Cross Posted at Religion in American History
William James has always interested me because I’ve often wondered why his brand of knowledge production never took off.
Jonathan Rée has a great piece on William James that I found thanks to Ralph E. Luker. As a whole, the article is a thoughtful review of James’ life and work, including his interest in religion and science. Below is my favorite paragraph of the article but I suggest you read it in full.
James was not unsympathetic to religion, and on occasion he was prepared to call himself a Christian, though in a thoroughly secular and untheological sense. His abiding intellectual passion was a love of open-mindedness and a corresponding distrust of dogmatism and metaphysics. We should never forget, he said, that all our opinions – even our “most assured conclusions” – are “liable to modification in the course of future experience”. But he warned against allowing a distrust of dogmatic metaphysics to harden into a metaphysical dogma of its own, as seemed to be happening with some of the evangelising atheists of his day. He admired the evolutionary biologist T H Huxley and the mathematician C K Clifford, for example, but when they used the idea of “science” as a stick to beat religion with they were in danger of behaving like high priests of a new religion – “the religion of scientificism” – and defending it with the same intolerant zealotry as any old-style religious fanatic. Knowledge, for James, was not so much the pre-existing premise of human inquiry as a hoped-for future product, and science was more like a tissue of fortuitous insights than a monolith of solid fact. We would not have much chance of stumbling into truth if we let ourselves get too anxious about falling into error, and the first rule of an unillusioned epistemology should simply be: Relax! “Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things,” James wrote: “in a world where we are certain to incur them in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than this excessive nervousness.”
I’ve always found James compelling as a figure in American history because he lived and worked at the edge of an era where science and religion still saw each other as friends and companions in knowledge. James died in 1910, and by the 1920s and 30s “truth” would be split between “empirical science” and “religion.” James is a figure that is worth revisiting and rethinking in the midst of many current cultural debates. It’s worth at least considering his “pragmatic, pluralist, empiricist approach to truth – what some would call his humanism.”