Philosophy Theology

William James & the Pragmatic Principle Applied to Philosophic Theology: A Critique

Lecture 18 (“Philosophy”) of William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience examines philosophy’s usefulness in validating the individual’s experience of the divine, as subjective experiences require some objective verification, and “philosophy publishes results which claim to be universally valid if they are valid at all” (James 422).  His approach is to look at the scholastic development of God’s attributes – metaphysical (e.g. aseity, simplicity) and moral (e.g. good, love) – and judge their validation of the religious experience.

This lecture is where James explicitly discusses the “principle of pragmatism” which he derives from Charles Peirce who defined beliefs as “rules for action”.  If a belief, therefore, has no immediate or remote sensation or consequence in our life, then it is of no positive significance; and it is this pragmatic principle that James uses to test the significance of “the scholastic inventory of God’s perfections”.  Indeed, even if we were compelled to believe in God’s metaphysical attributes by the force of logical argument, we would still “have to confess them to be destitute of all intelligible significance” (436).  This is because James believes the true to be “what works well,” at least “on the whole,” and this is what he calls “the empirical philosophy” (449, lecture 19 “Other Characteristics”).  Therefore, his method of investigating the truthfulness of religious experience ends up being an investigation in the truthfulness of philosophy and theology by means of the application of the pragmatic principle.

Further, this “on the whole”-qualifier is key to understanding the conclusions he comes to, which is his “attempt to extract from the privacies of religious experience some general facts which can be defined in formulas upon which everybody may agree” (424).  For instance, the conclusion of his lectures is that his psychological assessment of religious experience results in two general formulas: 1) an uneasiness with ourselves, and 2) the solution from this uneasiness by connecting with the unseen/divine/higher powers (499).  These are general facts indeed, and it seems James’s own uneasiness is with any notion of God that goes beyond such general formulations.  Such things are, according to him, speculations, and therefore he dubs theological formulas to be “over-beliefs” (423).  It is his aim to discredit this religious intellectualism (425).

In turning our attention to God’s metaphysical attributes, James asks what definite connection they make with and direction they give to our life?  According to him, “though these attributes were faultlessly deduced, I cannot conceive of its being of the smallest consequence to us religiously that any one of them should be true” (437).  To say they are not of consequence to us religiously means they do not touch our individual “feelings, acts, and experiences” (32).  In short, he is saying that God’s metaphysical attributes have no bearing on our actions.  This amounts to truth being determined by consequences (Geisler and Feinberg 241).  This is evident in the rhetorical question he immediately posits: “Pray, what specific act can I perform in order to adapt myself the better to God’s simplicity?” (James 437).  There is a self-centered assumption at work here in this definition of truth.  Our abilities to assess the value of a thing, and its subsequent consequences, become the ultimate criterion of truth.  It would seem that logic is pushed to the side to make room for feeling.

James will go on to say in lecture 19, “Other Characteristics,” that the scholastic list of God’s attributes has at least one practical use: An “aesthetic value” that “enriches our bare piety to carry these exalted and mysterious verbal additions just as it enriches a church to have an organ and old brasses, marbles and frescoes and stained windows” (449).  These attributes certainly carry practical implications for worship, but to describe them as accidental, as accessories that may be scrapped while the essence remains, belies their true significance.  They are not décor; they are the building.  To assume that an attribute of God must have a discernable arrow to some particular action in order to be religiously significant and practical is to deny any notion of first principles.

Further, this notion of “what works” is too ambiguous, as what works for one may not work for another, and what works in one situation may not work in another (Geisler and Feinberg 242).

Regarding God’s moral attributes, James appears to accept them as having practical value: “Pragmatically, they stand on an entirely different footing. They positively determine fear and hope and expectation, and are foundations for the saintly life. It needs but a glance at them to show how great is their significance” (James 438).  This would seem to be enough to determine their truthfulness based on the pragmatic principle.  James is quick to disappoint, however.  According to him, the arguments for God’s moral attributes ultimately fall short because “post-Kantian idealists reject them root and branch,” and many have questioned the goodness of God because of the evils of the world (439).  This amounts to an argumentum ab auctoritate (argument from authority) and argumentum ad populum (argument from popularity/majority).  While James admits that the limitations of his lectures prevents him from getting into metaphysical discussion, he thinks it sufficient to point to “the fact that no religious philosophy has actually convinced the mass of thinkers” (445).  But, of course, this is not how truth is determined.  Apparently, for him, the universal claim of philosophy, which is a metaphysical claim, must hold sway universally (be embraced by all), which is an epistemological claim.

What can we conclude from the above?  James set out in his lecture on philosophy to see if philosophic theology could demonstrate the validity of religious experience.  He concludes that it cannot.  Regarding God’s metaphysical attributes, they lack any religious practicality.  What he has failed to see is the practicality of belief itself for communing with God and the implications this has for true worship contra idolatry.  While he admits that God’s moral attributes possess religious practicality, certain philosophical authorities disagree with them, and a crowd of people question the goodness of God in the face of the world’s evils, which is enough for him to denounce them as truth, even on the pragmatic principle.  We have seen that James wants to deny the scholastic argumentation of God’s metaphysical attributes, even though “faultlessly deduced,” because he sees no practical value in them.  However, when he admits the practical value of God’s moral attributes, he still denies them as having any validating significance for the reasons discussed above.  When all is said and done, individual religious experience rules the day, and all philosophical contributions must take the backseat.

Works Cited

Geisler, Norman L. and Paul D. Feinberg. Introduction to Philosophy: A Christian Perspective. Michigan: Baker Academic. 1980.

James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experiences. New York: Random House. 1994.

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