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William James and Pragmatisms Debate for American Studies



pragmatism prag·ma·tism \ˈprag-mə-ˌti-zəm\ Function: noun Date: circa 1864

1 : a practical approach to problems and affairs <tried to strike a balance between principles and pragmatism> 2 : an American movement in philosophy founded by C. S. Peirce and William James and marked by the doctrines that the meaning of conceptions is to be sought in their practical bearings, that the function of thought is to guide action, and that truth is preeminently to be tested by the practical consequences of belief — prag·ma·tist Listen to the pronunciation of pragmatist \-mə-tist\ adjective or noun — prag·ma·tis·tic Listen to the pronunciation of pragmatistic \ˌprag-mə-ˈtis-tik\ adjective

Plaz's notes

  • mental vs physical (social Darwinism)
  • Soul is immortal
  • Looking into our minds
  • Mental strength
  • Experience over fixed strength
  • Consciousness of self
  • Meaning of ideas are important to their conciseness
    • What matters is the result
    • not the process (like the ideological)
  • Change society - not everyone for themselves
  • Human mind changes process
    • Can affect Darwin's evolution by adaption (glasses help people see so they are not killed)
  • Human mind is capable of fixing problems
  • Humans are more powerful of nation
    • Can solve problems
  • if we put our minds to it we can solve problems

William James


  • founded psychology
    • scientific, experimenting part
    • before philosophers just said things
      • Can't be tested
    • Needed meaningful theories
    • Interrelations in the world important and real
    • Things are not because absolute effect
  • studies by John Dewey
  • Albert Einstein validated his inter relations theory


  • ideas and theories should be tested in progress
    • does it produce results?
  • No absolute truths
  • All claims about truth, knowledge, morality, and politics
  • American distrust in abstract theories and ideologies
  • American faith in know how and practicality
  • theories = tentative hypothesis
  • society must be geared towards problem solving
  • middle course between traditionalism and nihilism and irrationalism
  • revolutionary since no absolutes
  • influenced philosophy and cultural criticism
  • influenced progressive movement and social reform

Social Darwinist

  • social survival of the fittest
  • laissez-faire political and economic systems
    • typically deny "law of the jungle"
    • but that is why some people are more ahead than others
  • explains racism and capitalism
  • rejection of compassion and social responsibility
  • Darwin did not talk about humans
  • Herbert Spenser applied it to social groups
    • would produce prosperity
  • critics said social Darwinism justified oppressive social policies
  • reform Darwinism advocated for stronger gov. role
    • most extreme = eugenics
  • lost support after World War 1
  • contributed to rise of Nazism
  • support gained with discovery of DNA
  • Some say Sociobiology is another version