Monday, 19 March 2012 07:49

William James: Men of Ideas

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William James (1842-1910) was an American medical doctor, psychologist and philosopher. He is credited with starting the first department of psychology at an American university, Harvard University.  He wrote a well received book on psychology called the Principles of psychology.

At some point James claimed to have had what he called mystical experience and wrote a book on The Varieties of Religious Experience. In that book he pointed out that the essence of religion is mystical experience, the sense of oneness with God, rather than the formalities of religion. Folk go to Church and go through certain ceremonial motions but that is not the essence of religion. The founders of the various religions, at one point or another, had profound spiritual experiences that convinced them that God existed, that life is eternal  and the whole belief in the idea of God is not just hooky poky conjured up by the clergy to screw  the people who insist on believing in superstitious concepts.  What James was really saying was that there is something to religion beyond the rituals folk go through every Sunday and that it ought to be tolerated.

James did not really say any thing new in his philosophy; instead, he articulated the American approach to living; he put in writing what Americans do.

Europeans have the time and luxury to write abstract philosophies, philosophies that apparently have little or no relevance to how men and women actually live their daily lives here unearth. In America, European men and women have a virgin continent to conquer, tame and transform into a new European like civilization. They are busy and do not have the time to sit idly contemplating their navels, as European philosophers apparently do. Instead, Americans needed a simple, practical, pragmatic philosophy that told them how to adapt to their new world and yet have a sense that there is something beyond physical existence.

Human beings, apparently, have a need to believe in God and the after death life. Religion gives people notions on God and life after death. It really does not matter whether what religion says about God, heaven and hell is true or not, what matters is that people seem to need to hear such message; apparently, it makes them have a sense of purpose and meaning in their lives.

Religion, James believes, is useful in people’s lives. But that religion ought to be simple and practical and not get lost in elaborate theologies that pretend to know what it is talking about since no one really knows whether God exists or not, whether there is life after death or not.  James argues for a pragmatic philosophy and religion that serves people desires to have hope in their lives.

James does not see any use for Americans for European styled theologies and philosophies that take years to study, and after such protracted studies one is still where one began, not knowing anything about God, life after death, the meaning of existence for certain.

From James perspective true beliefs are those that are useful to folk in the here and now world.  James asserts that we do not know what the truth is but in this world what is true is that which is useful for people.

Consider empiricism and non-empiricism. European philosophers like David Hume wrote hundreds of pages trying to convince themselves that radical empiricism is the way to go. Okay. Is that how the average man lives his life?

The average human being wants to believe that there is spirit, God, and that there is more to his life than meets the physical yes. People want to believe that their lives are more than matter.

If the average person were to lose belief in God the chances are that he would lose hope and becomes depressed and unproductive. So why insist that he become an atheistic empiricist?  What use is that philosophy to him especially since you really do not know whether god excites or not.

So, why not teach him to be empirical in his approach to matter but retain his beliefs in god, the non empirical?  What is the harm in doing that?

In this world, as we know it, human beings are actors; they perceive their world and they affect their world. People do affect the world they perceive, yet that world has an independent quality that people cannot change.  James observes that the world is independent of human wishes and at the same time recognizes that people do influence their world.

As James sees it, radical empiricism, such as David Hume’s, is school boy abstract thinking; real people combine empiricism with acceptance of the unknown reality in their lives.

A belief, be it in radical empiricism or religion ought to have value for the believer, ought to have utility and ought to have cash value. Show me the utility for real people of an idea before you ask them to embrace it. This is quintessential American pragmatic approach to phenomena; America has a continent to transform into civilized living and have no time to waste on worthless ivory tower insistence on abstract truth.

Do not waste my time talking abstract stuff, show me how I can make a living with it; show me how it enables me survive on this impersonal world we live on.

Some religious beliefs are expedient and some scientific beliefs are expedient to us; we need to take those beliefs that are expedient and junk the rest.

James had a knack for cutting through the bullshit and getting to what is useful in intellectual discourse. Consider the debate that sociologists fill their writings with. They wonder whether change is brought about by social and historical forces or by individuals. Do heroes play a role in history or are they just the products of social and historical forces.

Marxist sociologists insist that social and economic forces are responsible for what folks do, that the individual is a pawn of his environment and the history of the time he lived. In this light, Adolf Hitler was produced by the configurations of circumstances in the post first world war world: the defeat of Germany in that war, Germany’s humiliation by the treaty of Versailles that required Germany to pay indemnities to the victors and restrict her armed services to a few thousands hence making her a third rate power, the collapse of the German economy and so on. These social forces produced Hitler, without them there would have been no Hitler; the idea of the hero single handedly changing history is nonsense.

But James asks: why did the same social-historical forces, the same circumstances not make other people an Adolf Hitler? Could it be that there was something unique in Hitler’s personality that made him respond to the circumstances he found himself in the manner he did?

Could it be that what we have is an interactional situation, personality and circumstances, that there are really heroes who change history who nevertheless are the product of history?   James combines the idea of heroes and the idea of historical forces determining events in response to the debate on the role of heroes in history.

Of course, James approach is eminently more rational. The either or approach to phenomena is a school boy approach; in the real world a combination of factors, some known, others unknown, produce social events.

As already noted William James wrote useful stuff on psychology, especially on human emotions. But this is not the place to review his psychology; we are at the present interested in his philosophy.

In conclusion, we can, unequivocally, say that James was eminently rational and adult in his approach to phenomena. European philosophers, such as Kant, Hegel, Hume etc give one the impression that they are not adults, that they are school boys engaged in talking abstract nonsense; school boys who, if left alone, cannot support themselves and would die from starvation; school boys who need universities, that is, those who fund the universities, to materially support them and give them the opportunity to talk rot rather than seek ways to do what it takes to adapt to the exigencies of this world.

James sought what works, what enables folk to adapt to the real world they live on. His pragmatism is an adult philosophy.

However, like every good thing there is a down side to James pragmatism. Pragmatism could denigrate to amoral and unprincipled behavior. It is not always good to only emphasize what works; sometimes we must ask what is right?  For example, if one emphasized pragmatism alone, it works to have slaves but is it right to have slaves?  To ask whether it is right or not to have slaves takes one to abstract, theological and philosophical discourse. America’s pragmatism often degenerates to insensitivity to what is moral and right. That is the shortcomings of pragmatism.

Every good idea has its problems. Insisting on doing what is right and moral has its own set of problems, just as being pragmatic has its problems. That is the nature of the complex world we live in. The adult thing to do is seek a middle ground; either or, black or white philosophies do not cut it in this complex world.


William James. Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. (1907)

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Ozodi Osuji Ph.D

Ozodi Thomas Osuji is from Imo State, Nigeria. He obtained his PhD from UCLA. He taught at a couple of Universities and decided to go back to school and study psychology. Thereafter, he worked in the mental health field and was the Executive Director of two mental health agencies. He subsequently left the mental health environment with the goal of being less influenced by others perspectives, so as to be able to think for himself and synthesize Western, Asian and African perspectives on phenomena. Dr Osuji’s goal is to provide us with a unique perspective, one that is not strictly Western or African but a synthesis of both. Dr Osuji teaches, writes and consults on leadership, management, politics, psychology and religions. Dr Osuji is married and has three children; he lives at Anchorage, Alaska, USA.

He can be reached at: (907) 310-8176