The Nineteenth Century [Routledge History of Philosophy, V. 7]

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American pragmatism


J. E. Tiles


Pragmatism was introduced to society in a lecture given by William James 1 to the Philosophical Union at the University of California in Berkeley on 26 August 1898. 2 In his lecture James acknowledged that this brainchild was that of his friend Charles S. Peirce, and that Peirce had first introduced him to it in the early 1870s ([13.11], 410). The child had not been appropriately christened—James indicated a preference for ‘practicalism’—and needed ‘to be expressed more broadly than Mr. Peirce expresse[d] it’, but it offered ‘the clue or compass’ by which James believed ‘we may keep our feet’ on ‘the trail of truth’ (412).

James began his exposition of the principle with a formulation drawn from an 1878 article, ‘How To Make Our Ideas Clear’ ([13.36], 5:388-410) in which Peirce had first allowed his progeny to appear in public, although not under the name ‘pragmatism’. To attain clearness in our thoughts about some object we need to consider the effects of ‘a conceivably practical kind which the object may involve’ and reckon our conception of these effects to be the whole of our conception of the object, ‘so far as that conception has positive significance at all’ ([13.11], 411). Peirce had formulated his principle with a view to its application in science and in the metaphysics of science and had consequently illustrated its application with the concepts ‘hardness, ‘weight’, ‘force’ and ‘reality’ in his 1878 article. But he had not hesitated to apply the principle also to the theological dispute over transubstantiation ([13.36], 5:401).

In the Berkeley lecture James drew his illustrations mainly from philosophical theology. Some of the traditional attributes of God—


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