Derek Sivers

Pragmatism - by William James

Pragmatism - by William James

ISBN: 0140437355
Date read: 2022-12-24
How strongly I recommend it: 8/10
(See my list of 320+ books, for more.)

Go to the Amazon page for details and reviews.

Transcript of lectures given at Harvard about the philosophy of Pragmatism. I especially liked his thoughts on pluralism vs monism. This made me want to read more of his writing. The 1800’s speaking style takes a bit of effort to parse.

my notes

He trusts his temperament.
He believes in any representation of the universe that suits it.
It loads the evidence for a more sentimental or a more hard-hearted view of the universe.

Few of us have a definite intellectual temperament.
We are a mixture of opposite ingredients, each one present very moderately.
We hardly know our own preferences in abstract matters.
Some of us are easily talked out of them, and end by following the fashion or taking up with the beliefs of the most impressive philosopher.

No one can live an hour without both facts and principles, so it is a difference of emphasis.

The world is one if you look at it in one way, but many if you look at it in another.
It is both one and many.
Pluralistic monism.

The evil of the parts is undeniable.
But the whole can’t be evil.
So practical pessimism may be combined with metaphysical optimism.

All abstractions have their use.

The pragmatic method is primarily a method of settling metaphysical disputes that otherwise might be interminable.
Is the world one or many? fated or free? material or spiritual?
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.
We ought to be able to show some practical difference that must follow from one side or the other’s being right.

Our beliefs are really rules for action.
To develop a thought’s meaning, we need only determine what conduct it is fitted to produce.

A pragmatist turns away from verbal solutions, from fixed principles, closed systems, and pretended absolutes.
He turns towards facts, towards action, and towards power.

Theories are instruments of the ways in which existing realities may be changed.
(Not answers to enigmas, in which we can rest.)

Ideas become true just in so far as they help us to get into satisfactory relation with other parts of our experience.

Purely objective truth, truth in whose establishment the function of giving human satisfaction in marrying previous parts of experience with newer parts played no role whatever, is nowhere to be found.
The reasons why we call things true is the reason why they are true.
To be true means only to perform this marriage-function.

Talk about truths in the plural, about their utility and satisfactoriness, about the success with which they work.

Objective truth must be something non-utilitarian, haughty, refined, remote, august, exalted.
It must be what we ought to think, unconditionally.
The conditioned ways in which we do think are so much irrelevance and matter for psychology.
An idea is ‘true’ so long as to believe it is profitable to our lives.
Truth is what would be better for us to believe.

Truth is one species of good, and not a category distinct from good.
The true is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief, and good, too, for definite, assignable reasons.
If there be any idea which, if believed in, would help us to lead that life, then it would be really better for us to believe in that idea.

If we practically did believe everything that made for good in our own personal lives, we should be found indulging all kinds of fancies about this world’s affairs, and all kinds of sentimental superstitions about a world hereafter.
Rationalism sticks to logic. Empiricism sticks to the external senses.
Pragmatism is willing to take anything, to follow either logic or the senses, and will count mystical experiences if they have practical consequences. Its only test of probable truth is what works best.
If theological ideas should do this - if the notion of God should prove to do it - how could pragmatism possibly deny God’s existence? Don't treat as ‘not true’ a notion that was pragmatically so successful.

What practical difference can it make now that the world should be run by matter or by spirit?
The pragmatist must consequently say that the two theories mean exactly the same thing, and that the dispute is purely verbal.

The need for an eternal moral order is one of the deepest needs.

The mind with the shortest views is simply the mind of the more shallow man.

Theologians' evidence for God lies primarily in inner personal experiences.

“My shoes are evidently designed to fit my feet, hence it is impossible that they should have been produced by machinery.”
We know that they are both: they are made by a machinery itself designed to fit the feet with shoes.

Determinists say that individual men originate nothing, but merely transmit to the future the whole push of the past cosmos.

God is something august and exalted above facts.

If you know whether a man is a decided monist or a decided pluralist, you perhaps know more about the rest of his opinions than if you give him any other name ending in -ist.
To believe in the one or in the many, that is the classification with the maximum number of consequences.

Philosophy has often been defined as the quest or the vision of the world’s unity.
But how about the variety?
Reality’s diversities are as important as understanding their connexion.

When a young man first conceives the notion that the whole world forms one great fact, with all its parts moving abreast, he feels as if he were enjoying a great insight.
The monistic insight is so vague.
Abstract monism, emotional response to the character of oneness, as if it were a feature of the world.
Of course the world is one, we say. How else could it be a world at all?
Thus the pragmatic question ‘What is the oneness known-as? What practical difference will it make?’ saves us from all feverish excitement over it as a principle of sublimity and carries us forward into the stream of experience with a cool head.

The ultra-monistic way of thinking means a great deal to many minds.
“One Life, One Truth, One Love, One Principle, One Good, One God”
This monistic music elevates and reassures.
The word ‘one’ contributes to the value as much as the other words.
It draws its strength far less from intellectual than from mystical grounds.
Mystical states of mind make for the monistic view.
We all have at least the germ of mysticism in us.
This mystical germ wakes up in us on hearing the monistic utterances, acknowledges their authority, and assigns to intellectual considerations a secondary place.

Such a confession of faith has pragmatically an emotional value.

Separation is not simply overcome by the One, it is denied to exist. There is no many.

Pluralism is satisfied with any separation among things, however minute, and will allow you any amount, however great, of real union.
Monism is shattered by slightest suspicion of pluralism, the minutest wiggle of independence of any one of its parts from the control of the totality.

Absolute oneness is a hypothesis of an omniscient knower who sees all things without exception as forming one single systematic fact.
The actual world, instead of being eternally complete, is eternally incomplete, at all times subject to addition or liable to loss.
Our knowledge is incomplete at present and subject to addition.
The world does genuinely change and grow.

Knowledge never grows all over: some old knowledge always remains what it was.
While these special ideas are being added, the rest of your knowledge stands still.
Only gradually will you ‘line up’ your previous opinions with new novelties.
We patch and tinker more than we renew. The novelty soaks in.
New truths are the resultant of new experiences and of old truths combined and mutually modifying one another.

In primitive times men believed whatever they thought. They mixed their dreams with their realities.
Instead of being realities we now call certain experiences only thoughts.

‘Things’ do exist, even when we do not see them.
Their ‘kinds’ also exist.
Their ‘qualities’ are what they act by, and are what we act on; and these also exist.

‘Things,’ what are they? Is a constellation properly a thing? an army? justice?
Is a knife whose handle and blade are changed the ‘same’?
The moment you pass beyond the practical to a merely curious or speculative way of thinking, you find it impossible to say within just what limits of fact any one of them shall apply.

With science naive realism ceases: Secondary qualities become unreal; primary ones alone remain.
With critical philosophy, havoc is made of everything. The common-sense categories one and all cease to represent anything in the way of BEING; they are but sublime tricks of human thought, our ways of escaping bewilderment.

Science opened an entirely unexpected range of practical utilities: accurate clocks, new medicines.
Our logic can deduce then bring about the conditions, and presto, the consequence is there before our eyes.
Scientific ways of thinking vastly exceeds the scope of the old control grounded on common sense.
If common sense were true, why should science have had to brand the secondary qualities as false, and to invent an invisible world of points and curves and mathematical equations instead?

Locke, Hume, Berkeley, Kant, Hegel, have all been utterly sterile, so far as shedding any light on the details of nature goes, and I can think of no invention or discovery that can be directly traced to anything in their peculiar thought.
The satisfactions they yield to their disciples are intellectual, not practical.

Common sense is better for one sphere of life, science for another, philosophic criticism for a third; but neither is truer.
Don't compare these types of thinking, with a view to telling which is the more absolutely true.

In the philosophy of science favored by such men as Mach, Ostwald and Duhem. According to these teachers no hypothesis is truer than any other in the sense of being a more literal copy of reality. They are all but ways of talking on our part, to be compared solely from the point of view of their use. The only literally true thing is reality.

Common sense is only a collection of extraordinarily successful hypotheses by our forefathers.
Retain suspicion about common sense.

Various types of thinking, each so splendid for certain purposes, yet all conflicting still, and neither one of them able to support a claim of absolute veracity.
Ought to awaken the pragmatistic view that all our theories are instrumental, are mental modes of adaptation to reality, rather than revelations or gnostic answers.

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?

True ideas are those that we can assimilate, validate, corroborate and verify.
False ideas are those that we cannot.
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.
The words verification and validation signify certain practical consequences.

We live in a world of realities that can be infinitely useful or infinitely harmful.

If I am lost in the woods and starved, and find what looks like a cow-path, it is of the utmost importance that I should think of a human habitation at the end of it, for if I do so and follow it, I save myself.
The true thought is useful here because the house which is its object is useful.
The practical value of true ideas is thus primarily derived from the practical importance of their objects to us.
Objects are not important at all times.
I may on another occasion have no use for the house; and then my idea of it, however verifiable, will be practically irrelevant.

You can say of it then either that ‘it is useful because it is true’ or that ‘it is true because it is useful.’
Both these phrases mean exactly the same thing,

True is the name for whatever idea starts the verification-process.
Useful is the name for its completed function in experience.

Where circumstantial evidence is sufficient, we can go without eye-witnessing.
Just as we here assume Japan to exist without ever having been there, because it works to do so, everything we know conspiring with the belief, and nothing interfering.
We are so sure that verification is possible that we omit it.

Truth lives on a credit system.
Our thoughts and beliefs pass, so long as nothing challenges them, just as bank-notes pass so long as nobody refuses them.
The fabric of truth collapses like a financial system with no cash-basis.
You accept my verification of one thing, I yours of another. We trade on each other’s truth.
But beliefs verified concretely by somebody are the posts of the whole superstructure.

A great reason - beside economy of time - for waiving complete verification is that all things exist in kinds.
Once directly verified our ideas about one specimen of a kind, we consider ourselves free to apply them to other specimens without verification.
Without pausing to verify, it will be ‘true’ in 99 out of 100 emergencies, proved so by its conduct fitting everything it meets, and getting no refutation.

Relations among purely mental ideas:
Your principles will everlastingly apply to it.
It is but a case of ascertaining the kind, and then applying the law of its kind to the particular object. You are sure to get truth if you can but name the kind rightly, for your mental relations hold good of everything of that kind without exception.
If you then, nevertheless, failed to get truth concretely, you would say that you had classed your real objects wrongly.

Any idea that helps us to deal with reality fits - and adapts our life to the reality’s whole setting.

Names are just as ‘true’ or ‘false’ as definite mental pictures are.
All human thinking gets discursified; we exchange ideas; we lend and borrow verifications, get them from one another by means of social intercourse.
All truth thus gets verbally built out, stored up, and made available for everyone.
Hence, we must talk consistently just as we must think consistently: for both in talk and thought we deal with kinds.
Names are arbitrary, but once understood they must be kept to.

Sometimes alternative theoretic formulas are equally compatible with all the truths we know.
Then we choose between them for subjective reasons.

Our account of truth is an account of truths in the plural, of processes of guiding us into or towards some part of a system.

Truth is made, just as health, wealth and strength are made, in the course of experience.

Ideas work better by their indirect or possible than by their direct and actual verification.

The ‘absolutely’ true means what no farther experience will ever alter.

We have to live today by what truth we can get today, and be ready tomorrow to call it falsehood.
Ptolemaic astronomy, euclidean space, aristotelian logic, scholastic metaphysics, were expedient for centuries, but human experience has boiled over those limits, and we now call these things only relatively true, or true within those borders of experience.
The present sheds a backward light on the world’s previous processes. They may have been truth-processes for the actors in them. They are not so for one who knows the later revelations of the story.

Concreteness of fact:
Facts themselves meanwhile are not true. They simply are.
Truth is the function of the beliefs that start and terminate among them.

Truth is that which ought to be ascertained and recognized.

Untrue beliefs work as perniciously in the long run as true beliefs work beneficially.

Concrete truths in the plural need be recognized only when their recognition is expedient.
A truth must always be preferred to a falsehood when both relate to the situation.
But when neither does, truth is as little of a duty as falsehood.

If anyone imagines that this law is lax, let him keep its commandment one day.

All the great single-word answers to the world’s riddle - such as God, the One, Reason, Law, Spirit, Matter, Nature, Polarity, Idea, Self - draw admiration.
“In everything - in science, art, morals and religion - there must be one system that is right and every other wrong.”
How characteristic of the enthusiasm of a certain stage of youth!

The whole notion of the truth is an abstraction from the fact of truths in the plural.
A mere useful summarizing phrase like “the law”.

Truth grafts itself on previous truth, modifying it in the process, just as idiom grafts itself on previous idiom, and law on previous law.
Given previous law and a novel case, the judge will twist them into fresh law.
Previous truth; fresh facts: our mind finds a new truth.

Our rights, wrongs, prohibitions, penalties, words, forms, idioms, beliefs, are so many new creations that add themselves as fast as history proceeds.
These things make themselves as we go.
The world is what we make of it.

We can learn the limits of the plasticity only by trying.
Start as if it were wholly plastic, acting methodically on that assumption, and stop only when decisively rebuked.

We read the same facts differently.
Waterloo spells a victory for an Englishman; for a Frenchman it spells a defeat.
For an optimist philosopher the universe spells victory, for a pessimist, defeat.

Reality independent of human thinking is very hard to find.