William James and the Quest for an Ethical Republic
Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. x + 232 pp.
Ethics and Philosophical Critique in William James
Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. xi + 291 pp.
According to a received understanding of classical pragmatism, William James was not a moral and political philosopher. It has been assumed that he wrote only one article on ethics, “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life” (1891, republished in The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy, 1897). In a sense this assumption is true; there is no book by him on ethics analogous to his major works addressing [End Page 552] topics in epistemology, metaphysics, philosophical psychology, philosophy (and psychology) of religion, and (somewhat notoriously) theory of truth – or analogous to other classical pragmatists’, such as John Dewey’s, books on ethics. However, James scholars have increasingly, and in my view plausibly, argued that James was not only a serious moral thinker but that his philosophical work as a whole is permeated by ethical concerns. Perhaps the reason why no specific work on ethics stands out in James’s oeuvre is that ethics is everywhere in what he wrote.
Trygve Throntveit is one of the relatively recent voices in the expanding scholarship on James’s moral thought. He approaches his topic as an intellectual historian rather than a systematic philosopher, which makes his book a fresh and distinctive addition to the discussion; his lengthy endnotes demonstrate that he is well conversant with literature that purely philosophical interpreters of James would not habitually cite. Far from limiting his attention to “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life”, or any other single work by James, Throntveit treats James’s “entire corpus as a lifelong attempt to describe a universe in which freedom, and thus morality, is possible” (3). Pragmatism as such, he maintains, was for James “a tool in the quest to imbue human life [. . .] with moral significance” (11).
It is relatively easy to agree with these statements. Indeed, it seems to be an increasingly strongly expressed opinion among James scholars that something like this is true about James and his pragmatism; in another recent study on James’s moral philosophy, Sarin Marchetti makes similar interpretive suggestions with more detailed discussions of James’s key writings. I will first discuss Throntveit’s volume and then add some comments on Marchetti’s.
Throntveit’s book is organized into five chapters following a short introduction. In the first chapter, he discusses the historical sources and origins of James’s ethical pragmatism, including R.W. Emerson and Henry James, Sr., the eccentric father of the James family. Chapter 2 penetrates more deeply into James’s views on religion and their place in his ethical thought. Topics familiar in James scholarship – the defense of freedom against determinism and pluralism against monism, for instance – are covered in an original manner, showing how James maintained that “a pluralistic, moral universe is the only one in which our mental lives make sense” (51). The third chapter concentrates on moral philosophy more intensively, also offering a reading of “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life”, while chapter 4 examines James as a public thinker and citizen engaged in social and political discussions – an often neglected part of James’s intellectual profile. The final chapter explores “legacies and prospects” of James’s thought in these areas and thus argues for James’s lasting relevance. [End Page 553]
Throntveit does make some philosophically rather problematic claims, though. While his discussion of truth is illuminating, as he emphasizes the way in which our “mental interests” help to establish, or “make”, truths (34) – something that clearly has ethical significance – he too straightforwardly moves from the pragmatic method to the pragmatist conception of truth, calling the former a “precursor” of the latter (68) and even claiming that a relation of implication holds between the two (71), which I think is clearly false both in this general sense and in the more specific one claiming that a pragmatic method for determining “religious meaning” would yield a pragmatist view of religious truth (78). He simply...