Publication of James’s Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The publication of Pragmatism was a significant event for both the personal development of William James as a philosopher and the course of philosophy in the twentieth century.

Summary of Event

In November and December, 1906, William James delivered a series of lectures at the Lowell Institute in Boston that he repeated in January, 1907, at Columbia University in New York City. The lectures were later published without notes or any further explanation as Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. This volume marked the end of James’s development as a philosopher and the beginning of a significant departure in the history of philosophy in twentieth century America. Understanding the evolution of James’s thought is made complex by the fact that James developed his theory of radical empiricism in a series of essays written in 1904 and 1905; those essays were collected and published posthumously in 1912 as Essays in Radical Empiricism. Essays in Radical Empiricism (James, W.) As James observed in the preface to Pragmatism, however, no logical connection existed between the two concepts; the two ideas were independent of each other. Pragmatism (James, W.) Philosophy;pragmatism [kw]Publication of James’s Pragmatism (1907) [kw]James’s Pragmatism, Publication of (1907)[Jamess Pragmatism, Publication of (1907)] [kw]Pragmatism, Publication of James’s (1907) Pragmatism (James, W.) Philosophy;pragmatism [g]United States;1907: Publication of James’s Pragmatism[01850] [c]Publishing and journalism;1907: Publication of James’s Pragmatism[01850] [c]Philosophy;1907: Publication of James’s Pragmatism[01850] James, William

The subtitle of Pragmatism indicated that James believed that the pragmatic method was of long duration and that, in fact, many people used the method without recognizing it as an expression of philosophy. Truth, pragmatic style, grew out of all finite experience. It was what people had done in their daily lives for centuries.

Pragmatism was first presented to a nonprofessional audience as lectures and then as relaxed essays to popular or general readers. The book included eight lectures. Given and written in an informal style, the work was very much that of a singular individual, William James. In the first lecture, “The Present Dilemma in Philosophy,” James made his now-famous distinction between the “tender-minded” and the “tough-minded,” a distinction he traced to arguments between the rationalists and the empiricists. This distinction was vital to James’s presentations, as he believed that every individual is a philosopher whose creed often reflects the whims of individual temperament.

“What Pragmatism Means” was the next lecture. With his usual gracious manner, James, with strong figures of speech and commonplace examples, described pragmatism as a method that can satisfy the rationalists and empiricists by its modest claim that a test of reality is possible using the pragmatic method. Belief and acting on a particular belief were key elements in defining pragmatism. Because this belief had a religious element in James’s world, the following lecture, “Some Metaphysical Problems Pragmatically Considered,” dealt with that element; in the lecture, James rejected the argument that the existence of God can be perceived in the design of the universe. The evidence for God’s existence, James argued, is in inner and personal experiences.

James’s fourth lecture, “The One and the Many,” discussed how philosophy has historically expressed a desire for both unity and totality. The varied answers were unsatisfactory to James. Pragmatism is not a gnostic enterprise, James maintained in his fifth lecture, “Pragmatism and Common Sense.” James’s point was a historical one. From their earliest history, he maintained, humans had developed the pragmatic method; the survival of the earliest humans depended on their using knowledge of the past in conjunction with their own immediate experience. When the two elements were joined, common sense (or wisdom) was achieved.

As he explained in his next lecture, “Pragmatism’s Conception of Truth,” truth is expedient thinking that grows over time and with increased experience. Ideas that can be assimilated, validated, corroborated, and verified are true; false ideas cannot be used in such a manner.

James made quite clear in his next-to-last lecture, “Pragmatism and Humanism,” that an absolutely independent reality is difficult to find. People create reality. Ideas arrived at through individual and collective experience create reality against the backdrop of a morally indifferent nature. Once again, pragmatism offered a middle way between rationalism and empiricism.

In his eighth and last lecture, “Pragmatism and Religion,” James returned to a concern, religious belief, that had provoked him throughout his career. His final evaluation was that pragmatism offers a solution to religious dilemmas, because people may create reality. He ended his presentation where he began it, with concluding remarks about tender-minded and tough-minded approaches to religion. Yet pragmatism came from a culture of science that offered the ideal of freedom as combined with the notion of American achievement. Despite the emergence of other philosophical positions, pragmatism endured because it was modern in its appeal to science and old in that it was the method that led to material success in the United States.


The publication of Pragmatism was a major event for James as an individual philosopher and for the course of philosophy in the twentieth century. In an important sense, James had prepared all of his life for the book to appear.

James was born in New York City in 1842 to Mary and Henry James, Sr., well-to-do and somewhat eccentric parents. The family fortune was a gift of William’s grandfather, who had made wise investments in the Erie Canal. In time, the family included three brothers, one of whom was the famous novelist Henry James. The final child was Alice James, whose health problems, real and imagined, limited her life experiences; she did, however, keep a first-rate journal.

William’s formal education was irregular, but through his father he visited with many of the outstanding writers and artists of the day. Henry James, Sr., encouraged William to find himself; therefore, any interest that the young boy expressed was encouraged by his father, who at the same time warned William not to close out any other possibilities. The results were mixed. After attending many private schools in both the United States and Europe, William studied painting, but, determining that he had only mediocre talents, he quit and turned to science.





By 1861, he was a member of the Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard University. After studying chemistry, comparative anatomy, and physiology, he transferred to the medical school, from which he graduated in 1869. He never practiced medicine, however. He then toured the Amazon basin with a scientific expedition; his eyes were weakened by the experience. He subsequently lived for a time in Germany, studying experimental physiology. After bouts of illness and retirement, William began teaching physiology and anatomy at Harvard in 1873. His teaching included psychology and, by 1879, philosophy.

His twin interests in science and religious matters guided James toward a career as professor of philosophy. His religious interest, however, was much more vital and bore directly on James’s philosophy and life experience. The issues of free will and religious monism shaped his thoughts; after contemplating suicide, James decided, as an act of the will, to believe in free will. In a real sense, James’s pragmatism was thus born.

His marriage in 1878 to Alice Howe Gibbens was very successful. He was a happy man—a productive scholar and a first-rate teacher. He published his masterpiece The Principles of Psychology Principles of Psychology, The (James, W.) in 1890. In 1902, he published The Varieties of Religious Experience. Varieties of Religious Experience, The (James, W.) His last book was A Pluralistic Universe (1909), Pluralistic Universe, A (James, W.) published a year before his death and based on a series of lectures given at the University of Oxford.

Whereas James’s philosophy fulfilled a personal need, over the course of the twentieth century Pragmatism played a key role in several areas. In the area of reform politics, the midcentury American educator John Dewey Dewey, John directly used James’s ideas in the construction of his creed of instrumentalism. Philosophy;instrumentalism It is not an exaggeration to state that the ideas of pragmatism expressed the essence of progressivism and other twentieth century democratic creeds. Dewey’s instrumentalism was a secular, social, and reform adaptation of James’s pragmatism. It is interesting to note that James came to construct his philosophy through the study of Immanuel Kant, whereas Dewey began his philosophical journeys with the study of Georg Hegel.

Politicians of the twentieth century often misrepresented their own opportunism as expressions of tough-minded pragmatism. Italy’s Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, for example, invoked James’s philosophy in seeking out intellectual support for his policies. During U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, a camp for the government-sponsored self-help organization the Civilian Conservation Corps was named after James; this second example of the political use of James’s prestige, however, was much closer to the spirit of the philosopher’s thought.

Pragmatism’s relationship to formal philosophical developments was more complex. James was an “antifoundational” thinker; he rejected René Descartes’s effort to place philosophy on the same secure basis as mathematics. It is not unusual for more recent philosophers to be antifoundationalist and anti-Cartesian, largely because James and his early associates Chauncey Wright and Charles Sanders Peirce successfully challenged claims for philosophical certitude. The acceptance of this position meant that James’s thought led to the boundaries of existentialism, but without the atmosphere of individual and cultural despair associated with that philosophical position.

During the 1930’s and the 1940’s, pragmatism was thought of as a protopositivism, anticipatory of the logical positivism that flourished in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Although this interpretation was in fact an incorrect historical analysis, it did indicate the degree to which some scholars believed that pragmatism had affected later philosophical developments.

Finally, James’s Pragmatism continued a de facto tradition of idealism in American thought, accepting the truths of science and harmonizing them with religious sentiment in an effort to create a better life and creed. Supported by science and religion, James’s creed solved issues of long metaphysical concern and helped countless people to handle the immediate task of living day to day. Pragmatism (James, W.) Philosophy;pragmatism

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Allen, Gay Wilson. William James: A Biography. New York: Viking Press, 1967. A first-rate biography with an emphasis on James’s travels. Offers little in interpretation, but the factual content is valuable.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barzun, Jacques. A Stroll with William James. 1983. Reprint. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. An interesting account of how James influenced the life of a leading historian. Barzun stresses James’s humanity and how James’s pragmatism was the product of a fully realized human being.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Feinstein, Howard M. Becoming William James. 1983. Reprint. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2000. An analysis of how James overcame his many psychological problems and concerns to become a mature and engaging human being. Rich in detail, this psychobiography connects James’s life experiences to the creation of his books and philosophy. Where the Allen book explores the “outer” James, this volume maps the “inner” James.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">James, William. Writings, 1902-1910. Edited by Bruce Kuklick. New York: Viking Press, 1987. This fine edited volume of James’s writings for the last eight years of his life includes the complete text of Pragmatism along with A Pluralistic Universe and other occasional pieces. A good starting point for understanding James’s ideas.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kloppenberg, James T. Uncertain Victory: Social Democracy and Progressivism in European and American Thought, 1870-1920. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. The best general history of the ideas of the period. Provides a meaningful context for pragmatism and an explanation of how and why the philosophy came into being. Provides good historical reasons pragmatism was destined to be the creed underlying much American reform.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kuklick, Bruce. The Rise of American Philosophy: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1860-1930. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989. This history of the Harvard University Department of Philosophy reveals how James came to be a professional philosopher and what his legacies were to the school. A rich account of James and his contemporaries; basic to any understanding of James and his world.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lewis, R. W. B. The Jameses. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991. A massive achievement, this book is a full treatment of the James family. Reveals how the individual members related to one another and how they turned their family experiences into the literary, artistic, and philosophical products of their adult years. A balanced treatment of this remarkable group of people.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marcell, David W. Progress and Pragmatism. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1974. Traces the impact and consequences of pragmatism on the thought of various reformers and reforms. The creed was often an American expression of the idea of progress. This book clearly illustrates how pragmatism was in the American grain. A clear statement about the importance of pragmatism in the history of ideas.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Myers, Gerald E. William James: His Life and Thought. 1986. Reprint. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001. With a fine balance between biographical description and textual analysis, this work presents the whole man in all of his achievements. Some readers might quarrel with some of Myers’s observations, but this book is one of the best single-volume biographies of James written in the past fifty years. An invaluable source for understanding James as man and philosopher.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Simon, Linda. Genuine Reality: A Life of William James. Orlando, Fla.: Harcourt, 1998. One of few full-scale biographies of James. Covers the principal events and relationships in James’s life, including his travels, the influences of his family, and his contributions to philosophy. Includes bibliography and index.

James Proposes a Rational Basis for Religious Experience

Dewey Applies Pragmatism to Education

Categories: History