to an idea put forward in a question by a journalist that suggested that physics as a model of objectivity was searching for thing that exemplify X-property to the superlative, that physic was searching for the smallest particle, most fundamental laws, etcetera.

It also seems that for many people knowledge on the most intimate level available as offered by ideas presently held true by inquiry is not necessary to respond to many of the problems that they encounter in the world. A restaurateur does not need to know in depth how the differences between polar water molecules and non-polar molecules in oily greases leads the greases to be insoluble in water as is documented in chemistry, though the restaurateur should know that sinks installed in the kitchen for cleaning equipment are going to require grease traps in order to promote the well functioning of the restaurant’s plumbing. This isn’t to say that deep theoretical knowledge may not have some sort of intrinsic value for the intellectual life of a person, as that concern isn’t being addressed by this point. Rather it is being offered that there are often practical sorts of knowledge that work functionally in many situations without involving knowledge that may be more refined in many ways.

At some point James explores what this may implicate for the endeavor of metaphysics. Sometimes these jabs are buried as happened in The Varieties of Religious Experience when examining the writings of Augustine, and noticing an unhealthy fixation with cleanliness. The psychologist in James finds something pathological in Augustine through his metaphysic, a field James seemed to distance himself from and address the problems of through seeking clarification of questions and accepting answers that sufficiently worked with respect to the question at hand. In the short piece Some Metaphysical Problems Pragmatically Considered James goes on to bring his pragmatic analysis of several metaphysical problems out to illustrate that they can be attacked with pragmatic instrumentalism in much the same way that they have been approached by other schools. Beginning with the problem of substance James takes the scholastic’s treatment of the Eucharist as a pragmatic approach to the substance problem in the way that the wafer becomes the body of Christ. This spreads into Berkeley’s treatment of material substance and the empiricist’s treatment of spiritual substance as pragmatic.

From this launch pad James goes into further exploration of metaphysical problems with the pragmatic principle in mind. His pragmatic treatment of the free-will versus determinism debate puts forth a decisive application of pragmatic instrumentalism against a metaphysical impasse. After laying out both positions and establishing that pragmatically free-will “means novelties in the world.”(5) He then goes on to establish that free-will only really has a meaning if used as a doctrine of relief. Intrinsically the notion of free-will is a meaningless as the number , like how  gains meaning when you have an engineering task involving a circle free-will gains meaning when used instrumentally as a comfort for a person.

Brining pragmatic instrumentalism into these metaphysical quandaries allows for addressing them without out the rigged traps of language that seem to present so often in rationalist and idealist metaphysics, and the pragmatic method may be criticized in metaphysics for its simple instrumentalism. The pragmatic metaphysics of James do not occlude the possibility of the development of high-rise metaphysics by the pragmatic principle, it simply does not require a complex high-rise metaphysics. If elaborate metaphysics serve an instrumental purpose for a particular individual, though it may seem somewhat contrary to the pragmatic principle grounded in practicality, an elaborate metaphysical position of a person may be reconcilable with a pragmatic worldview.

The pragmatic worldview is one that tends to ‘allow for’ rather than ‘prohibit the X of’ in a way that is antithetical to much of what has been considered philosophy in the western system. Philosophers have tended to pursue system to which they bring justification at the expense of other systems. In this way pragmatism seems to more correctly reflect the actual operation of persons in the world than self supporting philosophical systems in the manner in which they address the idea of the true. The idea of a true hiding somewhere to be discovered as the only true answer to a question versus the idea that there may be many ideas which work to address a problem with their truth being related to how well they address the problem. In the essay What Pragmatism Means, James lays out a clear map for a philosophical approach grounded in a method and opposed to dogmatism of the sort that has followed philosophy as though a blight in its grasping with unfounded hard certainty for first things and the like. The pragmatic method as James relays his understanding from Pierce is grounded in our rough position in the world, and searches for answers to practical problems posed by our circumstances. James admits this can lead to a plurality of results as differing people may find differing answers to their practical needs, and he draws on the illustration of Papini’s hotel analogy to show opposing doctrines coexisting side by side while having been reached through the pragmatic principle.

A way to understand more clearly what pragmatism means is in contrast to what pragmatism is not. Pragmatism, as propounded by James, is not the grasping at problems to achieve some mathematical certainty. Additionally pragmatism is not the grasping at problems of wholly theoretical nature and bounded entirely within artificial constraints within the imagination of the problem creators (ex. zombies, vat brains). Pragmatism is very much rooted in the world and life within it. James takes a very sober position on scientific laws of nature as approximations, but they can still be functional laws as they are further refined. This flexible nature of pragmatic working truth is in stark opposition to the hard verificationism that would be pushed by positivists seeking some sort of transcendental Euclidian truth through the manipulation of language in the findings of the hard sciences.

To explore another avenue of what pragmatism is versus what is not, the theological angle from James can offer a lot of insight into the pragmatic process. Theology was an important issue for James, because of how practically theism helped him to live within the world. It isn’t a theology in the tradition of first causes as axiomatic assumptions, but theology as a way to satisfactorily answer questions of existence to which answers were necessary for James. This may be contrasted readily with the scholastics and later rationalists with their argumentative proofs for the existence of God. Rather than pinning down a specific absolute theology, James in his approach to religion celebrates the plurality of religious experiences that may bring meaning to a person’s life. James offers a quote that sums up the pragmatic attitude to ideas very well, “Theories thus become instruments, not answers to enigmas, in which we can rest.”(6)

Very pointed in the contrast James draws between Pragmatic instrumentalism and Rationalism is aptly laid out with the contrast James highlights between the pragmatic comfort with facts versus the rationalist veneration of abstractions.(7) James seems to save his energy with regard to apologies for the radical departure in paradigm being pursued by the pragmatists against the greater volume of inertia in post-Cartesian philosophy. James manages to show pragmatism drawing nimbly from both the logic of the rationalists and sensory repertoire of the empiricist in it search for functional, practical answers.

A criticism that might be levied against this instrumentalist approach to methodology and functional as opposed to absolute truth is that maybe the pragmatic method uses a cheap definition of truth. This criticism can be countered with the question of how absolute must the true be? When abstracting truth one still has freedom to choose assumptions to follow over the course of their abstraction. For all of the beauty in the structure of Spinoza’s geometric demonstration of the ethical, it is still grounded in particular assumptions and definitions chosen by Spinoza. In early twentieth century set theory a controversial topic was whether to accept or decline the existence of the axiom of choice (short definition: that an single element may be chosen from a set of elements even without a rule for determining selection). The problem of the axiom of choice appears like Buridan’s Ass but dressed in the precise language of mathematics. At the end of the day, the pragmatic method offers in its instrumentalism a way to accept a satisfactory if imperfect truth to get through the day when the transcendental logic of rationalism in itself gets trapped in hopeless recursion.

Much of contemporary philosophy has focused substantially on the problems of clarification, and of ordinary language versus a most correct language. The practitioners claim a heritage in Russell and mathematics yet in practice they scarcely move their physics past Newton and create by implication elaborate yet elusive metaphysical systems that ignore much what physics has become where in the realm of the smallest constituent particles of matter indeterminate information and undecidability all but appear to reign. Most positions adopted by contemporary philosophers in the debate over the relationship between the conscious mind and the physical body are physicalist in that they attribute importance of the mind’s function to physical aspects of the brain. An alternative approach to the problem is to look at the mind through the mind’s own perceptual lens. This is an approach that will help to emphasize the mind as a greater product than the collection of electro-conductive proteins and fatty tissues on which it may reside and more complex functionally than a functionally defined instruction processor for the body.

The key to this approach is to accept that what a conscious mind perceives as reality is for all purposes of that mind the functional basis of reality as that conscious mind perceives it. Following that the data produced by events in the world as received by the body’s various mechanisms for receiving sensory information transit the information to the brain; in whole or in part, and with or without a degree of signal distortion, the raw physical information received by the will be woefully incomplete.

Eliminative materialism holds that given a completed neuroscience, all of what we consider the mind will be reducible to physical phenomena explicable within the context of the brain and the body at large. At first the premise of the eliminative materialist seems promising and appealing to those of scientific inclination, but the initial premise of the eliminative materialist is the Achilles heel of the system.

A completed neuroscience entails more than simply a deep understanding of the other sciences. Neuroscience is a derived science with roots in biology, chemistry, and physics and principles in neuroscience must necessarily follow from the derivation of principles of the primary sciences from which neuroscience is derived. In essence a truly complete neuroscience will require a complete physics and a complete chemistry at a minimum. Biology is an often broadly defined with rather poorly defined branches, but a biology completed in a manner that covers all of its intersections with neuroscience will additionally be necessarily.

Any single anomaly in any of these sciences on which neuroscience depends would present an anomaly which would also be applicable to neuroscience meaning that a very large body of physical knowledge would have to be know True, capital “T.” It is not merely enough to eliminate all anomalies though as the mere potential for an anomaly, definitionally an anomaly is an unpredictable or inexplicable occurrence, would render any of these sciences incomplete, upending neuroscience. In order for the continuous set of knowledge to be acquired to complete neuroscience, neuroscience can at best approach completion as the amount of time spent developing neuroscience approaches infinite, which is not possible as science as it is conceived as a set of knowledge consists of discrete elements of knowledge. And seeing how the perfect perception and transmission of information is a problem in itself, eliminative materialism and its derivatives slowly fade in degree as reasonable solutions to the problem of the mind. Though it can not necessarily be eliminated as a solution to the problem, the body of evidence required to upend eliminative materialism is much easier to produce than that required to shake the alternative previously offered.

Another presented solution in a physical world as popularly perceived is the concept of functionalism as an explanation of human behavior. In functionalism the issues of the mind and the brain are discarded with the functionalist holding that simply the output of a person in reaction to stimuli and situations is what matters. This is what founds the base of statistical psychology and is an academically accepted explanation that is well accepted though it to is in possession of shortcomings, namely that functionalism is a presentation of one of many methods to avoid investigating the nature of the mind rather than an answer to the question of the nature of the mind. The functionalist discards the metaphysical distinction and its associated baggage in exchange for an inquiry into the problem of what is happening in meaningful terms.

James like the functionalist in the mind brain debate which is still raging discards terms with baggage and attempts to look for what works and how it works rather than debate essences of terms that have managed to over their history accumulate baggage leading to their usage raising more questions through artificial or meaningless distinctions than could be found in trying to address a problem that we can direct a measure of meaningful inquiry towards. Looking back at James we find a world that is full of mysteries and puzzles that may be very well unsolvable on the absolute level, yet inviting and open enough to tolerate our continued life in it without a mastery of its secrets. Indeed the instrumental value of expectations as ideas that may satisfactorily govern behavior seems to be a substantial implication of the intersection of psychology and philosophy in the thought of James.


  1. McDermott, The Writings of William James, A comprehensive edition. p. 76
  2. Ibid. p. 81
  3. Ibid. p. 84
  4. Ibid. p. 85
  5. Ibid. p. 403
  6. Ibid, p. 380
  7. Ibid, p. 385


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