William James, Pragmatism, and My Philosophy on Life

By Paul O'Brien

     In my opinion, William James's most important essay is "What
Pragmatism Means" (from 1907 from his collection of transcribed
lectures, Pragmatism). It's good just for an introductory look at
what pragmatism is all about, and I think (and hope) you can get
just a little sense of how charming and insightful his writing can
be. I can't tell you how excited I was the first time I read James,
because for once I was reading the ideas of someone who was being
truly intellectual and genuinely honest and human at the same time.
That's a rare combination, don't you think? Since I've read him,
I've had the pleasure of finding similarly honest and intelligent
thinkers (like Becker in Denial of Death), but James still stands
out in my mind.
     If you don't mind, I would just like to offer some of my ideas
on the matter; I mean about pragmatism, God, death, and philosophy
in general (although that's kind of a lot, isn't it?). I could
really bore you with all the details of this stuff, but I'll try
not to. Let me just start by telling you what I think pragmatism is
all about and what makes it so special.
     Many people think that there is this ultimate, knowable truth
out there in the world. They think it's objective, and they think
that when and if we find it, it will provide us with dogmatic
     You know and I know that lots of people have claimed that
they've already found this truth; for example, a fundamentalist
Christian who believes that she has found the truth in God and the
Bible. Of course, lots of other people respond with arguments and
reasons as to why these people HAVEN'T found the truth after all
(and these reasons are pretty easy when arguing against a
fundamentalist). The problem is, people still think there is this
ultimate truth still out there that will solve everything once we
find it.
     I have lots of problems with that belief. How do we know there
is some ultimate truth? I've always wondered why we as humans often
just assume there is, but I guess I can understand why. If I flip
a coin and cover the result, you're still going to believe that
there is a truth about whether that coin is heads or tails, right?
You just don't know which one it is yet. These people think the
same thing about God; the answer isn't clear to us yet, but it's
got to be one or the other ultimately.
     But then the problem is, how would we know truth if and when
we found it? This is Zeno's Paradox, posed 2500 years ago; in my
opinion, it's never been solved. Zeno asked Socrates the very same
thing I asked just now, and thought this: if we have criteria that
tells us when we have the truth, then that means we already have a
good idea about what truth really is. If you think about it, you
need to know about something BEFORE you make criteria for what
would qualify as it. You need to see lots of dogs, for example,
before you set up criteria for what a dog is, right? The problem is
this: we're looking for truth, and in order to find it, we need
some sort of criteria that will let us know when and if we've found
it. But to have a criteria for what truth is requires that we
already know about the truth. But that's a paradox! We can't look
for truth based on criteria that require that we already know what
the truth is.
     So we really don't have any criteria, if you think about it.
And since we don't have any criteria for knowing what truth is, we
wouldn't know truth if it bit us in the ass. I like to make this
analogy: humans looking for truth is like a blind man looking for
a purple car in a parking lot. The blind man can look all he wants;
in fact, for all he knows, he could be sitting right on top of the
purple car. But if he's blind, how will he ever REALLY know the
truth about which car is purple? That's what we're like as humans
regarding truth. We look for it, but we have no way of recognizing
it when it comes our way. Even though there may be a real truth and
ultimate, objective answer to everything in our lives, we just
don't have the right tools for discovering it.
     In this sense, I'm an agnostic about virtually everything in
the world. I don't know if God really exists, or if my senses are
really accurate, or if I really have a soul, etc. However, I do
have many intuitions and beliefs regarding all these matters. The
problem is, if I can't ground any of my beliefs in objective truth,
how can I justify keeping them, right? That's what lots of people
say to relativists like me, because that's basically what I am.
People say that if there is no objective standard, then anything is
acceptable; stealing is ok, killing is ok, pissing in your pants is
ok, anything under the moon is ok.
     But watch, here's where pragmatism really settles the matter.
Imagine this analogy: there really is distance in the world (just
assume there is; I've actually heard arguments that claim there
isn't!). What I mean by distance is that there really is a certain
space between the words you're reading right now, and a space
between the page you're reading and your eyes. That makes sense,
right? Now, how do we measure distance? Well, we have rulers or
meter sticks (or anything like them) that we use to help us
quantify the distance between objects. I get out my ruler and I see
that the page you're now reading is 11 inches tall, right?
     But think about it. What is an inch really? It's just an
arbitrary little amount. A ruler could have been six inches in
another world where its inch is twice the size as ours. The actual
size of an inch is just something somebody or other decided upon,
and enough people agreed to use it. Measuring distance, therefore,
is arbitrary in itself. But so what? So what if an inch is
arbitrary? I can still use my trusty ruler to measure the length of
my glass and compare it to the length of my stapler to notice that
my glass is longer than my stapler, right? Sure the numbers and
units could have been something completely else, but that doesn't
mean a ruler isn't useful. It's useful because we've all agreed
that an inch represents a certain, definite distance, and with that
unit we can at least compare distances to tell us what's longer
than what and so on.
     Do inches REALLY exist, like an apple or a tree? I don't know,
but I would guess not in any natural way. Inches aren't some
absolute, dogmatic truth in the world. It's just something that we
as humans made up. They could have been very different, and they
might still change for all we know. Am I REALLY tall? I don't think
so, but neither am I REALLY short. I'm only tall when I stand next
to someone less than 6 feet and 2 inches, and short when I stand
next to someone who measures more than that (and we've admitted
that these feet and inches are arbitrary anyway). Being tall or
short is relative, but that doesn't mean that it has no meaning. It
just gets its meaning when we compare it to something else (it's
relational). What is my REAL height? I don't really know. It's kind
of a silly question.  
     Ok, sound good? Well, I think this is all a pretty good
analogy (and example, even) for pragmatism and truth. I don't
ultimately know what the real truth about anything is, be it
heights or weights, or the existence of God or of souls, or
whatever. Many people assume that this entails that we can't make
any judgements about truth, and that there's no way of measuring
truth. I think that's wrong. Although I don't think there is a
knowable OBJECTIVE standard for truth, we as humans can create a
standard. It's just like inches; we can all by consensus agree upon
some criteria (is this beginning to sound like Social Construction
of Reality or what?). That means the system we choose will be
arbitrary, but as we saw with inches, that's ok; it sure as hell is
better than nothing.
     So if a ruler is the arbitrary but useful standard for
distance, what will be our arbitrary but useful standard for truth?
Pragmatism! (YAY!!) Pragmatism is basically this: Measure the truth
of something by how useful or beneficial it is. It's that simple!
Of course, what makes something useful depends on a lot of factors.
You've got to factor in how believable something is (can you accept
it as true, intuitively?); how well it fits into your other beliefs
(I want to believe in Santa Claus, but it contradicts my other
beliefs that there's no possible way a man could deliver all those
toys in one night, and that I saw my parents buy the same toys two
days before Christmas); the nature of the usefulness it provides
(eating cake pleases my tongue very much, but my stomach gets too
upset later; or, the beneficial thrill of this bungee jump means
more to me than the beneficial safety of not jumping); also, how
useful something is for me as opposed to how useful it is for
others around me (turning my music up would please me very much,
but it would also piss off all my neighbors). You get my meaning.
     As James points out, pragmatism does two things really well.
First of all, it offers a good way of clearing up ANY intellectual
dispute. Does God exist? Take this simple test: Ask yourself how
intuitive the belief in God is, how it makes you feel, how it
meshes with your other beliefs, and how it affects your life in
general. If all those things are good overall, then the belief in
God is good for you, and you could say that God does exist (for
you). Notice, though, that this is a subjective system, not
objective. What determines whether something is beneficial or not
will depend entirely upon who you are. What's good for you may not
be good for me; therefore, your truth is not my truth. The most we
can hope to accomplish is to respect each other's personal truths
and cooperate as much as possible. Why? Because we agree that it
would be beneficial for us both to do so!
     The second thing that pragmatism does well is to offer a whole
new, but very satisfying system of truth. People get all bent out
of shape over truth. "It must be this! It must be that!" But how do
you know? I don't think any of us has a real answer. But even
though we may lack an objective sense of truth, we each have, in my
opinion, a personal human truth. This truth is a little different
for each of us, and it lies in our personal intuitions, feelings,
and desires. When I say that I am an atheist, I mean that God does
not personally strike me as true (also, that atheism is
pragmatically true for me). But wouldn't it be wrong of me to tell
some Christian that she is foolish or irrational for believing in
God when that belief might make her very happy and contented? I
believe that it would.
     Pragmatism is a wonderful system of truth because it addresses
our human truth. I think that many problems arise when people think
that there is an ultimate truth and THEY have it; they soon hold a
complete intolerance for those who disbelieve. Wars have started
over such logic! But if we all admitted that we all essentially
don't know, how could we be so intolerant of others with whom we
disagree? I could never kill a Christian over the issue of theism
and atheism simply for the sake of my personal belief. If we all
admitted to ourselves that truth is merely human (because we
essentially make it when we agree upon it, both individually and in
larger groups), wouldn't we be more respectful of each other's
truths? Wouldn't we be less inclined to be stubborn and proud, and
more inclined to open our minds and listen? Truth could be hanging
on some street sign somewhere, or riding on the words of a little
child. Truth could be floating on the wings of a butterfly.
     So, yes, truth, in this sense, is relative; truth is
subjective; truth is arbitrary. But we can subjectively create a
standard that resembles objectivity, and that standard can be (and
I think is) the pragmatic standard. Relativism without such a
standard is drifting meaninglessness. Truth is arbitrarily based
upon what is subjectively beneficial to each of us. What is
beneficial to each of us will depend on each of our desires,
intuitions, and experiences. Desire probably plays the biggest role
in that. For example, I like to listen to music; why? It pleases me
greatly; it makes me calm, or makes me excited (depending on which
music I choose to play); it pleases me in and of itself. Why is
being calm or excited good? Why is pleasing me good? Because I
desire to be pleased, and I desire to be calm or excited. If I
didn't desire these things, I just wouldn't care.
     People get mad at that fact. "You mean truth is whatever you
desire?" Well, not exactly. It has to match intuition and
experience too. I may want to fly, but experience quickly teaches
me that it just doesn't work. I may even want to believe in Santa
Claus, but it's just too counterintuitive for me to accept. Still,
people tend to think that truth is one thing and desire is
something completely else. I can tell you why I disagree. Why do we
want the truth in the first place? Is it something that is just
good in and of itself, because of itself? No, I think that it's
not. I know of a very good argument that proves how logic is
completely illogical (David Hume made it). I can tell you this
much-- there is no solution to this argument, no good counter-
argument! That's how could a job Hume did. But so what? We're all
still going to use logic because it's useful, plain and simple. If
truth was just inherently good by itself, we would embrace Hume's
argument that shows the truth behind logic. But since we don't,
that indicates to me that truth is not as important as something
     What is that something else? It's very simple, and it all
comes straight back to pragmatism. Why do we want truth?
Essentially, because we hope it will be useful in our lives and it
will make our lives happier. If truth made our lives less useful,
we would ignore it and even oppose it. Truth is a means towards a
greater ends: usefulness, or happiness, or satisfaction of our
desires. Here we see two types of truth: the old truth that thinks
it's the only objective, absolute truth; and the new pragmatic one
that realizes it's relative and subjective. Pragmatic truth is gray
and fuzzy; pragmatic truth alters and changes with our desires. As
James said, "truth happens to an idea." Pragmatic truth,
ironically, completely affirms itself. Pragmatism is pragmatic;
pragmatism is true because it works as a system in general.

     So what else can I say? These ideas are the backbone of my
whole philosophical outlook. It's changed the way I look at
everything. If we were to really follow philosophy all the way to
its bitter end, we would find complete skepticism and a very bleak,
existential picture that shows that not only do we know nothing at
all, but it looks like we're meaningless, random, strange little
creatures who don't live very long. This is beginning to sound like
Denial of Death.
     But the way I see it, we do and in fact need to ignore such
things, even though doing so would oppose our old idea of what
truth is. We need to suspend our disbelief and believe in things
that may very well be illusions, but are nonetheless very
pragmatic. What's just an illusion by the old standards of truth
may be a great personal truth by pragmatism's standards; and that's
what I think happens.
     I've talked lots of philosophy here, but let me more personal.
I have generally valued three things in my life that I once
considered greater than myself: God, truth, and love. God was
dispelled when I was 14. I realized that all the good things I felt
about God were things that MY faith and MY feelings created, not
some God. Truth was dispelled when I was 19 or 20. My vision of
truth became the pragmatic one, and all my early hopes of finding
the "meaning of life" in any objective sense were blown out of the
     But despite these things, I always had a faith in humanity and
in other people. I call this my faith in love: that there will
always be people I care for and love, and this love is greater than
me and gives my life meaning. But just like Otto Rank said, people
let you down. It's the cold, sad truth (in the old sense of truth,
though). Personal experiences completely shook my faith in humanity
and love to the core, and I lost faith in it too.
     I have some artistic hobbies: I like to compose and play
music, and I like to write stories and poetry. But these were never
anything more than self-expressions, never something more than me,
but just a product of me. And my feelings for my own self and ego
have never been such that I could simply love myself and no one
else, because frankly, I don't particularly love myself!
     So there seemed like there was nothing left for me to hold on
to, and thus no point to my life at all. It was my existential,
philosophical moment of deepest despair. But I learned to embrace
my human truth and let go of the old sense of truth that reduced my
faith in everything to rubble. I realized that when I am in love
with someone and they leave me, those feelings of love may be about
them, but they're basically my feelings. Even when the person goes,
my feelings are still my creation, and I'm the one controlling
them. Think of it this way: In any sentence in English you have a
subject, verb, and object. Old truth tends to place all the
importance on the object, but see, pragmatism reveals that it's not
what a belief is that makes it good, but what it does. That means
object is not as important as verb. And who is performing the verb?
The subject. Therefore, when "I love her," I used to become
miserable when she (the "her" in that sentence) left me because I
followed my old school sense of truth that values objects. But with
pragmatism, I realized how much more important the action is, which
in this case is love (the verb in the sentence). And who is doing
the loving? Who creates it and is responsible for this love? Me,
the subject, the "I" in the sentence.
     Subjectivism means the world to me. I have regained my faith
in humanity and myself because of it. I notice that we tend to hate
and abuse ourselves the most when we think of ourselves as objects
and not subjects; that is, for example, when I say to myself (as if
I wasn't myself!), "that was stupid, Paul!" I feel best when I lose
myself in activity, when I'm just the doer of something and not the
object of my own reflection. For example, when I give a
presentation in front of a class, at first I get really nervous. I
end up doing two thing at once: giving my presentation, and then
seeing myself as if I wasn't myself, that is, as if I was someone
watching me. This only lead to self-consciousness, and it distracts
me from my main purpose of giving the presentation. But when I just
do it, just give the presentation and not give it AND try to see
myself, I not only do it better, but I'm far happier.
     I lose myself to the activity, all the while knowing that the
activity's beauty and worth comes from me. This is what mysticism
seems to be all about; losing yourself through yourself. Anyway,
these ideas opened up all kinds of doors for me in my heart and
mind that I still find opening today. I consider all these ideas my
personal revolution thanks to James, and the ramifications are just
beginning to unfold for me. It gives me great hope.
     And what about death? The old sense of truth makes it a
difficult issue, but pragmatism makes it easier. Some may find that
the belief in the immortality of the soul is pragmatic and accept
it accordingly. But personally, it defies my intuition and
experience. It also defies my desire, because I'm not sure I want
to live forever! My opinion about death is this. I'm utterly
agnostic about it, of course; I honestly don't know what happens
when the physical body dies. I have a good guess that I die with
it, though. But life is for the living, and I mean "the living"
both in the sense of us, the living as subjects, and also "living"
as an activity that we do. Think of it this way: dying is simply
not living. Living is obviously all I've ever done all of my life.
Pragmatism, like Zen Buddhism, has taught me that to do something,
one must simply do that thing (no shit, right?). Yet to dwell upon
death during my life is to dwell upon not living while I live. How
silly! I would be living a not-living concern. Give to Caesar what
is Caesar's; I would much rather leave my living concerns to my
living self and my dead concerns to my dead self.