Religion on the road to pragmatism

Sun 11 Oct 2015 12:14 PM

I am teaching American philosophy again, for the first time in almost a decade. I assigned some articles which I didn't assign last time, making me notice what I take to be a shift in Willam James' thought which I hadn't noticed before.*

In 'The Will to Believe' (1896), James characterizes the religious hypothesis as the claim that the best things are the more eternal things and that we are better off believing them so.

Two years later, James gives a lecture at Berkeley which considers similar questions.** I assigned it this time through, because it's the first place where the term 'pragmatism' is introduced.

In the Berkeley lecture, James considers religion of the focus-on-the-eternal sense but poses the worry that abstract religion is too concerned with the infinite and the abstract. His reply is to concede this and claim, instead, that genuine religion is realized in particular lived experience. He writes:

Did such a conglomeration of abstract general terms give really the gist of our knowledge of the Deity, divinity-schools might indeed continue to flourish, but religion, vital religion, would have taken its flight from this world. What keeps religion going is something else than abstract definitions and systems of logically concatenated adjectives, and something different from faculties of theology and their professors. All these things are after-effects, secondary accretions upon a mass of concrete religious experiences, connecting themselves with feeling and conduct that renew themselves in saecula saeculorum in the lives of humble private men. If you ask what these experiences are, they are conversations with the unseen, voices and visions, responses to prayer, changes of heart, deliverances from fear, inflowings of help, assurances of support, whenever certain persons set their own internal attitude in certain appropriate ways.

This shift in focus points toward the enquiry which is presented a few years later as The Varieties of Religious Experience (1901-2). But the two conceptions of religion are offered alongside one another in the Berkeley lecture.

In 1906, James delivers the Pragmatism lectures. I've never paid much attention to the first lecture, because it is merely an advertisement for pragmatism rather than an explanation of it. He poses the distinction between tough-minded and tender-minded temperaments, and he claims that we pick philosophical conceptions which fit our temperaments.

Yet there is also an extended discussion of the failings of religion. Considering the tragedy of a man who commits suicide because he cannot support his family, James writes:

[W]hile... thinkers are unveiling Reality and the Absolute and explaining away evil and pain, this is the condition of the only beings known to us anywhere in the universe... What these people experience is Reality.

Here James seems to flatfootedly reject the value of religion which gestures to the infinite, insisting on the religion instead which is realized in particularities.

So it seems to me that there may be a shift in the ten year period from `The Will to Believe' to Pragmatism. It coincides with James' popularization and working-through of pragmatism as a method.

* This is probably well-marked in the secondary literature somewhere, but I don't have enough of a grasp on the literature about James to say where.

** Published as 'Philosophical Conceptions And Practical Results'.