The Legacy of William James

Article excerpt

Introduction

As nearly all of us know, William James (1842-1910) was a pioneer thinker whose life and work spanned the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and whose thought has reached into the twenty-first century. Although the nineteenth century was greatly influenced by German philosophy, especially Kant and Hegel's rigid, rationalist systems, James broke with that rationalist tradition. He viewed the universe as an open-ended, fluid place and integrated this perspective into his functional psychology and his pragmatic philosophy. Ideas, he asserted, are neither wholly true nor totally false. The worth of an idea was to be tested by its consequences on the lives of human beings. James' functionalism had a profound affect on John Dewey, who built it into his philosophy of instrumentalism (or experimentalism). Mind, Dewey argued, is an instrument for adapting the human organism to its environment. Ideas are tools. Good ideas get us into satisfactory relations with our environment (Urmson, 1965).

Dewey's functionalism, in turn, crept into Jean Piaget's psychology. "Genetic structuralism," Piaget (1985) informed us, "represents a possible synthesis ... with the functionalism of J. Dewey" (p. 68). Piaget labored throughout much of his life to resolve the dichotomy between structuralism and functionalism. Jerome Bruner picked up the challenge where Piaget left off and, thereby, indirectly extended the influence of

James. Bruner believed that children--if they were engaged in discovery learning and problem-solving activities--would come to grasp the structure of knowledge. And since all truths are relative, students have to learn how to negotiate meanings. The influence of James, Dewey, Piaget, and others, helped to lay the foundation through Bruner for the current constructivist movement in education (Sprinthall et al., 1998). James' ideas have not only had a profound influence on psychology, philosophy, and education, but they have filtered into contemporary physics as well. Nineteenth century physics was heavily influenced by Newtonian mechanics, which made a sharp distinction between the observer and the observed. The knower was viewed as being independent of what was known. Truth, once it was discovered, was fixed and eternal. James' pragmatism changed everything. The knower was placed at the center of the process of knowing. Truth was what the observer experienced as being true. Twentieth century physics, building on the Heisenberg Principle of Indeterminacy, has confirmed James' speculations. Objective truth is simply not possible. The act of observing an event alters the nature of the event. Or, as John Wheeler puts it: "'In some strange sense, the universe is a participatory universe'" (Capra, 1984, pp. 127-128).

James (1902/1960) has also had a significant impact upon religious thought in the United States. His classic work, The Varieties of Religious Experience, has been widely read by a diverse audience. Religious belief, James argued, should not be based on church doctrine; rather, it should be grounded in religious experience. Many scholars have drawn inspiration from James' insights. Dewey's (1934/1960) A Common Faith utilizes James' distinction between religion and religious experience. Dewey wished to separate the religious quality of experience from its attachment to historical religion. He argued that the religious quality of experience can be fused with the core values of our society. One can feel religious about expanding democratic values to those who have been excluded from sharing fully in them. Can the religious quality of experience be separated from its supernatural referent? Dewey and many others have answered yes. Many New Age churches (Unity, for example) illustrate this emphasis. "Sin and salvation" have been replaced by "consciousness." The Jesus Seminar, which attempted to determine what Jesus "really" said, appealed to scholarly consensus rather than church traditions in its attempt to uncover the truth. …