Rethinking Pragmatism From William James to Contemporary Philosophy

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About Pragmatism, Pluralism, beliefs. A discussion about the different lectures of W. James.
I'm interested in the formation of beliefs and how they function.


We live forwards, a Danish thinker has said, but we understand backwards.

Pragmatism has been called the only true American philosophy, and its original proponents Peirce, James, and Dewey were among the best and the brightest.

Background Themes

Although James maintained that Peirce was the founder of pragmatism, it was James who first popularized the idea. Peirce himself claimed to find intimations of pragmatic thinking as far back as Socrates.
The subtitle of Pragmatism is “A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking.”
Dewey carried the movement forward and brought it to the attention of an even wider audience than Peirce and James had.
Of all the nineteenth-century scientific discoveries, Darwin’s theory of evolution probably had the most impact on pragmatic thinking.

the skilled speaker is one who has developed linguistic habits that allow for effortless comprehension and use. Tennis-playing competence is another example. Novice tennis players have to pause and contemplate their every move. Skilled players are not so inhibited; their actions are guided by well- honed habit. They do not require step-by-step monitoring.
Beliefs, too, are to be understood as habits, cognitive habits that play a central, pervasive role in the economy of our thought and action. They allow us to confront the world efficiently and in a timely manner. Having a stock of settled beliefs means that we need not continually think through what we do before acting, and we are better off for it.

Dewey presciently argued that it is not possible to explain action without taking into account the meanings the stimulus and response have for the subject.

ed his monumental two-volume The Principles of Psychology in 1890: James explores in detail the underlying physical substrate and the experiential manifestations of belief and other mental states.

1 - The Place of Values in Inquiry (Lecture I)

James believes that questions about the meaning of life and one’s place in the order of things are troubling and on the minds of many thoughtful people.
He says the primary purpose of his lectures is to explore “what life honestly and deeply means”
James then argues that answers to these important existential questions are influenced by an indi- vidual’s philosophy.

James calls the factors that characterize a philosophy “temperaments.” People of different temperaments have different philosophies that signifi- cantly influence which among competing theories and hypotheses they find convincing.

James, along with the other Pragmatists, maintains that, strictly speak- ing, cognitive actions that are fully under the control of habit are not episodes of thinking. When all goes well we have no need to question belief habits that “prevail stably in the mind.” Thinking occurs when available habitual responses are not satisfactory for coping with a problem. Then it is necessary to deliberate, search for, and adopt a solution that can relieve the pressure.

James offers two lists of contrasting temperamental factors that he thinks exert significant force on inquiry.

The Tender-Minded:

The Tough-Minded:

People come in all combinations and degrees of the factors listed, and it could be that no actual person manifests all the symptoms cited in characterizing either of the two types.

When rationalism is pursued too robustly it ends in an untenable Idealism. When empiricism is pushed too far it ends in untenable materialism.

On the whole, James along with his fellow Pragmatists look more favorably on the empiricists. The rational- ist outlook encourages people to think that it is possible to gain knowledge merely by reflecting on ideas and concepts.
The Pragmatists argue that it is not possible to acquire knowledge by these means. They are convinced that the experimental method has proved to be the most successful and most promising way to acquire knowledge. Therefore inquiry must be grounded in experience as the empiricists insist.

2 - The Pragmatic Maxim and Pragmatic Instrumentalism (Lecture II)

Pragmatism is not a body of beliefs. It is a method for analyzing the content and significance of beliefs. More broadly, pragmatism seeks to provide an account of the nature of and warrant of those beliefs that flow from the practices of sound inquiry.
The role of belief is to inform us of future experiences to expect and to prepare us to react cognitively and behaviorally in appropriate ways.