Pragmatism and the Evolutionary Child
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Pragmatism and the Evolutionary Child

The nonchalance of boys who are sure of a dinner, and would disdain as much as a lord to do or say aught to conciliate one, is the healthy attitude of human nature. How is a boy the master of society; independent, irresponsible, looking out from his corner on such people and facts as pass by, he tries and sentences them on their merits, in the swift, summary way of boys, as good, bad, interesting, silly, eloquent, troublesome.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Self-Reliance"

Containing one of Emerson's most enduring figures, this passage from "Self-Reliance" presents the egoism, curiosity, and freemasonry of boyhood as metaphors for the sovereignty of individual perception and judgment. Emerson's idealized boys have attitude: beholden to nobody, they engage with the world from a spot aloof; timid, tradition-bound adults would do well to adopt the same intellectual posture. Emerson, following in the Romantic tradition of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, William Wordsworth, and William Blake, offers the Child as symbol for clarity of vision and a relation to the world that is immediate, disinterested, and unsullied.

The Child—and indeed, a certain childishness—also offered a resonant metaphor for the pragmatic posture. William James, in his 1906 Lowell Lectures, echoes Emerson in equating his [End Page 265] pragmatic method with the outlook and character of insouciant youth. "A radical pragmatist," James writes, "is a happy-go-lucky anarchist sort of creature," whose belief in a "loose universe" affects those with a "rationalist mind" as "'simplified-spelling' might affect an elderly schoolmistress" (2: 600). In the second Lowell lecture, James notes that a fellow pragmatist (F. C. S. Schiller) had, "in influential quarters," been "treated like an impudent schoolboy who deserves a spanking" (2: 516). Figures of children, and of a childlike resistance to "old-fogyism" (James's term), are peppered throughout Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (1907).

Unlike Emerson's celebration of uncorrupted youthful detachment, however, it is the child's embeddedness in a world of persons and things that catches the pragmatist's eye. James cites the pioneering physicist James Clerk Maxwell, who, as "a child . . . had a mania for having everything explained to him, and . . . when people put him off with vague verbal accounts of any phenomenon he would interrupt them impatiently by saying, 'Yes; but I want you to tell me the particular go of it!'" (2: 572). James knew the image of the pragmatist "cling[ing] to facts and concreteness" and "observ[ing] truth at its work in particular cases" (2: 516) seemed infantile: "What a childishly external view!" he wrote (with some exuberance)—the search for truth cast as "a sort of rough and tumble fight between two hostile temperaments!" (2: 501).

Detached philosophizing, in James's hands, becomes a parlor game for old men: bloodless, and therefore without peril or prize, "like a general informing his soldiers that it is better to keep out of battle forever than to risk a single wound" (1: 469-70). There is, by contrast, a "depth and wildness" (1: 561) to those pressing questions that are incontrovertibly alive, that engage a person's "willingness to act" (1: 524). "The Will to Believe" (1896) concludes with James, quoting James Fitzjames Stephens, urging his pragmatist troops to maintain good cheer in the face of daunting epistemological conditions and an uncertain path forward: "We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist, through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? 'Be strong and of a good courage.' Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes. . . . If death ends all, we cannot meet death better" (1: 479). James's comments on the pragmatic method at times savor of a naturalistic battle-cry.

The pragmatist—though metaphorical kin to Emerson's "boys assured of a dinner"—begins to emerge as actively...