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.



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.

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    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.



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.

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    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.



Need Moral Theory Be Foundational?

Prescriptive and Hortatory Ethics in Marchetti’s Reconstruction of James’s Moral Thought

1. Placing Marchetti’s James

There is much to recommend a careful study of Sarin Marchetti’s book Ethics and Philosophical Critique in William James. In this work, Marchetti presents a reading of moral reflection and the moral life in James that follows from the methodological commitments constitutive of James’s overall pragmatism. In presenting James’s moral thought, Marchetti advances the thesis that James articulates a hortatory rather than a prescriptive ethics. That is, an ethics that is therapeutic rather than substantive. Marchetti presents James as being engaged in a project whose purpose is akin to a historicized version of Kantian critique. Rather than discussing substantive normative ethical theories in order to endorse one option over another, James engages in such discussion “because he was interested in analyzing their conditions of possibility and denouncing the philosophical temptations underlying their hypostatization.”1 James views moral theory as important only insofar as its articulation explains and enriches the possibilities of the moral life, rather than ruling in or out certain moral positions in advance. The “conditions of possibility” of moral theory are to be found in our collective moral lived experience rather than the conditions of the possibility of the moral life being found in abstract moral theories.

In this sense, Marchetti advances a thesis regarding James’s moral thought that is akin to Rorty’s noted interpretation of James’s pragmatic theory of truth.2 Rather than advocating a particular moral theory (or theory of truth) over its philosophical rivals, James should be read as articulating a mode of philosophical therapy that disabuses us of the need for such theories. Marchetti’s reading of James as an anti-foundationalist in terms of the relationship between moral reflection and the moral life is analogous to Rorty’s characterization of pragmatism as anti-essentialism about “truth” and other theoretical notions. If “James advanced no substantive moral position” (21) then the therapeutic conception of philosophical inquiry that Marchetti and Rorty share becomes the linchpin to understanding not only James’s moral thought but pragmatism overall. Here is Marchetti on this point:

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. The kinds of exhortations that we find in his writings are thus not arguments trying to convince us about the validity of some views held or set forth by James himself; rather, they are invitations to operate and perform ourselves some change in the way we look and react to the concepts and experience that hold a grip on us and inform our ordinary practices. (25)

This therapeutic or exhortative mood is contrasted throughout Marchetti’s text with the foundational prescription of moral rules characteristic of one traditional conception of moral theory. In what follows, I shall advance the suggestion that there is another way in which we might understand prescriptivity, grounded in James’s discussion of the relationship between making a claim and obligation, that is consistent with Marchetti’s reconstruction of James’s moral thought, one which can be seen as emerging from the concrete historicized subjectivity of moral agents rather than being imposed on experience from without.

2. Prescriptivity and Hortatory Ethics

Since the distinction between prescriptive ethics and hortatory ethics is at the center of Marchetti’s interpretation of James, it will be useful to observe how he classifies each. For Marchetti, moral theory consists in “the allegedly detached envisioning of a morality system according to which [we] justify and regulate our moral conduct” (36). As such, prescriptive ethics is a “superstitious view according to which our moral life should be regulated after the dictates of a moral theory spinning its fates from above of human contingency” (47). In contrast, a philosophical ethics that is hortatory should “drop its foundational pretenses and rather acquire an exhortative tone—that is, it should help us to deal with the difficulties of the moral life” (18). The goal of ethics thus conceived is the “affective and imaginative transformation” of the self through the pragmatic project of creative self-fashioning (41). Thus, prescriptive ethics forecloses on the possibilities of moral self-cultivation by ruling the moral life from without; in contrast, a hortatory ethics is suggestive of the ways in which the moral life might be directed from within through experimentation with our ordinary conceptions of ethical conduct in all of its specificities.

While I share Marchetti’s (and James’s) rejection of the idea of an absolute, generalized moral point of view that determines a priori our obligations, I worry that the above characterization of moral theory is too restrictive. While Marchetti’s characterization of moral theory would reasonably apply to certain theological or a priori normative theories, I wonder how this account precludes the possibility that prescriptivity can emerge from within the context of the shared historicized inter-subjectivity that constitutes our collective experience. That is, being an anti-foundationalist about morality does not rule out the possible development of a normative ethical theory which grounds prescriptivity in the very lived experience of the moral life that it seeks to clarify and direct. The task then becomes to develop a moral theory that emerges from, and is responsive to, the moral life without ruling it from above. We can still have, to borrow James’s phrase, “an ethical republic here below” and also agree that “no philosophy of ethics is possible in the old-fashioned absolute sense of the term.”3

For example, we can accept James’s praise for the classical utilitarians in seeking a psychological basis for normativity as James’s general endorsement for a naturalistic approach to ethics, without thereby accepting the reading of James as advocating for some sort of consequentialism. This ethical naturalism is evident in other passages in “The Moral Philosopher” as well. In a passage that prefigured themes central to James’s later formulations of pragmatism and radical empiricism, James claims that “goodness, badness, and obligation must be realized somewhere in order really to exist . . . their only habitat can be a mind which feels them.”4 If prescriptivity is understood as being essentially unrealizable in a human consciousness, then it would follow that James cannot be read as offering any place for moral theory so conceived in his thought. However, we do feel bound by moral rules. They exist, not as absolutes, but as theories/instruments realized in experience precisely because they can do work. We can simultaneously realize the ideals of prescriptive ethics in a “human mind which feels them” and understand that these ideals are provisional, pragmatic, and operative only because they themselves partially constitute our subjectively felt experience of the moral life.

That said, the view that I have been suggesting is not very far from the position that Marchetti himself takes. That Marchetti would accept this point can be discerned by examining a passage where he contrasts his reading of James’s ethics with that of Sergio Franzese. While offering general praise to Franzese for recognizing “the anti-theoretical intents” of “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life,” Marchetti’s reading differs from that of Franzese in that the latter only offers a negative interpretative thesis which views the reconciliation of moral reflection and the moral life as impossible. In contrasting Franzese’s reading with his own Marchetti writes:

By characterizing the moral philosopher as uniquely interested in advancing moral theories Franzese crystallizes such a figure in a fictional entity, and describes her activity as the uniquely possible result of moral investigations, forbidding in this way the possibility of appreciating the therapeutic and transformative dimension of “Moral Philosopher” which in my reading represents the very heart of the essay. . . . If this reading has some validity, then we should not, after James necessarily discard moral theorizing [my italics], but rather critically survey its fundamental assumptions and principles to gain a better perspective on such reflective activity. There would thus be a space of opening, in James, to further moral reflection on moral theorizing as an ethical activity that we might perform in a variety of ways—critically as well as uncritically—thus determining such reflection’s very value and advantage. (74–75)

My critique of Marchetti, if there is one, is that he likewise describes moral theory as a “fictional entity” in his frequent characterizations of it as completely distinct from the exhortative tone that is central to James’s hortatory ethics. After all, these exhortations to transformative ethical self-cultivation can often be felt as pragmatic prescriptions. That is, hortatory ethics is one way in which ethics might be prescriptive. What I have been interested in articulating here is the “space of opening” that Marchetti recognizes in James for moral theorizing as a human activity that carries prescriptive weight. This point, I suggest, is supported by James’s view that the source(s) of moral obligations are the claims that moral agents make on each other. In a passage that Marchetti also cites, James writes:

But the moment we take a steady look at the question, we see not only that without a claim actually made by some concrete person there can be no obligation, but that there is some obligation wherever there is a claim. Claim and obligation are, in fact, coextensive terms; they cover each other exactly. Our ordinary attitude of regarding ourselves as subject to an overarching system of moral relations, true “in themselves,” is therefore either an out-and-out superstition, or else it must be treated as a merely provisional abstraction from that real Thinker in whose actual demand upon us to think as he does our obligation must ultimately be based.5

If prescriptive ethics is best characterized as “an overarching system of moral relations” then James offers us an exclusive disjunction on how we might understand its status. Either it is superstition, or provisional abstraction. In Marchetti’s discussion of this passage, he notes the “doubled register” of the ordinary and reflective (philosophical) that permeates James’s writing on the source of obligation (prescriptivity). What Marchetti stresses here is that James is attempting to show the unattractiveness of the superstitious interpretation of our ordinary attitude of being subject to morality. By offering a redescription of the ordinary attitude as instead being grounded in actual claims made on us by actual claimants, we can not only account for the source of moral obligation, but can simultaneously offer reasons for rejecting the intellectualist tendency in philosophical thought for which James is so famous. However, I suggest, this redescription of the source of moral obligation as being grounded in “some concrete person” goes beyond mere exhortations to conceptualize alternative (non-intellectualist) possibilities about the relationship between moral reflection and the moral life. Here James is offering a substantive view about obligation, consistent with a naturalistic approach to ethics, that we ought to take and, as James says, for definite assignable reasons. Further, the reasons for adopting this theoretical position on obligation is not because it is derived from some predetermined system of morality but rather precisely because it emerges from a pragmatic understanding of what it is to make a claim. Moral theory, at the level of generality, may never amount to more than provisional abstractions for James, rules that fail to capture the exactness of any particular problematic situation, but I do not think that it follows from this claim that James’s work “contains no moral theory” as Marchetti asserts (117).

In closing, what then is the moral theory, as provisional and sketchy as it must inevitably be, that can be discerned in James? The key, I suggest, lies in the following passage from “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life”:

There is but one unconditional commandment, which is that we should seek incessantly, with fear and trembling, so to vote and to act as to bring about the very largest total universe of good which we can see. Abstract rules indeed can help; but they help the less in proportion as our intuitions are more piercing, and our vocation is the stronger for the moral life. For every real dilemma is in literal strictness a unique situation; and the exact combination of ideals realized and ideals disappointed which each decision creates is always a universe without a precedent, and for which no adequate previous rule exists.6

Rather than reading in this passage evidence for an inchoate consequentialism, I take James to be offering here a form of moral particularism. That no moral rule is ever adequate to each unique moral situation which we may face, does not mean that James denies the usefulness of moral prescriptions altogether. Rather, prescriptivity emerges from the situations themselves since, as James notes, our vocation is not the following of absolute rules, but for the moral life. This makes the task of the moral life all the more difficult as we must cultivate the sensitivity to discern what each situation we face might prescribe in terms of bringing about a universe of good. But we are not altogether without help. We have now, in the form of Sarin Marchetti’s reflections on the moral thought of William James, a welcome ally in the struggle.

  1. Sarin Marchetti, Ethics and Philosophical Critique in William James. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 35. All subsequent references to this work will be in-text citations.

  2. See Richard Rorty, “Pragmatism, Relativism and Irrationalism,” in Consequences of Pragmatism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982).

  3. William James, “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life,” in The Writings of William James, ed. John J. McDermott (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977), 619, 625.

  4. Ibid., 614.

  5. James, “Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life,” 617.

  6. Ibid., 626.

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    Sarin Marchetti


    Reply to Pryba

    Russell Pryba raises a number of excellent points about the anti-theoretical stakes of my Jamesian hortatory option, pressing me to characterize the prescriptive dimension (or lack thereof) of this heterodox picture of moral thought. The question of whether hortatory ethics represents an alternative to moral theorizing (as I claim in the book) or rather one more version of moral theory (as Pryba suggests) is pivotal to appreciate the radical character of James’s approach to moral matters, and it extends to the issue of whether pragmatism understood as a “method only” carries any positive agenda on its sleeves despite its self-asserted agnostic credentials. The prioritization of conduct over metaphysics and of the combo of therapy and transformation over foundation and prescription at the heart of Jamesian pragmatism as I defended it in the book is then to be investigated further, Pryba argues, in order to check whether these alternatives are indeed real or only apparent. The two questions around which his intervention revolves are in fact those of the prescriptive character of hortatory ethics and of the proximity of the latter to non-ideal theories (yet theories nonetheless), among which Pryba singles out moral particularism. In addressing these two coordinated points, I shall go over the lingering issue of (my rendering of) the metaphilosophical stakes of Jamesian pragmatism as it informs his heterodox ethics.

    How can moral philosophy be effective (that is affecting our thinking and conduct) without being prescriptive (telling us what to think and do)? In the book I claim how this is the very question that prompted me to engage James’s moral philosophy in the first place, as in his writings I sensed a “formulation of a non-foundational but at the same time critical conception of ethical and philosophical reflection” (2). As a bite of autobiographical record, this is in fact what I myself was looking for in philosophy, which led me to thinkers such as Wittgenstein (my earlier reference point in most things philosophical and cultural) and Nietzsche (a later and less consistent reference). Now, this is exactly what I found attractive in James and, thanks to him, in Rorty, which drove me back with renewed enthusiasm and perhaps greater perspective to Wittgenstein and Nietzsche, whose Jamesian connections have been at the center of some of the best scholarship on these authors—especially Wittgenstein (Goodman 2002) and Rorty (Koopman 2009), with Nietzsche surprisingly behind (seeds can be found in Franzese 2005). Pryba’s concerns about the very feasibility of an anti-theoretical approach to ethics (for a classical statement, see Clarke and Simpson 1989) thus strikes right at the heart of what according to me James could contribute to moral philosophy: in particular, to a heterodox canon in contemporary ethics comprising some varieties of pragmatism (along the James-Dewey-Rorty axis), a certain line inspired by Wittgenstein (Cora Diamond and John McDowell), and some fringes of virtue ethics (Bernard Williams and Annette Baier).

    As I suggest to proceed in the book, in order to unearth the hortatory dimension of James’s ethics one needs to reference to the pragmatic metaphilosophy informing his wider understanding of what we should be expecting from philosophy in the first place. That Jamesian pragmatism (and pragmatism more in general and in the wake of him and Peirce) has been thought of as primarily a method and attitude to face philosophical problems and rethink philosophy’s very nature and point, and only consequently as a contribution to the various philosophical topics and debates, is part and parcel of the tradition and of its narrative, even if there have been very many ways in which this primacy has been understood, cashed out, and retold (for two recent accounts, see Jackman 2016 and Talisse 2017). If one takes a look at James’s work, early and late, it is almost impossible to miss the methodological component and accent of his pragmatism, as each and every intervention into the targeted issue is either introduced by a metaphilosophical consideration or itself treated as one, being it the uses of the mind, the nature of reality, the meaning of truth, or the statute of religious beliefs. In the opening chapter of his philosophical manifesto, William James famously claimed that pragmatism “does not stand for any particular results. It is a method only. . . . At the outset, at least, it stands for no particular results. It has no dogmas, and no doctrines save its method” (James 1975, 31–32). Pragmatism, as James continues reprising and popularizing Papini’s perceptive metaphor, should be thought of as a corridor that connects different rooms, and in so doing she allows the very conversation among their respective guests—it is notable how in these pages James often speaks of pragmatism in the feminine, as opposed to the masculine or neutral employed to refer to the other philosophical temperaments and sensibilities, friends or foes alike. Rivers of ink have been spilled over the interpretation of this very passage—and more generally of the pages in which it is lodged—and yet still no firm agreement can be found among scholars about how resolutely should we take this methodological plea. If it is in fact clear, as James himself tirelessly remarks, that pragmatism is not equally comfortable with the various hotel guests, still her qualities as a host are to be measured not so much by her tastes but rather by her ability to keep the conversation going.

    One can thus say, with some confidence, that the battle over pragmatism is (or, at least, at a certain point became) to a great extent the battle over whether to read it in a strict methodological key or as a positive program like those it sought to supersede or amend—idealism, empiricism, and their contemporary embodiments being the usual foes. In the book I side with the strict methodological reading of James’s pragmatism, and in chapter 1 I present at some length what I take to be its inbuilt metaphilosophical agenda. Given the importance of this metaphilosophical passage and its ethical consequences, it would be convenient to make a distinction between the “neutrality” of the method (what I have called its agnostic pretentions) and its “positive” message. While the neutrality of the method has to do with its open-ended character, the positive message has to do with the underlying agenda informing it. By pragmatism being an open-ended method I mean that its scope and usefulness should be negotiated in practice by its users, rather than grounded in philosophical considerations that fall outside what its customers are willing to negotiate and acknowledge as reasonable and bounding. If this condition might be predicated of philosophical methods in general, in the attempt to make them more mobile and congenial to the subjects and/or philosophers looking for the instruction of the game, it is particularly fitting in the pragmatist case, as it represents but the expression of the implicit agenda of putting practice first in matters ordinary as well as philosophical. Keeping pragmatism open and submitting it to the test of practice understood as the plethora of human activities of which we seek to find a measure does not imply jeopardizing the normativity of thought and conduct and the legitimization of wishful thinking and acting, but rather checking ourselves and possibly recasting ourselves in the light of what we say and do in contexts already permeated by meaning and rationality. The pragmatic maxim, then, does not give us a free ticket for a relativist and subjectivist ride, but rather forces us to throw light on our ideas and ideals and imagine them otherwise in the light of what we are prepared to do when taking them into our lives. The end product of this activity is not some theoretical procedure governing our intellectual and practical activities grounded in something else than practice, but rather something akin to an imaginative exercise of taking chances seriously guided by the thickness of practice itself. As James wrote in pedagogical piece, “philosophical study means the habit of always seeing an alternative, of not taking the usual for granted, of making conventionalities fluid again, of imagining foreign states of mind” (James 1978, 4).

    Pragmatism would thus become, in James’s hands, a personal (in the sense of customized, not in the sense of private) tool one should experiment with rather than simply a general device to apply to particular cases, and hence it should not be endorsing (that is justifying and promoting) first-order, substantive views but rather only acting as a (intellectual) reminder to cash such views out in (ordinary) practice. This amounts, if you will, to a form of pragmatic quietism, where no single view is imposed from without what we ordinarily and naturally do, as if it were picked from some realm of philosophical ideas judicious inquirers ought to respect. Rather, what is suggested by means of philosophy is a particular activity of clarification and transformation of the self, issuing in no novel philosophical views but rather in novel ordinary understanding and conduct. If the method is then philosophical in its speaking to the reason and imagination of the subjects stuck in a problematic situation in need of disentanglement and release, its opportunity and liveliness depend on those very subjects making it theirs and engraining it in their practices. Pragmatism becomes in this way a spiritual exercise through which we remake philosophy and ourselves, where the dimension of practice is both the target of philosophical concern and its way out.

    The positive agenda underneath this open-ended and far from ready-made method is that of the celebration of activity and practice over passivity and speculation, which forms the backbone of pragmatism understood as a critique of ourselves and the world from the point of view of what we make of them and against received pictures of them. James’s radicalization of empiricism, which in the last decade of his life he strived to detail in more technical garments but which accompanied much of his work since the earliest writings on psychology, consists in nothing but the attempt to give full experiential credit to our deeds, that is to the transitions between and the reassembling of things, talks, and thoughts. With this I don’t mean to read in James any process-philosophy of the metaphysical kind one might find in Bergson or Whitehead (or, for that matter, in portions of the ancient world and mindset)—actually, quite the opposite. What I find most appealing and convincing is in fact the valorization of our acknowledgment of and commitments to what takes place while we navigate the world and remake ourselves (and the other way around as well). As James emphatically writes right before remarking the first-order neutrality of the method, pragmatism “turns away from abstraction and insufficiency, from verbal solutions, from bad a priori reasons, from fixed principles, closed systems, and pretended absolutes and origins. He turns towards concreteness and adequacy, towards facts, towards action, and towards power” (James 1975, 31). This is not a farewell to philosophy, but only to those “inveterate habits dear to philosophers,” who try to rule practice from without and offer final solution to perennial problems. Philosophy looks good when it looks less like philosophy in the inveterate sense, that is when it puts itself in the service of practice in order to problematize it and enlighten it (see the first part of my reply to Dianda for the details of this conception of philosophical critique).

    The consequences of this resolute methodological understanding of pragmatism for philosophical ethics are plenty, and should make it clearer in which sense, against Pryba, I think James’s hortatory option is utterly anti-foundational and non-prescriptive in ambition and results. Hortatory ethics has to do not so much with the securing of the moral life or with its exhaustive explanation, but rather with its amelioration by means of therapeutic and transformative devices to be figured out and enacted in practice by the engaged subjects. To my eyes, this is not simply a change in moral theory, but a shift from moral theorizing to moral mobilization—as well as to the emancipation from moral theorizing, as I insist in the book by presenting “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life” as James’s chief attempt to show how moral theorizing itself represents one of the more dangerous troubles and impediments for the moral life. Pryba is interested in finding a place for prescriptivity, grounding it in James’s intertwinement of the making of a claim and the moral obligation this act creates, so to make prescriptivity “emerging from the concrete historicized subjectivity of moral agents.” His suggestion is to read James’s central sections of “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life” as promoting a non-ideal, a posteriori picture of moral prescriptivity grounded in the actual claims made by the subjects when engaging each other and aimed at clarifying and directing their lives. This bottom-up approach to moral explanation and prescription would not jeopardize or foreclosure the possibility for self-care and transformation, and rather indicate the way along which such coordinated activities might be performed.

    Now my worry with this proposal is twofold. On the one hand, I sense an urge to theorize on and about what counts as a human practice, which I think was alien to James—and Rorty, but for example not to someone like Brandom, about which see Marchetti 2016—who on the contrary did not think that what was implicit in ordinary practices should have been made explicit (and eventually amended) by means of philosophical theory. In my reading, when James equates the making of a claim with moral obligation or claims that goodness must be realized in order to really exist, he is not stating a correspondence or sanctioning a law, but rather inviting us to bring to light the mindset behind these pictures and their alternatives, so to weight the consequences for our mental and moral economy when acting on them. James, as I read him, did not have qualms for moral theorizing per se, as we ordinary beings theorize all the time when making a judgment or follow a principle (if only implicitly). Rather, he was concerned about the presumption that the theorizing should be performed by philosophers from the above of the contingencies of the problematic situation at hand. As Pryba rightly remarks, “we do feel bound by moral rules,” but why claim that the point of rules is that of bounding us only, and not also, for example, that of crafting the self and checking on it when taking them in or refusing to do so? The difference, once again, lies in the temptation to specify and recommend the proper use of the notions we live by: a temptation which Pryba (with his James) sees as unharmful and actually helpful for the moral life, but which I (with my James) see as threatening its very vitality and possibilities in its narrowing the space of inventiveness and responsibility. (As an aside to this first point, the two tasks of clarification and direction of which Prybe speaks are not meant to be defended as a package: one could in fact clarify without directing, even if, as said, that does not mean that clarification is a neutral activity or one without consequences).

    On the other hand, Pryba’s coordinated proposal to read James’s exhortations to self-checking and transformation as pragmatic prescriptions of a sort—prescriptions to keep track and respond to the obligations created by actual demands—sounds to me as once again putting the cart before the horse. Read this way, Prybe claims, moral theorizing (about claims, obligations, rules, and so forth) is to be understood as tentative and provisional as our ordinary moral views—rather than as a superstitious activity driven by the illusion to find and secure moral relations from outside of moral practice as I do—but nevertheless dispensing substantive views about what we ought to think and do in particular cases. Now, if this is the case, why the need to add one more (philosophical) layer if (ordinary) practices are what give all the flavor to the cake? Out of metaphor, or rather employing a slightly more direct one, why do we need moral theories for if moral practice already speaks for them? By so doing Pryba is holding fast to the idea that philosophy can direct us in a way in which we are unable to if left alone, even if its prescriptions are as strong as the convictions they are supposed to be governing. Why not accept, then, that the role of philosophy is not so much that of directing by instructing but rather that of facilitating by spurring? If so, then, James is not so much prescribing us to attune to our fellow beings or to ourselves and change accordingly, but rather he is encouraging us to experiment with others and with ourselves, where the latter is not an activity which philosophy should impose on us with reference to transcendental reasons, but rather one that philosophy can illuminate by pointing to its practical advantages, leaving us the burden to find the most profitable way to let our lives be transformed by it.

    The second point suggested by Pryba, that about the closeness of James’s hortatory option with the one particular variety of non-ideal theory going under the name of moral particularism, is driven by his “naturalistic” reading of James’s therapeutic and transformative quest—that is, by his anti-intellectualistic grounding of moral ideas and ideals in the relations established in fieri by the interested parties. Moral particularism, which stands for a number of approaches not necessarily aligned to each other, has been already profitably explored in connection with pragmatism (see Barkhurst 2007 and Jackson 2016), with the two sharing a number of features mostly associated to their discomfort with principles-based moral theories. However, my guess is that while moral particularism sits uncomfortably with principles, Jamesian pragmatism is rather at unease with theory, principled or otherwise. Hence their problematic coupling. Consistent with what I said already in the book and above, and to avoid further repetition, let me only add that while moral particularism still works under the spell of there being a right (particular) answer to give in a (particular) case, an answer which has the shape of a generalization from particular cases grounded not in principles but rather in the cultivation of a certain sensibility—of which philosophy can still offer a thick, prescriptive story—hortatory ethics resists this theoretical premise and suggests that what moral philosophy might deliver are not provisional abstractions, but rather an invitation to take care of our moral sensibility as it takes shape in ordinary contexts. James nicely puts this point as follows: “If we invoke any so-called philosophy, our choice and use of that also are but revelations of our individual aptitude or incapacity for moral life” (James 1979: 162). While for moral particularism the sensibility involved in judicious moral thinking and conduct is specified with reference to how (unprincipled) particular cases are weighted and compared in the light of (philosophical) consideration of rationality and overall coherence, for hortatory ethics it is a function of our very relationship with morality in its ordinary and philosophical dimensions, against which we take care of and transform ourselves (or fail to).


    Backhurst, D. 2007. “Pragmatism and Ethical Particularism.” In New Pragmatists, edited by C. Misak. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Clarke S. G., and Simpson, E. 1989. Anti-Theory in Ethics and Moral Conservatorism. New York: State University of New York Press.

    Franzese, S., ed. 2005. Nietzsche e l’America. Pisa: ETS.

    Goodman, R. B. 2002. Wittgenstein and William James. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Koopman, C. 2009. Pragmatism as Transition: Historicity and Hope in James, Dewey, and Rorty. New York: Columbia University Press.

    Jackson, N. 2016. “Moral Particularism and the Role of Imaginary Cases.” European Journal of Pragmatism and American Philosophy 8.1.

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

    ———. 1978. “The Teaching of Philosophy in Our Colleges.” In Essays in Philosophy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

    ———. 1979. The Will to Believe. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

    Jackman, H. 2016. “The Pragmatic Method.” In The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Methodology, edited by H. Cappelen, T. S. Gendler, and J. Harwthorne. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Lekan, T. 2018. “Who Are Moral Philosophers? Ethics William James Style.” Pluralist 13.1.

    Marchetti, S. 2016. “Brandom and Pragmatism: Remarks on a Still Open Question.” International Journal of Philosophical Studies 24.1.

    Talisse, R. B. 2017. “Pragmatism and the Limits of Metaphilosophy.” In The Cambridge Companion to Philosophical Methodology, edited by G. D’Oro and S. Overgaard. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



On Truth and Its Wounded

Ethics and Epistemology in Marchetti’s (Rortyan) James

In contemporary debates surrounding the use of pragmatism’s insights in ethical and political contexts, where neo-Peircean assumptions tend to predominate, James and Rorty often are painted with the same critical brush (e.g., Misak 2007). The quietism about truth they arguably share results in their being charged with undercutting “the cognitive aspiration to get one’s subject matter right” and foreclosing the possibility of “a robust conception of objective truth” (ibid., 7, 169).

Sarin Marchetti’s original, illuminating study of James’s ethics unabashedly makes this therapeutic, anti-theoretical temperament the center of James’s approach to moral philosophy. Against the many, sometimes compelling, attempts to distill a moral theory from James’s rich but variegated moral writings, Marchetti reads James as engaged in a project at once more radical and critical: challenging the very figure of the moral philosopher whose business is to discover and dust off moral Truths or Principles or Rules buried by the clash and clamor of irreconcilably plural perspectives. For Marchetti, James not only subverts this figure, he questions the value of “a philosophical account of morality” itself (53), at least as traditionally understood. Marchetti’s main interpretive claim is that “James’s ethical work can be best appreciated when viewed against the background of his overall radical approach to philosophical activity” (2).

Indeed, Marchetti’s James seems to have taken to heart Rorty’s dictum that for pragmatists, “the best hope for philosophy is not to practice Philosophy” (1982, xv).1 Although Marchetti doesn’t link this directly to Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, he emphasizes throughout that James’s approach is “therapeutic”: aimed at freeing us from “those attempts and temptations to reduce ethics to the elaboration of a morality system of norms and rules standing on their feet independently from the active and steadfast exercise of our moral sensibilities” (118). Marchetti situates James’s ethics in this larger transformative project of challenging entrenched philosophical vocabularies and habits of conduct to reveal James’s views of the moral life as “a field for self-fashioning in which we challenged entrenched views and reactions” and moral investigation as “an inquiry of the postures and stances that we might take toward ourselves and the world” (119).

In what follows I hope to use this opportunity to spur Marchetti to speak more directly than he (understandably) does in the book to the larger significance for our understanding of the pragmatic tradition of the picture of normativity he draws from his insightful interpretation of James. My hunch is that in it resides a powerful rejoinder to the normative lacunae that allegedly accompany the, in my view important, recognition of agential- and interest-relativity of truth in the Jamesian-Rortyan strand. More on this in a moment.

Among the book’s virtues is an absence of gratuitous side-taking and affiliation-declaring relative to the putative classical vs. neo-pragmatist divide. This capaciousness of perspective on Marchetti’s part is no small matter. Precisely because of it, I want to suggest, in teaching us about James’s ethics and approach to philosophy Marchetti illuminates pragmatism more broadly by stretching it in novel directions that unsettle ossified interpretations just enough to glimpse a more robust pragmatism that is more alive, more timely, more urgent, than any version with pre-installed pigeonholes for putting the various figures of the pragmatic tradition in their proper places of relative importance.


So why introduce my own Rortyan predilections to distract from Marchetti’s careful, momentous reinterpretation of James? The best way to illustrate how in pushing us to reassess our assumptions in reading James as a moral philosopher Marchetti also prompts us to rethink our assumptions about pragmatism as a whole, is through his treatment of Rorty, though “treatment” surely is too strong a word. Let me be clear: Rorty is not discussed at any length in this book. Marchetti mentions him on a few occasions in passing, and cites him a half dozen times more in the notes. Rorty doesn’t even have an entry in the index (though he probably should). Yet no fewer than ten of Rorty’s works appear in the bibliography.

There also is the fact that the book opens with an epigraph from Rorty’s little-known essay “The Philosopher as Expert.”2 Marchetti comes back to the epigraph explicitly only in the conclusion, to underscore the interplay between everyday and philosophical moral vocabularies, the “back and forth from the ordinary to the reflective dimension of experience, language, and conduct” (250), that he rightly reads in the Rortyan passage readers encounter at the outset: “The result of twenty-four hundred years of philosophical dialogue, is, among other things, to develop senses for words that are either much more restricted, or much richer, than those of common usage” (v). Whether this nod in Rorty’s direction is merely a symbolic bridge-building gesture, or meant to signal some deeper convergence, is largely left to the reader to ponder.

This isn’t the place to flesh out all that James and Rorty share.3 To mention only a few, the therapeutic turn away from Philosophy in James similarly paves the way for transformative self-cultivation, or what Rorty called “edification.”4 Both were preoccupied with the project of securing ethical and political commitments within a contingent, unfinished universe. They eschew standard philosophical assumptions that privilege arguments, validity, and good reasons, and worry acutely about questions and choices that cannot be decided upon logical or intellectual grounds alone, embracing instead the active and ongoing cultivation of sensitivity, imagination, and openness to personal transformation. Rorty’s conceptions of antiauthoritarianism in ethics and of moral progress as a matter of “increasing sensitivity, increasing responsiveness to the needs of a larger and larger variety of people and things,” broadly align with the therapeutic, transformative, anti-prescriptive development of ethical attentiveness in Marchetti’s James’s hortatory ethics (Rorty 1999, 81).5

What I want to call attention to, as most relevant to their normativity, is the unwillingness on the part of James and Rorty both to decouple epistemological from ethical issues. Both thinkers were especially attuned to the ethical implications of our philosophical conceptions, especially when the cause of cruelty and suffering. For James, as Marchetti puts it, “an epistemological failure amounts to a moral failure, and vice versa” (207). This is perhaps captured most memorably by James’s allusion to “the cries of the wounded” in “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life,” and his discussion of the inevitable “pinch” when worthy but incommensurable ideals collide. For his part, Rorty likewise conjoined his critique of epistemological privilege to attention to how particular philosophical stances put us in undemocratic relations with concrete others.6

Marchetti brings out this interrelation of the epistemological and the ethical in his supple discussion of James’s views on truth, which I take to be one of his book’s signal contributions. He accomplishes this by offering an interpretation that spans the (normally neglected) ethical dimensions of Pragmatism and The Meaning of Truth, and the epistemological echoes in “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life” and ethical pieces in Talks to Teachers. Marchetti describes James’s novel understanding of truth as “an engaged exercise of our sensibility in which what is at stake is the acknowledgement and care of those portions of the world which call for active intervention—rather than neutral representation or willful projection—on our behalf” (162). Truth, for James, is meaningless absent “an active endorsement and commitment on the part of the epistemic subject” (161): that is, the “projection from our mind that spreads onto the world and colors it normatively” (139).7

The ethical upshot of this conception of truth is revealed through Marchetti’s grasp of the epistemological salience of moral blindness in James: “Our blindness consists in the incapacity to appreciate the way in which truths are recognized, endorsed, and lived by those entertaining them” (208). “Every time we are unable to account for a certain aspect of the world valued by someone due to our insufficient attention,” Marchetti writes, “we are both ethically and epistemologically defective” (202). He argues compellingly that moral blindness must be understood as a conative and a cognitive failure: “When we are morally blind toward others’ needs, values and truths we are not only unable to make sense of their visions and struggles but also of the realities these attitudes help to constitute” (201).


While I can’t defend this claim here, as noted above I believe the conception of normativity foregrounded by Marchetti as internal to our experiencing, as individuals and communities, marks the distinctive contribution of the James-Rorty line of pragmatic thought. On its face this view seems unremarkable, consistent with any pragmatist perspective that seeks to account for truth, objectivity, and normativity from within our practices of inquiry and moral deliberation. Yet the difference that makes a difference arises when juxtaposed to those pragmatic perspectives that take the validity and normativity of interests and judgments to be “dependent on a dimension external or independent to their being positively claimed, lived and actively endorsed” (33–34). For instance, in expressing her misgivings about Rorty’s position, Cheryl Misak worries, “If we give up on truth, there seems to be nothing to stand in the way of thinking of ‘us’ as a narrow, homogenous group. There seems to be nothing to stand in the way of refusing to see ‘the other’ or the stranger as a full participant in our moral life” (2000, 17). As a result, for Misak we must preserve, at all costs, “a non-foundationalist account of objective justification” to defend democratic practices in a non-circular and non-question-begging way against anti-democrats (7).

If I have read Marchetti well, the Jamesian rejoinder to these concerns is that they are looking in the wrong place for normativity. Rather than trying to secure some independent ground or aim to prevent our practices from going astray in the face of strangers, to James ethics in a pragmatic mood demands changing our practices and modes of experiencing themselves. If, as Marchetti holds, for James “Truth is something we do more than something that is merely found” (185), then we must alter what we do. When Misak despairs of having nothing to keep us from treating strangers undemocratically, the abstract individuals or communities posited as in need of external safeguards are normative ciphers so barren of cultural particularity as positively lived to be vulnerable to whichever direction the political wind blows. When humans do go astray, as they must, this lived normativity must be altered from the inside by holding ourselves accountable for ethical reform of our practices.

Marchetti’s contribution here is to get us out of the either/or that structures the divide between realist pragmatisms that make our abstract and intellectual conceptions of truth, knowledge, and objectivity answerable to reality, and agential-relative, putatively subjectivist pragmatisms where answerability is to our own and our fellow beings’ interested engagements with reality. He reconstructs how James himself addressed the criticism that an account of moral relations as a function of our sensibilities fails to recognize an external standard of truth by developing an understanding of obligation as “a concrete, normative commitment to reality” (96). Yet, on this view, validity is a function of being grounded in the claims of flesh and blood beings. And moral objectivity is a practical matter of “accounting for such demands and being responsive to them” (101).

James understood that our inability to appreciate these relationships—how truths are endorsed and lived by others—lies at the heart of cruelty, intolerance, and injustice. He accomplishes this by disclosing the implications of particular practices of truth—to analyze those practices (both philosophically and in ordinary life) not so much logically but morally. Like Rorty, what James explores most insightfully are “the moral shortcomings which we incur when we endorse a representationalist (as against an agential) picture of truth” (7). “By perceiving reality as infused with truth and values, which impose on us necessary absolutes,” Marchetti explains, “we tend to overlook the fact that other human beings have their own personal relationships with reality” (201).

Rather than looking to secure an external barrier to “stand in the way” of human moral lapses, this view of normativity is skeptical of the transformative power of appeals to rationality or universal moral obligations that don’t entail a practical method for internal ethical improvement. For James, this involves “a change in attunement with the world and with one’s fellow inhabitants that calls for (and has the form of) a transformation of the self” (162), which Marchetti modulates into the language of care of the self. There are echoes of moral perfectionism in Marchetti’s James, as in Rorty’s Emersonian self-cultivation, where the normative standard for self-critique resides in the distance from our current self to a higher, unattained one.

Importantly, this view doesn’t lack resistance or Peircean Secondness; rather, it relocates constraint from our interactions with external reality, which already for James are colored by our interestedness, to our interactions with concrete others. “When truths are made flesh and lodged in the concrete life of those entertaining them,” Marchetti explains, “the biggest hindrance they could encounter are other truths resisting them and fighting them: truths claimed by other human beings or by ourselves at earlier times and engrained in our practices already” (186). James sought to encourage moods, attitudes, virtues, practices, and philosophical orientations that in Marchetti’s phrase position us to value “the richness of alien perspectives” (202). Likewise, Rorty endeavored to cultivate the epistemic modesty endemic to what he called irony—the fallibilism and openness that makes us willing to be instructed by the other—and preoccupied himself with those we exclude as conversation partners in our practices of justification.8

Clearly, in lumping James and Rorty together, I have neglected their differences—a topic for another day. Marchetti’s reading of James is not only original but succeeds in sharpening our understanding of pragmatism and its contemporary relevance.

There are many good books on James, but the field of truly necessary ones is sparsely populated. This is one of them.


Cotkin, George. 1995. “William James and Richard Rorty: Context and Conversation.” In Pragmatism: From Progressivism to Postmodernism, edited by Robert Hollinger and David Depew, 38–55. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Gavin, William, Stefan Neubert, and Kersten Reich. 2010. “Language and Its Discontents: William James, Richard Rorty, and Interactive Constructivism.” Contemporary Pragmatism 7.2: 105–30.

Misak, Cheryl, ed. 2007. New Pragmatists. New York: Oxford University Press.

———. 2000. Truth, Politics, Morality: Pragmatism and Deliberation. New York: Routledge.

Ramberg, Bjørn Torgrim. 2013. “For the Sake of His Own Generation: Rorty on Destruction and Edification.” In Richard Rorty: From Pragmatist Philosophy to Cultural Politics, edited by Alexander Gröschner, Colin Koopman, and Mike Sandbothe, 49–72. New York: Bloomsbury.

Rorty, Richard. 2009. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. 30th-anniversary ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

———. 1999. “Ethics Without Principles.” In Philosophy and Social Hope, 72–90. New York: Penguin.

———. 1982. Consequences of Pragmatism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Voparil, Christopher. 2016. “James and Rorty on Irony, Moral Commitment, and the Ethics of Belief.” William James Studies 12.2: 1–27.

———. 2014. “Taking Other Human Beings Seriously: Rorty’s Ethics of Choice and Responsibility.” Contemporary Pragmatism 11.1: 83–102.

———. 2009. “Jonquils and Wild Orchids: James and Rorty on Politics and Aesthetic Experience.” Journal of Speculative Philosophy 23.2: 100–109.

  1. When capitalized, Rorty explains, Philosophy denotes following Plato’s and Kant’s lead: “asking questions about the nature of certain normative notions (e.g., ‘truth,’ ‘rationality,’ ‘goodness’) in the hope of better obeying such norms.”

  2. The manuscript of this essay, first drafted during the 1958–1961 period, was discovered by Neil Gross and published in Rorty (2009).

  3. For a more in-depth discussion, see Voparil (2016). Sustained treatments of the relation between James and Rorty are few. Particularly good are: Cotkin (1995) and Gavin et al. (2010).

  4. For Marchetti, the point of James’s pragmatism is “to question and criticize our intellectual and ordinary assumptions so as to free ourselves from those philosophical pictures which linger in our projects of self-constitution and worldmaking” (25). For a reading of Rorty that aligns him most fully with the emphasis on self-transformation in Marchetti’s James, see Ramberg (2013). For Ramberg, the center of Rorty’s ethical vision is our capacity for self-creation, as a font of endless redescription and possibility. Even Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, for Ramberg, has the fundamental message of: “it is what we can make of ourselves, not what we may come to know, that requires our attention” (2013, 51).

  5. For a critique of Rorty’s project of cultivating ethical sentiments for succumbing to what James called the sentimentalist fallacy, see Voparil (2009).

  6. See Voparil (2014).

  7. Unlike Rorty, who jettisons correspondence altogether, James resists the impulse to reject it and thoughtfully redefines it as “a practical stance in which we express our most personal point of view on the world” (139).

  8. See Voparil (2016, 2014).

  • Avatar

    Sarin Marchetti


    Reply to Voparil

    I learned a lot from Voparil’s work, and still do. His call for a Rortian variety (and possibly takeover) of pragmatism sounds to me both convincing and opportune. The lineage that goes from James to Rorty (through Wittgenstein and recently furthered by Huw Price) represents in fact the main pragmatist competitor to the one going from Peirce to Susan Haack (through C. I. Lewis and now defended by Cheryl Misak), and their differences are most notable in the ethical case. While the latter “realist” line is currently on the rise, the former “conversationalist” one has seen better days—although, as I have argued elsewhere (Marchetti 2015), they do not only share their roots but also their fates, as the exercise of peeling one strand off the other is a rather artificial and eventually myopic venture when driven by those intra-familiar turf wars that get in the way of profitable conversations. It is thus all the more important to showcase the full potential of the conversationalist line in order to strengthen the whole trunk and branches of the pragmatist tree, and possibly plant a few novel seeds in the old yet still very rich soil—an exercise fostered by Voparil in his own work (see, e.g., Voparil 2006 and 2016).

    My reply to Voparil’s observations, I’m afraid, won’t be very agonistic and hence entertaining, as for better of worse I do agree with most (if not all) of what he says—starting from his friendly admonition that Rorty should have featured in the index, given his discreet yet pivotal presence throughout the book. About the latter, let me just say that in the book I took Rorty as a steady guide not so much for how to read James (about which, by the way, I think he had quite interesting things to say), but for his own sympathetic idea about what, if anything, philosophy could accomplish. While in the earlier versions of the book Rorty (and others) were much more present, both in spirit and in footnote, along the way I decided to focus almost exclusively on James and let his works speak so that, in the final cut, Rorty ended up being an almost ghostly presence and got eventually disbarred from the index. Luckily enough, for what matters, he stars in my main present book-length project on ethics after pragmatism.

    In what follows, I will then try to extend the line of reasoning from my book that Voparil picked up on, which concerns the ethical stakes of James’s (Rortian) shift from a metaphysics-based to a practice-based approach in epistemological and political matters, and more general in matters regarding our mindedness, worldliness, and their multiple interactions. Voparil, similarly to Pryba, remarks how my James looks very much like a slightly less radical Rorty—or at least a much more optimistic one—in his attempt to renew moral philosophy by revising our expectations as philosophers and from philosophers. This metaphilosophical and ethical maneuver got translated in the downplaying of philosophers’ worries over getting things right and converging towards more objective pictures of the world in order to figure out our proper place in it, to be replaced by the effort to secure congenial strategies for navigating reality and converging towards more inclusive social settings in order to better cope with each other. Contrary to those—both outside and inside pragmatism—who think that this very project necessarily and willingly implies the abdication to any normativity worth the name, Voparil encourages the furthering of this conversationalist line exactly because it delivers a conception of pragmatic normativity which is not only good enough for our human world and needs, but also free of those foundational and representationalist anxieties which often affect philosophers’ self-images and our own conjectures about their utility. Consistently, he presses me to say more on James’s resistance to decoupling epistemological and political from ethical issues, a theme dear to Rorty throughout his life and work.

    In chapters 4 and 5 of the book, I tackle the issue of the triangulation of ethical, epistemological, and political considerations in the crafting of a philosophical account of goodness, truth, and freedom that presents them as coordinated aspects of our very task of inhabiting the world and making it ours. As stated in reply to Pryba and in part to Goldman, the key to appreciate the contribution of philosophy to this task is the abandonment of the quest of looking for normative banisters outside of our practices of goodness, truth, and freedom, and plunging back into those very practices in order to figure out how can we contribute to them in order to make them more ethically, epistemologically, and politically satisfying. This amounts, to borrow the expression I used in the book, to a re-enchantment of the world through a work on the self. Rather than giving up the (ordinary and philosophical) quest for normativity, James suggests us to look for it nowhere else than in our commitments to what we do when we think or speak the good, the truth, or freedom. In “The Absolute and the Strenuous Life,” James remarks how “the pragmatism or pluralism which I defend has to fall back on a certain ultimate hardihood, a certain willingness to live without assurances or guarantees”—an attitude that is fitting those “minds willing to live on possibilities that are not certainties” (James 1975, 124). Among the many fitting observations and comments on this passage, one could underscore the idea according to which James does not only calculate, but also expects troubles in our human practices, where pragmatism is exactly that attitude which takes such clashes in and treats them as the very signs of the liveliness and potentials of the conversation. What is more concrete, asks James, than the concrete friction and engagement with the world and of our fellow beings inhabiting it. And why should we regulate our thoughts, words, and deeds on something falling beyond the scope of such frictions and engagements. It is here that Jamesian critique speaks louder, as it urges us to find such surrogates to practice and make us interrogate ourselves on our own craving for them so to possibly redo ourselves once such surrogates are either dismissed or reinforced.

    The ethical stakes of this therapeutic and transformative exercise in self-fashioning are to be traced in the shift from the questioning of the world and of others away from epistemology understood as the theory of representation and from a politics understood as the theory of rights to morality understood as the ways in which we are present to ourselves and practically commit to truth or freedom as things we care for, hold fast to, and feel responsible about. Would we endorse such ethical attitude towards the things we hold true and the states of affairs we would characterize as free, the quest for the foundation of such notions would suddenly leave the floor to the quest for their validation and verification from within our practices. How much truthfulness would we then acquire, and how much cruelty would we spare the world, as James suggests by showcasing a number of scenarios in which this readiness and capacity is abdicated in favor of normative banisters impermeable to our sensibility for and intervention on matters most dear to us and calling for our firsthand engagement.

    As a last question, one which Voparil himself raises in closing, we might ask where do James and Rorty differ and possibly part ways. One convincing answer has been recently offered by Colin Koopman (2011), who contrasts Rorty’s emphasis on language to James’s emphasis on conduct. According to this account, while sharing most of their critical targets and positive goals, the two would differ in their strategies for achieving those. While I think that this story is fundamentally right and quite useful to sort out the trajectory of pragmatism from its origins to the present time, an alternative explanation of their difference locates them not so much (or rather not only) in their means but also in their goals, and it is justifiable also because of the radical shift in philosophical climate which takes them apart. Let me adumbrate this alternative option, so to give a taste of the beginning of an answer to the question about the difference that makes a difference between James and Rorty. What would take James and Rorty apart is their divergent elaborations of romantic themes within a pragmatist landscape, and in particular James’s coupling of romanticism with empiricism (mindful of and reminding J. S. Mill’s forerunning mix) as opposed to Rorty’s pairing of romanticism and the linguistic turn (a lesson drawn from Wittgenstein). While James was interested in radicalizing empiricism by emphasizing the active component of our empirical stance towards reality, Rorty relocated the romantic quest for self-transformation in our activities of self-description as performed by the narratives we live by. While James was not dismissive of language and had instead rather interesting things to say about the powers of words and the conceptual component of our experiences, Rorty saw experience as too compromised of a notion and refuged in a way to an activity that according to him was less prone to metaphysical temptation.

    Now, I contend, this would not primarily amount to a difference about how to get rid of representationalism, but rather to a disagreement over what counts as self-transformation. The culture of uncertainty and democratic progressivism supported by James are hinged on a picture of human beings as experimental being engaged in exposing themselves to the most diversified situations so to unstiffen themselves and find themselves anew. The poeticized culture and cultural politics advertised by Rorty draw their appeal from a picture of human beings as beings capable to progress thanks to their imaginative redescriptions of who they might be. If there certainly is a difference in style and method (as Koopman’s reconstruction and demarcation suggests), I here spot a practical difference as well which is most visible, for example, in their almost opposite attitudes towards the sciences or the very viability and opportunity of the reference to the naturality of our practices. Far from siding with James or Rorty, also because, as said, the philosophical and cultural context in which they wrote and to which they responded to was quite unlike (including what counts as a science and how to characterize a practice as natural), my suggestion and challenge would be to to take what is most useful for us from both and keep them in contrastive tension.


    James, W. 1975. The Meaning of Truth. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

    Koopman, C. 2011. “Rorty’s Linguistic Turn: Why (More Than) Language Matters to Philosophy.” Contemporary Pragmatism 8.1.

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