Philosophy Weekend: The Jamesian Gospel

American Existential Psychology Religion

I wrote an article this week for the Second Pass as part of a series honoring the great philosopher William James on the centennial of his death. This centennial has also been observed at The Atlantic (which was kind enough to note my piece) and The Daily Beast (by Robert Richardson, whose new collection of selected essays ought to help spread the Jamesian gospel.)

My article is about the historic meeting of William James and Sigmund Freud in at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1909. Other pieces at the Second Pass this week include a choice quote from The Varieties of Religious Experience, a piece by J. C. Hallman and another by Levi Stahl (one of only two other people named Levi I've ever heard of in real life -- if we could get Levi Johnston over here we'd have the whole set).

I've been reading and appreciating William James for a long time, and have always considered his theory of truth to be his crowning achievement. By the time James arrived on the scene in the late 19th Century, philosophers from Rene Descartes to David Hume to Immanuel Kant had been long grappling with the nature of knowledge and the meaning of truth, and had been grouped into regional/ideological clusters known as Continental Rationalism, British Empiricism and German Idealism according to their positions on this question. William James provided the most modern and, arguably, the most credible and satisfying entry in this race: American Pragmatism.

William James was really the only essential figure among the so-called American Pragmatists (though he generously tried to share the credit with Charles Pierce and John Dewey). The theory amounted to a lively and highly flexible interpretation of the meaning of knowledge and truth: lofty claims of rationality, objectivity and scientific accuracy aside, James said, it is our human nature to believe whatever we wish to believe. The only requirement we typically need to call something "true" is that the thing be roughly believable, and that believing it should serve our purposes.

If you examine your own intellectual assumptions and those of everybody around you according to these terms, you may find yourself quickly realizing that James's simple (and, to many, offensive) theory of truth hits the nail on the head. For better or worse, this appears to be how our brains actually work. It's worth noting that American Pragmatism was the last great movement in the history of modern epistemology; the Jamesian theory of truth seems to have settled the case.

I'm happy to see that William James has a growing following among online literati, including not only The Second Pass's John Williams but also Bookslut's Jessa Crispin. I've also noticed a recent trend to acclaim James's late book The Varieties of Religious Experience as his most important work. Varieties truly is a groundbreaking and deeply compassionate book about the enduring place of religion in modern life, and about the highly personal and individual nature of spiritual belief. Even so, I can't call this book James's best work. For sheer power, I recommend various essays like The Will To Believe or Pragmatism: A New Name For Some Old Ways of Thinking as the best starting points for a William James newbie.

I've also written previously here about James's theory of truth, his theory of emotion and his relationship with his always more famous younger brother.

What do you think about William James's theory of truth -- does it ring true for you?

This article is part of the series Philosophy Weekend. The next post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Peter Singer, J. M. Coetzee and Animal Ethics. The previous post in the series is The Dog Ate My Philosophy Weekend.
16 Responses to "Philosophy Weekend: The Jamesian Gospel"

by mtmynd on

Re: "... it is our human nature to believe whatever we wish to believe. The only requirement we typically need to call something "true" is that the thing be roughly believable, and that believing it should serve our purposes."

I have a problem with this 'we wish to believe' as if we can pick and choose our truths on command. One can certainly ask others if they believe in the Easter bunny or Santa Claus and what answer they would get in return would 'fit' the comment, 'we wish to believe.'

The meaning of truth should not to be taken as a thing that one chooses from a shelf of opinions we are subjected to daily in our lives but rather truth is an experience, a very deep and personal experience that defies any opinion, religion, philosophy or even science. Truth is an absolute that stands the passage of time for Truth itself encompasses time and space and all there is within and beyond our ability to fathom and put into words... even though we continue to clumsily do so in our eagerness to share what it is we feel Truth is. Hence, "The only requirement we typically need to call something "true" is that the thing be roughly believable, and that believing it should serve our purposes." Believable is not necessarily Truth but a mindset that leads us on a continuing journey connecting the so-called dots in order to make believable that which is the reflection of mind's logic which you stated as "this appears to be how our brains actually work."

Why is it we are so assured that our brain can fully comprehend the eternal vastness of Truth? We have no assurances that all the literature which mankind has written regarding Truth is even close to what Truth is. We only agree or disagree, making but yet another choice with that little tool of ours that we call 'mind' which is full of tricks to make sense out of the senselessness of our thinking brain.

by Levi Asher on

Well, Mtmynd, that's why I say that James's theory of truth is offensive to many. It certainly does offend a basic sense of what we naturally believe truth to be.

But, like I said, the reason this theory is powerful is because it corresponds so well to what we observe in ourselves and others. Take, for instance, the news item that's been recently making waves here in the US that 20% of American citizens believe Barack Obama is a Muslim. How does this make sense, if belief is grounded in rationality or logic? The reason it makes sense is that belief is not grounded in rationality or logic. Within the bounds of what it is possible to believe, we believe what we want to believe.

by mtmynd on

Re: "Within the bounds of what it is possible to believe, we believe what we want to believe."

But belief is a useless concept without believing what one believes is true. Belief for the sake of believing is a dead end thought. If someone believed that 1+1=3 does not make it true. It's only when we equate belief with truth we bring a sense of honor to that belief. All belief that does not include knowing what one believes to be true is not belief at all, but un-belief... and illogical waste of time.

I look at it like this:

Of course you can’t truthfully say that 1 + 1 = 3, but I don’t think William James was trying to suggest otherwise. I think it works more like this: When you see an object, the light particles have to travel through space to reach your eyes, then the signal has to travel to your brain. If I believe that cherubim are carrying the light particles, then for all practical purposes, they are. I’ve come up with better examples than that in the past, but only when no one was around. They always sound better when no one is around.

I like the fact that William James is even quoted in the AA “big book” in regard to the “greater power” than helps us overcome addictions (the big book is like the main handbook of the AA organization).

by Levi Asher on

I think that's right, Bill.

According to W. James, there's an important distinction between a "live option" and a "dead option". A live option is something it is possible to believe. 1+1=3 is not really a live option -- that is, it's not easy to believe this. Cherubim carrying light particles, on the other hand, is easy enough to believe. According to James, the human mind tends to form belief by choosing the most preferable belief from among the various live options.

by mtmynd on

Re: "According to James, the human mind tends to form belief by choosing the most preferable belief from among the various live options."

Picking and choosing one's beliefs has to be based upon some knowledge of the choices, don't you think? 1+1=3 is of course overly simplistic, but so is a belief in Cherubim carrying light particles to one's eyes, unless one has encountered such Cherubim and can actually verify their existence. To hold a belief in 1=1=3 or cherubim as light carriers can certainly be held as a belief but ludicrous without any proof to back these claims up.

When mind forms belief, which it certainly is prone to do, is attempting to verify one's ideas/thoughts as having any credibility. If we force ourselves to believe with any knowledgeable proof of that which we belief is a false belief... which we are welcome to have but so is the belief that a Santa Claus delivers Christmas gifts to every good boy and girl in the entire world the night before Christmas.

If we are believing in fantasy and confusing it with reality, there is a problem and that problem will compound itself the longer the mind continues confusing fantasy with mind.

mtmynd, you say, "Why is it we are so assured that our brain can fully comprehend the eternal vastness of Truth?" But you also say, "Belief for the sake of believing is a dead end thought." But if it's difficult to know the truth (aside from uncontroversial truths like 1+1=2), aren't people likely -- and understandably -- going to believe a lot of things without being 110% certain that they're True?

by mtmynd on

Hello, John...

When I speak of Truth (capital 'T') versus truth (small 't') is about the only way I know of to differentiate between that which is the Absolute... where there is no more questioning, which can be a very problematic intruder for our peace of mind. Truth (capitalized) is dealing more with the metaphysical rather than our daily living experience.

Conversely, when I use (and I'm quite sure I'm not alone) truth with the small 't' I'm inferring that which we are assured as far as we can that what we have seen, tasted, smelled, heard or touched is what we think it is. This is dealing more with the everyday world in which we live in and function in.

Regarding your last question as posed, people are likely to believe a lot of things without giving many of them second thought. But that should not follow that which is not given much thought is Truth and we can be assured by experience there is little evidence that there is much 'truth'. Example would be a court of law where a witness is sworn to tell the truth and only the truth. How often do we (the collective we) fail to actually see or hear what our mind believed it to be? Identifying a person as being 6 feet tall and weighing around 180 lbs, when in the end it turns out the guilty person was 5ft 6 inches tall and weighed in soaking wet at 120 lbs. The witness was speaking what his mind conceived but that is difficult to call that mis-characterization 'truth.' That is more factual than truth, i.e. what the witness saw a being a fact even though that fact was not accurate.

by Levi Asher on

Well, mtmynd, it seems like we're encapsulating the history of modern epistemology from Rene Descartes to William James here. The position you're taking -- that truth (Truth) is real and that we humans are equipped in some way to apprehend it directly -- is the classic Rationalist position. Nothing wrong with that.

The big problem with the Rationalist position, though, is that it doesn't seem very effective in explaining how people actually behave and live. Maybe that's why it took a psychologist, rather than a classically-trained philosopher, to come up with the theory of Pragmatism.

mtmynd, I'm not sure capital letters make any difference (T or t).

Oh, wait a minute - they make a difference if you BELIEVE they make a difference.

I still say it's cherubim.

Truth is arrived at through the filter of experience. In ancient times, the truth was that the earth was flat. Then, through experience and observation, the truth changed to the earth being round. This brings up the question - is there such a thing as absolute truth, or is the real answer: it depends?

I think experience is like writing. The actual, real-time experience is like a first draft. Then, when we ruminate on what has happened - editing - we arrive at what we think is the truth. If our conclusion matches that of others, then the argument for an upgrade to Truth can be made.

by mtmynd on

Re: "Maybe that's why it took a psychologist, rather than a classically-trained philosopher, to come up with the theory of Pragmatism."

I believe you're right! All is Truth to the believer until knowledge shows otherwise. The more we learn the less there is to know.

by mtmynd on

Re: "This brings up the question - is there such a thing as absolute truth, or is the real answer: it depends?"

Those who have sought and found enlightenment, i.e. their True Self, understand Truth. All others philosophize and opine what that is until they themselves experience their own awakening when 'depends' become but diapers for the aged. ;)

by Shelley on

Teaching is my "day job," and although it's easy to find James quotes on teaching, I also recall that he made one of the best statements about the relief of leaving it. Can't find it, though.

by TheTaoist on

I stumbled upon this blog recently. It was an older post about Vollman and I loved it. So I subscribed and all was good. Then today, I'm looking through my collection of blogs to see if anything new was there and I find this. I am a failed philosopher of religion and a hopefully-not-failing fiction writer. I don't usually mix those two roles, and I don't usually find fiction readers who know anything about William James. I loved him in grad school and I wrote my thesis on his understanding of violence as a positive force.

I do agree with you that Pragmatism is a great place to start--I think it's a better read and a better book than The Varieties. That said, I would also recommend his essay, "The Moral Equivalent of War." It really is food for thought at a time when we are in two wars (Obama's speech notwithstanding). As an aside, if anyone has seen The Hurt Locker, the lead character's name is William James. It may be a coincidence, but that character and his struggles are identical to the ones James wrote about in the essay I just mentioned.

In any case, thanks for the great post. Keep it up and I might name my first born, Levi.

by Bill_Ectric on

Taoist, I remember hearing about that essay somewhere (The Moral Equivalent of War), and thinking that I should read it, but never did. Now I'm going to seek it out and read it.

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