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William James's Evolutionary Pragmatism: A Study in Physiology, Psychology, and Philosophy at the Close of the Nineteenth Century


American psychologist and philosopher William James (1842-1910) poses a problem for interpreters. Although James himself claims that interpretation means locating an author's "center of vision," his own writings seem to lack continuity because of his shift from psychology to philosophy and perhaps even unity at a given time because of his apparent vacillation between active and passive conceptions of human existence. As a result, despite his impressive position as the father of American scientific psychology and popularizer of the philosophical school of pragmatism, James may appear to have little to offer readers by way of a coherent worldview.

In this study, I argue that James's thought is much more continuous and unified than is generally thought. In particular, I locate the center of James's vision in a model of the individual that James develops in the 1880s and which remains in the background of his subsequent thought, providing the basis for his mature conceptions of freedom, morality, and pragmatic meaning. Although I accept the view, proposed by scholars such as Ellen Kappy Suckiel and James Pawelski, that the Jamesian individual is structured by a sensori-motor "reflex arc" such that the function of thought for James is to discharge in action, I argue further that for James the reflex arc itself consists of a series of "selectionist systems," that is, systems that are structurally analogous to, if distinct from and not reducible to, Darwinian natural selection. Indeed, I contend that the Jamesian individual is a nexus of such systems, the crux of which is a selective will that filters cognitive variation from "beneath" and thereby generates variation for further systems "above."

Freedom on this model consists in the will's ability to select among possibilities for action delivered by sensation and cognition. Although the will is not able to produce its own possibilities directly, the most important effect of willful choice for James is its manner of biasing its own future possibilities by way of the breaking or entrenching of embodied habits. Because of this, James's philosophy of pragmatism, which understands meaning in terms of the practical effects of ideas, is shown to be a form of character ethics founded on a Darwin-inspired conception of human freedom.

This study closes by further contextualizing James within the history of nineteenth- and twentieth-century thought, demonstrating James's strong affinities with Nietzsche, while also using comparisons with Husserl and Hegel to draw pragmatist lessons about the limits of abstraction.

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