The Soul of Classical American Philosophy: The Ethical and Spiritual Insights of William James, Josiah Royce, and Charles Sanders Peirce. By Richard P. Mullin

Book Review

The Soul of Classical American Philosophy: The Ethical and Spiritual Insights of William James, Josiah Royce, and Charles Sanders Peirce. By Richard P. Mullin. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2007. HC $68.50. PB $28.95
    Richard Mullin describes this book as having two purposes: first, to make the key ideas of James, Royce, and Peirce accessible to readers who are not specialists in classical American philosophy or philosophy in general, and second, to illuminate the merits of their ideas as they apply to thought and to life. When it comes to these goals, I believe that Mullin is, on the whole, successful. At the same time, however, I believe that the shortcomings of this book are significant enough to warrant elaboration in this review. I will begin with these, and end by focusing on the aspects of this book deserving of celebration. 1
    In the first line of the text, Mullin stipulates that “in describing the soul of American philosophy,” he is focusing on the thought of James, Royce, and Peirce as they “dealt with issues that would be treated under the name of soul in traditional philosophy.” He enumerates these issues as “the search for truth; the meaning of whatever we call our ‘self,’ especially in relation to our bodily existence; free will; moral values; community, and our relationship with the Transcendent” (xi). The decision to discuss the thought of James, Royce, and Peirce in this regard is certainly sound, but the absence of John Dewey in this conversation is immediately glaring. Mullin is aware of this, asserting that despite his emphasis, he does not deny Dewey’s importance. He then gives a paragraph summation of Dewey’s philosophical vision, concluding that, “John Dewey stands out among the most important classical pragmatists and his work receives adequate and deserved attention” (xiv). Although Mullin is to be credited for acknowledging Dewey’s importance, his case for not treating Dewey at any length is rather unsatisfying. One might make the same remark about James or Peirce; each stands out among the most important classical pragmatists and the work of each receives adequate and deserved attention. So why engage them in the present work, but not Dewey? 2
    The answer cannot be that Dewey says nothing or little about that which Mullin describes as falling under the name of soul. Dewey engages each of these issues within his cavernous corpus, some topics taking up residence at the heart of several books. I suspect that the motivation for Mullin’s exclusion of Dewey is intimated in the “Personal Note” marking the end of the Introduction, in which Mullin tells of his giving a series of lectures at the University of Trnava, a state university in Slovakia with a Catholic orientation: “The administrators were surprised to learn that American pragmatism is compatible with Christianity. I told them that this misunderstanding prevails among Americans as well. I suggested to my hosts that the work of James, Royce, and Peirce, coming from outside the Catholic tradition, could serve to revitalize Catholic philosophy in a way analogous to the way the works of Aristotle did in the thirteenth century” (xv). It seems that Mullin excludes Dewey because unlike James, Royce, and Peirce, Dewey overtly spurns organized religion. If this is the case, Mullin should state so explicitly; otherwise, it seems implied that Dewey has little regard for the matters discussed in this book or that the scholarship has exhausted all to be said of these aspects of Dewey’s thought. Either implication is gravely misleading, especially in a text intended for newcomers to the classical American tradition. 3
    Another choice that arouses curiosity is that of treating Peirce after James and Royce, when Peirce is widely considered the founder of American pragmatism and clearly influences the thought of James and Royce. Mullin acknowledges the counterintuitive quality of the order in which he handles these figures, but defends his decision by pointing out that Peirce’s national and international influence emerged later than that of James and Royce (120). While this may be so, it would seem more helpful to the reader new to the classical American tradition to meet these authors in biographical order. This book centers on the thought of these philosophers, after all, not on their public reputations. The treatments of James and Royce would have been richer if they had followed an account of Peirce, highlighting those tenets of his thought which each inherited and resisted. Moreover, the anticipatory groundwork Mullin would have laid in his discussion of Peirce would have helped to fill out a section of the book that feels fragmentary, especially when compared to the other two. While Mullin devotes sixty pages to James and forty-eight to Royce, he offers just twenty-nine on Peirce, including a chapter on the human person that Mullin himself describes as bringing “nothing new to the table” (158). Another approach would be to omit the discussion of Peirce altogether, in favor of deepening the discussions of James and Royce. Granted, if this were done, the book could not be cast as a general introduction to classical American philosophy, but would instead become a close examination of the philosophical dialogue between James and Royce, a juxtaposition that Mullin calls “one of the most fascinating comparisons and contrasts in philosophy” (67). Such a study would be a welcome addition to the literature, and finds its rudiments in Mullin’s work. 4
    This book is indeed at its most fascinating when navigating the thick territories of James and Royce. Mullin’s expositions of James on free will and spirituality would be of great service to anyone struggling to comprehend these dimensions of his thought. More impressive, though, is the clarity of Mullin’s accounts of Royce’s idealism and conception of the self. Here, Mullin is forced to explicate notoriously dense prose from The World and the Individual, and does so with elegance and élan. One heuristic strategy that Mullin employs is to contrast the positions of classical American pragmatists with those of philosophers who came before them. This is executed most effectively in the first two chapters dedicated to James and the first two chapters dedicated to Royce, very appropriate places, incidentally, for such comparisons to take place. With respect to the former, Mullin contrasts James’s radical empiricism with British empiricism, and James’s conception of the mind/body relation with those of a variety of ancient Greek and medieval thinkers. With respect to the latter, Mullin contrasts Royce’s notion of an idea with those notions found in British empiricism, and Royce’s notion of the self with those of a gamut of philosophers including Aquinas, Hume, and Hegel. These comparisons are all too brief but likely still helpful to the reader with a basic philosophical background. These portions could be particularly useful in survey courses in American philosophy at both undergraduate and graduate levels. 5
    Thus, despite my reservations about this book, it is fair to say that Mullin makes good on his goal of rendering classical American pragmatism more accessible. Further, Mullin also succeeds in demonstrating the good that can come to our lives from a “deep drink from the spring of classical American pragmatism” (xv). For Mullin, the tie binding James, Royce, and Peirce is the view that belief in, and devotion to, the soul (as Mullin describes it) enriches the lives of individuals and communities alike. If this is the case, those unfamiliar with classical American philosophy have compelling impetus to seek the introduction Mullin provides.
Mathew A. Foust
Department of Philosophy
University of Oregon

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