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  • American Pragmatism: A Religious Genealogy
  • Wayne Proudfoot
American Pragmatism: A Religious Genealogy. By M. Gail Hamner. Oxford University Press, 2003. 233 pages. $45.00.

This is a very interesting book. Gail Hamner sets out to identify what is distinctively American about American pragmatism. She argues that the pragmatists repositioned British and European reflection on science, especially psychology, so as to emphasize and elaborate a disciplined production of self through habits (Charles Peirce) or will (William James). This repositioning was accomplished by the influence of what Hamner calls "the Puritan imaginary," the legacy of the Puritan tradition as retrieved by Romantics and revivalists in nineteenth-century American thought and practice.

The book is an examination of the work of two German thinkers (Hermann von Helmholtz and Wilhelm Wundt) and two Scottish thinkers (William Hamilton and Alexander Bain) on psychology and its place with respect to philosophy and empirical science, and the reception of their work by Charles Peirce and William James. It is common to note that Peirce made use of Bain's definition of belief as that upon which a man is prepared to act, and that Wundt influenced James. Hamner is the first scholar, though, to examine the relevant themes in the work of each of these figures and to show their transformation in the thought of Peirce and James. At the outset, in the conclusion, and in her reading of the pragmatists, Hamner considers the role of the American Puritan tradition in this transformation.

These six authors were among many in the second half of the nineteenth century who were attempting to reconcile Kantian idealism with British empiricism. Kant had emphasized the activity of the mind in knowing, in contrast to the empiricist's receptivity as portrayed in Locke's image of the mind as a tabula rasa. Hamner shows how this attempt at reconciliation shaped the evolution of the science of psychology in both the German and the Scottish thinkers. She remarks on common themes in their work and in that of the American pragmatists. Helmholtz's interest in signs and Hamilton's in logic prefigure Peirce's much more sophisticated theories of both. James shares with Hamilton and Wundt an emphasis on consciousness and will. Peirce and Helmholtz both hold [End Page 501] that laws are really operative in nature. Peirce and James adopt Bain's conception of belief and his fallibilism, but Hamner argues that Peirce follows through on the implication that even private experience is open to further interpretation, whereas James does not.

Hamner shows that the nineteenth-century American interest in the Puritan tradition, with its emphasis on purpose in the universe and a disciplining of the self, shapes the transformation of these British and European themes in the work of the pragmatists. She argues that Peirce, with his philosophical realism, his location of purposiveness in community and cosmos, and his attention to habits and self-discipline, develops these themes more coherently than does James, with his emphasis on the individual, private experience, and consciousness and will.

Peirce, following Bain, makes belief a public matter. A belief is a habit, or a disposition to act. Beliefs are assessed not by isolated individuals but by a community, as in the scientific community. Truth is that which is fated to be agreed upon at the end of inquiry. Inquiry is undertaken for a purpose, and purposiveness can be predicated not only of individuals but also of communities and of the cosmos as a whole. Peirce's pragmatism is based on self-control, the disciplining of subjectivity that subordinates self to community.

James, in Hamner's view, gives priority to the individual self, consciousness, and will at the expense of a social conception of the self, of communal assessment of beliefs, and of a realistic conception of purpose and law in the natural world. James appeals to introspection and consciousness for knowledge of the self, in contrast to Peirce's contention that introspection is often illusory and always fallible, and that self-knowledge is best achieved by reflecting on how one is seen by others. Unlike Peirce, James pays little attention to habit and focuses on discrete choices of the individual. James's conception...


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pp. 501-503
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2007
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