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William James's Pluralism

By Slater, Michael R. | The Review of Metaphysics, September 2011 | Go to article overview

William James's Pluralism


Slater, Michael R., The Review of Metaphysics


IN THIS ESSAY I WANT TO EXAMINE William James's pluralism, which, alongside his more well known doctrines of pragmatism and radical empiricism, came to dominate his philosophical outlook from roughly the mid-1890s until the end of his life. More exactly, I want to identify and examine some of the various senses in which James was a pluralist, which include, but are not limited to, the pluralistic-melioristic and, ultimately, panpsychic religious worldview that he defended in such later works as Pragmatism (1907) and A Pluralistic Universe (1909). Although a fair amount has been written on the latter subject, to date there has yet to appear a comprehensive study of James's pluralism and the place that it occupies in his philosophy. (1) While it is not my intention to undertake such a project here, I hope that the present essay sheds some new light on this rich, complex, and understudied area of James's thought.

Understanding James's pluralism is a matter of no small importance, if for no other reason than that James himself came to regard "the problem of the one and the many," or the conflict between monism and pluralism in metaphysics, as the most important and far reaching of all philosophical dilemmas. (2) Yet, James was not only a pluralist in his metaphysics, but also, as we shall see, in such areas as epistemology, ethics, and the philosophy of religion. (3) Indeed, I hope to show that these last-mentioned types of pluralism are distinct from the sense in which James most often used the term: namely, as a shorthand for his metaphysical pluralism, which includes both his "each-form" view of the world (we might call this, more specifically, his commitment to ontological pluralism) and his pluralistic, melioristic, and panpsychic religious worldview (hereafter, James's pluralistic religious worldview). (4)

The relationship between James's pluralism and his other major philosophical doctrines, pragmatism and radical empiricism, is a complicated one, particularly the relationship between pluralism and radical empiricism. (5) It is fairly uncontroversial, I think, to say that the metaphysical doctrine that James calls "pluralism" shares a number of common features with his radical empiricism. This connection is hardly self-evident, though, in the case of the other senses of pluralism that I shall discuss, and is further complicated by the fact that what James meant by the terms "radical empiricism" and "pluralism" evolved considerably from 1897 until his death in 1910. With the exception of his metaphysical pluralism, I shall assume no special connection between James's post-1904 radical empiricism (which includes the essays collected in Essays in Radical Empiricism) and his defense of pluralistic views in the other, above-mentioned areas of his philosophy. This may strike some specialist readers as a problematic assumption, but I believe that a careful consideration of the textual evidence supports it. In any event, I shall try to make the case that what these different Jamesian senses of pluralism have in common is not necessarily an underlying commitment to metaphysical doctrines such as radical empiricism or ontological pluralism, but rather a principled antireductionism that recognizes the fact of pluralism in these different philosophical domains. (6) Put somewhat differently, I shall offer a basically nonmetaphysical interpretation of James's pluralistic epistemological, ethical, and religious views, which I believe are distinct from his metaphysical doctrine of pluralism. As we shall see, James's philosophy is pluralistic in a number of different senses, and not merely in its conception of the fundamental nature of reality.

The essay is organized as follows: In the first section I discuss the complex and sometimes confusing relationship between James's pluralism and radical empiricism. What I try to show here is that James's use of the term "pluralism" is quite varied, ranging from his general formulation in the Preface to The Will to Believe (1897), to his equation of pluralism with practical religion and polytheism in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), to his increasingly technical metaphysical speculations in such works as Pragmatism (1907), A Pluralistic Universe (1909), and the posthumously published Some Problems of Philosophy (1910).

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