My understanding of William James…

In my lifetime, I’ve had a few people call me pragmatic and for me the word just seems to have a negative sound to it. I’ve looked it up a few times but there were a couple different ways that the word was used. So, when I came across this book by William James and read the introduction it was explained that there was a big difference between the pragmatism that you may see in a newspaper article versus the original pragmatism or the philosophic pragmatism. I personally thought it was very interesting. This interest has prompted me to do something a little different this time around and maybe for all books going forward. For some of the books I’ve read in the past I have made a few comments or simply put up quotes, but I’m trying something a little new this time around. I am going to take what stood out to me and my understanding of the book and try to make it succinct or simple. I hope as with all I do that it’s useful to someone.


Everybody has a philosophy, for most of us it’s just our “dumb sense of what life honestly and deeply means.” Philosophy is at once important and unimportant, it can for instance give us courage to deal with situations we face, but as he says, philosophy “bakes no bread”. Philosophers just like lay-people have temperaments and biases, they harbor contradictions and ride bandwagons, and they don’t always fix contradictions. Sometimes they simply live in the moment with whatever partial philosophy works for the current situation. This may be in part because few people ever find a complete philosophy that suits their temperament. In looking for a philosophy, we often want one that meshes with our previous beliefs and truths and points us to a clear end result. James also says philosophy should be about finding definite differences for definite instances in our life and pragmatism, in particular, is only concerned with an argument when there are practical differences that arise from each option.

William James mentions how despite the popularity of the empirical stance, we still hold onto religion and even make a religion out of science. He says some hold onto faith because the future looks bleak. Some people believe nothing they do matters, that what will be, will be in the end; these people believe that this situation justifies a “moral holiday’. However, if we take a look at the world, whether nature or man-made elements, it does not seem apparent that there is one ultimate purpose. Everything works with or against other systems and purposes for it’s own purposes. Especially in humanity, unforeseen elements always change the purpose and either make it better or worse, but it’s always different and more complex than it’s original intent. James mentions that after an experience, who created the experience and what type of person they are, doesn’t change the experience itself and that could be said of the difference of beliefs between Theists and Atheists for instance. At the end of the day William James is like myself, he did not appreciate shallow optimism and believed, along with others, that it was in vogue in the early 1900’s.

The greatest enemy of one truth is the other truths we believe. “True ideas are those we can assimilate, validate, corroborate, and verify. False ideas are those that we cannot.” Truth is not inherent, it is made by verification and our body of knowledge and truth is grown gradually. Old knowledge is never uprooted and replaced in it’s entirety; it’s done piecemeal. New truths are typically new experiences mixed with old truths that combine and modify each other. Because truth is something we accumulate over time and have passed down from generation to generation, it’s safe to say some of our truths are very ancient.

We live in a world of realities that can be infinitely useful or infinitely harmful.” A bit of truth can save our life in one instant and that same piece of truth can be irrelevant in another moment. If we don’t have a stockpile of momentarily irrelevant truths, it can be the difference between life and death at many points in our lives. Now it only makes sense that we cannot experience and test every single truth we have. For that reason many of our truths we have not personally verified or cannot verify, but we trust someone else to have gotten the verification which makes it true. But truth has to be able to be verified by someone. Truth means that something is verified, the same way health, wealth, and strength are made in the course of experience. As humans we generalize and even pragmatically that makes sense. Truth doesn’t mean every instance has to be verified to be true, but simply that it can be verified or its “kind” has been. Now at the same time, truth can eventually change so “… we have to live today by what truth we can get today, and be ready tomorrow to call it falsehood.”

We can talk about things, name them rules, principles, or hypothesis, but the only reality is the flux of our sensations and emotions. We pay attention to some reality, ignore other parts, emphasize some things and downplay others. Reality can be seen in different ways. The word does not create the reality, the reality creates the need for the word. “Names are arbitrary, but once understood they must be kept to.” It doesn’t matter what something is called, as long as what is meant by it is understood or else there becomes confusion. For instance with wealth we know full it’s not an inherent quality someone has from birth, if anything it is something they may receive as an inheritance. With health, we tend to partially confuse it with an inherent quality, but your heart doesn’t beat rhythmically because you’re healthy, you healthy because of it beating rhythmically. With strength, even more so we confuse it with an inherent quality, for instance we assume all males are stronger than females naturally, but what if all children were treated as equals?

All words are the same, all are simply tools used to describe something that exists, has happened or is happening, among other things. We often speak as if these words we use are causes and not merely descriptors or terminology. One battle for instance can be seen as both a victory and a defeat by two different individuals but those are simply perceptions of the same event from different sides of the fight. Words can help us in different ways, such as to prepare us for possibilities and likelihood. Sometimes words simply mean that conditions exist which could bring it into reality and there is little likelihood of that which will prevent it. They are generalizations to assist us. For instance winter, it doesn’t get cold because it’s winter, it gets cold and therefore we call it winter. So to say winter is coming is a generalization meant to tell us we probably want to stop wearing shorts and flip-flops and get the boots and coats ready.

Everybody has a philosophy that they live by no matter how tattered and unkempt it is. It helps us make sense of the complexities of life, and religion can be a part of that philosophy or way of living. Whatever we consider truth affects our philosophy and our life. That truth is something that is verified by either ourselves or by someone else, not something that simply exists. That truth can also change so we must realize that the words we use do not dictate the reality it is reality that dictates the words. The words we use are simply there to help us communicate.

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