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Approaching Pragmatic Humanism

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Part of the Studies in Humanism and Atheism book series (SHA)

Abstract

Grounding their philosophy on human experience only, William James and F. C. S. Schiller established a version of pragmatism deeply committed to the insight that human interests and needs play a crucial role in the making of reality. Therefore, their pragmatic humanism underlines our responsibility for the way we shape the world we live in. It demands to take a plurality of perspectives into account, and to take a critical stance toward absolute truth claims in order to challenge the established status quo and to strive for the better.

Keywords

  • Pragmatism
  • Humanism
  • Reality
  • Truth
  • Pluralism
  • Meliorism

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Apart from an introductory study (Abel, Reuben 1955. The Pragmatic Humanism of F.C.S. Schiller. New York: King’s Crown Press), Schiller is strangely absent from the pragmatic canon. Only recently, two other major works that deal solely with Schiller were published: Porrovecchio, Mark J. 2011. F. C. S. Schiller and the Dawn of Pragmatism. The Rhetoric of a Philosophical Rebel, Lanham u.a.: Lexington Books, and, as the first German study on Schiller, Tamponi, Guido K. 2016 Homo homini summum bonum. Der zweifache Humanismus des F. C. S. Schiller, Frankfurt a. M.: Peter Lang. Among more contingent reasons, Schiller’s appraisal of eugenics and fascism may have played a role in this decline. In contrast, James is the subject of innumerable publications, among them readable biographical studies like Perry, Ralph Barton. 1948. The Thought and Character of William James. Briefer Version. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, Barzun, Jacques. 1983. A Stroll with William James. London: University of Chicago Press, and Richardson, Robert D. 2006. William James. In the Maelstrom of American Modernism. Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin.

  2. 2.

    Schiller dedicated his volume Humanism: Philosophical Essays (1903) to “my dear friend, the humanest of philosophers, William James, without whose example and unfailing encouragement, this book would never have been written”, and James stood up for Schiller when he got under severe attack from Santayana and Bradley (he also tried—futilely—to calm down his temper); see Richardson 2006, 453–454.

  3. 3.

    Schiller’s reputation was that of a reckless rebel: “He was undeniably brilliant, but his schoolboyish humor, his abusive personal attacks on philosophical opponents, and his eagerness to turn philosophical debate into a blood sport made him enemies” (Richardson 2006, 452); see also Abel 1955, 5.

  4. 4.

    On James’ works with the famous medium Leonara Piper, see, for example, Richardson 2006, 257–264.

  5. 5.

    Schiller introduced the idea of humanism to James, and considered it the broader term. For James, vice versa, humanism is a sub-aspect of pragmatism, see James 1975, Lecture VII “Pragmatism and Humanism”, and Schiller, 1912a, 16 and 1939a, 78–79. The early Schiller had been part of a short-lived movement of “personal idealism” that highlighted individual experience, interests, and personal traits, and he is conceived to hold “a pragmatist position at the extreme end of the continuum” (with Peirce and his understanding of a subject-independent reality at the other end); see Misak, Cheryl. 2013. The American Pragmatists. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 93. Consequently, Schiller, who shared a certain discomfort with the term “pragmatism”, later on preferred to name his philosophy “personalism” or “voluntarism”; see Abel 1955, 10.

  6. 6.

    See, for example, James 1975a and Schiller 1912b. “We do not make reality out of nothing, of course, i.e. we are not ‘creators’, and our powers are limited” (Schiller 1912b, 446). Schiller borrows the Greek term hylé here for the “original matter” that is pure potentiality unless we start to deal with it. See also James 1977, 98: “An immediate experience, as yet unnamed or classed, is a mere that that we undergo, a thing that asks ‘What am I’? When we name and class it, we say for the first time what it is.”

  7. 7.

    James’ metaphor of the sculptor can also be found in his Principles of Psychology Vol. I (New York: Dover Publications, 2007 [1890]), 288–289.

  8. 8.

    “It follows that the ‘making of truth’ is also in a very real sense a ‘making of reality’. In validating our claims to ‘truth’, we ‘discover’ realities. […] The making of truth, it is plain, is anything but a passive mirroring of ready-made fact. It is an active endeavour, in which our whole nature is engaged, and in which our desires, interests, and aims take a leading part” (Schiller 1912b, 425). So the homo mensura principle really reveals itself as the “great slogan of relativity”; see Schiller 1939b, 21. Pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty famously elaborated on this thesis; see Rorty, Richard. 1979. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Princeton University Press. Drawing mainly on James and Dewey, Rorty rejects a representationalist theory of truth and reality.

  9. 9.

    It is especially this pragmatic reformulation of the classical philosophical understanding of truth as correspondence of reality and proposition (which claims, roughly, that the sentence “The desk at my office is purple” is true if the desk at my office is purple) that aroused harsh critique. Yet the pragmatic understanding does not deny correspondence but asks how correspondence is experienced, that is, what practical difference it makes.

  10. 10.

    The idea is introduced and discussed, for example, in James’ Essays “The Will to Believe” (1896), “Is Life Worth Living?” (1895), and “The Sentiment of Rationality” (1882), which are all part of the volume The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy first published in 1897. It is, until today, highly contested, as it is often misunderstood as a plea for irrational (religious) belief.

  11. 11.

    See also James 1979c, 84: “The belief creates its verification. The thought becomes literally father to the fact, as the wish was father to the thought.” Bringing in the volitional element is a reaction upon the strategy of evidentialism, advocated, for example, by James’ contemporary William K. Clifford. To consider a belief is only legitimate in the case of full evidence for it counts as another embodiment of vicious intellectualism for James and is misguided in two ways. (1) The traditional conception of rational action has to be rejected under the conditions of a reality in the making. Of course we want to “play it safe” and settle our decisions on complete knowledge. Unfortunately, we actually are seldom in the ideal situation to be in possession of full knowledge about the consequences of our actions prior to our actions and commitments and often have to make a choice without that security. A strict evidentialism would force us into a paralytic stance. (2) Moreover, evidentialism leads to a deceptive neutrality, namely, one which is not neutral at closer inspection, since it amounts to negation of the belief in question.

  12. 12.

    The phenomenon of the “self-fulfilling prophecy” could be regarded as a common framing of this humanist insight. James constrains the “will to believe” to situations that qualify as a genuine option, which is a live, forced, and momentous option; see James 1979a.

  13. 13.

    James, however, sticks to a theistic version of meliorism and introduces the idea that there may be a helpful force. Yet, we have to do our share of the work to realize the good ending, since God is understood as “but one helper, primus inter pares, in the midst of all the shapers of the great world’s fate” (James 1975, 143).

  14. 14.

    For the potentials for feminist critique, see, for example, Rorty, Richard. “Feminism and Pragmatism. The Tanner Lectures on Human Values” (http://tannerlectures.utah.edu/_documents/a-to-z/r/rorty92.pdf). The non-essentialist idea of identity as socially constructed and the idea of pluralism was, for example, taken up by W. E. B. DuBois and Alain Locke, both influenced by James; see, for example, Livingston, Alexander. 2016. Damn Great Empires! William James and the Politics of Pragmatism. New York: Oxford University Press 142–150, 156, and Strube, Miriam. 2012. “Negating Domination: Pragmatism, Pluralism, Power”. In Revisiting Pragmatism. William James in the New Millennium. ed. Susanne Rohr and Miriam Strube. Heidelberg: Universitätverlag Winter, 141–154, especially 142–147.

  15. 15.

    This blindness “absolutely forbids us to be forward in pronouncing on the meaninglessness of forms of existence other than our own; and it commands us to tolerate, respect, and indulge those whom we see harmlessly interested and happy in their own ways, however unintelligible these may be to us. Hands off: neither the whole of truth nor the whole of good is revealed to any single observer, although each observer gains a partial superiority of insight from the particular position in which he stands” (James 1983, 149).

  16. 16.

    The pragmatic understanding of democracy clearly goes beyond being a governmental principle. Political considerations in the narrower sense are rather found in John Dewey’s work; see, for example, “The Public and Its Problems” (1927); yet James’ thinking also clearly points to a democratic way of life; see, for example, Livingston 2016. Schiller, however, regarded democracy as too demanding and turned to fascism; see, for example, his essays “Can Democracy Survive?” (1933), “Fascisms and Dictatorships” (1934), or “Ant-Men or Super-Men?” (1935), all posthumously published in Our Human Truths (1939).

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Honnacker, A. (2018). Approaching Pragmatic Humanism. In: Pragmatic Humanism Revisited. Studies in Humanism and Atheism. Palgrave Pivot, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-02441-3_2

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