The Century-Old Philosophy of Pragmatism Is an Existential Life Preserver

It’s an attempt to harmonize one’s life with the cruel necessities of nature

A singular circular pattern ripples on a calm lake’s surface.
Photo: Chris Hackett/Getty Images

InIn 2010, I was 30, in the midst of my first divorce, and had just watched my estranged, alcoholic father die. During that time, I was at Harvard on a postdoc writing about the pioneering American philosopher and psychologist William James. I was supposed to be finishing a book about the salvific effects of his philosophy known as pragmatism. Instead, I was struggling just to keep going. In that dark period, life felt meaningless.

It’s a feeling that was utterly familiar to James and one that ultimately led him toward his defining ideas. The question James asked, and which pragmatism seeks to answer, is about as loaded as they come: “Is life worth living?” His answer: “Maybe.”

For some, that answer might be off-putting. But for James, whose philosophical framework was informed by a lifetime of physical and psychological duress, “maybe” was laden with possibility. “Maybe” puts the onus on each person to make good on a meaningful life — to find, but more likely to make, something of value before it’s too late.

Finding a new path to meaning

In 1869, James was on the brink of adulthood and, as he confessed in a letter to his friend Henry Bowditch, on the brink of collapse: “I am a low-lived wretch,” he wrote. “I’ve been prey to such disgust for life during the past three months as to make letter writing almost an impossibility.”

Over the following two decades, James would write incessantly, like his life depended on it — letters, essays, books. He’d go on to become the father of American philosophy and psychology. But when he wrote to Bowditch, he couldn’t foresee any of it. Actually, he often struggled to see the next day.

The problem: James was philosophically stuck, mired in thoughts that had plagued countless thinkers before him. Maybe, he worried, human beings are determined by forces beyond their control. Maybe their lives are destined from the start, fated to end tragically and meaninglessly. Maybe human beings, despite their best efforts, can’t act on their own behalf, as free and vibrant beings. Meaninglessness was James’ problem, and it drove him to the edge of suicide.

In pursuit of answers, the young James undertook a meticulous study of Marcus Aurelius, the second-century Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher, that would help lay the foundation for his eventual theory of pragmatism.

Stoicism is often described as something like a grin-and-bear-it philosophy of life, which isn’t totally accurate. A better way of describing it is: Stoicism is an attempt to harmonize one’s life with the cruel necessities of nature. As one becomes an adult, it is best to come to terms with gray hair, disease, and death. All of those things are going to happen no matter what we do.

Stoicism turns on the presumption that each person is made up of two elements: the bodily self and the “ruling” spiritual self, the soul, that guides the body through the physical world. While the bodily self is definitely not free, this “ruling part” is more or less at liberty to choose how to respond to the highly unfortunate circumstances that come along with mortality.

Stoicism was well fitted to the particular spiritual mindset of Marcus Aurelius’ Imperial Rome, but it wasn’t particularly suited to the perspective of modern science. In the late 1860s, James came of age in an intellectual culture that began to question the religious framework that supported Aurelius’ dual vision of personhood. What if there were no such thing as a soul? What, then, of the “ruling part” that was so important to the Stoic?

Amid his studies of the natural sciences, particularly biology and physiology, James began to encounter determinists: thinkers who held that human beings were a “little flesh” and “some breath,” end of story. The determinists picked up where Stoicism left off, in a sense. They theorized that life was fully determined by nature and thus suffered as one long, senseless tragedy. For James, this worldview posed a life-threatening crisis.

Evolution and the dilemma of determinism

As James wrote in 1884, the determinist worldview asserts that “the future has no ambiguous possibilities hidden in its womb.” That, in turn, leaves human beings without an avenue to find or create meaning for themselves within the supposedly preordained realities of their own lives.

Bleak as it may seem, it makes sense that a philosophy like determinism would gain traction in the years following the 1859 publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. After all, it was from Darwin’s theory of evolution that a heretical idea took powerful hold of the philosophical communities of Europe and the United States: Human beings were just animals. Extremely smart animals, maybe. But still, just animals.

Previous generations of philosophers had the luxury of thinking that nonhuman animals might be fully controlled by the laws of nature but that humans were somehow different — somehow free. Darwin and his acolytes turned that presumption on its head. In turn, a new crop of young philosophers — which included James — were tasked with making sense of the implication that human beings, like other animals, were governed by natural law.

For young James, the idea that people were subject to the whims of nature like any other animal was terrifying. He had to figure out how human freedom could coincide with the findings of evolutionary science.

Years later, in 1911, James’ friend and colleague Josiah Royce would reflect that James had been at the forefront of a group of thinkers who Royce deemed the “second generation” of evolutionary theorists. These theorists took it upon themselves to meld science and philosophy into a genuinely new way of understanding human nature. From this fertile intellectual ground sprung pragmatism: the idea that truth is found in the outcomes of actions. From there, the discipline of psychology was born.

A philosophy of healthy-mindedness

Take an object — a small rock or, hell, your phone — to a shallow river. Throw it in. On a still evening, the ripples are still moving, still growing, when the object comes to rest on the bottom. The disruption at the point of entry is the first to vanish, but the consequences of the event radiate concentrically even as they dissipate.

“Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn,” explains the great thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson in his 1841 essay, “Circles.” Fifty years after the poem was published, James finished the Principles of Psychology, in which he developed a model of selfhood that resembled radiating spheres.

At the center of James’ model was the “material self,” our bodies and material fortunes. This is frequently regarded as the most concrete aspect of our lives, but it is also, according to James, the most superficial. We typically would be willing to give up our material fortunes for the subsequent ring, what he terms “the social self”: the recognition that one gets from friends, family, and loved ones.

Finally, James explains, there is the “spiritual self”: one that is sought or experienced in “intellectual, moral, and religious aspiration.” This is the most expansive and farthest-reaching aspect of selfhood, but also, for many of us, the most subtle and easily neglected. This is the wave that matters even when it is not fully detected or articulated.

Looking back on those difficult days during my postdoc, and in trying times that followed, I can say with confidence that William James’ philosophy saved my life. Or, more accurately, it encouraged me not to be afraid of life. To accept ambiguity. To strengthen my spheres.

James wrote for our age: One that eschews tradition and superstition but desperately craves existential meaning; one that is defined by affluence but also depression and acute anxiety. To such a culture, James gently, persistently urges, “Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.”

I would like to offer the reader James’ existential life preserver. Of course, in the end, life is a terminal condition. No one makes it out alive. But some authors — notably, James — can help us survive, so to speak, by preserving and passing on what is most important about being human while we have the chance. It may not be a formal antidote for the sick soul, but I like to think of it as an effective home remedy.

Excerpted from Sick Souls, Healthy Minds: How William James Can Save Your Life by John Kaag. Copyright © 2020 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.

Philosophy Professor, Writer, author of the forthcoming American Philosophy--A Love Story (October 2016) @fsgbooks

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