William James on the Humanities



William James’s conception of the humanities and their value opens a way to restoring them to the center of the academic curriculum but without compromising other disciplines. He does this by showing that any discipline, whether the natural and social sciences, or even the various branches of engineering and other technical fields, qualify as one of the humanities or liberal arts if studied historically. The immediate aim of a humanistic or liberal education, in James’s historical conception of it, is to acquaint students with the best achievements in all fields of human endeavor so that they might emulate, equal and even surpass them. Its ultimate aim is to sharpen students’ discernment of real quality wherever and whenever they encounter it, particularly among rival politicians and their policies. Implicit in James’s ideal of a liberal education are some of his most distinctive philosophical ideas, viz. evolutionism, functionalism, pragmatism, individualism, and personalism.

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