Symposium Introduction

I am very fond of William James, and I’m often surprised to find that that fondness is not widely shared among philosophers. Psychologists generally know about James’s theories—he has a central role in the history of psychology. But philosophy students can easily go through a university curriculum in philosophy without ever encountering James—or if they encounter him, it’s only in a discussion about the ethics of belief or free will, generally in an introductory philosophy class.

A little bit of autobiography is relevant here: I first read James’s Varieties of Religious Experience in a course on American religion at Colgate University in upstate New York in the mid-1980s. Another religious studies class on psychology and religion included readings from James, as did a philosophy of religion seminar, but I never encountered him outside the context of religious studies classes. When I went to graduate school in philosophy at Syracuse University, I read James as part of an independent study I undertook on pragmatism, but otherwise he was absent from anything but the courses in philosophy of religion.

The city of Syracuse’s history is tied up with William James’s grandfather, who came to this swampy upstate New York village in the early nineteenth century and used the salt deposits there to help build a fortune; it is said that he once held mortgages on most of the properties in the city. One of the nicest streets in Syracuse is James Street, which runs parallel to the former Erie Canal, which was championed by William James Sr. There is a town near Syracuse’s salt deposits named “Jamesville” which some speculate was named for the family, too.

And yet, at Syracuse University in the late 1980s through the mid-1990s, William James wasn’t on the philosophical radar screen. I only learned about the connections between the James family and Syracuse when I stumbled upon a used book about the James family while I was digging through a pile of books in a used bookstore. Of course, philosophy is not known as a discipline that is impressed by or interested in places of birth or family locations. But still, you’d think there would have been some attention paid to him, just as Scottish universities claim their native sons Hume and Reid. Perhaps Union College, down the road in Schenectady, with which William Sr. and Henry Sr. had close ties, was more interested in William the younger’s philosophical legacy, but Syracuse University was decidedly not.

Admittedly, William James is a bit of an oddball, even against the background of the pre-professional milieu of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century philosophy in the United States. He was deeply involved in the search for scientific evidence of clairvoyance and life after death; he took seriously not only standard religious experiences, but also more marginal experiences, like mystical experiences. He sometimes says things that make him sound like a classic positivist, but it is difficult to take seriously any proposal that he was engaged in the same kind of projects that Carnap, Schlick, and other positivists were interested in.

If Sarin Marchetti is right, one reason that James might be so easily ignored by philosophers who aren’t already interested in philosophical psychology, religious experience, or pragmatism is that he enters the philosophical conversation from an odd angle, since part of what James is doing is challenging the very idea of what it is to do philosophy. Putting agency at the center of metaphilosophy—rather than focusing on agency as a philosophical problem itself—makes moral philosophy, epistemology, and philosophical examination look different than it does for the tradition that goes back to Kant, Descartes, and Russell.

Chris Voparil, in his response, asks Marchetti to say more about the concept of normativity that he thinks we can find in James, and suggests that Marchetti’s reading of James shows the affinities between James and Richard Rorty—a connection with which Rorty would surely have been happy.

Russell Pryba sees the same connection, noting that Marchetti has called to our attention the anti-theoretical and therapeutic conception of philosophical inquiry that we should appreciate in James, and suggests that this might be a key to understanding, not just normativity and the moral life, but also pragmatism itself. But Pryba wonders if the gap between moral theory and the moral life really is as large as this reading implies. Pryba thinks that we can read James as a particularist, for whom moral norms (and the concept of the normative more generally) arise from particular situations. Moral theory might be seen as giving us some “rules of thumb” tied to the ideals that are part of the genuinely moral life.

Loren Goldman thinks that Marchetti’s reading of James shows us the way that we might reflect on “the task of living in situ” offering us ways to “negotiate the various and often competing demands of our inherited ethical framework.” Goldman, however, wonders whether we should, in fact, see this Jamesian approach as exemplary for us, given James’s rather ambivalent views of democracy and the common person.

Alexis Dianda’s discussion of Marchetti’s book and of the William James it presents us with raises a number of issues, one of which, as with Goldman, focuses on the question of the relationship between the political and the ethical. To sharpen up this criticism, I might put her point this way: James seems to be significantly committed to a form of individualism that makes it difficult to see how much, or to what extent, he can speak to those of us who are concerned not just about the state of our own individual moral lives, but also about our large-scale political. The politics that seem to issue from James’s individualism does not seem to provide a way to think of the individual as political, and of moral life as involving political obligations. Dianda is more skeptical than Marchetti that the hortatory ethics which Marchetti finds in James, is “in and of itself political.”

What Marchetti is offering us, I think, is a way to read James appreciatively. Maybe that is insufficiently critical, but it seems to me that we too often think of ourselves in philosophy as disputing about theses, or offering arguments, or, as Rorty says, as “all purpose lawyers.” And yet, all the commenters raise important issues—issues that touch on what we think philosophical critique should be.

What Marchetti is offering us with his book about James is a way of looking and seeing, a way of appreciating James’s work, which I think is a valuable service for all of us who would like to read James’s works more carefully and attentively. Yes, this assumes that he has something worthwhile to offer us, and yes, it assumes that he is worth our time.

Alexis Dianda


The Moral Life and the Political Life

The central thesis of Sarin Marchetti’s Ethics and Philosophical Critique is clear: James’s thought is suffused with moral considerations. His “theory of truth,” his psychology, and his metaphysics, while challenging and insightful in their own right, are replete with moral considerations that, taken together, yield coherent and compelling moral philosophy. And yet, James is a peculiar kind of moral philosopher: he is a moral philosopher without a moral theory. According to Marchetti, James’s ethics is a horatory one that presents a direct challenge to the orthodox philosophies. James’s ethics not only balks at a system of moral maxims or a final rubric for ethical decision-making, but shows that attempts to erect such systems are parasitic upon moral life. In lieu of a moral theory, then, we are given an ethics of self-cultivation, one that has shed the trappings of foundationalism for the robes of exhortation, one that is ever attuned to “the difficulties of the moral life often caused by our own attitude toward our ordinary practices and their reflective counterparts and desiderata” (18).

Marchetti’s project is ambitious, and it must be said that any project that takes on such a broad reconstructive project will include gaps and silences, and raise skeptical questions for its readers. While on many fronts—particularly Marchetti’s treatment of James’s “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life”—the work is compelling, on other fronts the gaps and silences are acutely felt. My brief comments are going to focus on where I think Marchetti could have been clearer, where I thought there were important omissions, and where perhaps Marchetti and I differ “temperamentally” as readers of James and of the tradition.

For all of Marchetti’s insistence on “the ordinary” (“ordinary practices,” “ordinary human beings,” “ordinary sensibility,” “ordinary discourse,” “ordinary moral life,” etc.) on avoiding intellectualism, and alienation from the moral life, the text is strangely barren of concrete descriptions of what “ordinary moral life” is like. One example of this is found in Marchetti’s omission of any concrete discussion of the darker, more impotent ends of James’s moral philosophy, the role he gives to melancholia, sickness, evil, and desperation. Marchetti comes closest when he appeals to what he calls the “alienation of our expressive capacities.”1 I gather that at times this form of alienation is supposed to stand in for different forms of what James would call “soul sickness.” However, it’s never entirely clear just how Marchetti sees the full scope of this kind of alienation. At times it seems as if it just arises from our tendency to intellectualize and at others it seems to be an inescapable part of “ordinary” moral life. I raise these issues not only because taking up these concepts directly would have been helpful, but because I sense that there is quite a lot at stake in them for the kind of horatory project Marchetti sees as so valuable. While James (and Marchetti) will certainly refuse to lay down a definitive prescription for what constitutes the “ordinary” or the “healthy,” I am left wondering about the particular challenges and choices that facilitate or obstruct our ability to enact moral ideals or how we become self-alienated. James’s ample descriptions of firsthand experiences were exceptionally illuminating in this respect.

At the outset of Ethics and Philosophical Critique in William James, Marchetti pronounces a lofty ambition for James’s moral thought: namely “a revolution in moral thought which could not but proceed from a radical rethinking of what philosophical critique as a whole might be and do” (14; my emphasis). Given the centrality of critique, one would expect that there would be some direct engagement with the concept.2 The closest Marchetti comes to discussing critique explicitly or telling us precisely how James revolutionizes it comes at the conclusion of his work.

If . . . the point of philosophical critique is to survey and question our ordinary moral vocabulary expressive of our moral life, as well as the philosophical one parasitic on it and generated from such reflective activities, then James’ meta-moral philosophy can be read as an instance of such composite exercise swinging back and forth from the ordinary to the reflective dimension of experience, language and conduct in a stepwise critical movement. (249–50)

Looking back to how Marchetti uses the term, it’s not so clear why Marchetti’s account of this “stepwise” movement is so revolutionary. At times critique seems to be functioning in a far more restrictive sense (i.e., “criticism”), recalling what Raymond Williams once called “fault-finding.”3 It’s not clear how even James’s devastating criticisms of, say, the empiricists’ understanding of experience change how we understand critique or philosophy as such. The demand that our concepts and distinctions relate to our practices is radical within the tradition. However, what is missing from Ethics and Philosophical Critique is a discussion of just how this pragmatic demand truly transforms “philosophical critique as a whole.” Marchetti comes closer when he lays out James’s “therapeutic” ethics, and here I suspect that critique is coming much closer to Foucault’s usage—what he once called “reflective indocility.”4 Making these kinds of connections explicit would have not only been helpful for the reader, they would have made a more compelling case for James’s status as a revolutionary of philosophical and critical practice.

The final chapter of Ethics and Philosophical Critique, “Ethical Conduct and Political Activity,” raises some of the most serious philosophical questions, though they take us the furthest away from issues of James scholarship. There seem to be two separate claims at work in this chapter. The first is a scholarly claim. Against those critics who peg James as a narrow individualist unconcerned with public life, Marchetti makes a convincing argument to the contrary. The second is a wider claim that concerns how we interpret the relationship between the ethical and the political, and, with that, the sense in which we can see James’s thought as bearing on political activity or critique. Marchetti’s central thesis in this chapter is that, for James, “political and social criticism was fully entrenched in the ethical” and therefore there was “no blindness in William James on this issue [i.e., politics]” (216). Here Marchetti and I meet our sharpest difference, and I part ways with the James he reconstructs.

The point I would stress here can be phrased rather crudely: having moral concerns is not the same thing as having a politics. Marchetti attempts to undermine a line of criticism brought by Cornel West (and others) that says, “James was preoccupied with the state of his and others’ souls, not the social conditions of their lives.”5 What West seems to rightfully home in on here is that James, while not unconcerned with certain forms of injustice and social misery, does not offer sustained analysis or provide political alternatives. James’s letters to the Boston Evening Transcript addressing the Philippine-American War are a good example of how Marchetti’s first point is true and yet his second point is not quite right. James is not blind, he is not unconcerned, and his sentiments are not ignoble, but his concern is not an analysis of the social conditions, politics, or economics driving the war. A short excerpt captures this nicely:

It is horrible, simply horrible. Surely there cannot be many born and bred Americans who, when they look at the bare fact of what they are doing, the fact taken all by itself, do not feel this, and do not blush with burning shame at the unspeakable meanness and ignominy of the trick?6

The outrage is surely valuable (if not naïve), but it is moral through and through.

To say this is not to say that there are no resources in James for thinking through political problems, but to do so we must go beyond what James himself offers.7 In other words, the step from the horatory ethics Marchetti so convincingly describes to something like resistance or offering critique of the social conditions that animate, limit, or make possible the moral life is not obvious. This is what I take to be the hallmark of political activity, and this is what I see as absent in James.

We can and should investigate the moral feelings attached to political and social problems, and the work of educating moral subjects who recognize political and social harms as harm seems to be the height of a moral education—surely this is of the utmost political importance. James’s analysis in, for example, “The Moral Equivalent of War,” while valuable on many fronts, tells us nothing about the institutional or economic conditions and incentives of war. His analysis is psychological and his counsel is moral. Marchetti is right: this is not blindness, but we would overcorrect the tradition and muddy the waters to insist that it is politics. While I’m sympathetic to Marchetti’s desire to defend James, we ought to be content to recognize that not every philosopher can (or should) do everything. Marchetti’s final chapter seems to take as obvious what I fear is far from it: namely that a horatory ethics is in and of itself political.

In broad strokes I think Marchetti is right, and he has offered a broadly compelling and sensitive reading of the scope of the moral in James’s thought. Marchetti has done a commendable job of lending coherence to James’s overall project, and paints a portrait of a moral thinker, who without a moral theory, nevertheless still challenges our moral categories and pushes our conceptions not only of the moral philosopher, but also the moral life. Despite some reservations and a few frustrations, the work has a lot to offer scholars of pragmatism and readers of James.

  1. The phrase appears frequently throughout Sarin Marchetti’s Ethics and Philosophical Critique in William James (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). See, for example, pp. 33, 62, 98, 118. Other variants, such as self-alienation appear too numerously to cite.

  2. Beyond, of course, Kant and Hegel’s distinctive usages, one could also think of Marx’s sense of critique. Today, however, it is difficult to appeal to the term without reckoning with the legacy of critical theory.

  3. Raymond Williams, Keywords (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976), 75–76; for instances of what I see as a more restricted sense of “critique” operative in Ethics and Philosophical Critique, see 141–42, 170.

  4. Michel Foucault, “What Is Critique?,” in What Is Enlightenment? Eighteenth-Century Answers and Twentieth-Century Questions, ed. James Schmidt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 386. See also Judith Butler, “What Is Critique? An Essay on Foucault’s Virtue,” in The Political: Readings in Continental Philosophy, ed. David Ingram (London: Blackwell, 2002), 212–28.

  5. Cornel West, The American Evasion of Philosophy (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), 60; cited in Marchetti, Ethics and Philosophical Critique, 219.

  6. William James, “The Philippine Tangle,” in Essays, Comments, and Reviews (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), 156–57.

  7. A number of scholars working within the feminist tradition have done precisely this in recent years. The best of this new work has, to my mind, not however taken James’s thought as being self-evidently politically valuable. They have used specific concepts and tools James articulated to their own specifically feminist ends. See, for example, the collection of essays Feminist Interpretations of William James, ed. Erin C. Tarver and Shannon Sullivan (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2015). I find José Medina’s contribution, “The Will Not to Believe: Pragmatism, Oppression, and Standpoint Theory” (235–60), to be particularly illuminating in this respect.

  • Sarin Marchetti

    Sarin Marchetti


    William James on Metaphilosophy, Ethics, and the Moral Life

    As any decent writer would, I wish I had anticipated and hence addressed the perceptive criticisms raised by Alexis Dianda, Loren Goldman, Russell Pryba, and Chris Voparil. The more so as I think the book would have been a much better thing if I did. Or if I was able to address their concerns more explicitly, as I think that at least some of them I have indeed anticipated, even if not as thoroughly as I should have had, since they lie at the very heart of my Jamesian metaphilosophical and ethical interests. Others, instead, if not completely new to me, present things in ways that I haven’t thought through to be sure. I am thus very grateful to the authors for having pointed to some of the critical junctures of the book, which gives me the opportunity to rethink some of its main tenets anew and possibly convey them better than I did.

    Since some of the criticisms I foresaw, while others I didn’t, I shall ideally divide each reply in two parts: one in which I try to make the questioned points clearer, and one in which I’ll try to say something new in the light of the observations raised. Finally, some remarks concern my reading of James, questioning selected interpretative choices, while others are directed to my use of his work, questioning the mileage I’d like to do with it. As I think that the interpretation/use distinction is porous to say the least, I shall mix together my replies to the two sets of remarks.

    Reply to Dianda

    Alexis Dianda, whose own work on James I highly regard, presses my reading of James on three counts. They are, respectively, my account of the ordinary and of ordinary life in relation to James’s; my understanding of philosophical critique as associated with his; and my reading of James’s problematic way of integrating the ethical with the political. I will address each of them separately, even if the first two partially overlap and are somewhat contiguous with—or, better, preliminary to—the third, which in turn I will address only preliminarily and reprise it in my replies to Goldman and Voparil, who raised similar concerns.

    Regarding the first point, Dianda flags the lack, in the text, of a detailed characterization and concrete examples of the ordinary, the dimension of thought and conduct which in my reconstruction James effectively contrasted to those flights of intellectualization and estrangement from our practices often elicited by philosophical theorizing. The ordinary life—a cluster concept I associate, as Dianda remarks, to such cognate terms as practices, sensibility, discourse, human beings, and moral life—plays a crucial role in James’s metaphilosophical shift from the philosophical foundationalism inbuilt in moral theorizing to the combo of philosophical clarification and transformation sought by moral exhortations. In the early chapters of the book (§§1–2) I go in some depth into how I understand this contrast and its consequences for a Jamesian approach to moral matters, without however trying to exhaust the manifold of insightful descriptions of the ordinary scattered throughout James’s oeuvre, as I also remark in the conclusion. I do try to account for them, too, but only in the later chapters and only selectively, in the context of showcasing respectively James’s psychological, epistemological and political writings (§§3–5) in the light of this master metaphilosophical shift. It is true then that, as Dianda notices, I do not pay proper service to the wealth of descriptive details of the ordinary moral lives offered by James—which, however, nothing short of a direct plunging into the texts can deliver. Nowhere in the book, in fact, do I provide a full account of them, and rather focus on the methodological maneuver lying behind their philosophical handling by means of hortatory ethics. That was indeed my chief purpose throughout: namely, to excavate James’s meta-moral machinery rather than presenting the full scope of his moral sensibility and imagination.

    In hinging James’s hortatory ethics on his pragmatist rethinking of the nature and scope of philosophical activity, whose point is not the foundation but rather the problematization and transformation of the moral life, I was interested in highlighting one major (and not the only) source of moral distress for James, that is the petrification and deadening of our moral life when left untried and strangled by the dry requests of abstractedness and purity of moral theorizing, variously understood. Moral theorizing, according to this picture, is what we do when we barricade ourselves behind the sayings and dictates of rules and principles whose respect does not cause us to exercise our imagination and sensibility and hence cause a work of the self on the self. Differently from philosophically substantive approaches aiming at either delimiting the perimeter of the moral (meta-ethics) or to prescribing its possibilities and effects (normative and applied ethics)—or both things (moral theory)—this therapeutic methodology has no established agenda except from its method(s), trailing and attending the ordinary moral life with piecemeal interventions, some of which have been explored by James because of their urgency in the society he lived in, but which is ultimately up to us to retool and use in order to face our own personal and collective moral challenges (more on this in my reply to Pryba). Being interested more in the promises of James’s hortatory approach rather than in its possible applications, I left as much open regarding the range of difficulties and problems we might want to address through such a prism. The more so as the key aspect of James’s meta-moral philosophy lies precisely in its prioritization of the first-person point of view in moral matters, where our practices and customs come under investigation from within, that is from the point of view of those living them and struggling with their growth or shrinking in meaning. What is called for is our personal engagement with the truths, meanings, and values informing our thoughts and conducts, so to find the best medicine for the sick soul and body. James, in my reading of his work as a piece of therapeutic activity, elaborated a method of philosophical and ethical healing which, however, should be tailored down to the particular disease one feels and struggles with, where those who need to find such sound matching are the troubled subjects themselves. No philosopher should or could perform such a delicate task for us, but can only assist us in the critical handling of our own life with such hortatory devices and reminders, through which elucidating and possibly recasting the notions and pictures governing our minds and deeds and ourselves through them.

    Still, Dianda’s worry has grip, as I now see how the reader could be left wondering which are those ordinary aspects of our moral life most prone to exhaustion, and hence in need of hortatory rescue. In particular, and this is something another commentator remarked as well elsewhere in print (Pihlström 2015 and 2017), what seems to be lacking or at least underrepresented in the book is James’s keen stress on those darker, tragic aspects of our ordinary life related to melancholia, sickness (both bodily and spiritual), and evil. These are indeed key phenomenological dimensions of our ordinary life, moral and otherwise, and James spent remarkable and perhaps unsurpassed pages to their unfolding and possible healing. Yet, I do not consider them as the only or even the most critical ones in need of philosophical and ethical assessment. To borrow Dianda’s own wording, I don’t in fact think that there are inescapable features of the ordinary dimension in need of philosophical assessment, and am rather convinced that the ones covered by James are but some of the outcomes of our temptations to sublimate or disregard our moral sensibility and its cultivation, with many more to be found once we reach back into our personal histories and cultural background. There is no ranking or agenda of ethical troubles to be drawn from without our situated lives.

    I also resist the accusation of having reduced (and hence trivialized), with and after James, this wide variety of troubles and misconducts to one’s incapacity to engage with oneself, overlooking the wider socioeconomic factors at stake which often jeopardize this very activity of self-scrutiny and caring in the first place. It is true that we could well envision evils, vices, and (not so quiet) desperations which don’t seem to be immediately related to one’s incapacity to experiment with one’s ordinary responses and reflective insights, like those cases of radical poverty and cultural marginalization depicted by James in such remarkable essays as “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings” and “What Makes a Life Significant,” as well as in the very opening and closing of Pragmatism. Yet, in my reconstruction, even if the sources of such demeaning and wrongdoings might not lie in the intellectualization of ordinary thoughts and conduct performed by (and in the name of) moral theorizing, their solutions or dissolutions heavily depend on our capacity to shake and free ourselves from that particular kind of self-alienation we impose on ourselves when we don’t see our present condition as a field and opportunity for self-scrutiny and self-transformation: a lack in moral experimentation which is indeed one of the distinctive marks of those theoretical approaches to ethics which hand us the conditions and guidelines of the moral life from without.

    I would then still insist on the significance of the methodological machinery James offered us rather than focusing on the indeed fine-grained and wide range of applications he envisioned, as I believe James was much more interested in—and interesting for—presenting the evils and traps of alienation as mobile material to rework ourselves for the good rather than as given, inescapable elements of experience to mirror and account for. The worry, in the latter case, is in fact that we will seek the material for moral uplifting everywhere but in ourselves and in the troubling situation we find ourselves in: most notably, in metaphysical (that is, ontological) banisters which would condemn us to—but also reassure us about—our troubled condition to the detriment of the possibility to reworking it and reworking ourselves through it. Indeed, this acknowledgment might well not be sufficient, but it is surely necessary to willing and conducting ourselves out of the disadvantages affecting us—more on this below with regard to James’s ethical approach to the political.

    On a working definition of it, then, the ordinary which such hortatory device aims at ameliorating and renewing has to do with the things we do in nonspecialized contexts, that is when we engage in and challenge practices whose expertise is not handled to us by alleged professionals or authorities but rather crafted along the way of their piecemeal and tentative resolutions. As such, it is not the business of philosophy to account for them or to rule them from without. Philosophical activity has rather to do with the elucidation of our problematic historical present for its transformation. The ordinary is not something we need to specify or articulate by means of philosophical descriptions or prescriptions, then, but rather a dimension of our lives we need to get back in touch with by means of philosophical critique. This leads me to the second criticism raised by Dianda: to what, then, philosophical critique amounts?

    Dianda points to a perplexing swinging back and forth, in the text, from an understanding of critique as criticism or traditional “fault-finding” to one as problematization or “reflective indocility” of Foucauldian memory. This passage is of the utmost importance as, in my reconstruction, the very metaphilosophical rethinking of philosophical critique grounds and shapes James’s hortatory moral project throughout. While I would certainly acknowledge and defend the presence of both registers in the book, I see Jamesian critique in the latter, therapeutic and transformative sense as at once primary and more radical than those offered by his fellow pragmatists and kindred thinkers. With this I mean two things: that criticism, for example of classical empiricism or rationalism, needs to be understood in the light of the critique of our ordinary and reflective life; and that James offered a distinctive characterization of critique, which however finds in those thinkers influenced by Nietzsche (Foucault, Deleuze, and Bernard Williams), Wittgenstein (Cavell, Diamond, and McDowell), and Dewey (Putnam, Rorty, and Bernstein) congenial conversational partners—with Kant, Hegel, and Marx as towering figures which, however, in the book I only evoke or mention in passing for lack of space and erudition. Notable among the Jamesian sources there are also the Stoics and more generally the ancient tradition of the art of living, about which I say very little but whose connection has finally started to gain attention (see, e.g., Lachs 2012; and Stroud 2012 and 2017).

    Regarding the primacy of critique over criticism, I both claim that, in James, the exercise of fault-finding in the philosophies of the past (to which this modality of assessment is mostly directed) and in some of our non- or pre-philosophical pictures (which are also interested by it, although only as a result of the former, as I am about to explain) is both driven by our critique of our ordinary and intellectual practices, and, in turn, transformed by it: this would be in fact the distinctive mark of James’s metaphilosophical shift from foundation to elucidation. Without critique, I maintain, James’s criticism would loose most of its grip and ambition. As Dianda rightly points out, in fact, neither criticism nor critique are novel or revolutionary devices per se, and hence only their distinctive combination could justify my account of James’s pragmatism as a momentous recasting in philosophical methodology and practice. The first leg of this equation deals, as said, with how critique enters into criticism and refashions it. For James, what is problematic, and hence in need of criticism, in classical empiricism or idealism are not so much the logical or substantive faults in their arguments and claims, but rather the practical difficulties they create in our conducts and activities when we cash them out in practice, and hence what we are in most need of is the critique of our lives as driven by said pictures. Critique, so understood, has to do with our doings, that is with what we make of and with ourselves when thinking or reworking the world after a certain philosophical picture, with criticism representing the most external layer of this process, addressing our engagement with those very philosophical pictures we bring into our lives, assessing their grounding and opportunity in the light of the lives they allow and encourage us to lead.

    Once framed in this way, and this is the second leg of the equation, we can also appreciate how James’s distinctive understanding of philosophical critique as the problematization and recasting of our conducts lies at the very center of his pragmatist method, whose aim is to “unstiffen all our theories, limbers them up and sets each one at work” (1975: 32). Theories, James famously remarked, become “instruments, not answers to enigmas, in which we can rest. We don’t lie back upon them, we move forward, and, on occasion, make nature over again by their aid” (ibid.). As such, philosophical critique aims not so much to the replacing of one faulty (that is inaccurate) picture of reality or of ourselves with a sound (accurate) one, but rather to the experimentation with said pictures in order to remake the world and ourselves through them. The “temperamental” differences between the empiricist and the rationalist with which James famously opens Pragmatism are then to be read as experiments in living in need of pragmatic unstiffening, with the pragmatist temperament being among those very experiments worth giving a chance. Criticizing (as in criticism) empiricism or rationalism for what they state there is and should be would thus amount to criticizing (as in critique) what they allow us to do and be. In this respect, James would then not so much praise pragmatism as itself the most appropriate picture of how reality is like (pluralistic, probabilistic, and mobile as against monistic, certain, and static), but rather as an auspicious attitude to endorse in order for us to experiment more fully and productively with it (hence the shift from metaphysics to temperaments). That is why, in James’s hands, pragmatism becomes a “mediator and reconciler” between apparently opposite pulls rather than a further option itself: it in fact shows us the consequences of endorsing said pictures, with such practical shift presented itself from the point of view of its practical fruits rather than its ontological roots. According to James, there would not be a way the world is which our philosophies should unveil (by variously mirroring or unearthing it), but rather a variety of things we can do with it and become through it, to be assessed by philosophical critique understood as the clarification and transformation of such practices from within their unfolding.

    In the book I claim how this methodology has a strong ethical flavor to it, as it translates a theoretical distinction into a practical difference, hence shifting the ground from the metaphysical validity of a certain picture to its experimental outcomes. In the course of checking out “the [theoretical/metaphysical] difference that makes a [practical/experimental] difference,” to borrow and adapt yet another famous Jamesian expression, pragmatism encourages us to check ourselves and rework ourselves, trading a spectatorial picture of reality with an agential one. This means to abandon the goal (and fancy) to look for values, principles, and rules as established from without our practices, and engage in a piecemeal critique of what we became by sticking to the ones currently governing our lives so to possibly envision novel ones or recover forgotten ones. For James, the weight of the arguments for or against a certain judgment or deed should rely on our readiness to both acknowledge such thoughts and conducts as ours and revise them in the light of further experimentation and critique. The faults to be found in one’s pictures and enactments of reality are then to be measured up with reference to one’s ever-changing ways of dealing with it and accounting for such dealings. What is “wrong” with empiricism, rationalism, or pragmatism for that matter, is then to be answered by showing what is “critical” in living according to such worldviews and plans of action. This shift in philosophical methodology and sensibility is ethical in character in the measure in which it calls for firsthand engagement and self-transformation in the light of the views we hold and with the goal to thinking and enacting them anew.

    As for the third and final concern raised by Dianda, that is my too-charitable characterization of James’s combination of the ethical with the political, I see us parting ways precisely in our opposite reactions to James’s alleged lack of a full-fledged politics. While Dianda is unimpressed with James’s (non-reductionist) psychologization and (non-moralistic) moralization of political (that is socioeconomic) commitments, I see these moves as steps in a congenial direction, as they aim to gather political forces from within our mobile psychological constitution and ethical activities. The way in which I take James understanding ethics as a project of self-cultivation against the background of shared practices for their amelioration aims at debunking a number of dichotomies (private/public, individual/social, egoism/altruism) still much entrained in the philosophical depiction of the morality/politics relationship—as it has been convincingly shown by Koopman (2005) and more recently by Throntveit (2014) and Livingston (2016). Dianda is certainly not claiming that James’s “psychological analysis” and “moral counseling” of political fights and social troubles are utterly unhelpful to address them, but rather that they are at best suggestive and only seldom effective in their philosophical and practical scope. James, then, would not be politically “blind,” but simply wanting, and in need of integration: as she writes, her claim is not “that there are no resources in James for thinking political problems, but to do so we must go beyond what James himself offers.”

    The criticism leveled against my reconstruction and defense of what I call James’s “politics of the self” mirrors the ones raised by radical political thinkers (most famously by Cornel West), Deweyans (Westbrook), and feminists (Seigfried), and I take it to be a genuine challenge to any Jamesian project in practical ethics. As a matter of fact, I myself remarked the need to further and possibly revise the ethical-political project adumbrated by James (245–47), taking his example of war as a particularly telling yet somewhat outdated case study (239–45) and suggesting a few ways of doing exactly that. I thus agree with Dianda, both methodologically and substantially, that we should not expect James to deliver all we need in terms of a politics and rather draw from kindred (and also not so kindred) thinkers—once again, see Koopman 2013 for a compelling exercise in philosophical integration that goes exactly in this direction. Yet, I would still insist that the Jamesian contribution to the construction of a politics should necessarily pass through the ethical energization of the self as spurred by hortatory ethics. Since versions of this line of criticism have been suggested by Goldman and Voparil, I shall reprise it in the replies to their respective papers.


    James, W. 1975. Pragmatism. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

    Lachs, J. 2012. Stoic Pragmatism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

    Livingston, A. 2016. Damn Great Empires! William James and the Politics of Pragmatism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Koopman, C. 2005. “William James’s Politics of Personal Freedom.” Journal of Speculative Philosophy 19.2.

    ———. 2013. Genealogy as Critique: Foucault and the Problems of Modernity. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

    Pihlström, S. 2015. Review of Ethics and Philosophical Critique, by Sarin Marchetti. Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews 2015.12.08.

    ———. 2017. “William James.” In International Encyclopedia of Ethics, edited by Hugh LaFollette. Oxford: Blackwell.

    Stroud, S. R. 2012. “William James and the Impetus of Stoic Rhetoric.” Philosophy and Rhetoric 45.3: 246–68.

    Stroud, S. R., and Nautiyal, J. 2017. “Stoic Rhetoric and the Ethics of Empowered Individualism: ‘The Will to Believe’ as Moral Philosophy.” In William James, Moral Philosophy, and the Ethical Life, edited by Jacob L. Goodson. Lahman: Lexington.

    Throntveit, T. 2014. William James and the Quest for an Ethical Republic. London and New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Loren Goldman


Ethics and the Limits of Philosophical Critique in William James

Comments on Sarin Marchetti’s Ethics and Philosophical Critique in William James

Ethics and Philosophical Critique in William James is an impressive book. Against an extraordinary survey of the literature, Sarin Marchetti presents James not as a moral philosopher but a philosopher of moral philosophizing. The gerund makes all the difference, for Marchetti’s James is a thinker of life in process: James does not approach morality as a set of imperatives that spell out the right way to live—he is too pluralistic to accept a single mode of the good and too pragmatic to accept any abstract schedule of ethics. Instead, Marchetti’s James takes moral considerations as opportunities to reflect on the task of living in situ, to negotiate the various and often competing demands of our inherited ethical frameworks within the circumstances of the situations we encounter. This concrete and self-reflective way of doing ethics, furthermore, drives not only James’s moral thinking, but his entire way of doing philosophy. As Marchetti puts it, “James understood philosophical activity as a therapeutic and transformative practice which might help us attain a cleared and possibly wiser take on our life and its possibilities of experience and growth in meaning” (25).

To illustrate the moral philosopher in action, Marchetti refers in his opening pages to Edward Hopper’s 1953 painting Office in a Small City, in the collection of New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. As Marchetti describes it, Hopper’s work shows “an ordinary scene of an unspecified employee at his desk, slightly reclined on his chair and looking through the window at the happenings of the city at the foot of his office” (2). After exploring some of the questions this image might raise—What is the worker doing? What does his expression convey? What does his being framed by a window suggest? etc.—Marchetti writes that this office worker “best portrays the very condition of the moral philosopher as I see James depicting her,” namely as isolated in a room, “theorizing about something with which she has little engagement.” At the same time, the fact that the “interesting areas”—the city and street below—are outside of our view can also be read as problematizing the work of the traditional moral philosopher. In fact, in the office there is “a lot going on: namely, a complex life with a certain activity to eventually put in question and reflect upon, which is in fact our task to acknowledge and eventually transform from the within of its exercise” (4–5). In like fashion, James and Hopper thus point to the complexity of the moral philosopher’s activity and hint “at the genealogy of its emergence and justification in order for us to reflect on the various ways in which we inhabit it and might perform it otherwise” (5).

I have few qualms with Marchetti’s presentation of James and a Jamesian approach to moral philosophy; indeed, I found this work learned, compelling and rewarding. Particularly illuminating were the connections Marchetti draws between James’s ethical thinking, his pragmatism and the reenchanment of the world sketched in chapter 4. As a whole, Ethics and Philosophical Critique in William James offers a compelling view of how to think about James and how his work hangs together. At the same time, moreover, while tracing a central thread of self-reflective activity through all of James’s work, Marchetti manages to avoid falsely making James into a systematic thinker.

My questions lie instead with the more general limitations of this approach to ethical matters, for I wonder whether James—or his way of doing morality—should be exemplary for us in the way that Marchetti suggests. Although Marchetti does a splendid job of explaining how Jamesian ethical stance exists to challenge inherited opinions and pat routines of moral activity, there is a greater problem in that it reproduces James’s own blindness to crucial mobilizing features of the status of his ethical thinker. I want to use this space to ask a few questions revolving around the theme of mindfulness and blindness in James’s work and, by extension, in Marchetti’s own understanding of ethical practice. One of the striking things about Ethics and Philosophical Critique in William James is the learnedness of its author with regard to the literature, and yet the sheer number of frames Marchetti entertains distracts from what could have been a more incisive engagement with the further implication of James’s work in ethics. In particular, I worry that what one might call the “horizontal” framing of Marchetti’s James within the literature on James—the triangulation between different Jameses so as to identify his own—obscures what one might call the “vertical” limitations of James’s moral philosophy or philosophizing, however it may be read.

I refer here to a framing device Marchetti borrows from Stanley Cavell, a thinker whose Wittgensteinian manner of ethical reflection shares much with what Marchetti likes about James (a similarity noted on pp. 261–62). As Marchetti explains, Cavell contrasts “a vertical (natural, biological, instinctual) to a horizontal (conventional, ethnological, social) dimension of our forms of life” (30), and moral reasoning in a Jamesian key occurs in the dialectic between these dimensions. In Cavell, however, verticality suggests hierarchy, while horizontality suggests equality. Cavell writes that in “the biological or vertical sense,” in contrast to “the ethnological sense, or horizontal sense,”

what is at issue are not alone differences between promising and fully intending, or between coronations and inaugurations, or between barter and a credit system, or between transferring your money or sword from one hand to another and giving your money or sword into the hands of another; these are differences within the plan, the horizon, of the social, of human society. The biological or vertical sense of form of life recalls differences between the human and so-called “lower” or “higher” forms of life, between, say, poking at your food, perhaps with a fork, and pawing at it, or pecking at it.1

My concern is that Marchetti never establishes that for James the world is one of horizontal concern; the equality of all—and equal capacity for moral self-reflection—is simply assumed. Yet despite James’s vaunted openness to democracy and his anarchistic impulses against bigness, few today remark on his hierarchical—vertical, if you will—conception of particular social goods. Democracy is endangered by the masses’ low urges, he tells us, and if it is to be saved “it must catch the higher, healthier tone.”2 However much James may conceptually celebrate the everyman—in his appreciation for Whitman’s paeans to democracy3 or in his praise of “virtue with horny hands and dirty skin” of the laborer4—he also undeniably valorizes particular types of life over others: strenuous ones. And while Marchetti is correct in arguing that James is not concerned in his ethical writings with giving specific imperatives, one commandment does nonetheless indeed appear to be supreme in his own life and in his valuation of the lives of others: Vivekananda’s dictum, as James cited it, to “practice hard: whether you live or die by it doesn’t matter.”5 This is, after all, the same thinker who writes that life is worth living, “no matter what it bring, if only [one’s] combats may be carried to successful terminations and one’s heel set on the tyrant’s throat.”6 Perhaps because James, grandson of one of America’s richest men,7 faced no material but only psychological struggles, he may have found it difficult to imagine structural obstacles to moral strenuousness. I fear that Marchetti, with James and Cavell, may misunderstand verticality as a purely natural phenomenon rather than a social construction, and rather than appreciating the social conditions leading to qualitatively different capacities of individuals, see only abstract human individuals as representatives of a species in which moral equality and moral capacities have already been achieved, horizontally.

Consider again Hopper’s Office in a Small City, Marchetti’s illustration of the complexities of moral philosophizing. The painting allows many interpretations, and Hopper’s own sketchbook entry on it simply describes its bare contours of color and architecture.8 Marchetti reads this painting as problematizing the position of the moral philosopher, suggesting the complexity involved in thinking things through, as it were. The canvas raises other questions for me, almost all of which concern the isolation of that worker. I wonder, for one, about the phenomenological contours of daily life: who else is in the room, who could be contributing to his work, what sort of sounds he hears, how the seat feels on his backside; as John Dewey wrote, “walking implicates the ground as well as the legs; speech demands physical air and human companionship and audience as well as vocal organs.”9 These horizontal elements notwithstanding, vertical ones are also present. I wonder what is happening above and below our office worker; he is, after all, a worker in an office. How did this young man get a choice corner seat? Why is he blessed with such a splendid view, while others have no access to the panorama? Who cleans his windows such that he can enjoy it? Who toils in the buildings’ bowels, whose horny hands constructed the floor upon which his chair and desk rest and yet to which he likely gives no thought? The survey that the moral philosopher performs in the dialectic between horizontal and vertical forms of life is performed from a particular position in that x-y(-z) axis, and I would like to think that one’s privilege and subject position is a matter of particular salience in moral reasoning. Would not the most ethical thing for our office worker to do be to talk to his coworkers? There are, in short, blindnesses in James that Marchetti doesn’t consider: in the horizontal domain, moral philosophy would seem to be predicated on talking to others; in the vertical domain, there are numerous other factors and other people who facilitate the very process of moral philosophizing. James never seems to grasp what Brecht wrote in The Three-Penny Opera: Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral: “Grub first, then morality.”10 Brecht’s words, moreover, evoke Cavell’s description of the vertical way of life as a contrast between human and other orders, as Fressen specifically connotes nonhuman animal eating. James assumes a certain type of human self as the only type of human self, and passes over in silence the social, political and material circumstances that enable individuals to achieve their full human capacities.

Another way to put this point is to examine a claim in this work’s third chapter. Marchetti explains there that for James, “thinking” itself is a moral act, being as it is “a collective name for all [the] central aspects of our subjectivity . . . since through it we decide what to attend to and what to ignore” (156). Here there is a curious substitution, for thinking, claimed by Marchetti as a general signifier for that which directs attention to some things and not others, is bound up intimately with what James combined under the rubric of “habit,” that “enormous fly-wheel of society.”11 When Marchetti writes on the next page that, “for James the formation and education of the self is achieved through a cultivation of one’s epistemic and evaluative capacities—an act of moral significance itself” (157), he is indeed on the mark. The problem is that this reflection on the reconstruction of the self is itself oddly detached—as it is in James—from any discussion of the social foundations of habit. If “thinking” is a moral act as such, and if the rills of thought James cared about are ultimately secured through habit, it would seem that the really important moral question concerns how social circumstances set certain types of habit in motion—say, those of openness to new ideas, or of welcoming difference—as opposed to others. This moral question thus becomes a practical question, and yet on this central issue of how moral self-reflexivity is habituated into human beings, James and Marchetti both remain silent.

This silence is perhaps something that we must simply accept, for not all philosophers can be all things to all people. I recognize that my worries about the limitations of James’s vision are not devastating points against using him as a corrective to some of the worst excesses of stipulative moral philosophy. Yet I also wonder if the unspoken claims James passes over are not worthy of some comment. There is, for example, little concern evinced for the potentially problematic assumptions attached to a staunchly individualist conception of self that derives from a particular interpretation of the (atomistic) Liberal political tradition. Moreover, without some discussion of James’s more substantive assumptions—the shapes of his Liberalism and meliorism both cry out for detailed commentary—it is difficult to make sense of two claims Marchetti makes in his conclusion. The first is parenthetical, when Marchetti describes James’s aim as prompting the subject “to perform work on the self that aims at a (Nietzschean) re-evaluation of one’s thoughts and conduct” (253). Insofar as James and Nietzsche share a common concern for self-revaluation, this is true, but surely it is worthwhile to also note that James confessed that Nietzsche’s works reminded him of the “sick shriekings” of a dying rat.12 James, at least, saw something substantive distinguishing between his own work and Nietzsche, and yet what exactly that might be is obscured in Marchetti’s admittedly “heterodox interpretation” (253). What’s more, the ultimate upshot of James’s work for social and political theory also suggests that the important substantive work of further distinctions remains unfinished. Marchetti writes that “James discarded with force any narrative of progress in terms of an adjustment to standards established outside historical human activities” (251). Fair enough, but this is also true of most important thinkers since Vico and practically every important thinker since Marx. The difference is that Marx had significant things to say about the nature of those historical human activities. James, and Marchetti’s reading of James, leaves us completely in the dark. Without at least a glimmer of illumination, we all, unfortunately, remain prisoners of our present blindnesses.

  1. Stanley Cavell, This New Yet Unapproachable America: Lectures after Emerson after Wittgenstein (Albuquerque: Living Batch, 1989), 41–42.

  2. “The Social Value of the College-Bred,” in Essays, Comments, and Reviews (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), 111.

  3. “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” in Talks to Teachers on Psychology (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983), 141.

  4. “What Makes a Life Significant,” in Talks to Teachers on Psychology (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983), 155.

  5. “The Energies of Men,” in Essays in Religion and Morality, 137 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982).

  6. “Is Life Worth Living?,” in The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 47.

  7. Linda Simon, Genuine Reality: A Life of William James (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1998), 1.

  8. See his Artist’s Ledger Book III, 1924–67 (1953), 49, Whitney Museum of American Art, NY, reproduced in Walter Wells, Silent Theater (Phaidon, 2007), 256.

  9. John Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct, Middle Works 14 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983), 15.

  10. Bertolt Brecht, “Ballade über die Frage: Wovon lebt der Mensch?,” in Die Dreigroschenoper, in Werke 1: Stücke (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1997), 246.

  11. Principles of Psychology, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981), 125.

  12. The Varieties of Religious Experience (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985), 39.

  • Sarin Marchetti

    Sarin Marchetti


    Reply to Goldman

    Loren Goldman strikes on three counts as well, and his criticisms nicely blend with Dianda’s. Goldman too, in fact, remarks on the lack of socio-economic-political focus and commitment in James and in my account of his work; he then presses me to unpack the somewhat problematic individualistic and liberal assumptions informing James’s approach; and finally asks in which sense James’s account of ethical progress is distinctive and differs from contemporaneous and contemporary ones. Despite agreeing on the novelty and promise of James’s metaphilosophical debunking of past and present mainstream systematic moral theorizing, which he replaced with heterodox piecemeal moral exhortations, Goldman wonders if and how my Hopperian James is able to mobilize ethical practice given his blindness (and mine) towards the thickness of democratic experience and experimentation. This would call for a reexamination of James’s radical empiricist approach to mind and world lying at the heart of his “moral philosophizing,” spurring us “to reflect on the task of living in situ, to negotiate the various and often competing demands of our inherited ethical frameworks within the circumstances of the situation we encounter.” How, Goldman asks, should James work as an exemplar for us in ethical matters, given his rather myopic and somewhat privileged concern for strenuous moral living at the expenses of social reconstruction and amelioration?

    Goldman decries the lack, in my reconstruction, of a proper account of James’s blindness towards (if not disregard for) those aspects of the moral life most in need of philosophical mobilization and ethical uplifting—viz. those (low) “social, political and material circumstances that enable individuals to achieve their full human capacities”—which as such lie at the very basis of our (high) reflective activity of cultivation and care of the self. By focusing on the latter only, James would have crafted an ethics suitable and congenial for those most prone to moral exhaustion and demoralization, and yet utterly useless or even detrimental for those affected by sociopolitical injustice and deprivation. As said in reply to Dianda, this is a true challenge for any reading of James that prioritizes or at least writes high the dimension of self-fashioning in the light of one’s own understanding of oneself such as the one I offer in the book. I however think that the “horizontal” (democratic and common) dimension which Goldman highlights is taken into account by James as an achievement of the “vertical” (allegedly aristocratic and intellectual) dimension, rather than simply assumed as a given to be accounted for either naturalistically or constructively. This very dimension is the result of a work of the self on the self, where however this labor and task are best to be depicted in constitutivist—rather than either naturalist (as Goldman also deplores) or constructivist (as Goldman suggests)—terms. By constitutivism I mean, broadly speaking, the view that our self is constituted by an activity of self-expression and self-commitment, rather than naturally fulfilling a certain ontological destiny (say, one’s nature as belonging to a certain species of beings) or being a result of forces lying outside the work on the self (say, the social world determining us). The more so as James fiercely resisted any reductionist maneuver abridging individuals and the “molecular moral forces” (James 2000: 546) by relating them to both smaller (physiological) fictions and bigger (social) ones, despite that we individual subjects (and our capillary moral oozing) are nonetheless both physiological and social (beings) from top to bottom.

    The key feature is that for James this is the case not so much because, once again, this is how the world is, but rather because this picture best serves our thirst for moral experimentation as an antidote to the moral stiffening and deadening constantly threatening our subjectivities. James encourages us to look at those (historical or fictionalized) contexts in which such activity of self-care and transformation is deferred to forces external to the self (micro or macro, natural or artificial): the suggested passage here is the one from metaphysics and experience to conduct and experimentation. In a number of early writings highly influenced by Darwinian ideas and their path-breaking potential for philosophical and ethical discourse and practice—most notably, “Great Men and Their Environment” and “The Importance of Individuals,” collected in The Will to Believe (James 1979)—James brought forward the romantic idea of exceptional individuals who are those inspiring figures who manage to create the cultural and material conditions for the whole community to uplift itself from the position it currently occupies. Exemplars and heroes are in fact those great individuals who are willing to take their societies on their shoulders: what we need then is a culture of heroism, which means a culture for self-experimentation and moral energization. For James, in order for great individuals to be turmoil and enzymes of society, they need to prepare the environment so to make the very transformation of society possible in the first place: “[The environment] chiefly adopts or rejects [the great man], preserves or destroys, in short selects him. And whether it adopts and preserves the great man, it becomes modified by its influence in an entirely peculiar and original way. He acts as a ferment, and changes its constitution. . . . If anything is humanly certain it is that the great man’s society, properly so called, does not make him before he can remake it” (1979, 176). The environment (natural or social alike) must be made mine before I can be transformed and led by it: great individuals remake the self by remaking their world. James is here calling attention to the opportunity (if not necessity) to think of exemplars as those very fertile seeds upon which new cultural and social ground can be broken, where the soil itself, in order to nourish the seeds, needs to be ploughed for the good in a virtuous, transformative circle. The strenuous life is then not to be lived in isolation from “lower” phenomena and conditions, but rather it is to be made the driving force of each and every moral and political revolution. The novelty and opportunity of this Darwinian-inspired romantic cult of exemplar beings has been recently explored by McGranahan (2017), while a pioneering survey of the psychological and moral uses of Darwinism has been offered by Schwehn (1982).

    According to this empirico-romantic picture, which in the book I present as a form of re-enchantment of the world through our experiments with truth and experience (see 198–213, as well as Cormier 2001 for a different yet sympathetic angle), democracy lies in the interconnectedness of selves, who need each other to lift themselves off the slumber places in which they put themselves and each other. Democracy then becomes a way of life as it calls for an unbroken exercise in moral energization and interconnection of the kind James imagined as early as in the Principles of Psychology (see, e.g., the chapters on habit and the will) and as late as in his “The Energies of Men” and “The Moral Equivalent of War,” where he musters together physiology, philosophy, and political science, with a pinch of rhetoric and self-help literature in order to instill in us the appeal and opportunity of a strenuous mood in matters of mind, morals, and politics. Rather than some kind of highbrow, elitist device, then, that self-transformation is presented by James as the very building block through which edifying democratic ethos and practice. In this sense self-transformation is driven by the need to overcome the petrification inbuilt in our own practical constitution of beings seeking orderly paths of repetition by which we make ourselves at home in the world and in society, which however often leads to alienation, personal or collective. Alienation, a general term I associate to our loss in expressive capacities due to our giving up experimenting with the concepts and experiences we live by—and most painfully so in those impotent contexts when one’s demoralization is fueled by socioeconomic disadvantages (often involving mental and bodily disorders)—has been cashed out by philosophers in a variety of ways, some quite unlike the ones James envisioned. James did give voice to the unheard and invisibles—think of the many praises and poetic celebrations of manual workers and underdogs scattered throughout his writings—and his own personal and professional life was inspired by the lower and the common, and accompanied by the very many reservations he never spared to the privileged social class he was part of. The fact that I chose not to detail the full breadth of alienating contexts James’s critique was aiming at relieving is because in the book I was interested in presenting the metaphilosophical devices James set up to come to terms with those pressing moral challenges caused by our disengagement with our own selves, rather than exhausting their range of possible use. On this reading, the most serious and nagging source of moral trouble is our very incapacity to fully inhabit our ordinary moral condition, either because of our disowning it or due to our detachment from it.

    While scholars, when aware of them at all, focused on James’s many exemplifications of these moral incapacities, in the book I dedicate the longest chapter to the excavation of the metaphilosophical stakes of this hortatory project as showcased in “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life,” where in my opinion James presents most fully the blueprint of his therapeutic approach—thus countering the still way too numerous accounts of it as a piece of moral theorizing (of consequentialist or deontological breed). James opens his essay by claiming that “there is no such thing possible as an ethical philosophy dogmatically made up in advance,” since “we all help determine the content of ethical philosophy so far as we contribute to the race’s moral life” (1979: 141). In the central sections of the text James guides us through a number of scenarios in which the moral life is depicted as parasitic on a moral order external and impermeable to our ordinary practices, checking our reactions to them and contrasting them with the opposite attitude of making moral philosophy springing from our practical dealings with the problematic situations featuring our mindedness and worldliness. The very closing of the essay restates the continuity and interplay between the ordinary and the intellectual, this time stressing how the very quality of our moral philosophies depends on the quality of our moral lives:

    The ethical philosopher, therefore, whenever he ventures to say which course of action is the best, is on no essentially different level from the common man. “See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil; therefore, choose life that thou and thy seed may live”—when this challenge comes to us, it is simply our total character and personal genius that are on trial; and if we invoke any so-called philosophy, our choice and use of that also are but revelations of our personal aptitude or incapacity for the moral life. From this unsparing practical ordeal no professor’s lectures and no array of books can save us. (1979: 162)

    Now Goldman remarks how this picture of moral reflection and progress looks as highly intellectualized as it lacks the descriptive—that is material and historical—details that thinkers such as Vico and Marx (but also Dewey, for that matter) profitably thematized and theorized about in order to offer practical advice for, as well as intellectual explanations of, the problematic situation we find ourselves in. This is for sure a difference between these authors, and yet one that is motivated by reasons internal to James’s philosophical project. Nowhere do we find in James the level of historical and sociological detail of the contemporary world and society he lived in, but that does not amount to a blindness towards the empirical conditions and contingencies which shape who we currently are and who we might be. James is not denying that we should keep track and take care of the sociopolitical setting we inhabit, but only that that is something about which philosophical theories should have a thick (genealogical or prescriptive) story to be employed to codify and possibly change reality. Philosophies should be reminders, and neither interpretations or instructions, as individuals should look at them for clarification and inspiration rather than for explanation or direction. Philosophy, after James (and Rorty), might well become cultural politics (more on this in my reply to Voparil), but because its users are interested in such retooling and become themselves leading actors in this shift—and not because philosophy in itself should mimic intellectual or cultural history. James, in this respect, sought a philosophy capable to question and mobilize the self midst its situated battles, where the self becomes the narrator and driving force of the historical present it currently occupies and aspires to overcome, with no philosophy serving as a proxy for this personal and ultimately individual endeavor.

    A related aspect of his writings to be held of the utmost importance, when pondering over these issues, is that James is not interested in offering us solutions to sociopolitical problems, but rather in figuring out (and exhorting us to figure out ourselves) strategies to best address such problematic situations. The difference here, far from being merely terminological, is of no small importance, as it articulates James’s metaphilosophical opposition to ready-made theories (historically informed or otherwise) to be applied to particular cases, which should leave the floor to open-ended therapies to be figured out by the troubled patients in their lives. If that is the case, then, James’s moral exhortations cannot be deemed to be wanting as answers to sociopolitical quests, as they certainly are not meant to offer such things in the first place. Still, we should think hard whether they do perform and deliver as spurs to enact sociopolitical resistance and even revolution, as that is exactly what they are meant for. Like Emerson before him, and Dewey and Rorty after him, James was highly skeptical of the opportunity of theorizing upon such matters, mostly because of his wider distrust of top-down, ideal approaches in philosophical and political matters alike. Contemporary political philosophy often describes politics as primarily an exercise in social organization. The tendency is to see the task of political philosophy in terms of the conceptualization of social, governmental, and legal institutions that will protect and deepen the core liberal value of freedom. But, we may ask, should politics be a matter of institutional crafting? Or should it be a matter of ethical practice, a way of life? James is unequivocally in favor of the latter. He defends freedom as an ethics based on the creative potential that is, he thinks, the only means to melioration. James offers then nothing less than a reconstruction of the axis around which political theory and practice revolve. That axis is actual living persons. This is a very democratic axis indeed—it is the idea that goods and truths must always originate and terminate in vital human interests. James does not demonstrate the existence of a freedom that we must already possess. He affirms a possibility: we too may create ways of acting freely. Freedom is an ethical relation with ourselves and with others. It is a relation, moreover, that persons must assume for themselves. We assume freedom not in the rational sense of postulating it, but in the ethical and political sense of taking it upon ourselves and accepting our responsibility to it. Freedom is thus lived by persons and only survives in their daily strokes of willful affirmation midst chance and uncertainty. These are then the “liberal assumptions” inbuilt in James’s moral philosophy. Far from constituting a threat to or abstraction from democracy, they seems to me to put all the moral and political burden on our willingness to engage each other in our cultural and economical differences so to negotiate and constantly revise the very boundaries of ourselves and the freedom associated with them.


    Cormier, H. 2001. The Truth Is What Works: William James, Pragmatism, and the Seeds of Death. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

    James, W. 1979. The Will to Believe. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

    ———. 2000. The Correspondence of William James. Vol. 8, 1895–June 1899. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.

    McGranaham, L. 2017. Darwinism and Pragmatism: William James on Evolution and Self-Transformation. London and New York: Routledge.

    Richards, R. J. 1982. “The Personal Equation in Science: William James’s Psychological and Moral Uses of Darwinism.” Harvard Library Bulletin 30.4.

Russell Pryba


August 20, 2018, 1:00 am

Christopher Voparil


August 27, 2018, 1:00 am