Pragmatism Summary

William James


  • Plot overview and analysis written by an experienced literary critic.
  • Full study guide for this title currently under development.
  • To be notified when we launch a full study guide, please contact us.

Pragmatism Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Pragmatism by William James.

Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking(1907), a philosophical work by American philosopher William James, is an exploration of what is known as the pragmatic method, designed as a way to reconcile the claims of science with those of religion and morality. Pragmatism as a philosophy considers different philosophies most useful in terms of how they are implemented. Ultimately, James argues that any idea, be it philosophical, political, social, or otherwise, is valid only in terms of its experiential and practical consequences. The primary themes of Pragmatism are of truth, meaning, and reality, and the value they have when implemented. James explores the consequences of these differing philosophies when implemented, whether they can help people make better sense of the world and resolve the problems faced as both individuals and a larger society. Pragmatism is considered one of the most influential works of pragmatist philosophy.Two years later, a follow-up work, The Meaning of Truth: A Sequel to “Pragmatismappeared. It is still widely read and analyzed today by students of philosophy.

In Pragmatism, James opens by presenting pragmatism as an appealing middle ground between two mainstream approaches of European philosophy. The first is the “tender-minded”approach that emphasizes rationality, intellectualism, idealism, and optimism, often grounded in religious philosophy. Its opposite is the “tough-minded”approach,which is empirical, rooted in sensations, and tends to be materialistic, pessimistic, and fatalistic, as well as skeptical of religious faith. James argues that most people want a philosophical method that is firmly anchored in empirical facts, while still being open to morality and religious faith. James presents pragmatism as a philosophy that meets both demands. He shows how the pragmatic method helps establish meaning through practical consequences, rooting the philosophy in action rather than beliefs. Instead of investing time and effort in seeking meaning, it is key to explore what practical difference it would make. He illustrates this by exploring the concept of God, and whether the idea of an all-encompassing, supreme being undermines the value of individuality and human responsibility. Thus, he rejects the traditional view of God as an absolute power. While absolute faith offers many comforts, James argues it is incompatible with the pragmatic view of human freedom.

James suggests that while it seems that anything knowable must be true, the concept of truth is more complex through pragmatism. Truth is traditionally considered an agreement with reality, but he says that pragmatists may disagree with intellectuals over the definitions of agreement and reality. He argues that a true idea or belief is one we can incorporate into our thought patterns in a way that it can be validated. He says that truths must agree with reality in one of three dimensions. They must be matters of fact, relations of provable ideas,such as mathematics, or other truths which we are bound to. Truths must agree with such realities and lead to useful consequences.

James is what is known as a fallibilist, seeing all existential truths as open to revision given new information. He argues that our facts and experiences change, so we must be careful when it comes to regarding any truth as absolute. Most western philosophers viewed knowledge as any true, justified belief. James holds to this, but also insists that the idea of truth itself must be pragmatically analyzed and justified. James’s philosophy essentially boils down to productive beliefs. He argues that all inquiry must reach a conclusion of belief, disbelief, or doubt. Disbelief is the opposite of belief, and is a firm belief in itself. This is because disbelieving in anything means conceiving of it as real in order to be disproven. However, some of the most fundamental and valuable beliefs people hold are not provable under this system. James says that to admit that these beliefs are not truly known is to admit that while they are valid beliefs, there is still a debate to be had. He argues that there are four key elements of rationality,which have valuable, but unknowable, factors. These are God, immortality, freedom, and moral duty. He deals with these four beliefs in later works.

William James was an American philosopher, psychologist, and physician. He was the first educator to teach psychology in the United States, and is often called the “father of American psychologists.” Considered one of the most influential philosophers of the nineteenth century, he is one of the major figures associated with pragmatism, as well as one of the founders of functional psychology. Deeply influential in the work of psychologists and philosophers who came after him, he was a prolific writer, best known for his 1890 textbook The Principles of Psychology, which is considered the founding text of the work and took James twelve years to complete. Much of his philosophical work focused on concepts of religion, spirituality, history, and emotion, as he placed those eternal concepts into a modern philosophical framework. He wrote hundreds of essays, papers, letters, and books in his lifetime, many of which are collected and still in print. He was a founder of the American Society for Psychical Research, and a prominent educator at Harvard University. Many of his works continued to be found, published, and studied after his death in 1910.