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James, Royce, and Logic
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The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 19.4 (2005) 201-214

Harvey Cormier

Stony Brook University

It seems easy enough to understand the pragmatic philosophical position of William James. A struggle has persisted through philosophical history between realists, who think that there is a real world outside of the conscious mind, and idealists, who think there is not any such world. James is clearly on the idealists' side, since he says flat out in many places that the world we think and talk about is made of "experiences." But James is also clearly a realist, since he says in no uncertain terms that the objects of our knowledge transcend and are independent of us experiencing subjects. And, moreover, James also clearly offers neither realism nor idealism but a Kantian middle path between the two, since he says that the human serpent of perception and desire is all over everything, and this plainly entails that there is a something-or-other that the human serpent is all over. All of which means, in short, that understanding James may not be as easy as it seems.

It helps to think about the views of James's friend, colleague, and committed philosophical opponent Josiah Royce. At the time of his disputes with James over truth, Royce called himself both an idealist and a pragmatist. James wanted very much to distinguish his own version of pragmatism from Royce's idealist and absolutist version, and many tricky passages in James's writing, especially passages concerning truth and its relationship to the things of the world, were intended as criticisms of Royce. In this paper I shall consider the way Royce used logic to try to establish "pragmatically" the existence of an absolute truth and reality, and I'll try to show how James responded by renouncing this kind of logical theorizing. Along the way we shall see just what kind of world—real, ideal, or otherwise—James was committed to by his pragmatism.


A number of writers have argued that the difference between Royce's and James's views is overrated. Royce's career is often described as having three periods, and in at least the first and the last of these he seemed to avoid the kind of absolutism that would have put him clearly at odds with James concerning the nature of truth and reality. Moreover, in all his work, Royce was in important ways a follower of Kant, and many people think that James was, too. Royce departed from some of Kant's ideas, but like Hegel, another critic of Kant, Royce saw himself as completing Kant's project of connecting the free and self-conscious subject with the objects of knowledge. Interpreters such as Murray Murphey, Bruce Kuklick, and, lately, Michael Forest have argued that "the Cambridge pragmatists" constituted a New England school of neo-Kantian philosophy that included not only Royce but Peirce and James as well. These figures all seemed to adopt something like transcendental idealism, Kant's way of closing the transcendental gap between subject and object. That is, they seemed to adopt some version of the idea that the world of known objects was at least in part a product of spontaneous human mental activity. Moreover, like Kant, they all seemed committed in some way or other to some kind of unity of reason and primacy of the practical.

Royce's own development as a Kantian pragmatist went as follows: First, his 1878 Johns Hopkins doctoral dissertation made the Kantian argument that though our judgments are relativistically made true by momentary contents of individual human consciousnesses, we creatively postulate "Ideas in themselves" that transcend individual minds. These capital-I Ideas have to exist if we individuals are to have genuine agreements and disagreements even with ourselves from moment to moment, let alone with each other. Still, though we want to have these agreements and disagreements, we have no justification in the world outside our minds and wills for supposing that we really can have them. Thus, our justification for postulating or demanding "Ideas in themselves" is purely pragmatic, purely a matter of what we happen to want.

Next, Royce left this "pure pragmatism" behind. By 1885, in...

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