Jamesian Pragmatism and Jamesian Realism
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Jamesian Pragmatism and Jamesian Realism

Critics both philosophical and literary have puzzled over the idea that there might be a connection between the philosophy of William James and the fiction of his brother Henry James. In a well-known 1907 letter to William, Henry himself affirmed a connection when he compared himself to Molière’s character M. Jourdain in Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, who was so pleased to learn from the “Philosophy Master” that he had been writing “prose” all his life. Henry described himself as having discovered, on reading William’s work, that he had “pragmatized” throughout his career (Hocks 23). 1

What was the nature of this connection? Was there a sense in which Henry James was a pragmatist? In what follows, I try to explain William James’s pragmatism in such a way that we can see a clear connection to Henry James’s kind of literary realism. In fact, I’ll try to show that the relation between Jamesian pragmatism and Jamesian realism is the relation of identity.

The vague word “realism” has, since the Middle Ages, labeled philosophical views according to which ideas or words can and in some way ought to reflect “the real things,” the things that are “external” to the mind and to language. The term “real” comes from the Latin re or “thing”; the re-al things are thus the thing-al, thinglike things, as opposed to the unthinglike things that occupy the worlds of conception, imagination, and illusion. The real things may be particular items—rocks, persons, muons—or they may be abstractions—numbers, goodness, or even “real necessity.” What is constant among different philosophical realisms is not what the real things are, but where they are and originate: “outside” us thinking beings and our thoughts and words.

Since the eighteenth century, philosophical “realism” has typically been contrasted with “idealism,” another ill-defined notion. Idealisms basically deny that thought or language can or should reflect an external reality: they say that instead words or thoughts should reflect something un-re-al and internal to language or thought itself. Rationalistic Hegelian “absolute” idealism seemed to [End Page 288] identify the world and its things with a single concept contained in the transcendent and four-dimensional mind of God; this view competed with Berkeley’s empiricist idealism, according to which the things of the world were a manifold of God’s perceptions. More recently, there have also been “phenomenalisms” that have treated real objects as a product of the relationship between languages, especially scientific terminologies, and the pre-linguistic or pre-conceptual perceptions that those languages “organized” in various ways. These views are all very different, but they share the principle that the world and the objects that get thought about and discussed are “in” or are somehow dependent on the minds or the languages of thinkers and talkers.

I think that William James’s pragmatism was a kind of realism, but not the kind usually opposed to philosophical idealism. Instead, James operated in what Cora Diamond calls “the realistic spirit” (Realistic 39–72). That is, James displays the kind of realism that people often display outside of philosophy, in more “ordinary” pursuits like politics (where it is sometimes known as “pragmatism”) or writing fiction like that of James’s brother Henry. This idea of ordinary, extra-philosophical realism was first invoked in philosophy by the empiricist F. P. Ramsey when he criticized theories of causality and logical necessity that were realistic—or, we might say, Realistic—in the traditional philosophical sense (252; Diamond, Realistic 42). I think that this idea can explain the peculiar but commonplace claim that pragmatism is an attempt to go somehow “beyond realism and idealism.” Pragmatism goes beyond philosophical Realism to something like literary realism.

The realistic spirit is characterized by Diamond in terms of three interconnected features: first, an attention to phenomenological detail or the way things actually show themselves to us; second, the renunciation of myth and magic; and third, attention to coherence and causal consequences, to what we all know really would happen if such-and-such circumstances came to pass. Diamond discusses the importance of these features to George Orwell’s...