PHIL 3120: American Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Thursday February 7, 2013


[3.] William James.



·         January 11, 1842: James is born in New York City

·         father: William James, Sr. (a philosopher, follower of mystic-philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg)

·         brother: Henry James (novelist, author of Turn of the Screw, Portrait of a Lady, The Golden Bowl,  etc.)

·         1867: began writing and publishing anonymous book reviews

·         1869: received medical degree from Harvard, but did not pursue it as a career—viewed 19th century medicine as “humbug”

·         1871: participated in meetings of the Metaphysical Club[1] with Peirce and others; he and Peirce would be friends until James’s death; years later, James would arrange a number of paid speaking engagements for the impoverished Peirce

·         1873: began teaching physiology and psychology at Harvard; continued teaching at Harvard until 1907

·         1878: married Alice Howe Gibbens

·         1890: Principles of Psychology (1890) 2vv. — still regarded by some as the greatest work in the history of psychology; James was just as distinguished as a psychologist as he was as a philosopher

·         1897: The Will to Believe (dedicated to Peirce)

·         1898: James was the first to use the term “pragmatism” publicly, describing himself as a pragmatist in an address given before the Philosophical Union at the University of California at Berkeley; he acknowledged Peirce as its source.

·         1901-2: The Varieties of Religious Experience

·         1903: arranged for Peirce to give a series of lectures on pragmatism at Harvard. After the first lecture, James wrote to a correspondent criticizing the lecture and Peirce, perhaps because the version of pragmatism Peirce presented was so different from his own.

·         1907: Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking

·         1909: The Meaning of Truth, and A Pluralistic Universe

·         1910: James dies of heart failure at the age of 68; Peirce changes his name to “Charles Sanders Santiago Peirce” to honor James (“Santiago” = “St. James”)

·         1912: Essays in Radical Empiricism (posthumous collection of a series of essays first published in 1904-1905) [2]


One of our goals in studying James is to understand how his philosophical views (especially about belief, experience and truth) contributed to a drift away from Peirce’s pragmatism (which was grounded in realism) towards a less realist form of pragmatism. Other pragmatists, including Dewey, Putnam, and Rorty, drifted even farther in this direction, as we’ll see later in the semester.



[3.1.] “The Present Dilemma in Philosophy” (1907).


This is the first “lecture” (chapter) from James’s book Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, which itself is a collection of lectures that James gave at the Lowell Institute in Boston (Dec. 1906) and at Columbia University in New York (Jan. 1907).[3]


In this article, James distinguishes between two different “human temperaments”: the tough-minded and the tender-minded, and he maintains that pragmatism overcomes or bridges this distinction.


Before we look at the distinction, we need to review an earlier one that it echoes…


[3.1.1.] Review of the Empiricism / Rationalism Distinction.


Beginning in 17th century with the work of Descartes, there are two opposing traditions in epistemology:


rationalism (df.): the tradition of philosophy according to which reason is the only, or at least the most important, source of knowledge about the world. Members of this tradition include Descartes, Leibniz and Spinoza.


empiricism (df.): the tradition of philosophy according to which sense experience is the only, or at least the most important, source of knowledge about the world. Members of this tradition include Locke, Berkeley and Hume.


The rationalists and the empiricists all begin with the same assumption: we have direct experience only of the present contents of our own mind:

·         To the degree that we experience the external (non-mental) world, that experience is not immediate. We do not have direct perceptual access to the physical objects outside our own minds (trees and pencils and such) but only to our ideas of physical objects.


David Hume (Scottish philosopher; 1711-1776) held that all we can ever learn by way of experience of our own ideas is more about our ideas. We can never be certain that anything that occurs in consciousness corresponds to anything outside it. Since all we can ever have direct experience of is our own ideas, we can never be certain about anything outside of our own consciousness—not anything about the physical world or even about God.


The lesson that should be taken from this (according to most historians of philosophy) is this: if you begin with the assumption that you have direct experience only of the content of your own mind, you will wind up having to accept skepticism, the claim that knowledge (of the world outside one’s own mind) is impossible. If you admit that there is a “gap” between the experiencing subject and the physical world, then that gap becomes impossible to cross.


In describing his distinction between the tough-minded and the tender-minded temperaments in philosophy, James definitely has the empiricism/rationalism distinction in mind…



[3.1.2.] The Tough-Minded and the Tender-Minded.


On James’ view, philosophers are influenced in the theories and arguments they put forward by something other than an unbiased examination of evidence and reasons. They are deeply influenced by something they try to “sink” or keep hidden: their individual temperaments (the manner in which one is psychologically constituted, including but not limited to one’s own specific emotional tendencies):


The history of philosophy is to a great extent that of a certain clash of human temperaments. … Of whatever temperament a professional philosopher is, he tries, when philosophizing, to sink the fact of his temperament. Temperament is no conventionally recognized reason, so he urges impersonal reasons only for his conclusions. Yet his temperament really gives him a stronger bias than any of his more strictly objective premises. It loads the evidence for him one way or the other, making for a more sentimental or a more hard-hearted view of the universe, just as this fact or that principle would. He trusts his temperament. Wanting a universe that suits it, he believes in any representation of the universe that does suit it. He feels men of opposite temper to be out of key with the world’s character, and in his heart considers them incompetent and ‘not in it,’ in the philosophic business, even though they may far excel him in dialectical ability. (275-276)


This tendency to hide or downplay the work that one’s temperament is doing in one’s philosophical work has the effect of keeping from view “the potentest of all our premises” (276).


The point that James is making here is very reminiscent of one aspect of Peirce’s criticism of Descartes:

·         Peirce’s claim was that it is impossible to begin inquiry by setting aside one’s beliefs. You can only start with the beliefs that you actually already have. This is why Descartes’ method of doubt is impossible.

·         James’s point is broader: when one engages in philosophical inquiry, not just the beliefs one already has, but one’s entire temperament, including one’s desires and one’s emotions, is at work. If one wants the world to be a specific way, then one will gravitate toward philosophical viewpoints according to which it is that way.



The distinction between the tough-minded and tender-minded temperaments is not limited to philosophy…


Now the particular difference of temperament that I have in mind in making these remarks is one that has counted in literature, art, government, and manners as well as in philosophy. In manners we find formalists and free-and-easy persons. In government, authoritarians and anarchists. In literature, purists or academicals, and realists. In art, classics and romantics. (276)


…still, it has had important effects in philosophy. In fact, it is at the heart of the distinction between empiricism and rationalism:


[I]n philosophy we have a very similar contrast expressed in the pair of terms ‘rationalist’ and ‘empiricist,’ ‘empiricist’ meaning your lover of facts in all their crude variety, ‘rationalist’ meaning your devotee to abstract and eternal principles. (276-77)[4]


No one can live an hour without both facts and principles, so it is a difference rather of emphasis; yet it breeds antipathies [oppositions in feeling] of the most pungent character between those who lay the emphasis differently; and we shall find it extraordinarily convenient to express a certain contrast in men’s ways of taking their universe, by talking of the ‘empiricist’ and of the ‘rationalist’ temper. These terms make the contrast simple and massive.

More simple and massive than are usually the men of whom the terms are predicated.  For every sort of permutation and combination is possible in human nature. (277)


James’s view seems to be that the abstract distinction itself is too simple to map cleanly onto the historical reality… it is not as if all actual philosophers are either fully empiricists or fully rationalists. But the distinction can be very helpful to us as we try to understand the history of philosophy and philosophy’s present situation.


James summarizes the two temperaments as follows (278):





empiricistic (“goes by facts”)

sensationalistic (“relies on experience”)








rationalistic (“goes by principles”)

intellectualistic (“relies on reason”)








On his view, these two types of personality are typically antagonistic toward each other:


The tough think of the tender as sentimentalists and soft-heads. The tender feel the tough

to be unrefined, callous, or brutal. Their mutual reaction is very much like that that takes place when Bostonian tourists mingle with a population like that of Cripple Creek.[5] Each type believes the other to be inferior to itself; but disdain in the one case is mingled with amusement, in the other it has a dash of fear. (278-79)



[3.1.3.] Dilemma: Between Science and Religion.


James describes the situation of many educated lay-persons at the beginning of the 20th century… it is similar to the situation many people find themselves in today:


Never were as many men of a decidedly empiricist proclivity in existence as there are at the present day. Our children, one may say, are almost born scientific. But our esteem for facts has not neutralized in us all religiousness. It is itself almost religious. Our scientific temper is devout. Now take a man of this type, and let him be also a philosophic amateur, unwilling to mix a hodgepodge system after the fashion of a common layman, and what does he find his situation to be, in this blessed year of our Lord 1906? He wants facts; he wants science; but he also wants a religion.

Now what kinds of philosophy do you find actually offered to meet your need? You find an empirical philosophy that is not religious enough, and a religious philosophy that is not empirical enough for your purpose. If you look to the quarter where facts are most considered you find the whole tough-minded program in operation, and the ‘conflict between science and religion’ in full blast. (279-280)[6]


On James’s view, pragmatism can help bridge the gap between these two extremely different ways of thinking about the world.


What you want is a philosophy that will not only exercise your powers of intellectual

abstraction, but that will make some positive connexion with this actual world of finite human lives.

You want a system that will combine both things, the scientific loyalty to facts and willingness to take account of them, the spirit of adaptation and accommodation, in short, but also the old confidence in human values and the resultant spontaneity, whether of the religious or of the romantic type. And this is then your dilemma: you find the two parts of your quaesitum [the object of your quest] hopelessly separated. You find empiricism with inhumanism and irreligion; or else you find a rationalistic philosophy that indeed may call itself religious, but that keeps out of all definite touch with concrete facts and joys and sorrows. (282)


Recall that in “Some Consequences,” in his criticism of Cartesianism, Peirce had urged that our philosophical inquiry must begin with the beliefs and doubts that we (we actual, living and breathing human beings) actually do already have. This suggests that on Peirce’s view, philosophy is not an activity that is isolated from the rest of our lives. You are the same person when philosophizing that you are when you engage in other, more mundane activities…


A person may, it is true, in the course of his studies, find reason to doubt what he began by believing; but in that case he doubts because he has a positive reason for it, and not on account of

the Cartesian maxim. Let us not pretend to doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts. (71)


James seems to be taking a very similar position. The student he describes in the following passage had understood philosophy to be something very different than what Peirce hoped for:


I wish that I had saved the first couple of pages of a thesis which a student handed me a year or two ago. They illustrated my point so clearly that I am sorry I cannot read them to you now. This young man, who was a graduate of some Western college, began by saying that he had always taken for granted that when you entered a philosophic classroom you had to open relations with a universe entirely distinct from the one you left behind you in the street. The two were supposed, he said, to have so little to do with each other, that you could not possibly occupy your mind with them at the same time. The world of concrete personal experiences to which the street belongs is multitudinous beyond imagination, tangled, muddy, painful and perplexed. The world to which your philosophy-professor introduces you is simple, clean and noble. The contradictions of real life are absent from it. Its architecture is classic. Principles of reason trace its outlines, logical necessities cement its parts. Purity and dignity are what it most expresses. It is a kind of marble temple shining on a hill. (282-283)


As an example of this, he cites Gottfried Leibniz’s doctrine that “God has chosen the best of all possible worlds.”[7]


James’s point is that you could only find this philosophical doctrine plausible if you completely divorced your philosophical inquiry from every other aspect of your life.



[3.1.4.] Pragmatism to the Rescue.


It is at this point that my own solution begins to appear. I offer the oddly-named thing pragmatism as a philosophy that can satisfy both kinds of demand. It can remain religious like the rationalisms, but at the same time, like the empiricisms, it can preserve the richest intimacy with facts. (284)


We will see over the course of the next two readings how James thinks pragmatism can bridge the gap between rationalism and empiricism—how it can go between the horns of the present dilemma in philosophy—and thus provide an approach to philosophy that is friendly to our religious impulses while at the same time taking account of the results of the sciences.


As we will see in the next reading (“What Pragmatism Means”), James describes pragmatism as “radical empiricism” – it is an outgrowth of the epistemological tradition of empiricism, in that it views experience as an important source of knowledge, but it is also open to religious beliefs that many traditional empiricists did not take seriously.



Stopping point for Thursday February 7. For next time, read all of James’s “What Pragmatism Means” (pp.289-308).




[1] Formed in Cambridge, Massachusetts, no later than January 1872, the Club’s initial members included Peirce, James, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (1841-1935), who later served on the US Supreme Court for over thirty years. The club name was a joke; they were all critical of much traditional metaphysics. During these meetings, Peirce coined the term “pragmatism” to describe a rule or method for clarifying the meaning of concepts. This rule came to be known as the Pragmatic Maxim.


[2] For more background information, see Russell Goodman, “William James,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.


[3] The other two readings from James are also taken from his book Pragmatism.

[4] James was not the first to recognize these different philosophical tendencies. For example, Kant wrote of “the very different ways of thinking among students of nature; some of whom (who are chiefly speculative) are hostile to differences in kind, while others (chiefly empirical minds) constantly seek to split nature into so much manifoldness that one would almost have to give up the hope of judging its appearances according to general principles.” (Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Guyer and Wood, A655/B683.

[5] The reference is to Cripple Creek, Colorado, which at the time of James’s lecture was experiencing a gold rush.


[6] This passage continues:Either it is that Rocky Mountain tough of a Haeckel with his materialistic monism, his ether-god and his jest at your God as a ‘gaseous vertebrate’; or it is Spencer treating the world’s history as a redistribution of matter and motion solely, and bowing religion politely out at the front door:—she may indeed continue to exist, but she must never show her face inside the temple.” The references are to Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919), German biologist and prominent defender of evolutionary theory and pantheism (the view that God is identical to the universe), and Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), English biologist, philosopher, a Utilitarian in ethics, and a popularizer of scientific ideas, including those of Darwin.


[7] Leibniz, Theodicy: Essays on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man, and the Origin of Evil.

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