Harrison Middleton University

William James Precepts

William James Precepts

We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.


November 5, 2021

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

“If you tear a plant out of the ground, more than its roots come up.” – William James

Today’s blog takes a peek at William James. Most of the following quotes come from The Pluralistic Universe, but a few are from other works of his. This list of quotes is meant only to function as an entry point into James’s ideas. Boiling any philosophy down to a handful of precepts is like taking a drink of the stream while ignoring the rest of the rushing water. Hopefully it is a helpful step into the world of Pragmatism.

1] “In a subject like philosophy it is really fatal to lose connexion with the open air of human nature and to think in terms of shop-tradition only.” (Lecture I) (This is part of his argument against “vicious intellectualism.”)

2] “Knowledge about a thing is knowledge of its relations.” (The Pluralistic Universe, Lecture II)

3] “An absolute world has no history.” (Lecture I) “The absolute is useless for deductive purposes.” (Lecture II)

4] Truth as previously understood relies upon universal convergence: “Truths emerge from facts, but they dip forward into facts again and add to them; which facts again create or reveal new truth (the word is indifferent) and so on indefinitely. The ‘facts’ themselves meanwhile are not true. They simply are. Truth is the function of the beliefs that start and terminate among them.” (Pragmatism).

5] God is finite. Instead of God as “The Creator,” James offers a pantheistic view that God is immanent, indwelling in each object. If everything is connected and separate, if everything participates with divinity through its own being, then when we seek to know a thing, we will actually be understanding multiple things at one time. Everything exists (and is defined) by its relations to others.

6] Reality is a stream. Sometimes we are aware of the stream, sometimes not. Sometimes we access elements of the stream while other parts flow past. We can “dip a bucket” into this stream and grab moments of understanding and memory. (Principles of Psychology, chapter 9). We can direct our thoughts and awarenesses to purpose, not simply accepting fate or awaiting divine intervention. We can improve ourselves and our world. We have some agency.

7] “[C]onscious experiences freely compound and separate themselves.” (Lecture IV)

8] “Reality may be out of reach of human logic.” (Lecture V)

9] James’s main problem is trying to identify how my world intersects your world. How are we co-conscious? (Lecture V)

10] “Thought deals solely with surfaces.” (Lecture VI) or “Concepts are self-identical; nature exists in excess.” (Lecture VII) or “Concepts are practical.” (Lecture VII). In other words, intellectualism sounds deep, but is actually only looking at the surface. Direct acquaintance and conceptual knowledge are two tools in understanding the world.

11] “The world qua many is not the world qua one, as absolutism claims.” (Lecture VI)

12] Philosophies are intimate parts of the universe; they express something of its own thought back to itself.” (Lecture VIII)

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