Philosophy is defined to be the rational investigation of the truths and principles of being, knowledge and conduct; it is the art of analyzing and modifying our surroundings from a perspective that includes more than one perspective. Philosophy is a particular field where there cannot be any wrong areas of interpretation as long as it does not deny or contradict the facts of lived experience and does not deny the power of human action to effect changes in the universe. The philosopher to propose this approach is William James.
William James is most known for his book “Pragmatism: A New Name for Same Old Ways of Thinking” which just happens to be the first philosophical movement originated in the United States. This book is combination of a series of lectures given by James at various universities; James main focus in his lectures is the concept of Pragmatism which James refers to as a collaborated effort and credits Charles Sanders Peirce for the origin of the term Pragmatism and its leading principle: The Pragmatic Maxim. Pragmatism is a complex notion, it is something you practice.
Another way to view it would be to refer to it as a method, more conclusively as The Pragmatic Method. The pragmatic method is primarily a method of settling metaphysical disputes that otherwise might be interminable. Is the world one or many? – fated or free? – material or spiritual? The pragmatic method in such cases is to try to interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences. James believes “professional philosophy” is caught in the deadlock of two opposing viewpoints which are rationalism and empiricism.
And in order to display his points he describes two manifestations of opposing psychological types which are “the tender mind” and the “tough mind”. The tender mind individual is to be spiritual, religious and optimistic and the tough mind is scientific, skeptical and materialistic. If these two completely different individuals can apply rationalism and empiricism and attain a whole new perspective then James Pragmatic way can be accounted as credible. These act as building blocks to comprehend James’ Pragmatic Method.
In order for a philosophy to function correctly, the scientific loyalty to facts and willingness, spirit of adaptation and accommodation, religion and traditional views must all be accounted for. Although originated from the same concept, James Pragmatic Method is very distinguished from Peirce’s Pragmatic Maxim. Peirce claims pragmatism exposes the meaninglessness of most metaphysical disputes whereas James insists that pragmatism is a method of settling metaphysical disputes that otherwise might be interminable.
Peirce actually “delimits” pragmatism’s scope in attempt to completely disorient metaphysics as a whole but James introduces his version of pragmatism as a philosophy and a way to handle metaphysics than to avoid it. James prefers to locate the meaning of an idea within its “practical consequences” for behavior when Peirce limits the practical consequences of an idea to those functional proposals which it predicates of its object. But James designs his pragmatism to involve the given idea’s pragmatic meaning its implications for the “entirety of the believing subject’s experience”.
One way to truly interpret James from Peirce is through James discussion of materialism and spiritualism. On a traditional perspective, materialism pertains to the idea that the only things that exist are matter and the laws that govern it. Keeping in mind that some sort of matter will always remain dominant in terms of existence, the laws of physical nature imply that the world as we know it will eventually dissolve away and materialists do accept this but still deny the ideas of spiritual entities, immortality and eternity.
And so on the alternative hand, spiritualism claims that there has to be something more to the universe than just blind matter- something larger than life itself. Spiritualists claim there is in addition, another kind of substance referred to as “spirit”; the spirit was, is and will always remain eternal where as matter as the materialists claim will eventually dissolve. Therefore eternal things are superior to finite entities (as in our surroundings), thus spirit is superior to matter.
Although these arguments seem to leave me in awe, I must not forget these are at the end of the day, claims. And claims cannot me analyzed into sensed experience because the evidence to back such claims is inconclusive. This is where the pragmatic method kicks in and we can apply it “by tracing the claims respective practical consequences. ” Now let’s analyze this in a way James would have: “if we were to imagine ourselves living at the very last moments of the universe’s existence, the dispute between materialism and spiritualism is idle.
That is, if there literally were no future in which pragmatic differences in behavior and attitude could manifest, “the two theories, in spite of their different-sounding names, mean exactly the same thing. ” James makes yet another point from this dispute, he says “There can be no difference anywhere that doesn’t make a difference elsewhere…”, insisting that “every genuine metaphysical debate some practical issue, however conjectural and remote is always involved. Where no practical issue can be identified, debate is purely verbal. It again is a metaphysical dispute because observational evidence is insufficient to determine the question either way. The pragmatic conception of truth functions differently, it instead settles disputes based on observational evidence; James follows pragmatism is not only a method of dealing with metaphysics it is also a type of theory of truth. Take for example The Holocaust: is it true that it took place and that Hitler was able to murder six million Jews? Yes it is because there is evidence, witnesses and survivors to support it but of course this is simply common sense.
A decidedly philosophical issue does emerge however with another example which is: if a tree fell in a forest where no one was there to witness it, did it really fall? The answer would be no because there is no evidence to back it up. The theory of truth may also be applied to distinguishing a concept from a belief. A concept is something that is directly conceived, it is a general notion or an idea. A belief is confidence in the truth of existence of something not immediately susceptible to rigorous proof.
James insists that a belief is actually essentially a proposal for action, and on a more concrete perspective it indeed is. A concept would be “In order to survive one must consume food and water and sleep”, this would be a concept because it will not change. Evidently, if one were to deprive himself of sleep and starve himself, he will eventually be deceased. Now a belief would be, “Abortion is wrong and the world needs to be prolife”, this is a belief because there is no evidence to back it up.
One will argue by bringing up the dilemma of rape, or teenage pregnancy in which cases abortion seems to be a logical option. But then again another will argue murder; it is murder because abortion kills potential life. One does not need much training in philosophy to comprehend and integrate James’ pragmatic views into their everyday life. Truth consists in simply the usefulness, expediency or profitableness of a proposition and this is often how we use the term pragmatic in our everyday language.
James’ pragmatic views are not perfect and have definitely received their share of harsh criticism, but then again philosophy is a field where criticism will remain dominant. The objections made to James are rather ignorant; his views are to a certain extent more sophisticated than they may first appear and critics often underestimated the subtleties of James’ position. Now that I am familiar with James’ pragmatic method and conception of truth, I definitely will think twice about how to handle certain predicaments.