William James’ Pragmatism

Originating from the American school of thought, pragmatism is a philosophy which posits that consequences, utility and practicality are critical components of truth (“Wikipedia”).  One of the foremost proponents of pragmatism is William James, who was a prominent figure in the field of psychology and postulated a theory of the mind known as functionalism.  James’ viewpoint, which was published in his renowned work “The Principles of Psychology,” asserts that our consciousness operates in an active and focused manner in order to relate and organize thoughts.  From his psychological studies, James’ philosophical analysis regarding pragmatism ramified.  (“The Philosophy of William James”) James believes that concepts are formed in view of the need to organize the confused facts of experience.  In this regard, the value of the concept derived is directly associated to their utility in practice or their practical consequences.  However, the value of the concepts whose practical consequences have not yet been realized or experienced scientifically is dependent on the will.  (“The Philosophy of William James”)

As much as it is a method for analyzing philosophic problems, James’ pragmatism also presents a theory of truth.  James asserts, “…Grant an idea or belief to be true…what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone’s actual life?  How will the truth be realized?  What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false?  What, in short, is the truth’s cash-value in experiential terms?”

His argument is best illustrated when confronting the question pertaining to the belief of God’s existence.  With pragmatism, the given question is addressed by considering the practical consequences of what such belief would bring about.  According to James, the world would be warm and meaningful if the existence of God is held, otherwise, the world would seem enveloped in the coldness of death.  Given this, belief in God is pragmatically justified since such results in a positive difference in the experience of the believer.

In line with this, James also argues, “The truth of an idea is not a stagnant property inherent in it.  Truth happens to an idea.  It becomes true, is made true by events.  Its verity is in fact an event, a process: the process namely of its verifying itself, its veri-fication.  Its validity is the process of its valid-ation.” This means that truth can change just as human experience changes.  Similar to the empirical viewpoint, James believes that the morality and truth of a notion or action should be judged in terms of its outcome in human experience.  As such, the experiential regularity or consistency becomes the most critical aspect of the pragmatic notion of truth.  (“James: Pragmatism and Empiricism”)

Moreover, James contends that truth is correlated with reality.  Scholars interpret this point as perceiving the property of truth as correspondence with reality and at the same time claiming that the concept of truth is whatever is good in the way of belief.  (“Wikipedia”)

In many contemporary philosophies, the meaning of truth in the pragmatic sense is rendered outmoded.  This is because the trend of thinking prevailing hitherto is inclined towards the non-epistemic definitions of truth, which are not reliant on the warrant of belief.  (“Wikipedia”)

Despite the noted inconsistencies with James’ theory of truth, pragmatism has become one of the most influential philosophies.  The pragmatic method of thinking leads us to undertake the verification and validation processes to answer human inquiry.  In this regard, we are better able to critically evaluate our beliefs as well as our needs.

Works Cited

James, William.  Pragmatism.  20 October 2005 <http://radicalacademy.com/adiphiloessay18.htm>

“James: Pragmatism and Empiricism.”  Philosophy Pages.  20 October 2005 <http://www.philosophypages.com/hy/6c.htm>

“The Philosophy of William James.”  The Great Thinkers of Western Philosophy.  20 October 2005 <http://radicalacademy.com/philjames.htm>

Wikipedia.  20 October 2005 <http:en.wikipedia.org>

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