"The whole function of philosophy ought to be to find out what definite difference it will make to you and to me, at definite instances in our life, if this world-formula or that world-formula be the true one."
With these words, William James, one of the great minds of American philosophy, captures the power of pragmatism, a theory first developed by Charles S. Peirce. Pragmatism explores the various theories of truth, meaning, and reality to discover their "cash value" when implemented. Exactly what happens to our understanding of the world when this or that perspective is adopted? Most important of all, do the proposed theories really work when their principles are put into practice? Unless the consequences of these competing positions are tested, we will never know if any of them can help us to make better sense of the world we live in so that the problems we face as individuals and as a society can be resolved.
William James, the leading proponent of pragmatism and chief advocate for critically evaluating theoretical positions vying for our attention, remains a prominent figure in the distinguished history of Americdan philosophy.
About the Author
WILLIAM JAMES, son of the theologian Henry James (1811-1882) and brother of the famed novelist Henry James (1843-1916), was born in New York City on January 11,1842. Under his father's guidance, William was educated by tutors and at private schools in the United States and in Europe. He was drawn to careers both in art and in medicine, first studying art in Paris and later in Providence, Rhode Island, under the direction of William Morris Hunt. But ultimately James chose medicine; after receiving his medical degree in 1872, he accepted a post in physiology at Harvard University the following year. In 1876 he began to teach in the relatively new field of psychology and in that same year James established the first psychological laboratory in America. Among his more illustrious students was the novelist Gertrude Stein.
In 1890, James published his two-volume work, The Principles of Psychology, which summarized nearly the entire range of nineteenth-century psychology. An immediate success because of its thoroughness, accuracy, and lively style, the book was translated into French, German, Italian, and Russian, and remained the leading text in psychology for many years.
From childhood James had been passionately interested in philosophy and had joined enthusiastically with his friends in informal discussions and "metaphysical questions." The view for which James was later to become famous was formed in one such discussion group, dominated by the pragmatic philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914). But James did not turn his professional interest toward philosophy until 1897.
James published Pragmatism in 1907. He did not claim any originality for the doctrine, having borrowed even the term "pragmatism" from Peirce. But whereas Peirce had proposed only a method for avoiding ambiguity and imprecision, James proceeded to elaborate a theory of truth. James denied absolute truth in an ever-changing universe, and regarded it as provisional rather than in accordance with absolute standards. The same analysis James had given to truth he also applied to the discussion of morality itself, arguing that absolute moral standards must give way to values that take into consideration the circumstances of human experience.
During James's last years. his reputation grew widely; in 1902 he published his Varieties of Religious Experience, and in 1909 A Pluralistic Universe. But it was after the publication of Pragmatism that James became generally recognized as the foremost American philosopher of his time. William James died on August 26, 1910, in Chocurua, New Hampshire.