Academic journal article Humanitas

William James and the Moral Will

Academic journal article Humanitas

William James and the Moral Will

Article excerpt

Richard Rorty has characterized William James as an "aesthetic monist" whose orientation was away from philosophy and toward an artistic pose that addressed itself contemptuously toward dominant modes of discourse. In his view, James taught us what it is like to live in a world without metaphysical comforts, one where our notions of truth were no longer operative or relevant, and one where our beliefs were judged purely in terms of their utility. (1) Due to such interpretations, James has largely been considered a figure whose writings leave little room for traditional philosophical thinking or religious belief. (2) For Rorty, the most important category of thought is contingency, and any mode of thinking (or believing) which attempts to supercede the contingent state of affairs is necessarily guilty of useless philosophizing. Rorty takes this approach for the very good reason that ahistorical forms of thinking tend to undermine proper ethical decision-making. The proper result of ethics, according to Rorty, is to minimize cruelty as much as possible (though he is quick to point out that he can't defend this belief, only assert it). Since the American Left has long been opposed to cruelty, and the American Right embraces it, any truly ethical person will be a leftist and seek to expand the power of the state as the vehicle that "protects the weak from the strong" and insures equality.

Taking contingency seriously, however, also means attentive analysis of thinkers' historical circumstances and how their writing is a response to the world around them. Analyzing James in this fashion shows a thinker not simply dismissive of metaphysics and religion, nor one necessarily hospitable to leftist agendas, but a person who was deeply concerned that without religious belief and philosophical truth, individual freedom would be in grave danger, and human action would be misguided. While Rorty correctly identifies James's suspicion of absolutes, his analysis misses the main purpose of these suspicions: the development of the moral will.

The context for the emergence of James's thought was the development of science, the nineteenth-century belief in infinite progress, and the boredom accompanying the formation of mass society. Sensitive to the attenuation of religious spirit, given to fits of despair, and concerned about meaningful human action in a mass age--attempting to navigate between the Scylla of action without purpose and the Charybdis of purpose without action--James sought in the religious experience the resources to ward off civilizational ennui. In affirming not only the reality but also the efficacy of the moral will, James opened up a philosophical path that justified the attempt to exercise meaningful freedom. The pursuit of philosophical and religious thinking, as a means to effect the development of the moral will so that freedom could be meaningfully exercised, was the great struggle and result of James's reflections. To achieve this end, James de-absolutized the truth to service the de-socialization of individuals, in the s ense of freeing them from the coercive forces of mass civilization. This twin process of de-absolutization and de-socialization is reflected negatively in his response to science and religion, and positively in his development of pragmatic philosophy. In this article, I will examine James's contribution to the development of the idea of a moral will by looking at three issues: (1) the response to the problem of particularity, relating James's thought to philosophical monism and American Puritanism; (2) the response to positivism and subsequent claims about the nature of knowledge; and (3) James's analysis of religious experience and its relation to ethical action. I will conclude by looking at the political ramifications of his analysis, which demonstrate the connection between moral experience and action--the crux of the pragmatist impulse. My main thesis is that the moral will requires for its grounding a rejection of ahistorical absolutism as well as a suspicion of non-philosophical historicism. …

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