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Papers on William James and American Pragmatism

"William James", in Misak, (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of American Philosophy, New York: Oxford University Press, October 2008. (PDF)


Abstract: A general, if opinionated, introduction to William James's philosophy.

“James, Intentionality and Analysis” Oxford Handbook of William James, (forthcoming) (online DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199395699.013.13) (PDF)


Abstract: William James was always gripped by the problem of intentionality (or “knowing”), that is, of how our thoughts come to be about the world.  Nevertheless, coming up with a sympathetic reading of James’s account requires appreciating that James’s approach to analyzing a phenomenon is very different from that which most contmporary philosophers have found natural.  In particular, rather than trying to give necessary and sufficient conditions for a thought’s being about an object, James presented an account of intentionality that focused on certain core cases (particularly those where we actually see or handle the objects of our thoughts), and explained the extension of our “knowing” talk to other cases (objects and events in the past, unobservables, etc.) in terms of various pragmatically relevant relations that can be found between those cases and the ‘core’.  Once this account of intentionality is in place, a number of features of James’s approach to Truth come into clearer focus, and can seem less problematic than they would if one presupposed a more traditional account of intentionality and analysis.

“James’s Pragmatic Maxim and the ‘Elasticity’ of Meaning” in Marchetti (ed). The Jamesian Mind.  Routledge (forthcoming). (online DOI: 10.4324/9780429029639-27) (PDF)


Abstract: To the extent that William James had an account of ‘meaning,’ it is best captured in his “pragmatic maxim”, but James’s maxim has notoriously been open to many conflicting interpretations.   It will be argued here that some of these interpretive difficulties stem from the fact that (1) James seriously understates the differences between his own views and those presented by Peirce in “How to Make our Ideas Clear”, and (2) James’s understanding of the maxim typically ties meaning to truth, but since James takes “truth” talk to stretch from “temporary” to “absolute” truth, a similar ‘elasticity’ can be found in his conception of meaning.  However, this ‘elasticity’ is found in our everyday talk of meaning as well, and James manages to capture it in a more cohesive way than more contemporary accounts that often try to do so by positing two completely distinct types of meaning or content.

"William James on Moral Philosophy and its Regulative Ideals", William James Studies, Vol 15, No. 2, Fall 2019, pp. 1-25. (URL)


Abstract:James’s “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life” sheds light not only on his views on ethics but also on his general approach to objectivity. Indeed, the paper is most interesting not for the ethical theory it defends but for its general openness to the possibility of our ethical claims lacking objective truth conditions at all. James will turn out to have a very demanding account of what it would take to construct something like objective ethical norms out of more naturalistically respectable material such as our evaluative practices, but in doing so, he also faces up to the possibility that this objectivity is something we may fail to achieve. This comparatively pessimistic prospect in turn explains his surprising pivot toward the divine at the end of the “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life” (MPML) James’s appeal to the divine is characteristically idiosyncratic, however, and this paper will attempt to explain how it fits in with the more generally naturalistic framework that dominates the rest of the paper.

“Putnam, James, and ‘Absolute’ Truth”, European Journal of Pragmatism and American Philosophy, XIII-2, 2021. (URL)


Abstract: While historians of pragmatism often present William James as the founder of the “subjectivist” wing of pragmatism that came back into prominence with the writings of Richard Rorty, Hilary Putnam has argued that James’s views are actually much closer to Peirce’s (and Putnam’s own). Putnam does so by noting that James distinguishes two sorts of truth: “temporary truth,” which is closer to a subjective notion of warranted assertibility, and “absolute truth,” which is closer to Peirce’s own comparatively objective notion of truth as what would be believed at some idealized end of inquiry. Putnam then argues that the temptation to read James as a precursor to Rorty requires privileging his talk of temporary truth, when, in fact, it was always absolute truth that was the primary sense of the term for James. This paper will argue that James’s views on truth are, in fact, much less tied to the absolute notion than Putnam suggests, and, indeed, that James’s account of the relations between our concepts and reality leave open the possibility that no claim of ours could ever be “absolutely” true, and thus that “temporary” truth would be all we could ever expect to have.   

“Pragmatism’s Family Feud: Peirce, James and the Spirit of 1872” in Aikin & Talisse (eds.) Routledge Handbook of Pragmatism, (forthcoming).  (PDF)


Abstract: While William James and Charles Sanders Peirce are considered the two fathers of American Pragmatism, Peircian Pragmatism is often being presented as the comparatively ‘objective’ alternative to metaphysical realism, with the Jamesian version being castigated as an overly ‘subjective’ departure from Peirce’s position.  However, while James clearly does put more of an emphasis on ‘subjective’ factors than does Peirce, his doing so is often the result of his simply drawing out consequences of the framework that Peirce presented in an 1872 meeting of their ‘Metaphysical Club’ where James and Peirce famously discussed the core ideas that have been associated with pragmatism ever since.  In particular, while Peirce was still flirting with idealism at the time, James drew out some of the consequences that followed from those 1872 discussion once they were placed more firmly in a naturalistic, particularly Darwinian, framework.  Peirce was never comfortable with these consequences, and in later work tried to distance himself from a number of positions defended in his earlier papers.  James, by contrast, never rejected that early framework, which resulted in the increasing differences between the versions of pragmatism developed by the two.  These differences show up most clearly in their conflicting conceptions of both when our beliefs are rationally justified, and what it would take for those beliefs to be true.

“Was William James an Evidentialist?” Southwest Philosophy Review, (Forthcoming) (PDF)


Abstract: William James has traditionally been seen as a critic of evidentialism, with his claim that “Our passional nature not only lawfully may, but must, decide an option between propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds” being understood as saying that in certain cases we have the right to believe beyond what is certified by the evidence.  However, there is an alternate, “expansive”, reading of James (defended most recently by Cheryl Misak, Robert Talisse, and Scott Aikin) that portrays him not as criticizing evidentialism itself, but only as trying to expand our conception what we should count as evidence.   There are two main strategies for defending this ‘expansive’ reading.  The first approach relies on showing that the logic of James’s argument itself relies on highlighting a new type of evidence rather than rather than undermining the need for our beliefs to be grounded in evidence, while the second approach appeals to aspects of James’s biography to show that he always intended something closer to the expansive reading.  It is argued here that neither approach is persuasive, and that the anti-evidentialist reading of James remains the most probable.


"Prudential Arguments, Naturalized Epistemology, and the Will to Believe”, Transactions of the C.S Peirce  Society Winter 1999, Vol. XXXV, No. 1: pp. 1-37. (PDF)


Abstract: Philosophers frequently endorse the ‘evidentialist’ view that the degree to which we believe any proposition should always be directly proportionate to the evidence we have for its truth, and William James’s “The Will to Believe” has typically been viewed as criticizing the evidentialist position by arguing that beliefs can be justified not only by evidence in favor of their truth, but also by the benefits associated with holding them.  This reading of James seems to hand ‘epistemic’ rationality over to the evidentialist, leaving the appeal to the legitimate use of other sorts of rationality (most noticeably prudential) in belief formation as the only way to criticize evidentialism. However, what James is doing in “The Will to Believe” is criticizing precisely the assumption that epistemic rationality should be understood in evidentialistic terms. Rather than merely pointing out that our beliefs fall within the domain of prudential as well as epistemic rationality, James argues that evidentialism should be rejected because it presupposes an unrealistically one-sided picture of epistemic rationality itself.


“James’ Pragmatic Account of Intentionality and Truth”, Transactions of the C.S Peirce Society  Winter 1998, Vol. XXXIV, No. 1: pp. 155-181. (PDF)


Abstract: William James presents an account of truth according to which the truth of our thoughts and utterances, even of those that are about the past, is sensitive both to our interests and to how our inquiries go in the future. This preference-sensitive and future-directed notion of truth has struck many as wildly revisionary, but James’ position is actually quite plausible if one understands how his account of truth is intertwined with his account of intentionality. James claimed that his point of contention with his opponents was not over the claim that an idea’s truth consisted in its agreement with reality, but rather over the nature of this “agreement”, and his views on this subject resulted from his attempt to give an account of the “intentional” character of our thoughts. James’ forward-looking account of intentionality compares favorably the ‘causal’ and ‘resemblance-driven’ accounts that have been popular since James’ day, and it is only when his remarks about truth are placed in the context of his account of intentionality that they come to seem as plausible as they manifestly did to James. Furthermore, once one understands how James’ account of intentionality and truth are connected, one can understand how James is able to allow ‘subjective’ elements into his account of truth in a way that remains perfectly compatible with commonsense realism.


“The Pragmatic Method” forthcoming in the Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Methodology  (PDF of initial page proofs)


Abstract: While classical pragmatism quickly became identified with the theory of truth that dominated critical discussions of it, both of its founders, Charles Sanders Peirce and William James, understood pragmatism essentially as a method. The article compares Peirce’s conceptions of pragmatism with James’s view that the pragmatic method would allow us to resolve many disputes in philosophy, and argues that their differences undermine any purely ‘Peircian’ reading of James’s Pragmatic Maxim. It then examines the advantages and drawbacks of three other readings of James’s maxim: the “activist” reading, the “subjectivist” reading, and the “practical” reading.


“William James’s Naturalistic account of Concepts and his ‘Rejection of Logic’” to appear in Lapoint S. (ed.)  Philosophy of Mind in the 19th Century, Routledge, (forthcoming)  (PDF of penultimate draft)


It is argued here that James’s notorious pessimism about logic and even truth (or at least ‘absolute’ truth), while most prominent in his later views, stem from the naturalistic conception of concepts developed much earlier in The Principles of Psychology, and it is his commitment to naturalism about our conceptual powers, rather than to any sort of mysticism or irrationalism, that motivates his skepticism about the scope and power of logic, and ultimately about the objectivity of truth itself.

"No Hope for the Evidentialist: On Zimmerman's Belief: A Pragmatic Picture." William James Studies, Vol 16, No. 1, Fall 2020, pp. 66-81. (URL)


Abstract: While Aaron Zimmerman’s Belief is rightly subtitled “A Pragmatic Picture”, it concerns a set of topics about which Pragmatists themselves are not always in agreement.  Indeed, while there has been a noticeable push back against evidentialism in contemporary analytic epistemology, the view can at times seem ascendant within the literature on pragmatism itself.  In particular, Peirceians tend to presuppose something closer to evidentialism when they accuse Jamesians of taking pragmatism in an unproductive and irrationalist direction.  This split goes back at least as far as Peirce’s reaction to James’s “The Will to believe” which Peirce “scorned” as the view that  “Oh, I could not believe so-and-so, because I should be wretched if I did.”  Pragmatists of the more Peircian bent have shared this scorn for the suggestion that our beliefs could be justified for pragmatic reasons, but Zimmerman’s book gives us reason to think that we should take a Jamesian rather the Peircian approach to these issues.


“Intellectualism and Regulative Ideals: On Misak’s James”, Presented at the 2014 Meeting of the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy, Denver, March 2014. (PDF)


Abstract: In her The American Pragmatists, Cheryl Misak presents a version of one of the classic narratives in the history of Pragmatism: C. S. Peirce founds Pragmatism with some deep insights about the nature of truth and objectivity, only to have William James misunderstand what he was doing, and pass off as Pragmatism an overly subjectivist and relativistic version of the doctrine.   However, while James does make room for a ‘subjective’ notion of truth that Peirce (and most other philosophers) reject, this ‘subjectivism’ comes his more fallibilist take on the regulative assumptions both philosophers took to govern our notion of objective truth, rather than, as Misak suggests, his ‘subjectivist’ commitments taken on in his earlier paper, “The Will to Believe”.  Indeed, rather than resulting from a misundertanding of Peirce, James’s ‘subjectivism’ came from his understanding, and facing, the consequences of Peirce’s early views more forthrightly than Peirce was willing to.

“William James on Conceptions and Private Language”, Belgrade Philosophical Annual 30 (2017), pp. 175-193. (PDF of Page Proofs)


Abstract: William James was one of the most frequently cited authors in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, but the attention paid to James’s Principles of Psychology in that work is typically explained in terms of James having ‘committed in a clear, exemplary manner, fundamental errors in the philosophy of mind.’ (Goodman 2002, p. viii.) The most notable of these ‘errors’ was James’s purported commitment to a conception of language as ‘private’. Commentators standardly treat James as committed to a conception of language as private, and the most notorious instance of this commitment can purportedly be found in his discussion of the feelings associated with logical terms like ‘and’, ‘if ’ and ‘but’ in the Principles’s chapter, ‘The Stream of Thought’. However, the received view stands in need of serious re-evaluation. In particular, there is little reason to think that James’s notorious discussion of the ‘if-feeling’ should be understood as an attempt to give an account of the meaning of ‘if ’ (indeed, there is little reason to even think that Wittgenstein interpreted him this way). The picture of our ideas developed in ‘The Stream of Thought’ sits badly with any theory that identifies meanings with ideas in this way, and while James’s chapter on ‘Conception’ (as well as some portions of Some Problems of Philosophy) has also been portrayed as committing James to the in principle privacy of language, it will be argued here that James’s account of our ‘conceptions’ is radically different from that of the private linguist.


“Jamesian Pluralism and Moral Conflict: Comments on Talisse and Aikin’s ‘Why Pragmatists Cannot be Pluralists’”, Transactions of the C.S Peirce Society, Vol. XLI, No. 1 (Winter 2005) pp. 123-28. (PDF)


Abstract: While most pragmatists view themselves as pluralists of one sort or another, Talisse and Aikin argue that the two views are, in fact, “not compatible”.   However, while their charge may be true of the types of pluralism that they consider, these pluralisms all presuppose a type of realism about value that the pragmatic pluralist need not accept.  This paper argues that the ‘non-realist’ account of value that one finds in James underwrites a type of pluralism that is both substantial and compatible with pragmatism.


“James’s Empirical Assumptions: On Materialism, Meliorism and Eternalism”  Streams of William James. Vol. 6, No. 1, Spring 2004, pp. 23-27.  (PDF)


Abstract: This paper argues that James’s critique of “philosophical materialism” can be separated from those elements of his thinking that are essential to his pragmatism.  Such a separation is possible once we see that James’s critique of materialism grows out of his views about its incompatibility with the existence of objective values. Objective values (as James understands them) are incompatible, however, not with materialism in its most general form, but rather with a materialism that understood the “material world” in terms of the sciences of the late nineteen-hundreds. In particular, one could not defend the potential objectivity of value in the way that James hoped if one endorsed the particular “pessimistic” cosmology characteristic of the sciences at the turn of the last century. Consequently, if one rejects certain “empirical assumptions” associated with the science of James’s day, the possibility of a type of “melioristic materialism” opens up, and this sort of materialist could still understand value in the way that James proposes. 


“Review of Misak (ed.): New Pragmatists,” Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews,  May 2008 . (Link)

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