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William James on Pragmatism

In his essay "What Pragmatism Means?" William James argues that the pragmatic method is most useful in determining whether or not a particular debate is even worth carrying on or not. However, James inadvertently demonstrates a major problem with his theory when he brings up the question of atomic matter. What may be a non-pragmatic notion in one era may be quite pragmatic in a later era.

The pragmatic approach "is to try to interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences. What difference would it practically make to any one if this notion rather than that notion were true?" (142).

This is an easy matter to determine with respect to the first issue raised by James---the question of whether the man goes "round" the squirrel on the tree. It is quite obvious that it makes no practical difference to anybody whether the man goes round the squirrel or not.

It also obviously did not matter much, if anything at all, to James's era, which one of two notions was correct with respect to atomic activity. However, to our era it has certainly meant a great deal and, in fact, has been one of the most pragmatically significant considerations facing the entire world for the last fifty years. In fact, the era was actually for a time referred to as the "Atomic Age."

Any advocate of pragmatism, then, should utilize the method with a good measure of humility, for what may seem to be an insignificant issue today may prove to be quite pragmatically significant tomorrow.

Jack London, in his essay "How I Became A Scientist," presents strong evidence that one's philosophy of life is shaped and defined primarily by experience. The essay is also effective in presenting the view that young people adopt philosophies of life which are based on a very narrow sense of reality. As soon as that sense of reality expands through experience which conflicts with or even negates the young person's previous experience, the young perso...

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William James on Pragmatism. (1969, December 31). In Retrieved 19:40, August 12, 2020, from