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Thursday, May 17, 2007

To be One is more wonderful than to be many

Kelamuni Friday, July 28, 2006
The ideas of Reid, Comte and Mill are all present in the writings of the American Pragmatist, William James, and we find many of the familiar themes of late-modern Anglo-American thought in James' work. Like the philosophy of the early British analytic thinkers Russell and Moore, James' philosophical thought developed, in large part, in reaction to the prevailing philosophical trend of his day: Absolute Idealism, in particular the monism espoused by F.H. Bradley. James' playfully describes the spirit of monism thus:
In point of historical fact monism has generally kept itself vague and mystical as regards the ultimate principle of unity. To be One is more wonderful than to be many, so the principle of things must be One, but of that One no exact account is given. (Some Problems of Philosophy, p. 116)
Like Mill and Comte, James was also concerned with the problem of abstraction, both in the nominal and verbal sense of the term. In Some Problems of Philosophy, his last philosophical work, James deals repeatedly with various related aspects of the issue. That he spends as much shrift as he does on the topic shows that he considered it significant up until the time of his death. In the first chapter of Some Problems, James begins by entertaining some possible objections to the practice of philosophy. His responses are typical of the mood of his times:
Objection: Philosophy is dogmatic, and pretends to settle things by pure reason, whereas the only fruitful way of getting at truth is to appeal to concrete experience...
Reply: This objection is historically valid. Too many philosophers have aimed at closed systems, established a priori...
Objection: Philosophy is out of touch with real life, for which it substitutes abstractions....
Reply: This objection is also historically valid, but no reason appears why philosophy should keep aloof from reality permanently. (Ibid., pp. 24-27)
We have already noted the presence of empiricism in James' thought. James himself called his epistemological position "radical empiricism." But, philosophically, James is probably best known for his association with Pragmatism. James states the Pragmatist criterion of truth thus:
Now however beautiful or otherwise worthy of stationary contemplation the substantive part of a concept may be, the important part of its significance may be held to be the consequences to which it leads. These may lie either in the way of making us think, or in the way of making us act. Whoever has a clear idea of these knows efectively what the concept practically signifies....This consideration has led to a method of interpreting concepts to which I shall give the name of the Pragmatic Rule.
The pragmatic rule is that the meaning of a concept may be found, if not in some sensible particular that it designates, then in some particular difference of course of human experience which its being true will make. Test every concept by the question 'What sensible difference to anybody will its truth make?' and you are in the best possible position for understanding what it means and for discussing its importance....
If you claim that any idea is true, assign at the same time some difference that its being true will make in some person's history, and we shall know not only just what you are really claiming but also how important an issue it is, and how to go to work to verify it. (Ibid., pp. 59-61)
There are aspects of James' conception of truth here that resonate with Kierkegaard's attitude toward the "true." Generally, however, James' conception draws on the principle of utility, the idea that the good or true is that which is useful. This is another sense of what may be meant by the term "practical."
James' appears to understand his pragmatism as a kind of antidote to what he calls "intellectualism." By this he means both the rationalist and classical empiricist programs of metaphysics and epistemology. On the origin of "intellectualism" James writes:
Whenever we conceive of a thing, we define it; and if we still don't understand, we define our definition.... This habit of telling what everything is becomes inveterate. The farther we push it, the more we learn about our subject of discourse, and we end by thinking that knowing the latter always consists in getting farther and farther away from the perceptual type of experience. This uncriticized habit, added to the intrinsic charm of the conceptual form, is the source of 'intellectualism' in philosophy. (Ibid., p. 83)
Over against intellectualism, James contrasts "common sense." Nowhere in Some Problems does he discuss what he means by this -- he seems to take for granted that we know what he means -- but it seems clear that he is invoking something akin to what Thomas Reid had in mind, and that "common sense" has some essential relation to Pragmatism. In practice, however, it often functions as a means for skirting the traditional problems of philosophy, problems like causality. Explorations in Neo-Vedanta and Perennialism

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