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The Classical Pragmatists, Part 2: William James and John Dewey

Note: For a general introduction to Pragmatism, see the August meetup announcement on our web site.

William James saw the history of philosophy as the conflict between empiricism and rationalism. Rationalists were idealistic, dogmatic, and monistic; Empiricists were materialistic, pluralistic, and skeptical. James’s pragmatism attempted to reconcile the two views, emphasizing the utility of science to solve problems in the “real” world yet also relying on religion to provide stability and meaning in a spiritual context. Influenced by Darwin, whose model of nature is that of continuous change, he rejected a monistic universe in favor of a pluralistic one, where different forces act both in harmony and in opposition to each other. Although opposition is inevitable at times, he believed that the direction of change is progressive, especially in the human domain, hence his use of the term “meliorism” to denote the capacity of individuals and institutions to improve.

Like James, Dewey acknowledged religion’s historical role in making sense of the universe but, unlike James, was uninterested in the nature of religious consciousness. In the area of ethics he believed science's authority was preeminent. Good actions are determined not a priori or intuitively but through analysis of consequences (the invocation of consequences links Pragmatism with Utilitarianism). Once a social problem has been identified it undergoes the same problem-solving regimen as occurs in the sciences: hypothesis generation, testing, implementation, and re-testing. Although Dewey influenced numerous disciplines, from Business Administration to Social Work, his greatest impact was in the field of Education, as evidenced by programs such as Head Start. Ambivalent in his feelings towards Marxism (he embraced its humanism but rejected violent revolution), he displayed a temperament similar to Marx, believing that theory without action was worthless.

The anthology we will be using is Pragmatism: The Classic Writings, ed. H. S. Thayer. Hackett Publishing Company, 1982. It is available from ($12.95 new, from $0.01 used). The James articles to be discussed include: "Introduction", "An Interview: Pragmatism--What It Is", "The Will to Believe", "What Pragmatism Means", "Pragmatism's Conception of Truth", "The Tigers in India", and "The Meaning of the Word Truth". The Dewey articles are "Introduction", "The Unit of Behavior", "The Practical Character of Reality", "The Construction of the Good", and "The Pattern of Inquiry". The total number of pages is about 150.

The following resources provide commentary, bibliographies, lecture notes, and videos (some general links about Pragmatism listed in the previous session appear here, for those members who missed it):

Wikipedia: "Pragmatism", "Pragmatic Theory of Truth", "William James", "John Dewey"

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: "Pragmatism", "William James", "Dewey's Moral Philosophy", "Dewey's Political Philosophy"

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: "Pragmatism", "William James", "John Dewey"

Pragmatism Cybrary (useful for bibliographies, less for biographical information)

Susan Haack, "Five Answers on Pragmatism" (author is Professor of Philosophy, University of Miami)

Emory University William James Web Site (includes full text links to some of James's works)

William James, “The Pragmatist Account of Truth and Its Misunderstanders” The Philosophical Review 17 no. 1 (January 1908): 1-17. (James answers questions about the meaning of Pragmatism.)

James T. Kloppenberg, “Pragmatism: An Old Name for Some New Ways of Thinking?” The Journal of American History 83 no. 1 (June 1996): 100-138.

Sam Fogarty, “William James’s Pragmatism: The Practical Value of Personal Truth and Liberation from Truth” Vanderbilt Undergraduate Research Journal 8 (Spring 2012) (Impressively insightful and well-written article by an undergraduate)

Michael J. Qirk, "Dewey's Version of Pragmatism" (author teaches in the Adult Division at New School University and Hofstra University)

Shulamit Gribov, "John Dewey's Pragmatism and Moral Education" Philosophy of Education (2001): 373-380.

Richard S. Prawat, “The Two Faces of Deweyan Pragmatism: Inductionism versus Social Constructivism” Teachers College Record 102 no. 4 (August 2000): 805-840.

Bart Schultz, "Obama's Rhetoric, Pragmatism, and the University of Chicago" (a philosophical and institutional influence that is rarely examined; the key pragmatist, of course, is Dewey, who taught at the University)

Lecture Notes:

“Pragmatic Morality: Living Life in the Breach” by William Mark Smillie, Professor of Philosophy at Carroll College (a list of pragmatist precepts)

“The Will to Believe: William James” by Professor Bob Corbett, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Webster University

"John Dewey" by Professor Robert Lane, Philosophy Program, University of West Georgia


“William James and Josiah Royce - James's Pragmatism and American Social Thought,[masked]" by James T. Kloppenberg, Professor of American History at Harvard University

“Sidney Morgenbesser on the American Pragmatists" Section 1, Section 2, Section 3, Section 4, Section 5 (interviewee was a Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University)

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  • A former member
    A former member

    Sorry I could not make it. I was driving from Woodbridge to the metro (Eisenhower Ave) s Alexandria. Massive traffic backup on Route 1 going n meant that i could not have reache dthe Metro until 1:15 or later and made it in around 2:00. Would have missed too much of it. But I will be Pramatic about the traffic. ; )

    September 18, 2012

  • Alex R.

    Loved it. Great to get into the social commentary and criticism. Small group was an interesting change, and made for a different level of discussion.

    September 17, 2012

  • Kyongsook K.

    Very good. As always, Scott did a great job, asking good questions (e.g., "What is practical?").

    September 15, 2012

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