The American Philosophers

This post covers two American philosophers, William James and John Dewey, who were prominent in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and both born in New England. Both were successful in multiple fields including science, politics and education, but from a purely philosophical perspective what they have in common is the theory of ‘instrumentalism’.

William James

Before coming to instrumentalism a look at James’ doctrine of ‘radical empiricism’, in which he rejected the orthodox view that the process of gaining knowledge of something can be described in terms of a subject-object relationship. In this traditional relationship the subject, which is regarded as a mind, becomes aware of the object, which can be another mind or something material. James’ ideas undermined a number of existing notions, including the clear distinction between mind and matter. ‘Mind’ or ‘soul’ should not be considered as a thing separate to matter. Consciousness should be considered only as a state of being, not evidence of a separate thing called mind or soul. There is only material, out of which all things are composed, and some things are in a state of consciousness. James calls this material ‘pure experience’, but according to Russell does not really explain what is meant by this. Nevertheless, on the basic point that mind does not exist as a separate thing, James and Russell are in agreement.

James believed that the purpose of philosophy, when examining whether a given theory or idea is true, is to determine what practical difference it makes to us if the theory is true. Theories then become more like instruments than answers to problems, hence the term ‘instrumentalism’. According to James, an idea is ‘true’ if it is believed to have a positive effect on our lives. This means that the status of true or false is not static – ideas can, for example, be made true by events. This belief is influenced by James’ preoccupation with religion and ethics. He is more interested in how we can lead good and virtuous lives, rather than finding objective truth. As a Christian, it is useful for him to be able to say that God exists because this belief has a positive effect on people. Russell, however, identifies some issues with the theory that ideas are true if their effects are good. How do we determine whether the effects of something are good, particularly when discussing questions other than ethics? To use Russell’s example, how would we establish when Columbus discovered the new world? Is it better for him to have done so in 1492 or 1493? Also, if the reasons for us believing something true are to be true themselves, then they must also have good effects, and so on ad infinitum. Like many philosophers, James is a natural sceptic looking for a way to establish what is true. He cannot be certain that God exists, so settles with belief in God, and claims that this is the same thing. This only seems valid if you think that objective truth is not important, and that it is the effect of what we believe to be true that matters. The Pope condemned this defence of religion – it did matter to him that God exists.

John Dewey

Russell is full of praise for John Dewey as a person and as a philosopher, and regrets that he cannot agree with everything that Dewey says, even though he would like to. Dewey was another of the protagonists for the theory of instrumentalism. Like James, Dewey criticised the traditional notion of ‘truth’ as something that is perfect, static and final. According to this notion mathematics is given high regard – two plus two will always equal four. In religious terms, truth is traditionally identified with the knowledge of God, i.e. having an appreciation of what God’s thoughts are through increased understanding of the nature of God. Dewey’s perspective is biological, and he considers thought to be an evolutionary process. Truth is defined in terms of inquiry, i.e. truth is what we would believe to be correct, given sufficient inquiry. This leads us needing to define what inquiry is. According to Russell’s interpretation, inquiry is the process of mutual adjustment between an organism (e.g. person) and its environment such that the relationship between the two is satisfactory to the organism, as long as the adjustment is mainly on the part of the organism. To give Russell’s analogy, during a battle a General seeks to alter their environment, i.e. the enemy, so this is not inquiry. Before the battle, the General carries out reconnaissance of the enemy and their battle preparations, and makes counter preparations. This process is more about adapting one’s own plans rather than the environment so can be considered as inquiry. 

For Dewey, there is no such thing as absolute truth or falsehood; rather, there are degrees of truth. Therefore, we can only say that we believe things to be true or false, with different degrees of certainty. So far this is not very controversial. The controversy comes from Dewey’s refusal to accept the concept of objective facts which are always true. He does not classify beliefs as being true or false, but rather good or bad, and this is dependent on whether they have good or bad effects. This idea has several consequences for our conception of truth. It means that things are ever changing as their effects change – something which was bad in the past could be good in the future, and vice versa. Truth also becomes subjective – what is good for one person may be bad for another. It also means that we cannot determine whether something is true until we’ve understood whether its consequences are good or bad for us. Russell highlights the potential for absurdity using a typically practical and specific example: how should we answer if asked whether we had coffee with our breakfast?

Instrumentalism is an idea full of confidence and optimism, and no doubt influenced by contemporary social circumstances, conceived as it was while America was on the rise. If you do not like that something is true or false, most people would say that there is nothing humans can do to make it otherwise. Instrumentalism says that we should not despair, and that with sufficient thought and power one can change the world, through inquiry, such that our relationship to the world is satisfactory. Russell ends with a note of caution. Throughout most of history humans have thought that the concept of ‘truth’ is dependent on facts that are outside of human control and this has retained an element of humility within philosophy. Starting in the 19th century along came philosophies centred on power and action. In Russell’s words, “man, formally too humble, begins to think of himself as almost a God”.

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