U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Barrett on existentialism and pragmatism

I’ve been reading some mid-twentieth-century social criticism in preparation for a graduate course next semester and just finished William Barrett’s classic account of existentialism, Irrational Man (1958). Throughout I was struck by the lucidity of Barrett’s exposition, never more so than in his very brief treatment of William James. I assign James’s Pragmatism to my graduate seminar but students often struggle not just with James’s argument but with his general philosophical perspective. And, truth be told, try though I do to explain James as a pragmatist, his book on the subject often doesn’t seem that pragmatic to me, at least as I understand the philosophical import of the term. James’s book seems too weirdly individual and confessional, strangely abstracted from the public concerns that motivated the later Dewey (who, I’ll confess, seems to provide my basic understanding of pragmatism). I’m often especially stymied by James’s seeming rejection of God in the first part of the book but then his apparent retraction of that atheistic impulse at the end, in effect, bringing him back in because we need him.

Barrett provides a way of understanding James. He explains:

“Of all the non-European philosophers, William James probably best deserves to be labeled an Existentialist. Indeed, at this late date, we may very well wonder whether it would not be more accurate to call James an Existentialist than a Pragmatist. What remains of American Pragmatism today [note: he was writing this in 1958, long before Richard Rorty came to prominence] is forced to think of him as the black sheep of the movement. Pragmatists nowadays acknowledge James’s genius but are embarrassed by his extremes: by the unashamedly personal tone of his philosophizing, his willingness to give psychology the final voice over logic where the two seem to conflict, and his belief in the revelatory value of religious experience. There are pages in James that could have been written by Kierkegaard, and the Epilogue to Varieties of Religious Experience puts the case for the primacy of personal experience over abstraction as strongly as any of the Existentialists has ever done. James’s vituperation of rationalism is so passionate that latter-day Pragmatists see their own residual rationalism of scientific method put into question. And it is not merely a matter of tone, but of principle: he plumped for a world which contained contingency, discontinuity, and in which the centers of experience were irreducibly plural and personal, as against a ‘block’ universe that could be enclosed in a single rational system.”

I’ve not read the large literature devoted to James, but this is a new thought for me. Is it one that others have developed? And maybe more importantly, does the argument have merit?

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. it’s maybe not worth much, since I also haven’t read much literature on James, but I’ve never heard of him being connected to the existentialists.

    The unexpected camp in which i’ve seen him put is rather with the irrationalist and vitalist precursors of fascism. He’s strong associated with Henri Bergson in France, and therefore by the interwar period begins to look like a distinctly dangerous philosopher. this is by no means incompatible with being a proto-existentialist. however, again from the perspective of the material that I work on, the important thing about James is his trajectory into and out of materialist psychology as an explanatory frame for what humans are like.

  2. David: Christopher Lasch interprets James similarly as a sort of existentialist in “True and Only Heaven,” when he argues that James attempted to reconcile the heroic and virtuous features of religious belief to a non-religious age. James, by Lasch’s reading, desired an enlivened human capacity for heroic and virtuous action above and beyond that which was typical of the secular, capitalistic order. But none of this suggests that James supported the “cult of strength” that drove fascism. Lasch: “Cut loose from its religious moorings, the defense of the strenuous life degenerated into a cult of sheer strength. The call to live ‘on a higher plane,’ as Emerson had put it, became a summons to war and imperial conquest, often accompanied by attacks on modern softness and effeminacy, on various forms of ‘race suicide,’ and on governments’ ill-advised attempts, said to reward mediocrity and weakness, to interfere with the laws of ‘natural selection’” ( 296). In an effort to avoid confusion, Lasch emphasized James’s antiwar credentials, particularly his opposition to Theodore Roosevelt’s militaristic imperialism. But Lasch also made clear that James did not oppose war on pacifist grounds. “The only alternative to war, as James saw it, was a ‘moral equivalent of war,’ which would make the same demands on people in the name of peace, satisfy the same taste for self-sacrifice, and elicit the same qualities of devotion, loyalty, and ardor” (301).

  3. While there may be some affinities and overlap with the general tenor of existentialist thought (especially the revolt against ‘Rationalism’ of a heavy-handed sort), I don’t see James better described as an existentialist than a pragmatist.

    In any case, I just wanted to note that I’ve found whatever Hilary Putnam and Ruth Anna Putnam (the latter having edited the Cambridge Companion to James) have had to say about James’ philosophy helpful and illuminating. For example, they co-authored an excellent essay on his thought, “William James’s Ideas,” found in the former’s book, (James Conant, ed.) Realism with a Human Face (1990). Having assimilated and re-worked much of the best found in the pragmatist tradition, Hilary Putnam’s views on James come with an intellectual pedigree and sophistication often missing elsewhere.

    Have others read James by way of the Putnams?

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