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William James

William James (1842–1910), brother of novelist Henry James, was a psychologist, physician, and philosopher. For William James, pragmatism was personal and pluralistic. His attention to the affective elements of experience, such as feelings of volition, intention, and personal identity, mark the breaking point from Peirce's version of pragmatism. James was always more the psychologist, Peirce the logician and mathematician. Author of numerous influential books and essays, James's popularizing of pragmatism gained both him and the movement great notoriety.

James's landmark The Principles of Psychology (1890) described consciousness as an activity of selection. This selection occurs within a "stream of consciousness" (a term coined in The Principles). James worked to make psychology a natural science, using human physiology and employing the scientific method.

Endeavoring, as a man of that type naturally would, to formulate what he so approved, he framed the theory that a conception, that is, the rational purport of a word or other expression, lies exclusively in its conceivable bearing upon the conduct of life; so that, since obviously nothing that might not result from the experiment can have any direct bearing upon conduct, if one can define accurately all the conceivable experimental phenomena which the affirmation or denial of a concept could imply, one will have therein a complete definition of the concept, and there is absolutely nothing more in it. For this doctrine he invented the name pragmatism.

SOURCE: Charles Sanders Peirce, "What Pragmatism Is" (1905)

It is astonishing to see how many philosophical disputes collapse into insignificance the moment you subject them to this simple test of tracing a concrete consequence. There can be no difference anywhere that doesn't make a difference elsewhere—no difference in abstract truth that doesn't express itself in a difference in concrete fact and in conduct consequent upon that fact, imposed on somebody, somehow, somewhere and some-when. The whole function of philosophy ought to be to find out what definite difference it will make to you and me, at definite instants of our life, if this world-formula or that world-formula be the true one.

SOURCE: William James, "What Pragmatism Means" (1907).

In "The Will to Believe" (1897), James advocated a freedom of choice or belief when empirical evidence does not provide sufficient warrant to commit us to one belief or another, and when the situation presents us with a "forced, living, and momentous" decision. Here James employed the notion of selectivity he had earlier developed to describing the volitional function of consciousness.

In Pragmatism (1908) and Essays in Radical Empiricism (1912), James went on to develop a nondeterministic and nondualistic theory of knowledge. In these works, James advocated the notion of truth as the "cash value" of a proposition or belief. James called for a consideration of philosophical dilemmas in terms of the effects of their resolutions. If it benefits us to hold a particular belief, we should take those benefits into account when considering the advisability of adopting such a belief as true.

In addition to Peirce, James's influences include Charles Bernard Renouvier (1815–1903) and F. C. S. Schiller (1864–1937). For example, James's diary entry from April 30, 1870, addressed Renouvier's definition of free will as "the sustaining of a thought because I choose to when I might have other thoughts." James's response was to write, "My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will…I will assume for the present—until next year—that it is no illusion." And James worked with Schiller to establish pragmatism as a form of humanism.

Perhaps the most important philosopher to benefit directly from James's work was American educator, psychologist, and public philosopher John Dewey.

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