Durant 1926: Comment (William James)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter XI Section 2.4 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The  contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.

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II. WILLIAM JAMES

4. Comment

The reader needs no guide to the new and the old elements in this philosophy. It is part of the modern war between science and religion; another effort, like Kant’s and Bergson’s, to rescue faith from the universalized mechanics of materialism. Pragmatism has its roots in Kant’s “practical reason”; in Schopenhauer’s exaltation of the will; in Darwin’s notion that the fittest (and therefore also the fittest and truest idea) is that which survives; in utilitarianism, which measured all goods in terms of use; in the empirical and inductive traditions of English philosophy; and finally in the suggestions of the American scene.

James’ philosophy is another effort, like Kant’s and Bergson’s, to rescue faith from the universalized mechanics of materialism. 

Certainly, as everyone has pointed out, the manner, if not the substance, of James’s thinking was specifically and uniquely American. The American lust for movement and acquisition fills the sails of his style and thought, and gives them a buoyant and almost aerial motility. Huneker calls it “a philosophy for philistines,” and indeed there is something that smacks of salesmanship in it: James talks of God as of an article to be sold to a materialistically-minded consumer by every device of optimistic advertising; and he counsels us to believe as if he were recommending long-term jnvestments, with high dividends, in which there was nothing to lose, and all the (other) world to win. It was young America’s defense-reaction against European metaphysics and European science.

The manner of James’s thinking is specifically and uniquely American. The American lust for movement and acquisition fills the sails of his style and thought. Indeed there is something that smacks of salesmanship in it.

The new test of truth was of course an ancient one; and the honest philosopher described pragmatism modestly as “a new name for old ways of thinking.” If the new test means that truth is that which has been tried, by experience and experiment, the answer is, Of course. If it means that personal utility is a test of truth, the answer is, Of course not; personal utility is merely personal utility; only universal permanent utility would constitute truth. When some pragmatists speak of a belief having been true once because then useful (though now disproved), they utter nonsense learnedly; it was a useful error, not a truth. Pragmatism is correct only if it is a platitude.

Truth is that which has been tried, by experience and experiment. Only universal permanent utility would constitute truth. 

What James meant to do, however, was to dispel the cobwebs that had entangled philosophy; he wished to reiterate in a new and startling way the old English attitude towards theory and ideology. He was but carrying on the work of Bacon in turning the face of philosophy once more towards the inescapable world of things. He will be remembered for this empirical emphasis, this, new realism, rather than for his theory of truth; and he will be honored perhaps more as a psychologist than as a philosopher. He knew that he had found no solution for the old questions; he frankly admitted that he had expressed only another guess, another faith. On his desk, when he died, there lay a paper on which he had written his last, and perhaps his most characteristic, sentences: “There is no conclusion. What has concluded that we might conclude in regard to it? There are no fortunes to be told and there is no advice to be given. Farewell.”

James wished to reiterate in a new and startling way the old English attitude towards theory and ideology. He was but carrying on the work of Bacon in turning the face of philosophy once more towards the inescapable world of things. He knew that he had found no solution for the old questions.

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