PHIL 3120: American Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Tuesday February 12, 2013


[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 empiricism (the philosophical aspect of the tough-minded temperament) and rationalism (the philosophical aspect of the tender-minded temperament).


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


James views the Pragmatic Method as carrying on the tradition of empiricism, but in a “more radical ... form than it has ever yet assumed.” (293)[1]


Why is James’s pragmatism a “radical” form of empiricism? At least part of the answer is this: it takes seriously metaphysical and 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 at the end of “What Pragmatism Means.”)


James’s pragmatism has at least two aspects:

  1. it is a method (a way of doing something): “the pragmatic method”
  2. it is a theory about truth.



[3.2.1.] The Pragmatic Method.


James’s pragmatic method is not a doctrine. That is, it is not a philosophical theory capable of being true or false. It is (as its name indicates) a METHOD: the pragmatic method “does not stand for any special results. It is a method only.” (293)[2]


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)[3]]?—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) [4]


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.


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 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 practical consequences, there is no real dispute between them. 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,’ while another insisted on an ‘elf’ as the true cause of the phenomenon.” (292)[5]


These examples illustrate James’s intention that the pragmatic method will settle metaphysical disputes which would otherwise be irresolvable.



[3.2.3.] James’s (Mis)Understanding of Peirce.


James describes Peirce’s view as follows:


... Mr. Peirce, after pointing out that our beliefs are really rules for action[6], 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)


But there is something that James gets wrong about Peirce’s view, and in seeing how James misunderstands Peirce, we get a first glimpse of how James’s pragmatism is importantly different from Peirce’s

·         Peirce’s view was that the result of applying the pragmatic maxim to a concept (e.g., to the concept hard, or true, or real) is another concept, viz. our concept of the sensible effects that would result from a purposeful behavioral interaction with objects of the original concept.

·         For the most part, James gets this right; but in the first sentence in the quoted passage, James seems to miss the distinction between the concept of conduct (and its effects) and the conduct itself (and the effects themselves). What James says here could be taken to mean that the pragmatic meaning of a concept is (not a concept, but) action itself, something that some actual human being actually does.


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)[7]


This is the important difference between Peirce and James:

·         Peirce understands the pragmatic clarification of a concept to result in another concept; when you apply the pragmatic maxim to a concept, the result is another concept.

·         James’s pragmatic method requires that we explain a concept by reference (not to concepts, but) to actual practical consequences, effects, actions, events that actually occur.

We will soon see how this difference sends James down a less realist path than the one Peirce traveled.



[3.2.5.] James’s Pragmatic Theory of Truth.


James begins his explanation of his pragmatic theory of truth by describing two different ways of thinking about scientific truths, i.e., scientific claims that are true:


1)      True scientific claims are absolute transcripts of reality that reflect exactly how the world actually is. They are “the eternal thoughts of the Almighty,” and when we discover scientific truths, “we seize [God’s] mind in its very literal intention.” (296)


On this view, a true scientific claim is one that represents the world exactly as it is. [This is suggestive of the correspondence theory, although he does not mention that theory at this point in the lecture.]


2)      True scientific claims are “only approximations” of reality... theory is absolutely a transcript of reality, but … any one of them may from some point of view be useful. Their great use is to summarize old facts and to lead to new ones. They are only a man-made language, a conceptual shorthand, as some one calls them, in which we write our reports of nature; and languages, as is well known, tolerate much choice of expression and many dialects. (296)


According to this second view, the truth of a scientific claim does not (at least not always) amount to its representing the world exactly as it is. Rather, the truth of a scientific claim amounts to its being useful in a specific way.[8]


Says James, the pragmatists (including John Dewey and F.C.S. Schiller[9]) have taken this view of scientific truth and broadened it by applying it to all truths.


Everywhere, these teachers say, ‘truth’ in our ideas and beliefs means the same thing that it means in science. It means, they say, nothing but this, that ideas (which themselves are but parts of our experience) become true just in so far as they help us to get into satisfactory relation with other parts of our experience, to summarize them and get about among them by conceptual short-cuts instead of following the interminable succession of particular phenomena. Any idea upon which we can ride, so to speak; any idea that will carry us prosperously from any one part of our experience to any other part, linking things satisfactorily, working securely, simplifying, saving labor; is true for just so much, true in so far forth, true instrumentally. (296-97)



Stopping point for Tuesday February 12. For next time, begin reading “Pragmatism’s Conception of Truth” (pp.309-15). Our next class (Thursday Feb.14) will start at 10am. Your first exam is on Tuesday February 26.




[1] 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.


[2] PR 31 (page references to “PR” are to the 1975 Harvard University Press edition of Pragmatism).


[3] In “Some Metaphysical Problems Pragmatically Considered,” the third lecture/chapter of James’s book Pragmatism [not in your textbook], he sheds light on what he means by “materialism”: “The mention of material substance naturally suggests the doctrine of ‘materialism,’ but philosophical materialism is not necessarily knit up with belief in ‘matter,’ as a metaphysical principle. One may deny matter in that sense, as strongly as Berkeley did, one may be a phenomenalist like Huxley, and yet one may still be a materialist in the wider sense, of explaining higher phenomena by lower ones, and leaving the destinies of the world at the mercy of its blinder parts and forces. It is in this wider sense of the word that materialism is opposed to spiritualism or theism. The laws of physical nature are what run things, materialism says. The highest productions of human genius might be ciphered by one who had complete acquaintance with the facts, out of their physiological conditions, regardless whether nature be there only for our minds, as idealists contend, or not. Our minds in any case would have to record the kind of nature it is, and write it down as operating through blind laws of physics. This is the complexion of present day materialism, which may better be called naturalism. Over against it stands ‘theism,’ or what in a wide sense may be termed ‘spiritualism.’ Spiritualism says that mind not only witnesses and records things, but also runs and operates them: the world being thus guided, not by its lower, but by its higher element.” (PR 48-49) This entire lecture is available here: .


[4] PR 28.


[5] PR 30.


[6] Peirce says this in “How to Make Our Ideas Clear.” See p.135.


[7] PR 30.

[8] This view of scientific truths has some affinity with the view within contemporary philosophy of science known as instrumentalism. See Ilkka Niiniluoto, “Scientific Progress,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.


[9] John Dewey was the third of the major, classical American pragmatists; we will study his thought once we conclude our examination of James. F. C. S. Schiller (1864-1937) was a British pragmatist; there is one reading from Schiller in your textbook. For more on Schiller see .


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