William James, Pragmatism, and American Culture

William James, Pragmatism, and American Culture

William James, Pragmatism, and American Culture

William James, Pragmatism, and American Culture


William James, Pragmatism, and American Culture focuses on the work of William James and the relationship between the development of pragmatism and its historical, cultural, and political roots in 19th-century America. Deborah Whitehead reads pragmatism through the intersecting themes of narrative, gender, nation, politics, and religion. As she considers how pragmatism helps to explain the United States to itself, Whitehead articulates a contemporary pragmatism and shows how it has become a powerful and influential discourse in American intellectual and popular culture.


The pragmatistic philosophy … preserves as cordial a relation with facts,
and … it neither begins nor ends by turning positive religious constructions
out of doors—it treats them cordially as well.

I hope I may lead you to find it just the mediating way of thinking that you

William James, Pragmatism

When the American psychologist and philosopher William James (1842–1910) sought to explain the meaning of pragmatism, the philosophical tradition he helped found, in a way that would popularize it for a public audience, he decided to tell a story about a mountain camping trip gone wrong. So he began the second lecture of his book Pragmatism, “What Pragmatism Means,” with a memorable anecdote relating a raging metaphysical argument over a squirrel and a tree:

Some years ago, being with a camping party in the mountains, I returned from
a solitary ramble to find everyone engaged in a ferocious metaphysical dispute.
The corpus of the dispute was a squirrel—a live squirrel supposed to be cling
ing to one side of a tree-trunk; while over against the tree’s opposite side a
human being was imagined to stand. This human witness tries to get sight of
the squirrel by moving rapidly round the tree, but no matter how fast he goes,
the squirrel moves as fast in the opposite direction, and always keeps theal problem now is this: Does the man go round the squir
rel or not?

James continues:

In the unlimited leisure of the wilderness, discussion had been worn thread
bare. Everyone had taken sides, and was obstinate; and the numbers on both
sides were even. Each side, when I appeared, therefore appealed to me to make
it a majority. Mindful of the scholastic adage that whenever you meet a con
tradiction you must make a distinction, I immediately sought and found one,
as follows: “Which party is right,” I said, “depends on what you practically
mean by ‘going round’ the squirrel. If you mean passing from the north of him
to the east, then to the south, then to the west, and then to the north of him
again, obviously the man does go round him, for he occupies these successive

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