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Is James’s Pragmatism Really a New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking?

30 January 2012


Pragmatism may be the aspect of William James’s thought for which he is best known; but, at the same time, James’s pragmatism may be among the most misunderstood doctrines of the past century. There are many meanings of word “pragmatism,” even within James’s own corpus. Not a single unified doctrine, pragmatism may be better described as a collection of positions which together form a coherent philosophical system. This paper examines three interrelated uses of the term: (1) pragmatism as a temperament, (2) pragmatism as a philosophical method, and (3) pragmatism as a “humanistic” and “concrete” theory of knowledge and truth. Some critics infer that pragmatist truth is relative or subjective. This paper concludes with a consideration of James’s responses to such critics. Though James maintains truth is something both “made” and “satisfying,” he just as clearly affirms that as it develops, truth is ever constrained by the elements of extramental reality as well as previously vetted truths. This pragmatist truth is not a function of personal caprice, and the pragmatist is certainly not one who denies an objective order or bends the world to his wishes.


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