Bob Nichols's Reviews > Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking

Pragmatism by William James
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Feb 23, 2011

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The history of philosophy, James says, is "to a great extent that of a certain clash of temperaments" that "loads" thought to justify one position over another. These he divides into the "tender minded" who need monistic, religious, rationalistic certainty and the "tough minded" who are materialistic, pluralistic, and irreligious. Given these different value-laden base points, disputes tend to be unresolvable. Pragmatism is James' way to escape competing visions of the truth. Pragmatism evaluates competing claims by responding to one simple question: What is the "concrete consequence" of some abstract position for the life of the individual?

So, rather than arguing about whether God does or does not exist, James' approach is to say that it doesn't really matter because religion gives people hope. "Nirvana" is not a problem concept because it "means safety from this everlasting round of adventures of which the world of sense consists." Whether we have free will or not, belief in free will gives us hope we can make the world a better place.

James' central observation that the two broad philosophical schools are based on differences in temperament and, accordingly, value differences, helps to explain why philosophical and religious disputes are difficult to resolve. His attempt to steer an alternative course, however, bumps into some problems. While there is considerable value in asking the question about the practical consequences to abstract notions and evaluating them in terms of the concrete differences they make in people's lives, how one makes such assessment is itself a product of value differences. Where jihad means hope and motivation to many, it means a threat to others. Also, cultural tribalism and educational background may have as much to do with philosophical differences as temperament. It is, for example, hard to believe that all in the materialist West are "tough minded" whereas those in the non-materialistic Muslim world are "tender minded." Clearly, more is involved in accounting for religious and philosophical differences. When James calls for a pragmatic or "melioristic" type of theism as an alternative to "crude materialism" and "transcendental absolutism," he is on his weakest ground. James seems willing to entertain falsity in place of truth if there's some practical benefit involved. Also, to have hope and security requries more credibility than James' "wink-wink, it's o.k. to have your belief because it's makes you feel better" type of approach.

On the whole, this is a thoughtful attempt to suggest fresh ways of looking at old, intractable problems.
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Jon (new)

Jon Stout I'm impressed by your latest round of reading. My only quibble is that I don't think you fully considered the power of the Pragmatic theory of truth. Maybe James doesn't give it its best expression. John Dewey and some modern pragmatists such as Richard Rorty develop the idea more thoroughly.

The Pragmatic theory of truth is not that it is more convenient to look at the consequences of a belief than at the way things actually are. Rather it holds that when you examine other theories of truth (correspondence, coherence), they really boil down to considering the consequences, so that there is really no independent way of ascertaining the truth. This is called "operationalism" in science. For example, the only way to determine the truth of "It is freezing out" is to use a thermometer to measure the temperature. You can't know if your statement corresponds to the truth except by considering the consequences (in terms of the operation of a thermometer). Considered this way, the Pragmatic conception of truth is very powerful.

message 2: by Bob (new) - rated it 3 stars

Bob Nichols Just to be clear, the review was not intended to fully consider the pragmatic theory of truth. The review was about how James' version of pragmatism arrives at truth on abstract philosophical and religious ideas. For the world of facts and science, I presumed that James relies upon some sort of empirical verification such as you outline in your comment.

message 3: by Jon (new)

Jon Stout Now I'm going to have to reread the book to see what I think. Richard Rorty has some good discussion of pragmatism as applied to religious concepts. For example, he considers whether it is rational for a mother to have faith (parallel to religious faith) in her son even after he has repeatedly disappointed her.

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