Page:The Cambridge History of American Literature, v3.djvu/270

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Later Philosophy

regard pragmatism and James s philosophy as identical terms. To James, however, pragmatism was but the method of philosophic discussion, the vestibule to his radical empiricism. The controversy, however, which arose about pragmatism enabled James to elaborate from different approaches his account of the nature of truth. The meaning of ideas is to be found in their particular experimental consequences. Abstract ideas are not copies of things but their substitutes or derivatives, evolved in the process of evolution to enable us to deal more adequately with the stream of immediate experience. An idea is, therefore, true if it enables us to deal satisfactorily with the concrete experiences at which it aims. An idea is said to work satisfactorily if it leads us to expected facts, if it harmonizes with other accepted ideas, if it releases our energies or satisfies emotional craving for elegance, peace, economy, or any kind of utility.

So anxious was James to overthrow the view that the truth of an idea consists in its being an inert copy of reality, so anxious to substitute for it the more activist view that an idea is true if it works or leads to certain results, that he neglected to indicate the relative importance of these results. This led to a great deal of misunderstanding and caused considerable scandal. Those brought up in the scientific tradition and trained to view the emotionally satisfactory consequences of ideas as having nothing to do with their scientific or theoretic value were scandalized by James's doctrine of the will or right to believe anything the acceptance of which made us more comfortable. This was in part a tragic misunderstanding. Most of James's life was a fight against accepting the monistic philosophy simply because of its aesthetic nobility. He rejected it precisely because it was "too buttoned up and white checkered, too clean-shaven a thing to speak for the vast slow-breeding, unconscious cosmos with its dread abysses and its unknown tides." It is true, however, that absorption in the psychologic factor, personal or aesthetic, which actually does make some people prefer a narrowly classic universe and others a generously romantic one, made him obscure the distinction between the causes of belief and the evidence for the truth which we believe. We may all start with a biassed or emotional preface, but that is neither evidence nor guaranty of our arriving at scientific truth.