Response Paper on Pragmatism by William James

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Last updated: February 11, 2019

In William James’ book Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, the author presents eight lectures that explore the philosophy of pragmatism. From lectures one through eight, James talks about the present dilemma in philosophy, what pragmatism means, metaphysical problems, the concept of one and many, pragmatism and common sense, truth, humanism, and religion. The contents of the book are the actual lectures of James as he had delivered them. What the readers are really seeing is the written account of those lectures. This seemingly direct link to the lecturer may make the readers feel a little closer to the author, which makes reading the work more enjoyable.Lecture I is all about the present (at least during James’ time) day dilemma in philosophy: the dilemma between Empiricism and Rationality.

“You find the two parts of your quaesitum hopelessly separated. You find empiricism with inhumanism and irreligion; or else you find a rationalistic philosophy that indeed may call itself religious” (James, 8).Personally, I believe in Empiricism more because I find it better to learn and make decisions based on experience rather than the seemingly right thing to do.

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In Lecture II, James defines Pragmatism as a method. “The Pragmatic method is primarily a method of settling metaphysical disputes that otherwise might be interminable” (James 18). Some arguments take a long time to resolve, from what I understood about James’ definition, pragmatism’s main use is to solve these seemingly endless arguments. But anything related to the word metaphysical can be confusing and creates problems. Sometimes it is better not to look at things metaphysically in order to simplify things.

 As the heading of Lecture III suggests, Lecture III is about the metaphysical problems in pragmatism, problem of substance, problem of materialism, problem of design, and the problem of freewill, to name a few. Did I mention I get confused with metaphysical talk?. Despite this long list of problems, I was able to get, at least the main thought of James, that what pragmatism does is show the “promise” in the alternative solutions to these problems. Philosophy, according to James, has always focused on the unity of things; variety is left out. In spite of this, as James claims in Lecture IV, “What our intellect really aims at is neither variety nor unity taken singly but totality” (James 50).This part is contradictory for me, James says first that Philosophy has always focused on the concept of oneness and yet he claims later that it is not really the case, although he says that man aims neither unity or otherwise, the statements still appear contradictory.

Lecture V is about common sense, not exactly as we perceive the term but today, but as a term for knowledge. “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” (James 65). I’ve heard of a somewhat similar idea to this view—that everything already exists, new things are only modifications of the old.

This is probably the same thing that James is talking about, that we owe our philosophies to our ancestors. In Lecture VI, James’ main topic is the pragmatist’s definition of truth. “True ideas are those that we can assimilate, validate, corroborate and verify” (James 77). I have to disagree on James on this one, he claims that only things that can be proven are to be considered true ideas. I believe in some things even if they can’t be proven.

Pragmatism and Humanism on Lecture VII discusses about the concept of humanism and truth: “the doctrine that, to an unascertainable extent, our truths are man-made products too” (James 93). This is probably where the expression “the world is what we make of it” originated, suggesting that truth is a relative term. James analyzes Humanists philosophy by Mr. Schiller using Pragmatics.  Lastly, Lecture VIII ends the book by discussing pragmatism and religion.

To remain consistent, this last part also uses a concrete example to help explain the relationship of pragmatism and religion by using Walt Whitman’s poem You.  Pragmatism interprets the poem in a pluralistic way. By introducing another source and not coming up with his own example, it somehow lessens his good impression on readers that he is the authority in the subject of Pragmatism.


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