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  • Experience, Reason, and the Virtues: On William James’s Reinstatement of the Vague
  • Jacob L. Goodson (bio)

I. Introduction

According to Hilary Putnam, “attention to James’s ethical intentions is essential to an understanding of him . . . [and] understanding both his pragmatism and his radical empiricism.”1 This essay develops Putnam’s insight concerning James’s work through an introduction to the ways in which James’s ethical intentions are essential to his radical empiricism as well as his understanding of how inquiry works. I show that James actually fits within the tradition of virtue theory, asserting that one’s character and disposition make a real difference for inquiry. For example, James suggests that both “patience” and “submission” are necessary “virtues” for “the experimental method” to work (I use the word “humility” instead of “submission”): we need to display humility concerning how much we determine the world, and we need to practice patience regarding what we can know about the world. In short: I argue that James remains a humanist in the sense that the human knower contributes to the knowledge of the world, but his humanism is predicated upon our relationship with the world being a virtuous one.

For the purposes of this essay, I limit myself solely to an investigation of James’s The Principles of Psychology—with some reference, for the sake of clarification and development, to his Psychology: A Briefer Course. The Principles of Psychology was a monumental achievement for psychology as a discipline in the American academy.2 It is now published as two volumes, totaling 1,377 pages. The specific aspect of James’s Principles that deserves our attention here is his argument concerning the reinstatement of the vague.3 According [End Page 243] to James, both philosophy and psychology need to appeal to the category of vagueness for fruitful next steps within their respective disciplines.4

James’s reinstatement of the vague is couched within his long debates with both empiricism and rationalism, though the empiricisms of Hume and Locke receive the most attention from James—and, therefore, merit our close consideration here.

II. The Reinstatement of the Vague

Throughout The Principles of Psychology, James continually offers a kind of realist critique of David Hume’s empiricism. He argues that Hume’s empiricism cannot (and admittedly does not) account for the reality of relations in thought and constructs his argument for “the stream of thought” in order to offer a nonatomistic, realistic understanding of thought itself.5 Further, he argues that Hume’s empiricism starkly denies the reality of relations in the world as well.6 Though he does not mention it, he must have in mind here Hume’s argument that causation can be reduced to certain habits of the mind. James displays deep concern for atomization,7 which results in the “division”8 between [End Page 244] objects in the world and the objects of thought. Though he has been called a nominalist many times, in this first volume of The Principles of Psychology, James constructs a realist theory that accounts for both objects in the world and objects of thought, and for the relation of objects in the world as well as the relation of objects of thought.

In his chapter entitled “The Stream of Thought,” James develops an account of “thought” that prioritizes the whole over the parts, generals over particulars. He seems to think that empiricism itself will break down if empiricists continue to work with the opposite assumption.9 Individual thoughts are only intelligible, according to James, if they are part of a “personal consciousness” that takes the form of a sensible continuum.10 After entertaining the words “chain” and “train,” James uses the metaphor of “stream” in order to describe this continuum. Neither chain nor train will do because the continuum is not “jointed,” as the former metaphors suggest, but rather “flows” like a “river” or a “stream.” James settles on “stream” and develops his argument for “the stream of thought” thereafter.

Three sentences from James’s chapter deserve reflection:11 “Every definite image in the mind is steeped and dyed in the free water that flows around it.”12 “The awareness that our definite thought has...


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pp. 243-258
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