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  • William James’s Ethical Republic
  • Trygve Throntveit

For William James (1842–1910), all philosophical problems were ultimately ethical. In Pragmatism (1907), James invoked the logical theory of his friend Charles Peirce to argue that the “meaning” of any belief consisted solely in “what conduct it is fitted to produce.” There was “no difference in abstract truth,” he elaborated, “that doesn’t express itself in a difference in concrete fact and in conduct consequent upon that fact, imposed on somebody, somehow, somewhere, and somewhen.” Indeed, James concluded that truth was not just reflected in the consequences of conduct but shaped by them: “Truth is made,” he wrote, “just as health, wealth, and strength are made, in the course of experience.”1 This major thesis of Pragmatism distilled a career spent describing an unfinished world, in which human thoughts and actions made differences for which thinkers and actors were responsible. As early as 1878, James insisted that beliefs imply action to advance goals, creating effects valued in light of those goals. The mind, he reiterated in his 1890 masterpiece The Principles of Psychology, is a “fighter for ends,” and thinking, a “moral act.” Later, in “The Will to Believe” (1896), James argued that when evidence is inconclusive, belief might create conditions in which hypotheses could be verified and potential goods realized—or lost. That frank (if often overlooked) assessment of the moral risks as well as rewards of intellectual life echoed James’s most explicitly ethical work, “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life” [End Page 255] (1891), where he asserted that when choosing what to believe, it is “simply our total character and personal genius that are on trial; and if we invoke any so-called philosophy, our choice and use of that also are but revelations of our personal aptitude or incapacity for moral life.”2

In short, James, as John Dewey elegized in 1910, “was everywhere and always the moralist.”3 Yet for much of the twentieth century critics deemed James’s philosophy ethically vacuous, a warrant for moral solipsism. In 1909, Bertrand Russell criticized James for privileging belief over suspension of judgment, and thus encouraging people to live in private moral universes rather than seek objective grounding for common values. Today, some intellectual historians continue to echo Russell and likeminded contemporaries, judging ethical pragmatism tantamount to moral relativism, even moral apathy.4 Others, acknowledging James’s impassioned pronouncements on lynching, industrial conflict, imperialist expansion, and other public moral issues, have interpreted them as expressing a particularly cosmopolitan but otherwise unremarkable American liberalism, rather than a coherent moral philosophy.5

These criticisms are unfounded, but understandable. They reflect a general [End Page 256] antipathy toward James’s broader conceptions of knowledge, truth, and experience, and frustration with his unorthodox mode of philosophizing. In Pragmatism, James followed Peirce in arguing that beliefs are not copies of reality, but “rules for action” resembling the probabilistic predictions guiding scientific inquiry. James, however, extended Peirce’s argument, claiming there is no static reality that beliefs can once-for-all describe. A self-proclaimed “radical empiricist,” James held that the universe is pluralistic, and the only reality accessible to human minds is constantly changing—not least through the ceaseless flux of human consciousness, a fact as natural and consequential as any other.6 This blurring of subject-object distinctions scandalized contemporaries. It also underpinned James’s equally scandalous claim that ideas not only demonstrate their meaning through conduct, but derive both meaning and value from their origins and verification in human activity. To ask what is true in such a world was to ask which ideas, moral or otherwise, allow people to navigate it successfully—which “carry us prosperously from any one part of our experience to any other part”—and which do not.7 Because of these commitments James never made hard distinctions between ethics and other branches of inquiry, or defined his ethics as a separable component of his philosophy easily analyzed on its own terms. Meanwhile, his further refusal to dislodge theory from practice has frustrated those conceiving ethics as a logically and temporally consistent program of conduct. Instead, James insisted that ethical principles emerge organically from individuals’ collective experience in...


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pp. 255-277
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