James’s own philosophical positions were fused with his reactions to the experiences of his life. A deeply divided man who squandered years just trying to decide which profession to pursue, he not only defined “the divided self” as a technical term in psychology, but also wrought out of his own divisions a host of philosophical positions that had as their dominant theme the importance of the individual will in stepping into one’s life and making it one’s life.
This, in the end, was James’s great contribution to psychology and philosophy. He realized that we could only see the world through the subjective prism of the self. Each of us is trapped inside our own experience, our view dictated by the strange folds and fissures of the brain. James dismantled realism because he realized that reality is itself a product of psychology.
Once James arrived at this stunning conclusion – his anti-realist tendencies were apparent in his first philosophy article, “The Will to Believe”* – it was only a matter of time before he came up with Pragmatism, the great American school of philosophy. What is pragmatism? It’s a simply idea. James thought that we should stop thinking of scientific theories as mirrors of nature, what he called “the copy version of truth”. Instead, we should see its facts as tools, which “help us get into a satisfactory relation with experience.” The truth of an idea, James wrote, is the use of an idea, its “cash-value.” Thus, according to the pragmatists, a practical poet could be just as truthful as an accurate experiment. All that mattered was the “concrete difference” an idea produced in our actual lives.
But Goldstein is absolutely right to point out that all these lofty epistemological ideas are actually rooted in James’s insistence that we cannot escape ourselves, that everything we know is colored by who we are:
Richardson credits James with the modern dethronement of Plato — in particular the Platonic assertion that concepts are real, in fact more real than anything else. But this makes too much of James’s place in the Western canon, while at the same time diminishing his radicalism. Others (for example, Aristotle) had long before wrangled with conceptual realism, and this is hardly the aspect that places James “in the maelstrom of American modernism,” as Richardson puts it in his subtitle. Rather, what made James new was his insistence on the ineradicable personal element in philosophy, opening up the possibility of biography’s relevance to the history of philosophy. So it is all the more ironic that this particular biography — in many ways so admirable — fails to grasp James’s truly maverick perspective on philosophy, his psychologically shaped claim that it is psychology that shapes philosophy.
PS. For those interested in James and Pragmatism, the masterpiece remains Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club, which is certainly one of my desert island books.
*From “The Will to Believe”: “These feelings of our duty about either truth or error are in any case only expressions of our passional life…Objective evidence and certitude are doubtless very fine ideals to play with, but where on this moonlit and dream-visited planet are they found?”