William James by Gordon Clark


Puritanboard Clerk
Clark, Gordon H. Willam James. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Co., 1975.

In this little monograph, Gordon H. Clark surveys and analyzes William James’ pragmatism, giving particular attention to James’ early work on pluralism and his later and more popular works on pragmatism.

William James began, if not a full Hegelian, at least as an Idealist before becoming known as a pragmatist. Seeing that monism and pantheism could not account for the plurality of the world, James sought refuge in pluralism. The question remains: how successful was he?

James defines empiricism as “the habit of explaining wholes by parts” (quoted in Clark 13). He is already off to a perilous start, for Clark points out: “a circle cannot be explained in terms of its arcs because an arc is defined in terms of a circle” (13).

James did not like Hegelianism, but he still wanted “intimacy.” One should quickly point out that intimacy does not mean what it currently means in modern parlance. With that said, it is not exactly clear what James himself means by it. At this point in the narrative, it probably means something like “connection with.” James goes on to explain his rejection of theism because its God is “wholly Other.” (What James meant was something like the Creator-creature distinction, not Barthianism).

James’ problem now should be obvious: as an empiricist, he wants to explain wholes by parts, but he still wants at least one conclusion of idealist pantheism: union with y. His vague definition notwithstanding, James doubles down: “Not to demand intimate relations with the universe, and not to wish them satisfactory, should be accounted signs of something wrong.” Clark makes the obvious reply: “But how can anyone be intimate with the universe, or any part of it, except persons and perhaps a pet dog? To talk of being intimate with a cement driveway…is to use words without meaning” (15).

If James were to continue this line of argument, he might seem to think of himself, still attached or one with the Absolute, as a god. That is a familiar line in human history. As Clark notes, however, it is much harder to think of the cement driveway as a god (16). We must leave James’ idealism here, for he eventually abandons it.


Following Charles S. Peirce, James saw beliefs as “rules for action” (27) and our reactions, particularly the sensate ones, as the consequences of the beliefs. It is probably good for James that he gave up his idealism, for Clark notes that any system of the Absolute, on James’ pragmatism, is only an effect of my actions. “God is merely the things I do” (28). And if realities can be changed like this, “theories thus became instruments, not answers to enigmas” (James, quoted in Clark 28).

If theism suffers from such a view, so does, surprisingly, science. Scientific laws are now “approximations.” This is not entirely wrong, but James’ inference from it is: objective truth is nowhere to be found (29). The law of non-contradiction is now an instrument of reality. (One could ask, I suppose, whether it was a true or accurate instrument).

Traditional thought had connected the laws of logic with being. It should not be a surprise to see James, having now relativised logic, attack the idea of substance. Clark here surveys the history of “substance language.”

James defines the soul as “the verifiable cohesions of our inner life” (31). The following quote, situated in the context of rationalism, is why Gordon Clark was one of the best *writing* philosophers: "Rationalism had supposed that the laws of science were the eternal thoughts of the Almighty, who thundered in syllogisms and reverberated in conic sections."

Concerning the opposition between spirit and matter, James says, shockingly, they are the same thing. It is not clear why they are so, but one could guess that such a dichotomy means little for the pragmatist when it is time to make future plans. Clark proceeds to attack James on the point whether the pragmatist can truly explain the past. On Clark’s reading, James had reduced “God, soul, and matter to ‘substances,’” “a mere name for collections of qualities and events” (32). If both God and matter are names for past events, then any name could work just as well. More damning still, none of this actually explains the past. On James’ construction they are the past!

To conclude this part of the analysis, “Sometimes James attaches and intellectualistic content to the concept God and desires it tested in experience; but at other times he argues that every concept is precisely its future effects in human behavior” (33).


James has problems with the “copy of reality” model of truth (presumably, the correspondence theory). Let us for the moment grant James’ criticisms of this model. He has a more immediate problem with “intellectualist” models of truth: they cannot have practical consequences. Clark counters with the traditional understanding of God as a spirit infinite, eternal, and unchanging…etc. “Now if such a spirit actually exists; that is, if this idea refers to a true reality, hundreds of practical conclusions follow” (36).

For James, however, ideas are not true, “they are made true by events.” But does this not apply to James’ own proposal? Must it not be made true by an event, thereby starting out as false? It seems it must.

Here I must offer an interlude: James could have avoided most of the problems in his theory by changing “made” to “discovered.” It is true (!) that many situations in life do not readily lend themselves to a correspondence model. More often than not, truth is discovered as it is integrated into a larger pattern, as Michael Polanyi would so forcefully argue a half century later. James, unfortunately, does not take this path.


There is much to James’ credit. He writes better than most philosophers, and in many respects, he is the American philosopher. Most Americans would not agree that “truth is what works,” but they would probably agree with its converse: if something regularly fails, then there is something wrong with it. Unfortunately, James’ relativising of logic, among other problems, dooms his system from the start, at least on Clark’s reading.