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James, William (1842–1910)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC043-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 16, 2024, from

Article Summary

The American William James was motivated to philosophize by a desire to provide a philosophical ground for moral action. Moral effort presupposes that one has free will, that the world is not already the best of all possible worlds, and, for maximum effort, according to James, the belief that there is a God who is also on the side of good.

In his famous, often misunderstood paper ‘The Will to Believe’, James defended one’s right to believe in advance of the evidence when one’s belief has momentous consequences for one’s conduct and success, and a decision cannot be postponed. One such belief is the belief in objective values. Generally, a belief is objective if it meets a standard independent of the believer’s own thought. In morals, objective values emerge from each person’s subjective valuings, whatever their psychological source, when these valuings become the values of a community of persons who care for one another. Still, even in such a community there will be conflicting claims, and the obligations generated by these claims will need to be ranked and conflicts resolved. James’ solution is to say that the more inclusive claim – the claim that can be satisfied with the lesser cost of unsatisfied claims – is to be ranked higher. This is not to be mistaken for utilitarianism: James is not a hedonist, and it is not clear what he means by the most inclusive claim.

A concern for others makes sense only if there are others who inhabit with us a common world. Pragmatism, which he co-founded with C.S. Peirce, and radical empiricism provide James’ answer to those who would be sceptics concerning the existence of the common-sense world. Pragmatism is both a theory of meaning and a theory of truth. As a theory of meaning it aims at clarity; our thoughts of an object are clear when we know what effects it will have and what reactions we are to prepare. As a theory of truth, pragmatism makes clear what is meant by ‘agreement’ in the common formula that a belief is true if it agrees with reality. Only in the simplest cases can we verify a belief directly – for example, we can verify that the soup is too salty by tasting it – and a belief is indirectly verified if one acts on it and that action does not lead to unanticipated consequences. Contrary to a widespread misunderstanding, this does not mean that James defines truth as that which is useful; rather, he points out that it is, in fact, useful to believe what is true.

James rejects the dualism of common sense and of many philosophers, but he is neither a materialist nor an idealist, rather what he calls a ‘pure experience’ (for example, your seeing this page) can be taken as an event in your (mental) history or as an event in the page’s (physical) history. But there is no ‘substance’ called ‘pure experience’: there are only many different pure experiences. You and I can experience the same page, because an event in your mental history and an event in mine can be taken to be events in the same physical history of the page; James may even have been tempted to say that a pure experience can be taken to belong to more than one mental history.

According to James, pragmatism mediates the so-called conflict between science and religion. James took religious experiences very seriously both from a psychologist’s perspective and as evidence for the reality of the divine.

Citing this article:
Putnam, Ruth Anna. James, William (1842–1910), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC043-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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