U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Did William James Lose? (Guest Post)

guest post by Mark Thompson*

Last week at UT Dallas our intellectual history reading group sat down to eat, drink, and discuss Francesca Bordogna’s densely written and richly rewarding study, William James at the Boundaries (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).  There were plenty of topics for us to chew on: knowledge production—including what Bordogna labels, “spaces of knowledge” (both physical and metaphorical); the institutional history of philosophy; and the debates surrounding psychologism and pragmatism, to name a few.

In this post, I want to discuss some of the highlights of Bordogna’s book and describe a few of the rabbit trails we followed in our discussion. I hope readers will add their thoughts or challenges in the comments section.

Bordogna opens with a charming anecdote about William James’s address to the American Philosophical Association in 1906.   This lecture, entitled “The Energies of Men,” represents for Bordogna a type of “boundary crossing” that James would employ throughout his time as a member of academia.  While James’s lecture was “reprinted in magazines that reached a broad readership, and became hugely popular among mind curers, mental hygienists,” and other groups branded as non-professionals, “it caused hardly a ripple” among American professional philosophers.  Bordogna utilizes this opening story to build a case for James as a boundary crossing “unifier,” one who hoped to construct “not an intellectual or conceptual or methodological or architectonic unity of knowledge, but a ‘social’ unity of knowledge.   By trespassing divides, he challenged the social effects of professionalization and the disciplinary compartmentalization of knowledge in order to promote the formation of pluralistic, yet cohesive, communities of inquirers” (2, 9-10).

This brief synopsis does not begin to touch upon the vast range of sources Bordogna uses to create a totalizing picture of James as a “unifier” (in the sense described above).  She appears to have read practically everything that James wrote and practically everything that has been written about him, including all the relevant secondary sources that compose the modern-day cottage industry on James.

One highlight of Bordogna’s characterization of James is her use of German-born psychologist and philosopher Hugo Münsterberg as a kind of foil against whom to contrast James.  Like other historians and philosophers who point their finger at Kant for promulgating an “ivory tower” vision for philosophers, Bordogna similarly finds in Münsterberg an American version to target for encouraging philosophers to see themselves at the apex of an updated Great Chain of Being; a new set of links that would hierarchically connect the disciplines taught in American universities at the turn of the century.  Ultimately, Bordogna concludes that “James and his allies lost their battles.”  As a result, the “emergence of the modern regime of standardized knowledge, one premised upon the quest of universal objectivity” and “bureaucratic interactions among knowledge producers,” has become the familiar landscape in today’s world (272).

So, did James lose?  If the type of boundary transgressions that Bordogna extracts from James’s life are those examined at Harvard or comparable universities, one might agree that James’s efforts came to naught.  How about outside the universities in the last century?  In recent times, at least (for the moment, I want to bypass series such those authored by Will Durant in the early twentieth century), arguably the first publisher to market philosophy towards the general public via the popular subjects of movies, television, and music was Illinois-based Open Court with its release of Seinfeld and Philosophy in 2000.  George Reisch, the series editor, cautioned however that “[w]hile many items in popular culture have identifiable philosophical content, that does not guarantee that ‘X and philosophy’ will appeal to fans.”[i] An offshoot series launched by King’s College, PA philosopher William Irwin,—Blackwell’s “Philosophy and Pop Culture”—emerged in 2006.  In a recent interview, Irwin (the original editor of Seinfeld and Philosophy) opined that due to the “public relations problem” that has inflicted philosophy for the last two centuries, “[p]eople mistakenly think that philosophy is some dusty academic subject that is irrelevant.”[ii] Professional philosophers like Reisch and Irwin seem to have discarded Kant’s earlier warning to “pure” philosophers about “catering to the taste of the public by mixing up the empirical with the rational” in the hopes that important insights gleaned from popular culture can be promulgated in the twenty-first century.[iii]

What impact can public philosophers like Irwin have by “catering to the taste of the public”?  Consider this quote from Reisch, concerning the British experimental rock group Pink Floyd: “[T]he band created a body of work that seriously addresses many of the experiences, concepts, and theories that philosophers have long analyzed and contemplated.” Included among these topics are “the nature and causes of alienation, the metaphysics of Being, the absurdity of existence, the nature of perception, of identity, and of artistic and commercial authenticity. . . .”  Despite citing this standard list of topics that remain visible in philosophy departments all over the United States, Reisch felt compelled to jokingly offer an aside in his introduction confessing that the authors who contributed to this volume “are due an enormous thank-you not only for their intellectual contributions, but also their personal honesty.”  After all, Pink Floyd is considered by some in academia as an ephemeral part of that ubiquitous yet enduring realm of “popular culture.”  Therefore, the brave souls who were willing to participate openly in such a project deserve extra gratitude: “Not every professor or Ph.D. candidate can so easily put aside his or her seminar-room persona and reveal that Syd Barrett or Wish You Were Here matter just as much to them as Ludwig Wittgenstein or Being and Nothingness.”[iv]

I just recently came across Carlin Romano’s America the Philosophical (Vintage, 2012).  Romano, Professor of Philosophy and Humanities at Ursinus College, takes on the notion that the United States is devoid of serious philosophical reflection: “Does America take philosophy seriously?  One might as well ask whether America takes monarchy seriously.”  Since I’ve only read the introduction, I simply want to point out two targets that Romano aims at:  Tocqueville’s observation about American intellectual life (“[H]e, like many French intellectuals, saw American thought through the prism of European customs and assumptions.”), and Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason (“Jacoby’s overall argument underwhelmed because she stacked the deck.  She took forums of cultural life she disdained—dopey TV shows, formulaic drive-time radio, fragmented Internet discourse, newspapers that pander to lowest–common-denominator tastes—as the definitive markers of American intellectual life.”)[v]

The main contention that Romano seems to advance is the idea that the United States in the twenty-first century “towers as the most philosophical culture in the history of the world, an unprecedented marketplace of truth and argument that far surpasses ancient Greece, Cartesian France, nineteenth-century Germany or any other place one can name over the past three millennia (6).”  This sounds to my ears (again, I’ve only read the intro.) like a form of American exceptionalism, but the read should be interesting.  William James receives a significant amount of space in the index, and I’m hoping to see what role he plays for Romano.  There is also a final chapter entitled, “Obama, Philosopher in Chief, which may be a response to James Kloppenberg’s recent book (it appears in the bibliography).

Since Carlin views Rorty’s “vision of philosophy” as a helpful prescription for rethinking the discipline and practice of philosophy in the coming years, it might be appropriate to return to the previous question–“Did William James lose?”—and close with the final page of Romano’s introduction: “Americans have thus not so much ‘evaded’ philosophy . . . as they’ve sidestepped antiquated conceptions of it. . . .  America the Philosophical—the country, not the book—can be seen as a coruscating achievement in the pragmatist project that’s been unfolding for centuries” (23).

Bordogna’s scholarship will continue to shed light on that “pragmatist project.” According to her faculty profile, Bordogna (a professor at the University of Notre Dame) is working towards a book-length manuscript over “a group of early twentieth-century European philosophers who transformed the philosophy of pragmatism into a philosophical, scientific, and political way of life.”[vi] That should be an intriguing read.  Bordogna describes her current book on James as a mixture of intellectual history, history of science, and “philosophy studies” (273).  Here’s hoping for more books like Bordogna’s to help understand our current debates over the role of philosophy/philosophers for the coming years.

*Mark Thompson is a doctoral student in the History of Ideas program at the University of Texas at Dallas.  His areas of interest include American cultural and intellectual history, historiography, race relations, and transatlantic religious studies.

[i] George A. Reisch, “Message from the Series Editor,” http://www.opencourtbooks.com/categories/pcp.htm.  Last accessed September 24, 2013.

[ii] William Irwin, “Watchmen is Treasure Trove for Philosophers,” Reuters interview at http://www.reuters.com/article/2009/03/05/us-watchmen-philosophy-idUSTRE5241J320090305.  Last accessed September 24, 2013.

[iii] Immanuel Kant, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, Translated and with an Introduction by Lewis White Beck (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1959), 4.

[iv] George A. Reisch, ed.  Pink Floyd and Philosophy: Careful with that Axiom, Eugene! Volume 30 in the series, “Popular Culture and Philosophy,” ed. George A. Reisch (Chicago: Open Court, 2007), xii-xiii.

[v] Carlin Romano, America the Philosophical (New York: Vintage, 2012), 4, 5, 14.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. There have been many efforts to popularize philosophy—and with many different approaches to the effort. Two kinds among those varieties come up in this opening post for the Public Philosophy Journal

    Walter Lippmann tried to foster what he called “public philosophy” in his 1950s era book of the same title. His goal, and the goal of others like him (descendants like Michael Sandel) have tried to connect philosophy to good citizenship.

    This is also what Mortimer J. Adler did, from the 1930s to the early 1990s, in his books. He also tried to write about complex issues in an accessible language (one of the issues discussed in the post above). When Adler advocated for the accessibility of the great books idea, he was also arguing for the accessibility of the history of ideas and philosophy. Indeed, I see Adler as a bridge figure between the works of Will Durant, that you mention above, and the works of Open Court press that began appearing, I think, in the late 1990s. Aside: Very early in his philosophical career, in the 1920s, Adler greatly admired William James (before Adler found Aquinas). – TL

    • Tim,

      Thanks for the interesting link and the info. about Adler
      When Bordogna talks about “spaces of knowledge” (which she borrows from sociologist Thomas Gieryn), she links this to the production of “epistemic norms” via the “social interactions that take place within that space” (8).

      I can’t help thinking about the spaces outside academia—particularly, movie theaters (and coffee shops/bars afterward) and the private (or home-bound) spaces—where television and music are able to transmit ideas. I’m wondering if some people today are linking the public philosophy of the early to mid-twentieth century with a certain type of presentation (such as the printed word, or the lecture format), while the popular media today (music, television, and cinema) are stamped instantly as “philosophy” by virtue (in their minds) of its format. In the former case, they might reject the metaphysical and epistemological premises merely because they’re found in dry, dusty books or audio recordings of lengthy discourses uploaded (for quaint uses only) on “youtube.”

      Are new epistemic norms being constructed through the forms of entertainment discussed in the “Philosophy and Popular Culture” series (again, because of the medium), or are older philosophical concepts (the kind practiced in traditional philosophy departments) simply transmitted to the next generation (retaining their perceived “timelessness,” albeit, in a new format)?

      If I had time, I would try reading as many books in the Open Court series as I could. As of now, I’ve only read a handful.

  2. Thanks Mark and L.D. for suggesting this book, I’ve only just started it but it looks fascinating. I was wondering if James willingness to cross boundaries influenced future educational theories on interdisciplinary studies in the present. Is there a linkage here say from James to Dewey to the present??

  3. Adler greatly admired William James (before Adler found Aquinas). – TL

    How much William James our future intellectuals are inculcated with as opposed to how much Thomas Aquinas arises.

    One philosophy prof of my acquaintance confessed he neither teaches nor ever studied Aquinas because he’d heard Thomas had been disproven.

    Oh, said I.

    To TL’s larger point, it’s also a key one, whether the thought of Wm. James as public intellectual is more a defining of a social fad than the work of a genuine philosopher–esp in contrast to his colleague CS Peirce, who was one of the latter. Are “public intellectuals” thinkers of the first rank, or of the second?

    Not that there’s anything wrong of being a thinker of the “second” rank–any of us would be lucky to rise even that high–but it is only thinkers of Peirce’s and Aquinas’ rank who rather than define the currents of their times transcend them, beyond their age, across the ages.

    When a thinker of Mortimer Adler’s rank defers to Aquinas, this is of great importance.


    There is also a final chapter entitled, “Obama, Philosopher in Chief,” which may be a response to James Kloppenberg’s recent book (it appears in the bibliography).

    This has kept me awake. I look forward to discovering that somebody’s kidding.

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