William James: “The Meaning of Truth” (1909), and “Some Problems in Philosophy” (1911)

The great obstacle to radical empiricism in the contemporary mind is the rooted rationalist belief that experience as immediately given is all disjunction and no conjunction, and that to make one world out of this separateness, a higher unifying agency must be there. In the prevalent idealism this agency is represented as the absolute all-witness which “relates” things together by throwing “categories” over them like a net. The most peculiar and unique, perhaps, of all these categories is supposed to be the truth-relation, which connects parts of reality in pairs, making of one of them a knower, and of the other a thing known, yet which is itself contentless experimentally, neither describable, explicable, nor reducible to lower terms, and denotable only by uttering the name “truth.” (826–827)


The Meaning of Truth, by William James, was presented a year before his death as a sequel to his Pragmatism. Unlike some of his earlier books, this one was not a series of joined lectures, but a collection of essays published over the last half decade of his life. If you are reading his philosophical works together as I am, you find that they are really joined around an idea known as “radical empiricism,” which simply rejects the Truth claimed by idealists, but also attacked standard empiricism for basically coming down on the side of Truth (but using a different method to get there). In Pragmatism and A Pluralistic Universe (and Varieties of Religious Experience for that matter), James argues for a rejecting Truth and embracing a variety of truths, none of which can be pragmatically discounted and false. This is, of course, easy enough to prove with aesthetics. You cannot say that my preference for Beethoven over Mozart is reflecting Truth. As I understand it (I am saying this too much perhaps in this series), James would want to apply this same logic to other inquiries.

He talks about how we come to know a phenomenon, like a tiger. Our desire to hunt tigers is one phenomenon. The tiger skins we bring home are another. The tiger itself is yet another. All have a context that works in shaping our cognition. And as consciousness begins in cognition, we need to understand the process and context of our understanding of a phenomenon (“outer chain of physical or mental intermediaries connecting thought and thing”).

James argues that this position is highly humanistic, because it takes account for the diversity of various human perspectives. This seems to be a compelling argument for me as well. It certainly suggests that although human experiences are diverse and pluralistic, there are real reasons to think that humans interact in the world in ways that other creatures do not.

In one chapter, James puts forth a systematic response to all the major criticisms of pragmatism and radical empiricism. He takes them all on, but one that I do not find such a condemnation is the criticism that pragmatism is a “call to action.” It is that I think James’ philosophy demands action rather than thought that made me so attracted to it in the first place. As he clarifies, this criticism is that the philosophy appeals to technocratic types, who care only about applications without meditating on consequences of action. But, as James clarifies, the philosophy actually suggests a wide variety of actions, not the singular action of the technocrat.

To the charge that radical empiricism allows people to belief as truth in things that do not exist, James explains that things that do not have existence cannot have really good results that can be observed. Thus while you cannot get to God’s existence through his method, you can prove the existence of religious experiences. It is the same with historical figures, as he tries to explain with the question of the existence of Caesar. The radical empiricist has visible effects of Caesar’s life, including his books as evidence of his existence. The rationalist will actually have a much more difficult time proving his existence. (Now, perhaps this becomes more complicated with mythology, but I am not so troubled by the fact that people may think that Zeus or even Xena existed. At least I am not more troubled by that than the fact that people believe in God. In either case the existence is less important the experiences and the tangible results.

The book ends with a dialogue between a pragmatist and a non-pragmatist. It is a useful summary of his thought and it comes down to the pragmatist is interested in truth as it is made real in the world through various contexts. I cannot think of a more open-minded and democratic approach to truth without going off the wall into banal and useless relativism. It always us to have a conversation where the other does not assume that they look at the world in the same way as we do.

Part of the power of this perspective on truth is its practicality and flexibility. I cannot help to think that in general terms this is useful for libertarians attempting to construct free spaces in a variety of different cultural areas, each with their own ecology, in both urban and rural areas. It seems it be something that can inoculate such free spaces from being fill in (permanently at least) with bad ideas. Instead of allowing vile thoughts and practices from filling in a space under the guise of “truth.” It will judge ideas based on their results and observable goodness.

So, if you think I am being too easy on James, or misunderstanding his basic point, let me know. If you think rationalism is a better path for a libertarian epistemology, let me know. As my reading of James shows, I am easily convertible.

Continue reading


William James: “A Pluralistic Universe” (1909)

The next in a series of William James’ late career works on radical empiricism is A Pluralistic Universe, another series of lectures published into a book in 1909. Of the works I have read, it is his more direct attack on rationalism and monism. As far as philosophy goes, A Pluralistic Universe, reads a bit like an argument against intellectual absolutism and homogeneity. As such, I am forced to appreciate it. The big problem with rationalism is that is posits a Truth that is external to our own experiences (at least in many cases). If truth is singular and all of us experience the world differently, most of us are then looking at the world falsely or as a delusional. That seems unlikely as a point of fact. (At least this is how I understand the core of his argument, with my soft non-philosophical mind.)

But one as we are in this material sense with the absolute substance, that being only the whole of us, and we only the parts of it, yet in a formal sense something like a pluralism breaks out. When we speak of the absolute we take the one universal known material collectively or integrally; when we speak of its objects, of our finite selves, etc., we take that same identical material distributively and separately. But what is the use of a thing’s being only once if it can be taken twice over, and if being taken in different ways makes different things true of it? (647)


See, there is an added value to looking at the universe pluralistically. We can actually take part in a more rich, playful, and diverse universe.

His most significant attacks on other philosophers come at Hegel. His questioning of Hegel is really an extension of his disapproval of idealism as absolutist. An rationally-determined position conquers and dismisses all other perspectives and eventually all evidence. “All facts lead to him [the idealist].” (688) Here we come to the crux of radical empiricism as I understand it. Idealism finds truth through reason and ideas alone and then (for James at least) voyages into near solipsism. At its most radical, the idealism would be willing to reject all other opinions as false, no matter how they were determined, if they do not fall into “Truth.” The typical empiricist (I suppose most scientists fit into this category) accept “Truth,” but realize that specific findings may be provisional or incomplete. Truth determined through observation, but constantly tests by other findings and observations. The radical empiricist rejects “Truth” finding value in all observations made by others as having truth. Going a bit farther he states that fact can be found in the process by which something is observed and realized needs to be taken into account as well, and those will be highly pluralistic. Each observation is a process, thus ultimately two people will observe the same event with different processes and therefore one cannot be rejected without exposing some absolutist position. I guess in practice this means that a scientist is more right in her observation of some phenomenon than an untrained spiritualist, just because ones process of observation is informed by training and the other by a belief in ghosts.

If philosophy is more a matter of passionate vision than of logic,—and I believe it is, logic only finding reasons for the vision afterwards,—must not such thinness come either from the vision being defective in the disciples, or from their passion, matched with [Gustav Theodor] Fechner’s or with Hegel’s own passion, being as moonlight unto sunlight or as water unto wine.” (710)

So, is the point here that the typical John Locke style empiricist is a variant of idealism in that is does not understand the context of an observation?

Does this leave us with some anti-intellectualism? I suppose a degree of that is inevitable with radical empiricism, but that may not be bad in a highly technological democratic society, where scientists and engineers hold immense powers over our individual lives. Many historians of science have filled in this gap by looking at the context of this or that scientific discovery and showing how they were not the result of pure observation, but influenced by training, disciplinary standards, social expectations, religious values, culture, and much more. In this sense, perhaps James is rightfully questioning “Truth” as determined by thinkers, while also raising the standards of inquiry to include increased not just a finding, but how a finding was determined.

James explicitly states that he thinks his view of a pluralistic universe is more democratic than idealism or other absolutism philosophies. This suggests he was really seeing his ideas as an American alternative to the rationalist traditions of Europe. “The pluralistic world is thus more like a federal republic than like an empire or a kingdom. However much may be collected, however much may report itself as present at any effective centre of consciousness or action, something else is self-governed and absent and unreduced to unity.” (770)

I am not sure how much thought anarchists have given to epistemology, but I am convinced that the place to begin such an investigation would be a thinker like William James. At the very least, I am convinced that there are real conflicts between idealism and a libertarian worldview, but maybe others see it differently.

William James: “Pragmatism” (1906–1907)

William James delivered the lectures that make up the book Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking in late 1906 and early 1907. They build on the conclusions of The Variety of Religious Experiences. Essentially, his perspective on religion was pragmatic and based on observably significant religious experiences. This collection of essays is a more general statement of these principals. It seems to be to be an essentially correct perspective, resting on the idea that what matters as true is what works. And what does not work should be rejected as false. A major reason to accept his position is that “Truth” actually matters little in the world as we experience it, even if it could be determined (which Kant already showed is not really possible).


He starts out by describing the “dilemma in philosophy” as between empiricists and rationalists. He shows his clear preference for the empiricists. He puts it quite nicely in the following. “You want a system that will combine both things, the scientific loyalty to facts and willingness to take account of them, the spirit of adaptation and accommodation, in short, but also the old confidence in human values and the resultant spontaneity, whether of the religious of the romantic type. And this is then your dilemma: you find the two parts of your quaesitum hopelessly separated. You find empiricism with inhumanism and irreligion; or else you find a rationalistic philosophy that indeed may call itself religious, but that keeps out of all definite touch with concrete facts and joys and sorrows.” (495)

He then approaches the basic philosophy of pragmatism, stating that what matters is the concrete consequences of a particular claim. What is so radically powerful about this perspective is that it makes truth (he is indifferent to Truth) “malleable to human needs.” (515) “Pragmatism is willing to take anything, to follow either logic or the senses and to count the humblest and most personal experiences. She will count mystical experiences if they had practical consequences.” (522) This seems to me a democratic, fair-minded, and useful approach.

The rest of the lectures explore different ramifications of this position. One is that categories of substances (whiteness, combustibility, insolubility, etc.) are purely creations of pragmatic humans. This is about as clear a rejection of idealism as I can think of. Of course, that this can be immediately extended to character may be troubling to some. Of course, I am rather sympathetic to the idea that honesty or value or generosity be reflected in human interactions rather than the realm of abstract ideas. This is also James’ defense of free-will. While it may be “Truth” that free-will is an illusion, we act as if we have free-will and that assumption works fairly well in a host of questions in human societies.

He includes in the book a foundational argument to his next major work, The Pluralistic Universe.

Pragmatism, pending the final empirical ascertainment of just what the balance of union and disunion among things may be, must obviously range herself upon the pluralistic side. Some day, she admits, even total union, with one knower, one origin, and a universe consolidated in every conceivable way, may turn out to be the most acceptable of all hypotheses. Meanwhile the opposite hypothesis, of a world imperfectly unified still, and perhaps always to remain so, must be sincerely entertained. This latter hypothesis is pluralism’s doctrine. Since absolute monism forbids its being even considered seriously, branding it as irrational from the start, it is clear that pragmatism must turn its back on absolute monism, and follow pluralism’s more empirical path. (556—557)


Let me attempt a pragmatic defense of anarchism. We certainly could accept an anarchist-communist principle like “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs” on principal, but that is actually the least direct way to get there, and the path most likely to inspire resistance. It is much better to argue (as David Graeber did in a talk I saw) that this principle is essentially how we function in social relationships already. In the simple encounter of asking for direction, this principle is lived. When I ask from directions, I take from someone who owns knowledge freely from someone who is not capable (morally, most of us would agree) of refusing. In the workplace, the same principle usually applies. It would be a pretty inefficient workplace that did not accept at least the “from each according to their abilities” principal. To give a more difficult example, squatters rights (or the principal that ownership should derive from use) is simply a more efficient and just way to distribute housing. To rely on a hard principle of property rights in respect to housing is inefficient (requiring guards, banks, and all sorts of invasive legal proceedings) and unjust (ensuring that people with the need for homes will go without). Also, giving de facto ownership to occupants is basically how we see the world. When we visit a renter at their house, we act as if they were the owner. In every meaningful way that house (perhaps owned by an absentee landlord or a bank) is the moral domain of the one who lives there.

At the same time, it is may be a useful exercise to critique the state or capitalism using pragmatism. People may like in a democracy, while having little actually say over their lives. This actually seems to be empiraclly true for most people. In the same way, anarcho-capitalists may speak of free markets or free exchange, but have no empirical evidence that these exist or can exist. At the same time, pragmatically, we see that we can function without a state.

Well, I am sure a philosopher or a James’ specialist can set me right on this, but I find this a reasonable extension of what he was saying in Pragmatism. Capitalism seems to be an imposition of abstract principles (most significantly property ownership) over a more pragmatic perspective.

William James: “Varieties of Religious Experiences” (1902): Part Two

Those of us who are not personally favored with such specific revelations must stand outside of them altogether and, for the present at least, decide that, since they corroborate incompatible theological doctrines, they neutralize one another and leave no fixed result. If we follow any one of them, or if we follow philosophical theory and embrace monistic pantheism on non-mystical grounds, we do so in the exercise of our individual freedom, and built out our religion in the way most congruous with our personal susceptibilities. (459)


The second half of William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experiences builds on the argument that religion creates experiences that have real results that cannot be so easily discarded as crazy or irrational. This is not so much an argument for the truth of various religious claims. James’ appears to be rather indifferent to this question, focusing more on what can be studied and measures: the religious experiences themselves as their ramifications in the world.

Throughout the second half of the book, which consists of a series of lectures James gave in 1899 and 1900, the focus is on the good acts that religion inspires in people (“saintliness”), the sometimes excessive behavior it inspires, mystical experiences, and religious philosophy. He ends the book with a proposal for a scientific approach to religion.

Starting with “saintliness,” James argues that religion seems to promote clearly positive behavior in people that cannot be accounted for from other sources. (At the very least, individuals claim religions origins for some of these behaviors.) There is something deeply individualistic about James’ approach that I find compelling. Maybe this is something now lacking in some of the discourse on religion. “Every individual soul, in short, like every individual machine or organism, has its own best conditions of efficiency.” (274) I am not a big fan of comparing humans to machines as he does, but I am going to choose to be open-minded that religious experiences can be one of the ways that people can reach “saintliness.”

James confesses in one of the lectures on “saintliness” that there are also a host of negative habits that a religious life and religious devotion can bring, although he seemed to think these are in the minority. However, these need to be looked at as part of the entire package of the mind. Here is another pitfall anti-religious types like me fall into. We assume that some negative characteristic, some hypocrisy, or some bad thought has its origin in what we do not like about another person’s mental universe. James seems to think that these components of someone’s mental universe is just as likely something else. “The baiting of Jews, the hunting of Albigenses and Waldenses, the stoning of Quakers and ducking of Methodsits, the murdering of Mormons and the massacring of Armenians, express much rather that aboriginal human neophobia, that pugnacity of which we all share the vestiges, and that inborn hatred of the alien and the eccentric and non-conforming men as aliens, than they express the positive piety of the various perpetrators.” (308) Well, I do not know about the Hobbessian stuff in there, but I take his point.

To give much more summary may be pointless and I skimmed a fair deal. Toward the end of the book his focus is on religious mysticism and philosophical idealism rooted in religious experiences. The argument seems to me to be the same in both cases. From the individualistic perspective, these experiences are real (“absolutely authoritative”). They also should be taken seriously by outsiders because they are possible paths to truth.

What I think we should take from William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience is an argument for religious individualism. In this it can be very powerful. It can also be applied more broadly. I just got into a debate on Facebook with some scientists over whether the humanities have anything to teach science and the innovators of technology. Clearly I think people in the humanities do, but they were less certain and took what I was saying as a bit preachy. However, I think there is a value in coming out of our own skin and at least taking the perspective of outsiders seriously enough. At times these opposing ideas really do have little to add to our discussion, or are in the end reactionary or disgusting. But they are products of a mind, and therefore real. For good or for ill, they must be taken seriously.


Henry Adams, “Mont Saint Michel”

From the context of modernity, science and reason, the medieval period strikes us as the exact opposite.  Rather than driven by reason, people of the middle ages embraced superstitions.  Instead of investing wealth in industry and “progress,” they invested massive wealth in cathedrals, castles, and a religious hierarchy.  They uplifted science over philosophy.  In Mont Saint Michel and Charters, Adams makes these distinctions.  It is less of a history of the architecture and philosophy of the Middle Ages and more of a nostalgic sigh, reminding people in the early 20th century of how people thought and created in the 13th century.  Through it all is not only do we not understand the medieval period, but that we have lost a perspective of value and richness.

Adams’ poem “Prayer to the Virign of Chartes” sums up this theme of lost and modernity’s tendency to reject the old as not only dated, but on some level worthless. “For centuries I brought you all my cares, and vexed you with the murmurs of a child; you heard the tedious burden of my prayers; you could not grant them, but at least you smiled!  If then I left you, it was not my crime, or if a crime, it was not mine alone.  All children wander with the truant Time.” (1202)  Throughout Mont Saint Michel, “The Virgin” is a symbol of the medieval perspective on life.


This is contrasted in his poetry (and later in The Education of Henry Adams) with the “dynamo.”  While the Virgin is known to be forgiving and kind the dynamo is morally opaque.  “We know not whether you are kind, or cruel in your fiercer mood; but be you Matter, be you Mind, We think we know that you are blind, and we alone are good.”  Despite this, the Virgin is a mystery and a riddle, but the spirit of the dynamo demands knowledge of all.  No mystery can be unrevealed.  “Seize, then, the Atom! rack his joints! Tera out of him his secret spring! Grind him to nothing!–though he points to use, and his life-blood anoints me–the dead Atom-King!” (1204-1205)  Adams sees a danger in a science that will reveal all.  “The man who solves the Infinite, and needs the force of solar systems for his play, will not need me, nor greatly care what deeds made me illustrious in the dawn of day.” (1205-1206)  Mont Saint Michel develops these themes by trying to get into the head of the people of the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries.

Mont Saint Michel

Mont Saint Michel

He looks across the middle ages broadly, but focuses on a few issues such as the massive investment in time, energy, and money in the building of great cathedrals such as the one in Chartes, the prominent role of women – such as the Eleanor or Heloise, folklore and legends, and philosophy.  In every area he finds a world directly opposed to ours, which is why this is not strictly a travelogue of a tour of medieval French sites, or a history.  On the grandeur and apparent waste of a cathedral, Adams writes.  “One has grown so used to this sort of loose comparison, this reckless waste of words, that one no longer adopts an idea, unless it is driven in with hammers of statistics and columns of facts.” (425)  When dealing with architecture, Adams is fascinated by the investment involved in these structures.  A capitalist would never make such investments.  Even the hope of Heaven, these investments would be a risk.  “One may be sure, too, that the bourgeois capitalist and the student of the schools, each from his own point of view, watched the Virgin with anxious interest.  The bourgeois had put an enormous share of his captain into what was in fact an economical speculation, not unlike the South Sea Scheme, or hte railway system of our won time; except that in one case the energy was devoted to shorting the road to Heaven; in the other, to shortening the road to Paris.”  (431)  Of course, we know that no capitalist today would make such an investment without the promise of a return.  This is summed up later in the work.  “Society had staked its existence, in this world and the next, on the reality and power of the Virgin; it had invested in her care nearly its whole capital, spiritual, artistic, intellectual and economical, even to the bulk of its real and personal estate; and her overthrow would have been the most appalling disaster the western world had ever known.” (576)  From the perspective of the modern world, Aquinas is not less awe-inspiring than the cathedrals as it reflects the same investment into the spirit that modern capital invests in “technological progress.” In the chapter on Aquinas, Adams constructs his view of God with the dynamo, his representation of 19th century progress.  But the difference is great: in one the created is trying to understand the creator.  In the dynamo, the creator lamely watches progress unfold.


I am not entirely convinced that the Middle Ages has much to teach us.  Adams, of course, ignores the exploitation of working people that stood at the foundation of medieval society and the creation of the Cathedrals.  For Adams, each Cathedral was the collective work of religious artisans, and not masons taking a job to support a family – or worse, deluded masses manipulated in producing palaces for the elite.  I do not know which is true, but I for one find little desire to return to 13th century France.  I am reminded that we need to keep on the lookout for alternatives.  If William James is correct, we cannot imagine outside of our experience and history.  If the Middle Ages can show us a world where women commanded political authority, where people were not slaves to capitalist logic, where the solving of mysteries produced as much respect as the investing of wealth, and where stories of heroes and poetry and craftsmanship and art produced wounder, then I am not opposed to opening a door to that world and time.  Perhaps we need a bit more wonder and mystery if we are to escape the enforced boredom of late capitalism.