What were William James' main pragmatic interests?

James attributed his pragmatic maxim to Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914): "To attain perfect clearness in our thoughts of an object ... we need only consider what conceivable effects of a practical kind the object may involve—what sensations we are to expect from it, and what reactions we must prepare." James applied pragmatism to epistemology, ethics, religious theory, and free will.

What was William James' pragmatic epistemology?

He accepted that statements are true-or-false claims about what exists, but within our experience the world is "really malleable" so that truth is also imposed on reality. Truth, as "agreement with reality," varies, depending on the nature of what may be true. For example, in ordinary experience, beliefs are true if we are not painfully surprised when we act on them. Scientific truth emerges in ways that make entire systems coherent.

What was William James' pragmatic ethics?

James thought that values require beings with emotions and wants. Judgments of value are objective when care for one another results in a standard for a community. This results in a shared or common world. Moral choices determine our character. Besides decisions connected to physical pleasure and pain, there are higher ideals that should direct our future experience, and, if necessary, be modified by that experience. Moral progress results when more inclusive ideals are substituted for less inclusive ones. Nevertheless, all ideals are only "provisional."

What were William James' theories concerning religion and free will?

James thought that whether or not to believe in God, or to believe that we have free will and that there are objective values, cannot be decided neutrally by an appeal to facts. The facts in such matters are inconclusive, and a neutral intellectual position does not address the importance to us of whether or not God exists, or if we have free will, or whether there are objective values. Because our beliefs in such matters will make a difference in our lives and those of others, we must "will to believe" that God exists, that we have free will, and that there are objective values. In the case of free will, to motivate ourselves toward actions that are unpleasant, we should think about their positive consequences. James' offered an example of this: when one is reluctant to arise from bed on a cold morning, if one thinks about what one will do that day the necessary physical motion becomes almost automatic.

Why was James interested in the supernatural?

Some biographers have speculated that James' interest in spiritualism was the result of his father's deep interest in Swedenborg. Emmanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) had inspired the formation of the New Jerusalem church in London in 1788. Swedenborg had combined the scientific thought of René Descartes (1596-1650) and John Locke (1632-1704) into a form of mechanism that was in harmony with the biblical universe as known through revelation. It is not a wide stretch to see similarities in this view and James' project of applying scientific methods to the supernatural.

How did William James express his own will to believe?

In the 1880s, James wanted to apply scientific methodology to mind-reading and "spiritualism." He could not find collaborators in the Harvard academic community, but in England at that time both Alfred Russell Wallace, who had discovered the theory of evolution at the same time as Charles Darwin, and the moral philosopher Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900) and his wife, Nora, were already interested in subjects of this sort. James became part of a group of intellectuals who went to séances and carefully investigated reports of supernatural events. They also counted reports of "apparitions" that occurred on the same day the person, whose apparition appeared, had died.

This so-called "Census of Hallucinations" resulted in a statistically significant correlation between day of death and appearance of that person's ghost. However, James thought that the sample of 17,000 would have yielded more reliable results if it were 50,000 and included American as well as British apparitions. James was also very skeptical of the table rapping and spirit-directed writing that were routine at séances, and he wanted to exclude mediums from the ranks of reputable spiritual researchers.

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