A Great Humanist: William James

John Shook

One of America’s great humanists was the philosopher and psychologist William James (1842–1910). James served as a vital bridge between the humanism of the transcendentalists and the revival of humanism in the 1920s and 30s. His largest contribution to humanism consisted in his eagerness to champion the individual person and the personal perspective, the direct experience that we each gather over the course of our lives. As one of the founders of the philosophical movement of pragmatism, James reconnected lofty intellectualism with commonsense practicality. James insisted that “All our theories are instrumental, are mental modes of adaptation to reality, rather than revelations or gnostic answers to some divinely instituted world-enigma.”

James’s philosophy of life took shape during an exciting period of growth in American society. James was born in New York City as it was emerging as America’s most vibrant and diverse municipality. He studied biology, having quickly accepted Darwin’s theory of evolution, and received his MD at Harvard University. In 1872, James began teaching physiology at Harvard and then was permitted to teach the new experimental psychology, founding the first psychological laboratory in America in 1875. James published The Principles of Psychology in 1890, which still stands as the most important and provocative psychological text ever written by an American.

In 1898, James announced that he was a “pragmatist,” following the provocative views about the nature of truth advanced by his good friend Charles Sanders Peirce. The rest of James’s career at Harvard was devoted to advancing this new pragmatic movement in philosophy. His most famous book, Pragmatism, was published in 1907. In this book, we read of James’s new philosophy that stressed humanism as well as pragmatism. Both humanism and pragmatism champion human experience in all its plurality and variety. On truth, James declared, “True ideas are those that we can assimilate, validate, corroborate, and verify. False ideas are those that we cannot.” Yet how is truth and reality to be found, lost in the chaos and cacophony of every voice speaking at once? The grave mistake, James warns, is to first assume that truth and reality must be unitary and unchanging, as the “rationalist” always presumes. What is the alternative? James tells us,

On the pragmatist side we have only one edition of the universe, unfinished, growing in all sorts of places, especially in the places where thinking beings are at work. On the rationalist side we have a universe in many editions, one real one, the infinite folio, or edition de luxe, eternally complete; and then the various finite editions, full of false readings, distorted and mutilated each in its own way. . . . Now the idea of this loose universe affects your typical rationalist in much the same way as “freedom of the press” might affect a veteran official in the Russian bureau of censorship; or as “simplified spelling” might affect an elderly schoolmistress. . . .

For pluralistic pragmatism, truth grows up inside of all the finite experiences. They lean on each other, but the whole of them, if such a whole there be, leans on nothing. All “homes” are in finite experience; finite experience as such is homeless. Nothing outside of the flux secures the issue of it. It can hope salvation only from its own intrinsic promises and potencies. [Pragmatism, 1907, p. 259–260]

Consistent with James’s disdain for dictatorial systems of reason detached from human experience, he had no use for any theological apologetics for dead dogma and no toleration for any religious creeds imposed on living contingencies. However, where people do live by religious beliefs, attitudes, and principles, and live well by them, James was prepared to accept such real-life application of religion as being as genuinely valid as anything else that has proven its utility. This functional approach to religious belief, in which the energy of religion only consists of the moral difference it makes to human welfare, brings religion down to the mortal earthly realm where all human activities have their life. Religion aims at something different than science: the moral transformation of human character. This means that the evidence supporting religion concerns what happens in personal behavior. James often complained that real religious belief is not displayed by people who can confess to the theological doctrines of a church. The ability to sincerely state the required doctrines is not evidence of genuine religious belief. Sincere belief will always result in action eventually (as pragmatism asserts), and that action can confirm the belief. But what is going on in this process of “confirmation” is only “moral” confirmation and not any sort of empirical confirmation such as a scientific theory can pursue. Moral confirmation only concerns the reasonableness of a moral attitude and never the actual existence of any spirituality or supernatural god that a traditional religion may purport to describe.

Indeed, traditional religion should be criticized for failing this basic humanistic requirement that a belief must be able to make a positive difference in peoples’ lives. James frequently complained about certain religions, theologies, and philosophies that made their believers feel confident and secure by convincing them that goodness will necessarily prevail. James disliked systems of belief that fail to arouse in believers the desire and energy to fight evil. In particular, James complained about the theistic doctrine under which God’s goodness guarantees that everything that happens is always for the greater good. A believer’s confidence in the eventual victory of God and goodness can disincline the believer to take up arms and fight for goodness, because theism teaches that everything that happens must happen by God’s design. There really is little motivation to do anything, because even the evil that can be seen from our human perspective must be happening for the best according to God’s plan.

For James, anything that kills our motivation to struggle and fight for ideals is the deadliest evil of all. On the other hand, whatever most firmly commits a person to the battle for goodness must itself be a supreme good. In James’s philosophy, it could only be each person’s own personal decision to make his or her life worth living. This humanistic foundation for the moral life is essential to James’s philosophy. In his address “Is Life Worth Living?” he said, “These, then, are my last words to you: Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create that fact.”

Trusting the ordinary simplicity of personal integrity, James always worried that the mind can get lost in vast schemes of conceptual engineering in pure reason. If we mistake our rationalized ideologies for hard realities, people can get crushed under the weight of dogma, tradition, and authority. James hated “bigness” in all its guises. A radical “anti-establishment” spirit energized his commentary on life. James was the ultimate democrat, as both his admirers and critics proclaimed. Each person’s perspective is just as real as anyone else’s, but no perspective by itself could claim truth, and no one’s perspective could ever be a final truth. A reflection, an inspiration, a vision, a dream, a prophecy—these very potent experiences must be taken seriously as possibly valuable for a person’s life, but these are not truths about ultimate reality for imposition on everyone else. James wrote, “Owing to the fact that all experience is a process, no point
of view can ever be the last one.” James was simultaneously the most tolerantly curious and skeptically critical of philosophers. Experiences are real, but beliefs must be tested. Would you see paranormal miracles or sense the presence of God? Fine, but the world will ask about the empirical evidence for your claim. Would you guide your life by ideals springing from the spirited recesses of your heart? Fine, but the world will ask about the real consequences of your conduct.

The following selection, from an address on “What Makes a Life Significant,” is an excellent example of James’s attempt to revitalize a lost perspective on life, the perspective of the common people. He calls attention to the “unidealized heroic life” of ordinary people who struggle on despite the odds. Why do theological and philosophical systems exalt impossibly idealized ethical principles made only for saints, when the real virtues of human life are obvious all around us? James prefers “fighting virtue” over “sentimental idealism,” and places his trust in the common intelligence of the masses to test proposed ideals in the daily trials of real life. Where one generation may place their faith, the next may discard—and there is no higher perspective for passing ultimate judgment. Like the evolution of species, the evolution of morals only tracks the proliferation of human life in any form that may survive, for as long as it can. Any humanism worthy of the name should inspiringly dare us to live courageously by the highest ideals we can conceive. But that same humanism should humbly remind us that future generations will enjoy the same liberty of conscience, thought, and action. What makes a life significant? No one should permit another person, another culture, another era, to pass judgment on a life’s significance. The only thing that can make a person’s life truly significant is that person’s own experiment of trying to live a significant life.

John Shook

John Shook is an associate editor of FREE INQUIRY and director of education and senior research fellow at the Center for Inquiry. He has authored and edited more than a dozen books, is coeditor of three philosophy journals, and travels for lectures and debates across the United States and around the world.

One of America’s great humanists was the philosopher and psychologist William James (1842–1910). James served as a vital bridge between the humanism of the transcendentalists and the revival of humanism in the 1920s and 30s. His largest contribution to humanism consisted in his eagerness to champion the individual person and the personal perspective, the direct …

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