Academic journal article Philosophy Today

The Prospects of Transcendental Pragmatism: Reconciling Kant and James

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

The Prospects of Transcendental Pragmatism: Reconciling Kant and James

Article excerpt

The American pragmatist William James admired the "English spirit" in philosophy, but he did not much admire the greatest critical successor of the British empiricists, namely, Immanuel Kant. There are occasional references to Kant in James's major writings, but the brief treatment of Kant as an "intellectualist" or "rationalist" in Some Problems of Philosophy (1911) is perhaps James's most sustained published-albeit posthumous attempt to refute Kantian idealism (see e.g. pp. 24, 48). Alternatively, we might take a look at his 1898 paper "The Pragmatic Method,"1 in which he describes the "English spirit" as both intellectually, practically, and morally "saner," "sounder," and "truer" than Kant's and regards Kant's mind as "the rarest and most intricate of all possible antique bric-a-brac museums" (James 1978, p. 138). He goes on:

The true line of philosophic progress lies, in short, it seems to me, not so much through Kant as round him to the point where now we stand. Philosophy can perfectly well outflank him, and build herself up into adequate fulness by prolonging more directly the older English lines. (Ibid., p. 139.)

Hence, even though the annotations in James's copies of Kant's work show that James seriously and extensively studied Kant's philosophy,2 it is impossible to deny that his basic attitude to Kant was largely negative. He worked hard with Kant's views in order to be able to refute them.

Moreover, James's own pragmatism, with its evident opposition to all strict transcendental principles, was in many important respects in sharp opposition to Kant's transcendental philosophy. This is not completely true of pragmatism in general, of course: it is well known that Peirce set out to modify the Kantian picture ofthe "categories" in terms of which we structure reality, even claiming that Kant was nothing but a somewhat "confused" pragmatist.3 The gap between pragmatism and Kantianism seems much wider, however, if one considers James's pragmatism instead of Peirce's (as I shall do), and especially if one stresses the "practical" side of Kant's philosophy, namely, his ethical thought.

In what follows, I shall make a modest attempt to bridge this gap-recognizing, though, both that James was somewhat unfair to Kant and that Kant's view as such is hopelessly outdated (i.e., that James is, to some extent, right in insisting that one should go round rather than through it). What I wish to show in this essay is that the difference between Kantianism and Jamesianism is perhaps too easily exaggerated4 and that Jamesian pragmatism might be fruitfully reconciled with a kind of critical, transcendental idealism. My point is very general-I shall mainly discuss what can be called "metaphysics of morals," making no attempt to interpret Kant's ethics in any detailed way.

There are, basically, three reasons why I consider the Kant/James reconciliation possible. I shall outline them in the following three sections. My remarks are meant to be suggestions towards future work on these issues rather than "final" or conclusive interpretations of Kant and James. I am not so much concerned with what these great philosophers "really" thought about the metaphysics of morals, after all; I am more interested in formulating a viable position that both the "neopragmatists" and "neo-Kantians" of our day might be able to take seriously. The upshot of my reconciliatory attempt will be a particular Kantian-pragmatic notion of the moral subject, a notion surprisingly close to what one can find in the tradition of existentialism (see my concluding section). This (transcendental) subject is not ontologically distinct from the empirical subject living in this world of empirical sorrow and suffering. But she is a subject who, in a Kantian fashion, actively constitutes the world within which she lives and, in accordance with James's pragmatism, bases this constitutive project on her social, purposive, value-laden (and thus historically changing) practice. …

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