William James had an incisive insight about a number of intellectual and psychological dealings. He was a trained medical doctor yet he excelled in the field of philosophy and wrote enormously about his thoughts and ideas. Pragmatism, Meaning of Truth as a Sequel to Pragmatism, Pluralistic Universe, and Varieties of Religious Experiences are considered as the major philosophical premises proposed by William James. The ideas of Pragmatism demand scrupulous attention to understand.
As per William James, the meaning of an idea or a proposition or a thought lies in its observable practical consequences. Hence the idea under proposition must exhibit this quality of direct practical results. He believes that a thought or an idea must always be based on the verity of faith. He writes: “A fact [may] not come at all unless a preliminary faith exists in its coming… Faith in a fact can help create the fact. ” (James, “The Will to Believe”, 1897) Therefore trust and idea are sometimes inter-reliant and may often cease to exist without each other.
He opines that the truth or falsity of a judgment depends on the obtainment of the expectations that follow the judgment under question. For a judgment to comply with this, one needs to be pragmatic [= as a matter-of-fact] in his approach towards the events which are going to be judged. We can also see a contrast between his thoughts when he constantly vacillates between science and religion. The general credence that religious experiences involve a supernatural domain, on the whole, is somehow remote to science.
However, to the individual human being these remote things are accessible as their driving force is faith and not empirical examination. James tries to bridge this gap between science and religion. The difference between the scientific principles and religious beliefs are woven to arrive at a multipart thinking procedure which we can call as the “Science of Religion”. He wrote about this as follows: Religious experience, in other words, spontaneously and inevitably engenders myths, superstitions, dogmas, creeds, and metaphysical theologies, and criticisms of one set of these by the adherents of another.
Of late, impartial classifications and comparisons have become possible, alongside of the denunciations and anathemas by which the commerce between creeds used exclusively to be carried on. We have the beginnings of a “Science of Religions,” so-called; and if these lectures could ever be accounted a crumb-like contribution to such a science, I should be made very happy. (James, The Varieties of Religious Experiences, Lecture XVIII) These thoughts point towards that eternal question of can there be a God who created this universe?
A pragmatist, such as James Williams, would say “Yes, there indeed must be an empirical God who made all this universe provided the consequences are proved or the relations established”. That, simply put, is another state of perplexity where the vision of identifying the ‘Cause’ and ‘Effect’ may cease to exist. Now let us examine what pure religion and religious thoughts or philosophies (sans James Williams! ) say about such perplexities of life. The Bible and the preaching of Jesus Christ and other religious foundations categorically decline the right to question.
They demand absolute ‘surrender’ in order to get absolute ‘delight’. The teachings of Jesus must be quoted here: “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand.
The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash. ” (Matthew 7:24-27) The teachings of Christ demands unquestionable faith in the supernatural in order to attain absolute delight. This absolute delight or state of freedom is in total contrast to what we have seen so far in the flow of William James’ ideas. However there is one similarity: That both the schools of thoughts agree to the fact that humanity is something which, neither needs to be empirically analyzed nor pragmatically accepted.
The laws of both pragmatism and religion bend and tend to converge at one solitary point and this point of convergence is diligently referred to as ‘Kindness’. Historically, William James lived in the 19th Century. (January 11, 1842 – August 26, 1910) During this period of time America was witnessing the industrial revolution and started emerging as the international power. It was also that phase of the history when the country was reeling under aftereffects of the Civil War and the laborer strikes.
The ideas of William James were widely accepted from both laymen and intellectuals alike. The very concepts of ‘Pragmatism’, “Will to Live’, ‘Pluralistic Universe’ and ‘A Study in Human Nature’ were regarded as the new hopes amidst turbulent times. Even though the dynamics of the contemporary society have changed immeasurably, I still feel some of James’ ideas would be contentedly accepted. Economical imbalances (Read: The Recession), and religious conflicts (Read: Fundamentalists/Extremists) have rendered a sense of cynicism.
The thoughts of William James will surely be a respite if understood and implemented diligently. The astute adoption is the key as James writes: “The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook. ” (William James “The Principles of Psychology”, 1890) Let us hope better sense prevails upon the humanity and the thoughts of William James guide us through the testing times. References William James, “The Will to Believe”, 1897 William James, The Varieties of Religious Experiences, Lecture XVIII Bible, Matthew 7:24-27 William James “The Principles of Psychology”, 1890