Pragmatism and William James

One huge criticism of philosophy – which I think is richly deserved – is that it is irrelevant to the lives of most people. The fine distinctions between different theories of knowledge are often useless when it actually comes to knowing things, and the deep philosophies of identity and subjectivity don’t help us relate to other people in the real world. In short, philosophy is too often a description after-the-fact of what we have done instead of a guide to doing. Think of it as the difference between the physics of pitching a baseball and the learned skill and technique that a baseball coach can (in theory) impart.

The philosopher William James delivered a lecture series aiming right in the middle of this criticism. He proposed a new way to look at philosophy; a way he called ‘Pragmatism’ because of its focus on the practical use of philosophical positions. James thought that everybody had a philosophy on life that was more or less useful, and that professional philosophers should be working with facts and theories that would help us make our individual philosophies better.

The question James wanted us to keep asking is this: how might this idea change how I live? If converting to a particular brand of dualism or whatnot won’t alter your patterns of thought or behaviour, it’s meaningless. If accepting that there is no free will and our actions are pre-determined won’t alter your actions (which it shouldn’t!) then it’s meaningless. In all things philosophers should be searching for practical information regarding how to think and live.

James didn’t think there was one most practical philosophy for everybody. He thought people and philosophers had different temperaments which dictated the positions they were inclined to believe. Indeed, just as Socrates advises us to surround ourselves with people with different personalities, on James’ view we should take up philosophical positions as a curative to the excesses of our temperament. Are you too trusting? Take some time to study the skeptic school of thought. Too skeptical? Familiarize yourself with the arguments of Moore and Chisholm.

And if you’re agonizing over a philosophical position which, if true, wouldn’t make you act any differently – don’t.


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