William James’s


A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking 


Abridged and freely adapted for modern readers
Larry Kincaid


Introduction to the Abridged Adaptation

The lectures upon which the following chapters are based, William James delivered at the Lowell Institute in Boston in November and December 1906, and at Columbia University , January 1907. The lectures were published unchanged in the spring of 1907.

In these lectures, James set out to define, describe, and defend the emerging approach to philosophy he himself in 1898 had named pragmatism. He soon came to dislike name because of its misleading connotations, but by 1907 he recognized that the name was so widely and commonly used by both professional and amateur philosophers that “apparently it is too late to change it.”

James was by far the most prominent early advocate of the “pragmatististic philosophy.” In fact, Ralph Barton Perry, a student of James’s, his biographer, and eventually a renowned philosopher himself, declared that pragmatism was “a new formulation of doctrines which he [James] had held for over thirty years.” (II, 452) But with characteristic modesty, James cited Charles Peirce (1839-1914) as the modern source of the movement. He also insisted that the rapid spread of the new point of view was not the work of one or two thinkers. Instead, it had “rather suddenly precipitated itself out of the air. A number of tendencies that have always existed in philosophy have all at once become conscious of themselves collectively, and of there combined mission.”

During the period 1895-1905, similar philosophical movements had suddenly emerged not just in the United States , but also in France , England , Germany , and Italy. James was gratified of course by the rapid spread of the movement. At the same time, he realized that the name had so quickly com to represent “so many different points of view” that both academic philosophers and the interested public found it all very confusing.

Thus James hoped his introductory series of lectures would achieve several goals. These included clarifying the aims and methods of pragmatism, refuting the misrepresentations and misunderstandings of pragmatism’s critics, alerting the larger world to the fact that a new philosophy was afoot, and converting sympathetic skeptics into adherents. Because James was, in addition to being an originator of pragmatism, also was the most famous philosopher in America , a very popular public lecturer, and a widely known and respected public intellectual, he seemed to be the ideal person to explain and unify the new doctrine, and rebuke its critics.

“I have sought to unify the picture as it presents itself to my own eyes,” he said in the preface to the published lectures, “dealing in broad strokes, and avoiding minute controversy. Much futile controversy might have been avoided, I believe, if our critics had been willing to wait until we got our message fairly out.”

Pragmatism was to be not only William James’s first, but also his only, coherent attempt to get this new philosophical “message fairly out,” and to announce that a long and profoundly English philosophical tradition had resulted in a new method of determining truth in the world.

Moreover, he was delighted with the result. To his friend Theodore Flournoy he excitedly wrote:

“I didn’t know, until I came to prepare these lectures, how full of power to found a ‘school’ and to become a ‘cause’ the pragmatistic idea was. But now I am aflame with it, as displacing all rationalistic systems—all systems, in fact, with rationalistic elements; and I mean to turn the lectures into a solid little cube of a book…which will, I am confident, make the pragmatic method appear…as the philosophy of the future. Every sane and sound tendency in life can be brought in under it.” (Perry, II, 452-453)

With just as much enthusiasm, William James wrote to his brother Henry that he had written a book that even he might enjoy. It is, he explained,

“a very ‘sincere’ and, from the point of view of ordinary philosophy-professorial manners, a very unconventional utterance, not particularly original at any one point, yet…with just that right amount squeak or shrillness in the voice that enables one book to tell , when others don’t, to supersede its brethren, and be treated later as ‘representative.’ I shouldn’t be surprise if f ten years hence it should be rated as ‘epoch making,’ for of the definitive triumph of that general way of thinking I can entertain no doubt whatever—I believe it to be something quite like the protestant reformation.” (William James to Henry James, Letters of William James , II, 279)

Table of Contents

Lecture I. The Present Dilemma in Philosophy

Lecture II. What Pragmatism Means 

Lecture III. Some Metaphysical Problems Pragmatically Considered

Lecture IV. The One and the Many 

Lecture V. Pragmatism and Common Sense

Lecture VI. Pragmatism’s Conception of Truth

Lecture VII. Pragmatism and Humanism 

Lecture VIII. Pragmatism and Religion

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