The Moral Philosophy of William James
The literature on James’s moral views is largely confined to chapters in larger works, and much of the analysis at present is explanatory and intended for a more generally inquisitive reader who is interested in a broad picture of James’s views. Two important texts are Franzese’s Ethics of Energy and Gale’s The Divided Self. Both of these are primarily concerned with systematising and exploring James’s moral views and although both treatments seem to overlap in a variety of areas, Franzese’s Ethics is premised on a specific, non-utilitarian reading of the “Moral Philosopher”. Gale’s specific focus is on accounting for the philosophical subject in James, and from here he derives an account
of James’s morality.
As of yet, there is no systematic treatment of James’s moral thinking per-se, although Perry’s classic text treats James as a moralist, and this interpretation has been followed - although not always with much thought - by a number of scholars. I have listed below a number of works not specifically on James (such as Misak’s) but that provide interesting and alternative perspectives on some of James’s thinking. Particularly Goodman’s characterization of James as a kind of romantic is particularly nice, and it seems to fit well with what one can read into “On a Certain Blindness”.
One particular discrepancy which seems to occur commonly in the literature is the relationship (or the distinction) between morality and ethics. It is not clear (at least to me!) that James makes any such distinction and it does not appear to fit neatly into James’s wider pragmatism. Scholars tend to use the two terms quite indiscriminately and some sharpening on James’s thought here is required. In terms of journal articles, much of the discussion on James’s moral or ethical thinking is confined to the proceedings of the Charles Peirce Society and there is a limited amount of really contemporary scholarship on the subject.
The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life
James’s most explicit treatment of the subject of morality. Most importantly here, he develops a critical principle of his ethical philosophy, that we should “satisfy at all times as many demands as we can” (WB, 205).
James, W., “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life” in The Will to Believe and Other
Essays in Popular Philosophy, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979
The Will to Believe
James’s discussion of the possibility of holding a belief without first holding prior evidence. Important in determining how we come to formulate ethical and moral beliefs.
James, W., The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy, Cambridge, MA
and London: Harvard University Press, 1979; first published in 1897.
On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings
Interesting (if fleeting) treatment of morality. I think this points to two important thoughts. Firstly, he argues we are “afflicted” with a blindness towards the views of others, and naturally self-concerned. From my reading, this stands both as a rejection of any notion of duty or obligation towards others, but also imposes the idea of a plurality of moral views which we ought to recognize on the grounds that the feelings of others are no less important than our own feelings.
Secondly, he continues this thought, citing Wordsworth, who argues natural things have “limitless significance”, and may as such be attributed a “moral life”. For James, there is no reason that ‘morality’ has to refer explicitly to action between humans but should also concern our natural environment. Again, he seems eager not to prioritise human feeling over animal or natural feeling.
James, W “On a Certain Blindness” in Talks to Teachers on Psychology and to Students on Some
of Life's Ideals. New York: Henry Holt, 1899
The Letters of William James
Many of James’s letters concern the subject of morality, and his use is often curious. He refers frequently to the ‘moral’ characters of a country or an individual (see letters to H.G. Wells, 1906, Bill James, 1907 and François Pillon 1898). James also refers also to his own moral state (“I am better both physically and morally than I have been in four years”) in a letter to Mrs. Henry Whitman, 1903.
It would imply from this usage that James takes morality as applicable only to a particular (not necessarily human) subject. He explicitly rejects notions of morality which rely upon “invisible, molecular moral forces that work from individual to individual”, again in correspondence with Mrs Whitman in 1898.
I have also explored an early unpublished letter from James to William Darwin on the subject of morality. This is now published in a paper by Ignas Skrupskelis: see below.
James, W., The Letters of William James, Boston: Little Brown, 1926
Misak, C., The American Pragmatists, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013
General but persuasive chapter on James, with a short but considerable treatment of the relationship between MP and WB (see p65-76).
Pawelski, J., The Dynamic Individualism of William James, New York: SUNY Press, 2012.
Important discussion on what Pawelski calls James’s moral choice to invoke free will (p56 onwards) and direct criticism of Gale’s view in the ‘Divided Self’ (see p99). Recent summation of much past scholarship.
Gavin, W., William James in Focus, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013
Interesting perspective on our obligation to be moral, according to James – links to discussion of the time constraints faced when making decisions and James’s rejection of moral scepticism in MP.
Bernstein, R., The Pragmatic Turn, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010
Bernstein dedicates a chapter to the “Ethical Implications of William James’s Pragmatic Pluralism”. I am not convinced that the traditional distinction between ethics and morality holds up in James’s case, and this may be something worth exploring.
Slater, M., William James on Ethics and Faith, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009
Slater’s theological treatment focuses heavily on the relationship between James’s ethics and his religious thought. Slater argues that James has a series of ‘moral arguments’ for faith, which seems counterintuitive but I think is ultimately well argued.
Franzese, S., The Ethics of Energy: William James's Moral Philosophy in Focus, Berlin: Walter de
Comprehensive treatment of James’s moral philosophy, with a particular focus on the Kantian idea of moral effort. Franzese believes that it is incorrect to interpret James as a version of a utilitarian (as many have) and bases his efforts on this misunderstanding.
Richardson, R., William James: In the Malestrom of American Modernity, Boston: Hardcourt,
In his biography of James, Richardson draws out the lineage between James’s psychology and his moral philosophy. He argues (p309 onwards) that James’s morality (and his rejection of deontological morality) is grounded in an almost utilitarian acknowledgement of the existence of desires.
Gale, Richard M., The Divided Self of William James, Cambridge: Cambridge University
This work gives a comprehensive treatment of James’s moral thinking over around 100 pages. Gale gives a good exposition of James’s rejection of moral truths and the distinction between James’s ethics and morality before drawing the link to his religious views.
Perry, R., The Thought and Character of William James, Nashville: Vanderbilt University
Although this work is old, this appears to be a classic account of James as a moralist and Perry’s discussion of James’s moral individualism is good. This theme is picked up on and developed by James Campbell (see below).
Cotkin, G., William James: Public Philosopher, Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1994
Cotkin touches on numerous areas of James’s morality and its linkage with religion. Of particular interest are his arguments against determinism (pp. 83-94) and the link with what Cotkin calls James’s ‘discourse of heroism’. For Cotkin, the heroic man or woman is a moral man or woman.
Goodman, R., American Philosophy and the Romantic Tradition, Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1990
Goodman argues that James relies heavily on our romantic sentiments (our passions) when we ascribe a moral nature or character to things and when we make moral decisions. He cites James’s arguments from MP (see p81).
Myers, G., William James: His Life and Thought, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988.
Myers dedicates an introductory chapter to James’s ‘moral thought’. He leans heavily on many of the moral intuitions James developed as a young boy to explain his ongoing concern for morality, even though his pragmatism seemed to disavow it. This contradiction between James’s desire to invent moral principles and his pragmatism seems of great importance.
Fernstein, H., Becoming William James, New York: Cornell University Press, 1984
Passages on how the interaction between religion and morality developed in James’s work, particularly with reference to the work of his brother and father (p84). Again, Fernstein brings out this apparent struggle between James’s desire to have a moral philosophy within a framework which seems not to allow one.
Wilshire, B., William James and Phenomenology, New York: AMS Press, 1979.
Alternative perspective on James’s metaphysics, worthy of consideration as it adds weight to the thesis that James is not seeking a ‘morality’ in the Kantian sense, but is trying to forge a gap between traditional philosophical categories. Many of these ideas resurface in Benoist’s article (see below).
Putnam, H, “The Ideas of William James” in Raritan, New Brunswick, NJ, Winter 1989,
Putnam seeks to give an account of James “first and foremost” as a moral philosopher. Analysis of James’s ‘utilitarian’ viewpoint and his distinction between moral and scientific truths (p25).
Benoist, J, “Phenomenology or Pragmatism” in Pragmatism: Critical Concepts in Philosophy,
ed. Russell Goodman, London: Taylor and Francis, 2005.
Not strictly on James’s moral thought, but an interesting and alternative perspective that links James with Husserl. This is particularly important from the perspective of thinking who the moral subject might be in James’s philosophy.
Koutstaal, W., “Lowly Notions: Forgetting in William James's Moral Universe”, Transactions
of the Charles S. Peirce Society, Vol. 29, No. 4 (Fall, 1993), pp. 609-635
Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40320441
Interesting account of James’s idea of a ‘moral holiday’. Also the idea that we can forge a middle way between traditional rationalist and empiricist notions of morality.
Skrupskelis, I., “Evolution and Pragmatism: An Unpublished Letter of William James”,
Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, Vol. 43, No. 4 (Fall, 2007), pp. 745-752
Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40321224
(I think) a critical discovery of a very interesting letter addressed to William Darwin (son of Charles) in which James goes into depth on his early moral ideas. Very important in showing development of James’s ideas from his younger days.
Smith, A., “William James and the Politics of Moral Conflict”, Transactions of the Charles S.
Peirce Society, Vol. 40, No. 1 (Winter, 2004), pp. 135-151
Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40320978
Discussion of James’s ‘political thought’. This is more focused on James’s discussion of the right (ethical) action in a particular circumstance, but may be useful in drawing out James’s moral views.
Genter, R., “Of Mystics and Lighthouse Keepers: The Moral Visions of William James
and Josiah Royce”, History of Philosophy Quarterly, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Jan., 2002), pp. 87-108
Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/27744909
Genter sets James’s pluralism in contrast to Royce, and gives an interesting account of James’s relation between theory and practice – or rather James’s preference to think in terms of practice.
Campbell, J., “William James and the Ethics of Fulfillment”, Transactions of the Charles S.
Peirce Society, Vol. 17, No. 3 (Summer, 1981), pp. 224-240
Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40319924
Campbell explicitly explores James’s ethics with a view to drawing broader conclusions about his views on morality and morality in general.
Boyle, D., “William James's Ethical Symphony”, Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, Vol.
34, No. 4 (Fall, 1998), pp. 977-1003
Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40320736
Detailed textual analysis of MP in which Boyle interprets James’s maxim that we should satisfy as many demands as we can as a utilitarian idea, but a qualitative one in which the greatest (most pressing?) demands should be satisfied, rather than the largest quantity of demands.
Pihlström, S., “William James on Death, Mortality, and Immortality”, Transactions of the
Charles S. Peirce Society, Vol. 38, No. 4 (Fall, 2002), pp. 605-628
Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40320916
Brief introduction on the nature of James’s morality in which Pihlström (following Cotkin) emphasizes the need for an ethical hero. Pihlström also attempts to place ethics as prior to James’s metaphysics.
Putnam, H., and Putnam, R.A., “The Real William James: Response to Robert Meyers”,
Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, Vol. 34, No. 2 (Spring, 1998), pp. 366-381
Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40320699
The Putnams take on Meyer’s characterization of James as an ‘anything goes’ pluralist in the Cambridge Companion. There is some dispute between these scholars as to an interpretation of the first line of MP.
Kauber, P., “The Foundations of James's Ethics of Belief”, Ethics, Vol. 84, No. 2 (Jan.,
1974), pp. 151-166
Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2380112
Kauber attempts to trace James’s ‘mature’ ethical thinking in WB to his earlier work, enquiring particularly into the problem of where our ethical (moral?) beliefs originate.
Other Journal Articles
Aiken, H., “William James as Moral and Social Philosopher”, Philosophic Exchange 3 (1981):
Putnam, R.A., “William James and Moral Objectivity”, William James Studies, 1.1 (2007).
Putnam, R.A., “The Moral Life of a Pragmatist”, Identity, Character, and Morality: Essays in
Moral Psychology (1990): 67-89.
Perrin, J., “The Incoherence of William James’ Moral Philosophy”, Aporia vol. 21 no. 2 (2011)