I wrote an article this week for the Second Pass as part of a series honoring the great philosopher William James on the centennial of his death. This centennial has also been observed at The Atlantic (which was kind enough to note my piece) and The Daily Beast (by Robert Richardson, whose new collection of selected essays ought to help spread the Jamesian gospel.)
My article is about the historic meeting of William James and Sigmund Freud in at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1909. Other pieces at the Second Pass this week include a choice quote from The Varieties of Religious Experience, a piece by J. C. Hallman and another by Levi Stahl (one of only two other people named Levi I’ve ever heard of in real life — if we could get Levi Johnston over here we’d have the whole set).
I’ve been reading and appreciating William James for a long time, and have always considered his theory of truth to be his crowning achievement. By the time James arrived on the scene in the late 19th Century, philosophers from Rene Descartes to David Hume to Immanuel Kant had been long grappling with the nature of knowledge and the meaning of truth, and had been grouped into regional/ideological clusters known as Continental Rationalism, British Empiricism and German Idealism according to their positions on this question. William James provided the most modern and, arguably, the most credible and satisfying entry in this race: American Pragmatism.
William James was really the only essential figure among the so-called American Pragmatists (though he generously tried to share the credit with Charles Pierce and John Dewey). The theory amounted to a lively and highly flexible interpretation of the meaning of knowledge and truth: lofty claims of rationality, objectivity and scientific accuracy aside, James said, it is our human nature to believe whatever we wish to believe. The only requirement we typically need to call something “true” is that the thing be roughly believable, and that believing it should serve our purposes.
If you examine your own intellectual assumptions and those of everybody around you according to these terms, you may find yourself quickly realizing that James’s simple (and, to many, offensive) theory of truth hits the nail on the head. For better or worse, this appears to be how our brains actually work. It’s worth noting that American Pragmatism was the last great movement in the history of modern epistemology; the Jamesian theory of truth seems to have settled the case.
I’m happy to see that William James has a growing following among online literati, including not only The Second Pass’s John Williams but also Bookslut’s Jessa Crispin. I’ve also noticed a recent trend to acclaim James’s late book The Varieties of Religious Experience as his most important work. Varieties truly is a groundbreaking and deeply compassionate book about the enduring place of religion in modern life, and about the highly personal and individual nature of spiritual belief. Even so, I can’t call this book James’s best work. For sheer power, I recommend various essays like The Will To Believe or Pragmatism: A New Name For Some Old Ways of Thinking as the best starting points for a William James newbie.
I’ve also written previously here about James’s theory of truth, his theory of emotion and his relationship with his always more famous younger brother.
What do you think about William James’s theory of truth — does it ring true for you?