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  • The Soul of Classical American Philosophy: The Ethical and Spiritual Insights of William James, Josiah Royce, and Charles Sanders Peirce
  • Alexander V. Stehn
Richard P. Mullin. The Soul of Classical American Philosophy: The Ethical and Spiritual Insights of William James, Josiah Royce, and Charles Sanders Peirce. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2007. xviii + 169 pp.

Sharing William James’ conviction that “no one of us can get along without the far-reaching beams of light [philosophy] sends over the world’s perspectives” (qtd. on xi), Richard Mullin’s new book seeks to communicate the ethical and spiritual insights of William James, Josiah Royce, and Charles Sanders Peirce to a non-specialist audience. Mullin follows the pragmatists he studies by dropping the traditional, dualistic notion of “soul” while insisting upon the importance of carefully attending to the following issues classically treated as pertaining thereto: the self, free will, moral values, community, and our relationship with the Transcendent (xi). With the pragmatic conviction that “the only propositions that we really believe are those that we are willing to act upon” (xii), Mullin shows his readers how classical pragmatism offers resources for teaching us how to believe in these things by acting freely to construct communal relations that exceed our economic interests in order to provide our lives with meaning.1

Mullin’s study is organized into three parts by philosopher: 1) James establishes the basic philosophical framework and receives the most attention in the first six chapters; 2) Royce comes in to thicken James’ sense of both reason and the social as they pertain to ethics and religion in the next four chapters; and 3) Peirce returns readers to the origins of pragmatism to make a case for its continuing value as both a comprehensive intellectual worldview and a way of life in the final three chapters. Mullin’s readable presentation of the philosophical bottom lines of these pragmatists does run the risk of leading amateur readers into wrongly thinking that they understand a pragmatically re-constructed concept (e.g. soul, will, or God) when in fact they are importing traditional, less philosophically sophisticated ideas. Mullin might have warned his readers of this potential pitfall at key places in the text, but he has at least managed to avoid the more common error of insulating the practical upshot of a philosophical discussion in technical jargon. Instead, Mullin situates himself much like James’ moral philosopher, [End Page 367] attempting to weave the ideals and relations of the pragmatists discussed into a moral republic while locating the broad meaning of life in the melioristic struggle against the deficiencies of reality as it currently stands in the name of more inclusive ideals.

Chapter 1 supplies an outline of James’ pragmatism as a method of approaching meaning and truth that works to overcome the splits between science and religion as well as philosophy and everyday life. Chapter 2 goes on to outline James’ radical empiricism as a superior alternative to materialism, dualism, and idealism. In Chapter 3, Mullin explains how James’ theory of free will “can serve as both a motivator and a program for becoming more free” (21). Mullin does an excellent job of conveying the flavor of James’ reflections on the relation between moral philosophy and religious faith in Chapters 4 and 5, although readers may be left thinking that James emphatically denied The Absolute while doing little to erect an account in its place. Mullin’s reflections on James’ “religion of democracy” could be better supported through an explicit engagement with the later James’ rich philosophical theology, especially A Pluralistic Universe, which is only mentioned in passing.2

Mullin’s final chapter on James conveys the practical thrust of James’ religious thought: 1) the universe is open-ended, 2) our actions can make a difference in its moral character, and 3) the possibilities for improvement are grounded in the nature of the universe itself. Mullin goes on to provocatively suggest that Jamesian spirituality is like getting out of bed: “Our naturally stronger propensities invite us to remain in our present condition; to prefer comfort and pleasure . . . Spirituality by contrast means change, effort, giving up immediate pleasure . . . Our present condition...