Thursday, March 9, 2017

William James and Pragmatism

American philosopher 
William James (1842-1910)
We had a very high turnout (25!) for last week's meeting on James's Pragmatism.  The book is a collection of lectures James delivered in the winter of 1906-07 in Boston and New York.  We looked at two of these lectures, "What Pragmatism Means," and "Pragmatism's Conception of Truth."

Think of how the words "pragmatic" and "pragmatism" are used in the English language.  We say of a certain politician, for example, that he is "pragmatic."  In other words, he favors getting results over strict adherence to an ideology. James's concern is with a more philosophical pragmatism. Such a pragmatism, he writes, is "first, a method; and second, a genetic theory of what is meant by truth."  The method is one of radical empiricism (i.e., a strong reliance on observation and experience in establishing our knowledge), the "genetic theory," one that most values truths that make a practical difference in our lives.

My wife's well-worn copy of "Pragmatism"
 (list price $1.50: cheap!)
Our discussion brought up the current debate on climate change. By applying James's criteria of philosophical pragmatism to this idea, we can move beyond difficulties in defining both "climate" and "change" and start to think about how observable factors in the atmosphere, oceans, etc. might really be affecting us.  We can then say "yeah" or "nay" to efforts to address this current situation.

In a Jamesian formulation, "climate change" becomes not a "solving name," but "a program for more work."  Or, as James put it most famously: "We must bring out of each word its cash value."