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TWO James’s Presentation of the Maxim James cited Peirce’s 1878a article several times in the two decades following its publication (James 1881; 1885; 1898), though it was the 1898 lecture at the University of California at Berkeley that seems to have ignited broad interest in pragmatism as such. Here we want to look at his retrospective look at pragmatism some ten years later in 1907h. It is this later writing that is typically regarded as the core statement of James’s views on what pragmatism is. At that point he had certainly had time to sort out some thoughts on the subject, and the result taken as a whole is something that in many respects went beyond what Peirce was willing to endorse. James began his “What Pragmatism Means” (1907c) with a straightforward example of “the pragmatic method” at work. This is his well-known discussion of someone trying to “go round” a squirrel on a nearby tree. The issue he deals with is hardly profound, though it may be used effectively to illustrate the “pragmatic method.” Here is the issue in James’s own words: Some years ago, being with a camping party in the mountains, I returned from a solitary ramble to find everyone engaged in a ferocious metaphysical dispute. The corpus of the dispute was a squirrel—a live squirrel supposed to be clinging to one side of a tree-trunk; while over against the tree’s opposite side a human being was imagined to stand. This human witness tries to get sight of the squirrel by moving rapidly around the tree, but no matter how fast he goes, the squirrel moves as fast in the opposite direction, and always keep the tree between himself and the man, so that never a glimpse of him is caught. The resultant metaphysical problem now is this: Does the man go round the squirrel or not? (James 1907c, PMT:27) Whether this “metaphysical problem” is a particularly subtle one is beside the point—or rather, what James is perhaps claiming on that score is that the point he is about to make applies as much to the subtlest metaphysical disputes as it does to this relatively mundane semantic dispute about the phrase ‘go round’. It is not hard to understand the dispute. As James puts it, the man goes around the tree, and the squirrel is on the tree; yet the man never manages to get anywhere that is not in front of the squirrel. James’s solution, when asked to cast the deciding vote, was that whoever is right depends on what one “practically means” by the phrase ‘going round’. This may seem to be the obvious (trivial) reply to 13 14 / WHAT PRAGMATISM WAS any merely semantic dispute. But notice that James appeals not just to what one “means” but to what one “practically means” by the phrase ‘going round’. One could “practically” mean two different things, yielding two different answers to the question. If one means being to the north, then west, then south, then east, then north again of the squirrel, the answer is yes. If one means being in front, then being to one side, then being behind, then being to the other side, then being in front again of the squirrel (from the squirrel’s point of view), the answer is no. There is no dispute once the two meanings of the phrase are properly (practically) clarified. Of key importance here is the fact that each of the two meanings can be operationally (and thus practically) specified—in terms of the use of a magnetic compass or else in terms of geometrical angular measurements taking a plane parallel to the squirrel’s abdomen as the basis for a fixed coordinate system. An answer to the question is geared to what essentially could be measured once we have specified which kinds of measurement procedures to use. The two different meanings are ultimately distinguished on operational grounds. More generally, this is supposed to illustrate a method that is applicable across the board to any kind of debate that might be interminable due to semantic confusions : The pragmatic method in such cases is to try to interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences. What difference would it practically make to anyone if this notion rather than that notion were true? If no practical difference whatever can be traced, then the alternatives mean practically the same thing and all dispute is idle. (James 1907c...


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