Is James Still Too Radical for Pragmatic Recognition? William James’s Radical Reconstruction of Philosophy–Fifteen Years Later (Presidential Address)

Is James Still Too Radical for Pragmatic Recognition?
William James’s Radical Reconstruction of Philosophy—Fifteen Years Later

Charlene Haddock Seigfried
Purdue University

    In reading John Dewey as well as William James these days, I’m struck by how often they refer to interpretation, both in regard to what they themselves are doing and as a method of philosophical procedure. There has been no abatement of explanations and refinements of James’s pragmatic method and theory of truth over the years, but these are old topics, driven more by traditional preoccupations with truth claims and old metaphysical disputes than by the pragmatists’ new visions. According to the pragmatists, Charles Darwin had created an ever-widening chasm separating the old dreams of a static coalescence of mind and being from the new insights into the ever-evolving ways we engage the world. The rather disconcerting fact that James more often proceeds by a hermeneutic method, including the extravagant use of metaphor, than by applying a pragmatic method, or even while applying the pragmatic method, is still not widely recognized, let alone developed further.
    The more I work with William James and other pragmatists, the more convinced I am that the pragmatic method, powerful though it is, has had the unfortunate effect of overshadowing other methods also employed. As is often the case, John Dewey has said it most explicitly when he said that knowledge is not everything; it is only one small part of experience, and is, in any case, itself an experience. When we forget that the pragmatic method of determining facts is itself an experiential operation transforming self and nature/culture, it becomes just another abstract formula and loses its status as an innovative alternative to reductive epistemologies. Experience, for James, sparkles and entices through metaphor, which multiplies insights, and dries up and dies in formal languages, with their drive toward ever more precise singularity of meaning. After the success of Principles James wrote to his brother, Henry, that he now felt good enough about himself to begin—among other things— “never seeking a second metaphor, or a third, when the first or second were good enough.”1 He thus attributed his habitual flow of metaphors to an expression of anxiety over finding just the right expression, rather than as an exuberance of creative insight for its own sake.
     In James the pragmatic method itself was never formulated and analyzed in the precise, step-by-step terms developed over the years by Dewey. It is still advanced through metaphor: the pragmatic method leading to truth performs a marriage function, it is a leading that is worthwhile. It marks a few blazes and clears a path through the wilderness, but such “blazes merely circle towards the true direction” and will never get there.2 This is because there is no ‘there’ there, no being-in-itself to which our beliefs must conform on pain of falsity, but only myriad ways of leading to goals which we ourselves have determined. When there are only ends-in-view, there are no ends as such. Selective interest operates all the way down. As James says: “The world we practically live in is one in which it is impossible (except by theoretic retrospection) to disentangle the contributions of intellect from those of sense.” Such contributions are ‘retrospective,’ not ‘introspective’ because they are actually new formulations, developed for a specific purpose, and not insights into the original perceptual facts. James immediately follows his proposition with its metaphorical equivalent, one in which it becomes evident that perspectives cannot be stripped off some original given, to lay its reality bare. He continues: “They are wrapt and rolled together as a gunshot in the mountains is wrapt and rolled in fold on fold of echo and reverberative clamor.”3 In such reverberations gunshot and echo cannot be prised apart. The belief that we could get back to or behind the reverberations to the original, unreverberating shot is an illusion that motivates realism and correspondence theories of truth. James instead calls attention to a dynamic interplay that undermines the priority of either subject or world, a position best characterized as a hermeneutic circle, when he points out that “the more we see, the more we think; while the more we think, the more we see in our immediate experiences.”4 Only when discussions of the pragmatic hermeneutic circle replace discussions of the pragmatic method as an epistemological enterprise, will I feel that this one of my central theses has had some effect.5
    We do not select a portion of the world to interact with because it is there but because we are interested in doing one thing rather than another. If the world answers to our desires, well and good, if not, we try something else. As James says, something is there, to be sure, but what and how it is, is up to us. The least unit is the ‘full fact,’ saturated with awareness of past, present, and future, of bodily awareness, and fringed by “who knows how much more?”6 To talk about what is really there apart from “my present field of consciousness [which] is a centre surrounded by a fringe that shades insensibly into a subconscious more” violates this radically empiricist fact of an irreducible perspectivism of fringe and focus and thus spins off into speculation.7 4
Megan Rust Mustain
    Megan Rust Mustain’s insight that James does not just use metaphors but offers metaphorical discourse as an alternative to classic ways of philosophizing precisely grasps my contention that James thinks and argues through metaphors. When I was working on William James’s Radical Reconstruction of Philosophy, I wrote the chapters on metaphor and James’s hermeneutical methodology last, even though they appear in the middle of the book, because the interpretive space this approach opened up would have taken over the whole project had I started with it. There was so much to say about it, so much that cried out for more detailed explanation, and so little that had been done, that I did not dare begin my project by exploring it. I hoped that this most intriguing and idiosyncratic aspect of his writings, which had been too long neglected, would spur a mini-industry on what has long been recognized as prototypically James, but which, paradoxically, has been under-developed by scholars. Instead, this fertile field has largely lain fallow. 5
     This is why Megan’s paper—and David Perley’s, too, for that matter—are so welcome. Megan treats metaphor with the importance it deserves. As she says, what James early on called “the datum” to indicate what distinguishes radical empiricism from traditional empiricism is soon replaced by the word ‘field’ because “it is conveniently ambiguous,” and this is one more indication of James’s rejection of a correspondence theory of reality for one that recognizes that our understanding of reality is determined by what we find suitable to the task at hand. The evocativeness of metaphor is better suited to the myriad ways that experience can be taken than is a language of logical equivalence. John Dewey’s essay on the occasion of James’s death also praised him for “a clearness and a picturesqueness that will long be the despair of other philosophers,” but did not seem to recognize that his picturesque use of metaphor was more than a rhetorical device.8 Although by coupling picturesqueness and clearness, Dewey goes a long way toward such recognition.
    Megan takes up the challenge to develop James’s pragmatic hermeneutics, indicating, for example, that the individualism of James’s emphasis on selective interests can be expanded to include shared experiences and interests. She also points out that the aestheticism of rationalism is incomplete and misleading because it does not take account of our practical interests. Her twofold test is intriguing and convincingly applied to James’s own notes. In doing so, she touches on James’s criterion of ‘concreteness,’ a pervasive reference to experience in James and one worth exploring further for the light it throws on his hermeneutics and preference for metaphor.
    James’s hermeneutic approach emerges out of and puts into tension his phenomenological approach and this tension needs to be kept in mind if the wider ramifications of his thought are to be recognized.9 He intended to establish psychology as a strict science, based on observable phenomena, with no contamination from metaphysical or subjectively perspectival assumptions, but found that the selective interests disclosed in his approach as suffusing human consciousness also influenced his own descriptions. James’s empiricist approach is already radically empiricist in The Principles of Psychology and constitutes an original concrete or phenomenological philosophical analysis because it ties description to selective interests and because the findings so engendered become the basis for his interpretive or hermeneutical insights. Even while affirming the continued importance of a natural science of psychology and of the role of concrete facts as the bulwark of experiential claims, James astonishingly gives up his claim to having established such a science barely four years after publishing his Principles.10 And in a new Preface written a decade after Principles, he again reaffirms the importance of harmonizing the various schools of thought “on the common basis of fact,” but complains of the difficulty of treating psychology “without introducing some positive philosophic doctrine.” What James does not recognize, but which we can in hindsight, is that he has already abolished the unproductive distinction between fact and interpretation in an original hermeneutical phenomenology, one which is best described in his own words: “The whole concrete course of an individual’s thinking life is explicable by the cooperation of his interests and impulses, his sensational experiences, his associations, & his voluntary acts of choice.”11 8
    By connecting James’s use of a metaphorical method with the importance of recognizing that reality is determined interactively and that beliefs need to be tested and retested experimentally in light of both new evidence and previously unexamined and even newly created human interests, Megan demonstrates the importance of his concrete hermeneutics of metaphor. In fact, its centrality to James’s thought is so important that its neglect goes a long way to explaining why the original and challenging way he evades both realism and idealism is still so little recognized, why his pragmatic theory of truth is still being forced into traditional models, and why the playfulness of his new beginning in radical empiricism is sobered down into a dull empiricism or metaphysics of process. Megan is right that James’s hermeneutics of metaphor is more radical in its implications than any particular metaphor he actually uses, but I would also like to emphasize that if he is developing his arguments through the intriguing medium of metaphor, then precisely how he does so is also worth further attention and development. 9
Richard Shusterman
    In an earlier abstract I received from Richard Shusterman, he begins with James’s central vision of a personal attitude of active tension between his own stalwartness and the responsiveness of outward events in answering to his determination, all the while anticipating a harmonious, if somewhat precarious, outcome. I have been curious how Richard would relate these to his next topic, James’s emphasis on practical and aesthetic interests. In William James’s Radical Reconstruction of Philosophy, I argued for the importance James’s attaches to these two classes of interests. They virtually demonstrate the worth of any claim about the way the world is and validate pragmatic beliefs. Without them, we cannot explain what is worthwhile about a belief that is worthwhile, and therefore have no heuristic to replace the correspondence model of truth. As the only pragmatic a priori James recognizes, I hoped that my recognition of the singular warrant he attributes to aesthetic and practical interests would arouse either strong opposition or support, but it seems it did neither. Given the importance James attributes to them, I still find this neglect puzzling. It seems to be part of a blindness to James’s intent to revolutionize philosophy and break old molds. In place of solid foundations, James leaves us with only a discernment of better and worse activations of interests and a concerned responsiveness to their consequences, but this is surely enough.12 10
    Richard’s connection of the center of James’s vision with these determining interests and his interest in developing the way they play off one another, is therefore a welcome approach and one which I hope he will continue developing. He examines the relation of these and other interests to the sentient body, another emphasis of James which James himself highlighted, but which nonetheless remained underdeveloped in his writings and which would therefore benefit from continued attention. As Richard mines this rich field of bodiliness, I would only like to point out what I see as a slight difference in meanings and approach in James’s writings. Richard says that James does not adequately recognize the relationship of the body to the aesthetic. He also makes the body foundational for all our actions, feelings and thoughts. Having not yet seen the developed paper, I am going to raise some concerns about these remarks, ones which he may have already answered, but in the interest of clarity, I will nonetheless raise. 11
    Since the practical/moral and the aesthetic/intellectual interests are the final court of appeal for James in any judgments, it is difficult to see how the body could be the really final foundation. A live body, undivided into and irreducible to body and soul or matter and form, expresses itself through interests which can be classified into one of these two broad types, according to James. These cannot be further reduced to something outside them, certainly not to the body, since they are already the body as interested. When Richard says that James did not adequately understand the aesthetic dimensions of the body, he seems to be using a different meaning of ‘aesthetic’ from the one in play.13 The aesthetic, as co-ordinate with the practical, means that aspect of rationality that valorizes clarity and simplicity. It brings about and finds harmony in formal order, which is achieved by applying Occam’s razor or the choice of the simplest among many equally workable explanations. Practical rationality, by contrast, brings aesthetic rationality down to earth by putting its choices to the test of specific courses of action in the interest of concretely better ways of life. Although aesthetic rationality would forever spin in the void unless it suggests approaches that are sufficiently developed and practically lived to provide evidence for their worth, the selective advantage of practical rationality also consists in the fact that it multiplies, rather than restricts, possibilities because it is alive to the myriad seductions of kaleidoscopic experiences and the benefits to be gained by following up more than one possible course of action. 12
    Since the practical, as one of the two classes of rational interests, means primarily in relation to the body, by sticking with James’s reconstructed meanings, it can be said that what Richard claims James underplays is not the relation of the body to the aesthetic, but a fuller development of practical rationality. The neglect to read the pragmatists ‘slant,’ as Emily Dickinson would say, follows from our widespread failure to recognize their intent to begin philosophy anew and from our neglect of the new meanings they put into the old bottles of traditional philosophical terminology. One of my intentions in Radical Reconstruction was to read James inside out, as it were, and show the marvelous originality of his perspective and see what happens if James’s new beginning in a hermeneutics of selective interest and a phenomenology of pragmatic concreteness were systematically developed instead of fitting his vision into an already determined tradition of philosophical meanings and vocabulary. 13
    ‘Concreteness,’ for example, cannot simply be reduced to ‘the empirical’ or to ‘facts’ or ‘data,’ as Megan has already intimated. It took me most of the chapters in the book to try to unravel its myriad and inter-related meanings, in the hope that this would provide the basis for a new focus in Jamesian interpretation and free his angle of vision at last from the alien encrustations that has held it captive to empiricist or idealist narratives. Multiple tensions pulling in different directions structure James’s thinking throughout. These include the aesthetic and the practical, living and reflecting on life, the free play of selective interest and the embeddedness of concrete experience, an indifferent universe and one peopled by cosmic consciousnesses, humanistic pragmatism and a pragmatism still tied to transcendent rescue missions, and the sick soul and the healthy soul. His radically empiricist perspective is not best served by making a theory of truth or the will to believe or determinism versus free will ‘the’ central issue, as continues to be the case in many instances.14 14
David Perley
    With great insight, David Perley shows the interconnections of themes that Megan and Richard have raised. He ties together the hermeneutical method of metaphor with the empirical method of observation and description, or—a Jamesian phrasing of David’s that I prefer—the concrete historical world of experience. I appreciate his recognition of the concrete, genealogical method employed in Pragmatism and Feminism and its implications for a thorough reconstruction of philosophy as lived and transformative experience.15 I have since been intrigued to discover that Jane Addams used James’s radical reconstruction of rationality as a way to explain the Hull House settlement’s mission. Paraphrasing James’s complaint that “it is no easy matter to find a world rational as to its intellectual, aesthetic, moral, and practical aspects,” she continues that it is especially difficult when working in impoverished and oppressed neighborhoods. Nonetheless, in reflecting on the experiences of the Hull House residents over the years, Addams found she could best express the settlement outlook as a commitment to “this fourfold undertaking” of contributing to the world’s rationality by “people of widely diversified tastes and interests.”16 15
    After briefly developing James’s hermeneutics of metaphor, David then goes on to show how much philosophical mileage can be gained from close and imaginative consideration of particular metaphors, such as ones emphasizing vagueness. This calls to mind William Gavin’s development of its many strands in William James and the Reinstatement of the Vague 17 As David says, the problem of such subjectivity and interpretive excess needs to be addressed by a method of discernment. However, James never really resolves the dilemma of proposing two conflicting criteria of judgment—sometimes he appeals to the adequate description of things as they are and sometimes to the selectivity of things as I need or expect to see them. He ironically lacked the very self-consciousness of the interpretive methods he was nonetheless developing with such acumen.18 He did realize the importance of the pragmatic method, of bringing one’s insights to the test of actual outcomes, if chaos or forceful imposition of one point of view were to be avoided. 16
    David uses the methodological tools he identifies in James to good effect by asking what this concrete, hermeneutical approach means for the aesthetically rational approach typical of contemporary studies of religion. He creatively appropriates James’s interest in getting us to see the unfamiliar in the familiar, “of making conventionalities fluid again,” the very definition James gives of philosophy.19 By taking seriously James’s distinction of his own version of “the poet as visionary” from Emerson’s intent to transmit “to earth a divine message” and instead divinize the everyday world, David proposes a reversal of the mystical method. It would be interesting to see where this leads him.20 17
John Capps
    Of course, I am very gratified to see John Capps take James’s radically new approach for granted and move on from there. It is a good thing that younger generations can, as Dewey as well as Feyerabend and Toulmin said, get over rather than solve some problems generated by a given paradigm, instead of endlessly “chewing a historic cud long since reduced to woody fibre.”21 It is also wonderful to see such careful attention paid to the intricacies of James’s views of knowledge and truth, positions that have not, so far, made much of a dent in pragmatist reworkings of traditional theories of truth. 18
    I’m curious, though, about John’s aversion to inflationary metaphysics. Now, it will come as no surprise to this audience that I think that pragmatists, generally, are averse to metaphysics, unless this term is so reinterpreted as to retain little of its formal meanings, though perhaps preserving the informal, common-sense meaning of ‘the way the world seems to be to me.’22 Identifying Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with its many performances is precisely what John Dewey, for example, does, because the art work comes to be as art only in the transaction that takes place between artist and medium or audience and performance. So, it exists, viz., ‘is happening’ as many times as it happens. And for James there are as many ‘givens’ as there are ways of ‘taking’ the world; he says that it is irrelevant whether we say that we find or create the world experienced because we are not dealing with an already constituted world that perfectly matches a judgment, but with a transformation that brings about what it intends. Such intentions are limited only by our experiences and imagination, and the world is pliable to our interactions. James refused to join Occams’s sect of the Knights of the Razor because he thought that it was only because our whole lives are quests for the superfluous that we have been able to establish ourselves so reliably in the necessary.33 I would say that re-interpreting this insight as metaphysically inflationary is mixing up pragmatist pluralism in regard to anticipatory and then fulfilled ends-in-view with a metaphysical world view or system and vocabulary of presence. This in no way impugns John’s sense that identifying truth makers is not a fruitful approach, given the more satisfactory instrumental approach. 19
    John clearly grasps that James’s account highlighted practical and moral concerns and addresses real crises because his primary question is the function of the concept of truth. With this focus, old problems and disputes are simply bypassed for more pressing ones. 20

Purdue University


1. WJ to HJ, 1 June, 1891, The Correspondence of William James, ed. Ignas Skrupskelis and Elizabeth M. Berkeley, vol. 2, (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993), 177.


2. William James, Pragmatism (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1975), 257-58 and Seigfried, William James’s Radical Reconstruction of Philosophy (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990), 22-25 and 396.

3. William James, Some Problems of Philosophy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979), 58-59.

4. James, Some Problems, 59.

5. See page 281 and quote on page 297 of William James’s Radical Reconstruction.

6. Seigfried, William James’s Radical Reconstruction, 361.

7. William James, A Pluralistic Universe (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1977), 130.

8. John Dewey, “William James,” in Middle Works, Volume 6: 1910-1911 (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1978), 91.

9. See Seigfried, “The World We Practically Live In,” in Margaret E. Donnelly, ed., Reinterpreting the Legacy of William James (Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association Press, 1992), 77-89.

10. James, “The Knowing of Things Together” (1894), Essays in Psychology (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978), 88.

11. James, “James’s Preface to Ferrari’s Italian Translation” (1900), Appendix III of The Principles of Psychology, Vol. III, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981), 1484.

12. Seigfried, “Like Bridges Without Piers: Beyond the Foundationalist Metaphor,” in Tom Rockmore and Beth J. Singer, eds., Anti-Foundationalism Old and New. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992, pp. 143-164 and “Devising Ends Worth Striving For,” in Andrew R. Smith and Lenore Langsdorf, eds., Recovering Pragmatism’s Voice: The Classical Tradition, Rorty, and the Philosophy of Communication (State University of New York Press, 1995), pp. 115-128.

13. See Seigfried, “Weaving Chaos into Order: A Radically Pragmatic Aesthetic,” Philosophy and Literature, 14:1(1990), 108-116.

14. See Seigfried, “Introduction,” to Ralph Barton Perry, The Thought and Character of William James (Nashville and London: Vanderbilt University Press, 1996), ix-xvii.

15. For a defense of my style, which I take to be typical of philosophies of experience, see Charlene Haddock Seigfried and Hans Seigfried, “Individual Feeling and Universal Validity,” Steven Mailloux, ed., (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 139-154.

16. Jane Addams, Twenty Years at Hull-House (New York: Penguin Books, 1981), 308. Although in both essays called “The Sentiment of Rationality,” James explains practical interests as being moral ones and aesthetic interests as identical to rationalistic intellectual ones, he also uses all these terms separately, leading to some confusion as to whether there are two or four broad classes of interests. The evidence suggests to me that he makes no fundamental distinction between the practical/moral and the aesthetic/intellectual.

17. William Joseph Gavin, William James and the Reinstatement of the Vague (Philadelphia: Temple University Press), 1992. See also Seigfried, “Vagueness and the Adequacy of Concepts: In Defense of William James’s Picturesque Style,” Philosophy Today, 26(Winter, 1982), 357-367.

18. See Seigfried, “The World We Practically Live In,” 77-89; “William James’s Concrete Analysis of Experience,” Monist, Special Issue: Pragmatism: A Second Look. 75:4 (Oct., 1992), pp. 538-550, and “The Pragmatist Sieve of Concepts: Description Vs. Interpretation,” The Journal of Philosophy, 87:11(Nov., 1990), 585-592

19. James, Essays in Philosophy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978), 4.

20. My own analysis of James’s method in Varieties of Religious Experience has not yet been published. “The Legacy of William James: No Dogmas and No Doctrines?” The Science of Religions Conference: One Hundred Years of William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, University of Illinois at Chicago, Apr. 12-13, 2002.

21. Dewey, “The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy,” in Middle Works, Volume 10: 1916-1917 (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1980), 47.

22. Seigfried, “Ghosts Walking Underground: Dewey’s Vanishing Metaphysics,” Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, 40:1(Winter, 2004), 1-29; “Pragmatist Metaphysics? Why Terminology Matters,” Transactions Charles S. Peirce Society. 37:1 (Winter, 2001), 13-21, and “Experience, Anyone? Why Pragmatists Should Get Over the Realism/Anti-realism Debate,” Intellectual History Newsletter, 20(1998), 24-32.

23. William James, The Will to Believe (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979), 105.

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