PHIL 3120: American Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Monday February 9, 2015



[3.1.3.] Two Temperaments and the Dilemma They Pose.


The distinction between the tough-minded and tender-minded temperaments 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).[1]


James summarizes the two temperaments as follows (278):[2]




rationalistic (“goes by principles”)

intellectualistic (“relies on reason”)







empiricistic (“goes by facts”)

sensationalistic (“relies on experience”)








Each temperament represents one side of a “present dilemma in philosophy” (a dilemma is a forced choice between two bad options). The dilemma is a choice between science and religion.


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


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.[3] 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,” Peirce had urged that our philosophical inquiry must begin with the beliefs and doubts that we actually do already have. This suggests that 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.


James is taking a 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”.[4]


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. If you look and see how the world actually is, you will find a lot of misery and terrible things… obviously, it is not the best of all possible worlds.


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 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.



[3.2.] “What Pragmatism Means” (1907).


This is the second “lecture” (chapter) from James’s book Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking.


In the first lecture (“The Present Dilemma in Philosophy”), James took the position that pragmatism is a way between the horns of a philosophical dilemma: the choice between the empiricistic tough-minded temperament and the rationalistic tender-minded temperament.


In this second lecture, we find out that James’s pragmatism may not go exactly between those two horns; it is closer to one of the horns than to the other…


James views pragmatism as carrying on the tradition of empiricism:


Pragmatism represents a perfectly familiar attitude in philosophy, the empiricist attitude, but it represents it, as it seems to me, both in a more radical and in a less objectionable form than it has ever yet assumed. A pragmatist turns his back resolutely and once for all upon a lot of inveterate [old, long-established] habits dear to professional philosophers. He turns away from abstraction and insufficiency, from verbal solutions, from bad a priori reasons, from fixed principles, closed systems, and pretended absolutes and origins. He turns towards concreteness and adequacy, towards facts, towards action and towards power. That means the empiricist temper regnant [ruling, dominant] and the rationalist temper sincerely given up. It means the open air and possibilities of nature, as against dogma, artificiality, and the pretence of finality in truth (293).[5]


James’s pragmatism a “radical” form of empiricism in that it takes seriously theological ideas that the traditional empiricist would dismiss, e.g., the idea of God as “the Absolute”. (James considers this way of thinking about God, which is called absolute idealism, at the end of “What Pragmatism Means”.)


James’s pragmatism has at least two aspects:

1.      it is a method (“the pragmatic method”) of resolving “philosophical disputes”

2.      it is a theory about truth that results from applying that method.



[3.2.1.] The Pragmatic Method.


In his first description of the method, he alludes to some of the philosophical disputes in which the tough-minded and the tender-minded take different positions:


The pragmatic method is primarily a method of settling metaphysical disputes that otherwise might be interminable. Is the world one [monism (tender)] or many [pluralism (tough)]?—fated [fatalism (tough)] or free [belief in free will (tender)]?—material [materialism (tough)] or spiritual [spiritualism or theism (tender)]?—here are notions either of which may or may not hold good of the world; and disputes over such notions are unending. The pragmatic method in such cases is to try to interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences. What difference would it practically make to anyone if this notion rather than that notion were true? If no practical difference whatever can be traced, then the alternatives mean practically the same thing, and all dispute is idle. Whenever a dispute is serious, we ought to be able to show some practical difference that must follow from one side or the other’s being right (291, emphasis added).


This is what he seems to have in mind: If there is a conflict or disagreement about which of two (metaphysical) beliefs is true, then we should “trace the practical consequences” of each of the beliefs:

·         if they have different practical consequences, then we should be able to see which consequences actually happen and which do not; this will settle the conflict.

·         if the two beliefs have the same practical consequences, then they mean the same thing and there is really no conflict between them.


A case of different practical consequences: the squirrel. Suppose a man to be chasing a squirrel around a tree but never catches a glimpse of it because the squirrel keeps the tree directly between itself and the man at all times. The beliefs that are in conflict are: “The man is going around the squirrel” and “The man is not going around the squirrel.” Which belief is correct depends on the practical consequences involved. Once we start thinking in terms of practical consequences, we will see that “going around” is ambiguous:

·         If we mean that the man is first to the north, then to the east, then to the south, then to the west, then to the north (again) of the squirrel, then the man IS going around the squirrel.

·         But if we mean that the man is first in front of, then to the right of, then behind, then to the left of, then (again) in front of the squirrel, then the man IS NOT going around the squirrel—the man is in front of the squirrel the entire time (the squirrel is facing the man the entire time), even as they both move around the tree.

In this example, the Pragmatic Method shows that the same words (“going around”) can have different meanings.


A case of no difference in practical consequences: tautomerous bodies. Wilhelm Ostwald (1853-1932, winner of the 1909 Nobel Prize in Chemistry), a German chemist, cites a dispute involving “tautomerous bodies.”

·         One theory of such bodies says that there is an unstable hydrogen atom oscillating inside them.

·         Another theory says that such a body is an unstable mixture of two types of stuff.

According to Ostwald, since the two theories have exactly the same implications for experimental results, there is no real dispute between them—they are really saying the same thing, just in different language. James quotes Ostwald:


“[The controversy] would never have begun,” says Ostwald, “if the combatants had asked themselves what particular experimental fact could have been made different by one or the other view being correct. For it would then have appeared that no difference of fact could possibly ensue; and the quarrel was as unreal as if, theorizing in primitive times about the raising of dough by yeast, one party should have invoked a ‘brownie,’[6] while another insisted on an ‘elf’ as the true cause of the phenomenon” (292).


In this example, the Pragmatic Method shows that different words (the two proposed explanations of tautomerous bodies) can have the same meaning.



[3.2.2.] Pragmatic Method vs. Pragmatic Maxim.


There is an important difference between James’s Pragmatic Method and Peirce’s Pragmatic Maxim:


·         Peirce held that the result of applying the Pragmatic Maxim to an idea (e.g., to the idea of hardness, or truth, or reality) is another idea, viz. our ideas about actions that can be performed with objects of the original idea and about the sensible effects that would result from those actions. [7]


·         James’s pragmatic method requires that we explain an idea by reference (not to other ideas, but) to actual actions, events, consequences, effects … things that actually occur.


James’s emphasis on actual, concrete actions is explicit in this passage:


There can be no difference anywhere that doesn’t make a difference elsewhere—no difference in abstract truth that doesn’t express itself in a difference in concrete fact and in conduct consequent upon that fact, imposed on somebody, somehow, somewhere, and somewhen. The whole function of philosophy ought to be to find out what definite difference it will make to you and me, at definite instants of our life, if this world-formula or that world-formula be the true one (293, emphasis added).


We will soon see how this difference will tend to push James away from the realism that Peirce presupposed and toward a view that is closer to relativism.



Stopping point for Monday February 9. For next time, begin reading “Pragmatism’s Conception of Truth” (pp.309-15)—your third response paper, on this reading, is due at the beginning of class.


Heads up: your first exam in this class is on Wednesday February 25.



[1] 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).


[2] 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.[2] 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] Here “romantic” does not connote romantic love; it is meant in the literary sense and so means something like: “marked by the imaginative or emotional appeal of what is heroic, adventurous, remote, mysterious, or idealized”. .


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

[5] One aspect of the tough-minded personality is an attraction to fallibilism. In “The Will to Believe” (ch.10 of your textbook), James distinguished between two ways of believing in truth: the empiricist way (fallibilism) and the absolutist way (infallibilism). It is not too much of a stretch to associate the empiricist view of truth with empiricism and the absolutist view with rationalism, although there is nothing about empiricism in itself that requires that empiricists be fallibilists, and nothing about rationalism in itself that requires that rationalists be infallibilists.


[6] In Scottish mythology, a brownie is a spirit that haunts houses, especially farmhouses.

[7] For the most part, James describes Peirce’s views correctly. But in the first sentence in the quoted passage, James seems to miss the distinction between the idea of conduct (and its effects) and the conduct itself (and the effects themselves).


... Mr. Peirce, after pointing out that our beliefs are really rules for action, said that, to develop a thought’s meaning, we need only determine what conduct it is fitted to produce: that conduct is for us its sole significance. And the tangible fact at the root of all our thought-distinctions, however subtle, is that there is no one of them so fine as to consist in anything but a possible difference of practice. To attain perfect clearness in our thoughts of an object, then, we need only consider what conceivable effects of a practical kind the object may involve—what sensations we are to expect from it, and what reactions we must prepare. Our conception of these effects, whether immediate or remote, is then for us the whole of our conception of the object, so far as that conception has positive significance at all (291, emphasis added).



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