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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Horace Meyer Kallen (1882–1974)

By William James (1842–1910)

EUROPE knows but one American philosopher. This is William James. And Europe knows him as the American philosopher, because in the most intimate and specific way, he is the philosopher of America. In the history of philosophy, there are always two streams of tendency which cross each other and interpenetrate often but never remain coincident throughout their course. The first and more fundamental is the spontaneous envisagement of the world and of man, the vision of the place of man in nature and of his destiny under the aspect of eternity. The second is largely commentary on the first. The first is composed of theories of life, rooting deep in the experiences and adventures of mankind. The second is essentially a pedantry which elaborates, in the manner of the professor, the implications of the first and carries it to the limit of logical refinement, until it is displaced by a fresh vision at the hands of a fresh thinker. Most philosophy in America has been secondary, professorial, irrelevant to the actual course of life and thought in this country. Its roots lay in a tradition which the circumstances of life rejected and which the adventure of living falsified. This tradition is that of Calvinism. Calvin had a vision which infected great groups of European people. The light of that vision led them to undergo many hardships and to undertake many difficulties. For one it drove a company of them to continental North America. It was the urge within the heart of the Puritan pioneers, of the Pilgrim Fathers. It helped them to fight the wilds in nature and in man, to build their community, and to order their lives. It was an intense thing and it was a learned thing. The wilds of nature, however, rejected the sophistications of learning; they required strength of body and sincerity of soul. The Calvinist tradition hence became mitigated under the stress of the conflict between man and nature which necessitated the belief in neighborly good will, in human initiative, in continual trustworthiness, in responsibility, and in freedom. What the Calvinist brought to America and what he there learned were opposites. The life of America consequently flowed away from Calvinism into other courses. Its rôle was changed from the dynamic organization of an emotion into the skeleton of an idea. It became the preoccupation of the schoolman, thin in utterance, vaguely optimistic in sentiment, and completely irrelevant to the problems of life and living. From Jonathan Edwards to Josiah Royce, it retained this character. Even in Emerson, it failed to come to close grips with the realities with which human life in America was dealing.

That life flowed on, pioneer. It was positive, even in its superstitions and overbeliefs, whether these be Mormonism or Christian Science, or the undiscriminating good-fellowship of Walt Whitman. In its higher reaches it was cheerful, humorous, experimental, with faith in its own power; adventurous without being romantic, pious without ceasing to be essentially humanistic. It was the spirit that trekked across the American continent, that mined the gold, that fought the Civil War, that built the railways, that converted a wilderness into a civilization. It is forward-looking, industrious, democratic. It is the spirit of the industrial democracy of Europe as well, but without the hampering past of mankind in Europe. It is the spirit of the rising masses of Europe, confronting, not a conflict with the repressive machinery of a caste-hardened social order, but virgin Nature, and building a new and freer civilization of her substance. It is this spirit which the philosophy of William James expresses. And it is for this reason that his vogue in Europe is proportional to his articulate visioning of the unconscious guiding forces in the life and hopes of America. His philosophy is a theory of life, not made in the schools but gathered through deep sympathy with the hearts of men whose beating his own responded to, the wide world over.

For significantly enough, though James was an American thinker, his training was very far from American. The parental household in which he spent his childhood was that of a Swedenborgian clergyman whose concrete spiritism made a lasting modification of James’s mind. His youth was spent in schools in French Switzerland, in France itself, and in England. He studied painting with Holman Hunt, and nature with Louis Agassiz. He was in succession a painter, a physician, a physiologist, a psychologist, and a philosopher. After 1872 he was one of the best-known members of the Harvard faculty.

His theory of life is technically known as Pragmatism. He got the word from Charles Peirce, and he called it himself a new name for an old way of thinking. But this old way of thinking might as well have been called Americanism, for it is substantially the perception of the nature and destiny of man when human life is apprehended at its fighting weight, and its form and go come under direct observation. What then appears is mankind struggling for survival in a world which was not made for it but in which it grew. This world is characterized by a growing diversity and manyness. Not only are man and all living things seeking to win a livelihood at the risk of their lives, but inanimate nature itself is composed of multitudes, each one of which has a character, an idiosyncrasy and selfhood, the destruction of which it resists and the conservation of which seems to be the endeavor of its existence. Each thing in this world is autonomous and self-governed. It exists with other things only in so far as it has succeeded in making an adjustment to them, only in so far as it has succeeded in establishing, in a word, certain habits and forms of interaction, which make the actual unities of the world we live in and know. All these unities are not primary but secondary. They are habits of behaving which things develop toward each other in order that they may be together at all. We call them “laws of nature,” but even the most fundamental of the laws of nature are no more. The laws of mechanics, of thermodynamics, of chemistry—they also change, evolve, accommodate. There was a time when they were not, and there will be a time when they shall not be. What in truth characterizes the world as a whole is the fact that all of its parts are constantly undergoing mutations—mutations sometimes compelled from without, and always arising from within. All the items in the world are changing items—novelties keep constantly emerging—and they either succeed in winning a place for themselves in the cosmos or disappear. The cosmos itself is like a team of individuals who have attained to a certain mode of being and acting together. It is a happening, not an eternal form, and its unity is contingent upon the assent, the formed habits of its constituents.

In this cosmos, man has happened, an infinitesimal scrap in an infinite universe. He is no more central to the world than any other thing, not even the gods. For gods there may be, differing in kind and in individuality just as there are men, and having qualities of consciousness with which religious experience suggests men may come into touch and be helped—or frustrated. These gods also may be part of the cosmic team. They also, if they are, must undergo change, must struggle for survival, must work together with men and things for the maintenance of the ordered world, in an environment which is infinitude.

Working, consequently,—successful working,—is the test. Men and thoughts and things are not born good, they make good. It is becoming, not being, that counts. All the organs and capacities of man must be strong to maintain themselves and to do their appropriate share in maintaining the organism of which they are parts, if they and it are to survive. Ideas, opinions, hypotheses, arising no matter how, all start really on the same level. Each involves, at the outset, an act of faith, a willingness to believe in the prosperity of its guidance, a willingness, consequently, to take the risk of failure that is likely as not to come by following its guidance. Each has to be set to work to win its way in the control of that aspect of the world or of experience which it intends or designates. Each is true or false, not primarily but eventually, as it succeeds or fails in winning this control. It follows that it is unwise as well as unjust to rule out, a priori, any hypothesis, any way of thinking, which as it appears makes a claim to truth. The right, the scientific action is to give it a chance to make good its claim. No matter what an idea may be, it must be tested, so far as possible, experimentally. Whether it be the conception of human survival after death, or of the character of divinity, or the power of the mind to heal, it must not be rejected a priori. There is a dogmatism and intolerance of science which can be quite as vicious as the dogmatism and intolerance of religion. The important thing, in this changing world, is the democratic equality of opportunity to make good for ideas as well as for men. That is really the only indispensable assumption of scientific method, and Pragmatism is a theory of scientific method.

James’s thinking was impregnated and fertilized through and through by this assumption. His associations of childhood and his youthful training had given him the power of sympathetic insight into the motives and bases for the great variety of human demands, both superstitious and intelligent. Lover of peace and internationalist as he was, he had even sympathy for the instincts which find expression in war, and his proposal of a moral equivalent for it is one of the great documents in the history of the socialization of mankind.

If one were to sum up in a single phrase James’s attitude toward the world and toward human life, one might call it that of metaphysical democracy. His sense for individuality in things, his sense for the right of things to their individuality stands out in all of his philosophical writing: that is really all that is implied in the metaphysics he has called “radical empiricism”; that is really all that is implied in the method he has named Pragmatism. In ethics, of course, he was a humanist to that degree that nothing human, even the most remote and fanciful of human things, was alien to him. He acknowledged the claim of each and asked for each an opportunity to justify itself by its works. That is the tenor of the collection of essays headed by the famous one on ‘The Will to Believe’ (1897), and the ‘Talks to Teachers, etc.’ (1899). That is the assumption underlying his great two-volume ‘Psychology’ (1892), his ‘Pragmatism’ (1907), his ‘A Pluralistic Universe’ (1909), his posthumous ‘Some Problems in Philosophy’ (1911), the various essays in ‘Radical Empiricism’ (1912), his study in the ‘Varieties of Religious Experience’ (1902). In his thinking, what was fundamental and what was best as well as what was most hopeful and most fresh in the life of America and in the life of western civilization as a whole found its first free articulate philosophic expression.