William James: the Politics of Pragmatism, Humility, and Smallness

William James (1842-1910) is unquestionably the most famous American philosopher. While C. S. Peirce founded pragmatism movement, James was its most famous popularizer, and his influence was felt in philosophy, psychology, and a number of disciplines. Like his friend Peirce, James was a member of Chancy Wright’s circle of friends and participated in the famous group of which Oliver Wendall Holmes was a member for a short time. Unlike Peirce, James was likable and successful in navigating academic life.

James came from a prominent American family. family. His father, Henry, was independently wealthy, a friend of Emerson and Thoreau, and a writer. As a child, James traveled with his family and met Alfred Lord Tennyson and John Stuart Mill as well as others. His brother, Henry James, was a well-known novelist and literary critic. His sister was and is well-known as a diarist. Never healthy, James suffered from a number of ailments in his younger years, ailments that prevented him for serving in the American Civil War.

James was not primarily a political theorist. His influence has been felt in political thinking, but he never wrote a scholarly work devoted to the subject. His political philosophy, therefore, must be gleaned from his other writings, a task that is more appropriate for a professional philosopher than a retired pastor. [1] However, because of his importance, it is impossible to pass over his work.


James accepted Peirce’s famous definition of truth as related to the conceivable courses of action an idea might imply. James’ own view was that the meaning of a proposition is to be found in the actions one might be willing to take or refrain from taking based upon the idea. He is famous for his sometimes criticised notion that the truth of an idea can be described as its “Cash Value,” by which he meant what work it can be put to in day-to-day life. In his lecture, “Pragmatism’s Conception of Truth” James famously observed:

Pragmatism … asks, “Grant that an idea or belief may be true,” it says, “what concrete difference will its being true make in any one’s actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth’s cash-value in experiential terms?” [2]

In a letter to Bertrand Russell, James gave a technical definition:

In a nutshell my opinion is this: that instead of there being one universal relation sui generis called “truth” between any reality and an idea, there are a host of particular relations varying according to special circumstances and constituted by the manner of “working” or “leading” of the idea through the surrounding experiences of which both the reality and the idea are part. [3]

Fundamentally, James pragmatic philosophy was a method for making decisions, of testing ideas for their workability, and of eliminating useless speculation. Like Peirce, he viewed philosophy as filled with false questions, and saw pragmatism as a way to limit endless discussion over metaphysical and epistemological problems by relating them to the process of reaching concrete decisions in life. To be a true statement in some way that statement must be capable of verification and use in life.

Pragmatism, as much as anything is an attitude, “the attitude of looking away from first things, principles, ‘categories,’ and supposed necessities and looking towards last things, fruits, consequences, facts.” [4] Finally, and important for political decision making, there is not to be found “One universal relation, one true solution to a problem, for the circumstances that surround a problem constitute an always evolving reality in which truth is arrived at and decisions must be made. The best solution to a problem at a particular moment in history may not be the best solution in any other moment.

It is easy to see why such a philosophy would appeal to practical people, and especially to Americans interested in building a “new nation” free of the constraints and limitations of European politics, economics, and social stratification. For the purposes of this blog and its interest in relational thinking, it is important to note that for James, truth is a relational concept, dependent upon relationships and context. This leads James to a philosophy of humility and a recognition of human frailty and fallibilism.

Individualism and the Importance of Individuals

James’ version of pragmatism was emphatically individualistic. In a celebrated essay, “The Importance of Individuals” James sets out his individualistic ideals and their importance in life:

…I for my part cannot but consider the talk of the contemporary sociological school about averages and general laws and predetermined tendencies, with its obligatory undervaluing of the importance of individual differences, as the most pernicious and immoral of fatalisms. Suppose there is a social equilibrium fated to be, whose is it to be,—that of your preference, or mine? There lies the question of questions, and it is one which no study of averages can decide. [5]

There is a tendency in Fascism, Marxism, Laisse-Faire Capitalism. and in any purely materialistic evolutionary philosophy to regard social forces as primary and individuals as secondary. [6] James, on the other hand, believed that all positive social change and improvement in the human condition are the result of individual decisions. These decisions may be partially motivated by environment, economics, physical geography, social conditions, and other factors, but the importance of the individual and the individual’s personal responsibility for his or her own decision-making remains important. [7]

In a particularly important passage says:

The mutations of societies, then, from generation to generation, are in the main due directly or indirectly to the acts or the example of individuals whose genius was so adapted to the receptivities of the moment, or whose accidental position of authority was so critical that they became ferments, initiators of movement, setters of precedent or fashion, centres of corruption, or destroyers of other persons, whose gifts, had they had free play, would have led society in another direction. [8]

In the end, it is individual human beings whose ideas, goals, aspirations, and dreams matter,

Preference for Smallness

A second characteristic of James pragmatist approach to politics is his dislike of bigness and defense of the small, particular, individual, and unique. In a private letter, James wrote:

I am against bigness and greatness in all their forms, and with the invisible molecular moral forces that work from individual to individual, stealing in through the crannies of the world like so many soft rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, and yet rending the hardest monuments of man’s pride, if you give them time. The bigger the unit you deal with, the hollower, the more brutal, the more mendacious is the life displayed. So I am against all big organizations as such, national ones first and foremost; against all big successes and big results; and in favor of the eternal forces of truth which always work in the individual and immediately unsuccessful way, under-dogs always, till history comes, after they are long dead, and puts them on top.—You need take no notice of these ebullitions of spleen, which are probably quite unintelligible to anyone but myself. [9]

This quote expresses James preference for small businesses, small organizations, families and individuals as opposed to “big business,” “big government,” “big empires,” and the like. Bigness is generally less human, less moral, and less connected to the deepest needs of the human heart that are small businesses, governments, political unites, bureaucracies and the like. Here is the way one commentator put James view:

The problem of empires, be they imperial national projects (such as the U.S.’s presumption to control the Philippines) or conceptual philosophical totalities (such as Hegel’s argument for the state form as the highest form of actualization), arises less from their content than from their size. The idea that any idea, polity, or system of meaning can encompass everything, everyone, and everywhere directly contradicts the aspirations of pragmatism, which is always provisional and partial. The politics of anti-greatness implies a turn away from totality, a theme with a special resonance in the contemporary political realm. [10]

Thus, James was interested in the smallest units and the elements that made up a complex system, such as a society or political organization, as well as the larger system itself. I would argue that one of the most important lessons contemporary Americans can learn from the pragmatic approach to politics is the importance of the small, of small steps to solve great problems, of small communities, such as families, small businesses, small social agencies and even small churches to human flourishing and social order. This requires restraint among political elites. As one writer put it:

James’s anti-imperialism was directly related to his fear of the effects of “bigness.” He argued forcefully against all concentrations of power, especially those between business, political, and military interests. He knew that such vested interests would grow larger and more difficult to control if America became an overseas empire. [11]

James would have agreed with the notion that “big things,” like nation states, cannot be stable unless the underlying smaller social units are healthy, nurtured, and allowed their own freedom. He was opposed to all forms of imperialistic advance to the detriment of families, local communities and smaller nations. In particular, he opposed Theodore Roosevelt in this intention to make of the United States an imperial power.


In one of his final essays, entitled, “The Moral Equivalent of War” published shortly before his death James takes an historical and pragmatic look at the institution of war. War is, James believed, a part of human history and flows from basic human agressive  instincts as they have developed over the ages. The competition of nation-states for people, land, power, wealth, and resources drives nations to war. (One might easily look at the current war in the Ukraine as an example of a war for land and resources.) Nevertheless, war is an expensive luxury the human race can ill afford:

Having said thus much in preparation, I will now confess my own utopia. I devoutly believe in the reign of peace and in the gradual advent of some sort of socialistic equilibrium. The fatalistic view of the war function is to me nonsense, for I know that war-making is due to definite motives and subject to prudential checks and reasonable criticisms, just like any other form of enterprise. And when whole nations are the armies, and the science of destruction vies in intellectual refinement with the science of production, I see that war becomes absurd and impossible from its own monstrosity. Extravagant ambitions will have to be replaced by reasonable claims, and nations must make common cause against them. I see no reason why all this should not apply to yellow as well as to white countries, and I look forward to a future when acts of war shall be formally outlawed as between civilized peoples. [12]

One reason that James opposed the imperial ambitions of the Roosevelt administration was his clear realization that imperial ambitions almost inevitably lead to war.

Ideals and Action

Perhaps a good place to end this brief look at an important figure is to return to the subject of a pragmatic view of social life. In an essay entitled “What Makes Life Significant” James takes a look at the connection between our ideals and our actions. Not surprisingly, he is critical of ideals unaccompanied by action:

Of course, this is a somewhat vague conclusion. But in a question of significance, of worth, like this, conclusions can never be precise. The answer of appreciation, of sentiment, is always a more or a less, a balance struck by sympathy, insight, and good will. But it is an answer, all the same, a real conclusion. And, in the course of getting it, it seems to me that our eyes have been opened to many important things. Some of you are, perhaps, more livingly aware than you were an hour ago of the depths of worth that lie around you, hid in alien lives. And, when you ask how much sympathy you ought to bestow, although the amount is, truly enough, a matter of ideal on your own part, yet in this notion of the combination of ideals with active virtues you have a rough standard for shaping your decision. In any case, your imagination is extended. You divine in the world about you matter for a little more humility on your own part, and tolerance, reverence, and love for others; and you gain a certain inner joyfulness at the increased importance of our common life. Such joyfulness is a religious inspiration and an element of spiritual health, and worth more than large amounts of that sort of technical and accurate information which we professors are supposed to be able to impart. [13]

For James, the most important qualities of a human being is the kind of values that allow a person to act with humility, sympathy, empathy, and appreciation for others. His underlying pragmatism show up in his conclusion that mere sympathy or empathy without the willingness to act is an empty thing. It is only when we get out of our own individualistic self-seeking and engage in loving service to others do we find true emotional and spiritual health. The kind of person that can escape the endless drive of self-centered, self -seeking is characterized by tolerance, reverence, and love for others.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] For an introduction, see Joshua I Miller, Democratic Temperament: The Legacy of William James (Lawrence, KA: University Press of Kansas, 1997).

[2] William James, “Lecture VI: Pragmatism’s Conception of the Truth” in William James, Writings 1902-1920 (Library of America, 1987), 573.

[3]  Letter to Bertrand Russell, (May 24. 1908).

[4] Id, at 510.

[5] William James, :The Importance of Individuals” (890) at https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Will_to_Believe_and_Other_Essays_in_Popular_Philosophy/The_Importance_of_Individuals (downloaded, April 23, 2022).

[6] This is one reason that Peirce felt “Agapism” was a necessary and important feature of his system.

[7] William James, “Great Men and their Environment” at https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Will_to_Believe_and_Other_Essays_in_Popular_Philosophy/Great_Men_and_Their_Environment (Downloaded April 23, 2022).

[8] Id.

[9] William James, “Letter to Mrs. Henry (Elizabeth) Whitman, June 7, 1899.—The Letters of William James, ed. Henry James, vol. 2, p. 90 (1926).

[10] See, “Damn Great Empires! William James and the Politics of Pragmatism” reviewed in

Contemporary Political Theory (2018) 17, S6–S8. https://doi.org/10.1057/s41296-017- 0103-5; published online 7 March 2017 (downloaded April 21, 2022)

[11] Zach Dorfman What e Talk About When We Talk About Isolation Dissent Magazine https://www.dissentmagazine.org/online_articles/what-we-talk-about-when-we-talk-about-isolationism (May 18, 2012, downloaded April 23, 2022)

[12] William James, “The Moral Equivalent of War” in William James, Writings 1902-1920, at 1289.

[13] William James, What Makes a Life Significant” (1900) at https://www.uky.edu/~eushe2/Pajares/jsignificant.html (Downloaded April 23, 2022)

Oliver Wendell Holmes: Social Darwinism on the Court

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (1841-1935) holds a special place in American jurisprudence. [1] He taught law at Harvard Law School, and practiced law privately in the area of admiralty, among others. In 1881, Holmes published a series of lectures titled, The Common Law in which he announced his famous dictum: “The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience.” [2] He served on the United States Supreme court from 1902 until 1932—the longest tenure of any justice to date.

Brief Biography

Holmes was born into a famous American intellectual family. His father, Oliver Wendall Holmes, Sr., was a noted poet. His family situation meant that he was introduced to all the best families in Boston. He graduated from Harvard as an undergraduate in 1861 and immediately enlisted as a soldier in the Massachusetts militia, where he served with distinction. Holmes saw action as an officer in the Peninsula Campaign, the Wilderness Campaign, and was wounded during the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, Antietam, and Chancellorsville. In the end, Holmes was breveted a Colonel in the Army, and returned home in 1864 weary and sick.

As a Bostonian from a prominent intellectual family, Holmes was well-acquainted with the early pragmatists. He was a close personal friend of William James. He attended a study group known as the “Metaphysical Club” with James, Charles Sanders Peirce another lawyer, Nicholas St. John Green, and Chauncy Wright. It is quite likely that Holmes was present when Peirce read his classic paper, “Fixation of Belief” in which he outlined his pragmatic theory of truth. Holmes attended some of Peirce’ s lectures, on science and inquiry, at the Lowell Institute in 1866.

It is my view that Holmes jurisprudence was substantially impacted by his experiences in the Civil War. His occasional ruthlessness and friendliness towards Social Darwinism evidence the impact of the “Great Crusade,” on his life and thought. A quote I ran across makes this point:

For the generation that lived through it, the Civil War was a terrible and traumatic experience. It tore a hole in their lives. To some of them, the war seemed not just a failure of democracy, but a failure of culture, a failure of ideas. As traumatic wars do—as the World War I would do for many Europeans 60 years later and as the Vietnam War would do for many Americans 100 years later—the Civil War discredited the beliefs and assumptions of the era that preceded it.[3]

The author of this quote was speaking about Holmes and the other members of the Metaphysical Club of which he was a member and Chauncy Wright the leader. Holmes came out of the suffering and tragedy of Civil War an ardent materialist, a Darwinian evolutionist, and a religious and moral skeptic. He took these views with him to the United States Supreme court. [4]

In 1864, Holmes entered Harvard Law School. In those days, a three-year law degree and admittance to the bar by testing was not the norm. Holmes attended lectures for a year, read theoretical works extensively, and then clerked for a year in his cousin’s law office. He was admitted to the Massachusetts Bar in 1866. After traveling to London to complete his education, he practiced law in Boston, where he was a commercial and admiralty lawyer. Holmes taught at Harvard Law School and was a member of the Massachusetts Supreme Court from 1899-1902, when he was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he served from 1902 until 1932.

Holmes as a Pragmatist

In 1881, Holmes published a series of lectures titled, The Common Law in which he announced an empirical theory of the law, saying:

The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience. The felt necessities of the time, the prevalent moral and political theories, intuitions of public policy, avowed or unconscious, even the prejudices which judges share with their fellow-men, have had a good deal more to do than the syllogism in determining the rules by which men should be governed. The law embodies the story of a nation’s development through many centuries, and it cannot be dealt with as if it contained only the axioms and corollaries of a book of mathematics. [5]

Law as Experience-Based. In the quote from The Common Law, we see the empirical, pragmatic basis of Holmes thinking. The law is something that results from human experience. That experience included the felt necessities (or political pressures) of the day and time in which law is made, prevalent moral theories, political theories and ideas of public policy, all the ideas and prejudices that a given society has internalized over centuries of time. The judge is a kind of “legal scientist” who along with all other members of the bar are in a common activity examining the facts of cases, looking at the results of prior similar cases, examining the legal and public policy ideas and prejudices attempting to create a coherent and practically effective set of laws to guide society.

Law as a Communal Task. As such, the law is a tradition of inquiry, a common undertaking of lawyers, judges, legislatures, and officials, all of whom participate in the development of the law. The law grows over time as the participants in the legal community work together to apply existing law and adapt it to the demands of the day and time within which they live. In other words, law is a communal undertaking, much like the communal undertaking of a community of scientists, an ideal that Holmes would have heard from Peirce.

Law as Fallible. There is also in Holmes an element of Peirce’s fallibilism, for the law grows also by a process of trial and error, in which there can be doubt, conflict, and missteps that must be corrected over time. [6] Judges and courts can and do make mistakes, as do legislatures, administrations, and permanent bureaucracies. It is the willingness to hold one’s ideas firmly, but with a willingness to learn, change them, and adapt to new information and ideas that is the mark of a fallibilist. Only if courts and legislatures are aware of their limitations and tendency to err can a government be truly pragmatic.

Legal Realism

In a famous essay entitled, “The Path of the Law,” Holmes more clearly set out his notion of legal realism. [7] In this essay, which was originally a lecture, Holmes set out three views that characterize much of the legal realistism movement of his day:

  1. A “Predictive Theory” of justice;
  2. A “Bad Man” theory of law.
  3. An opposition to the conflation of law and morality; and

A Predictive Notion of Justice. Holmes begins his analysis by defining a legal duty as nothing but “a prediction that if a man does or omits certain things he will be made to suffer in this or that way by judgment of the court; and so of a legal right.” [8] In other words, law is a kind of prophetic activity by which lawyers advise clients as to what may or may not be the consequences of a particular course of action. Notice that ideas of natural law and justice disappear from view in this analysis. What is left is reflection on the power of the law as administered by the courts.

A “Bad Man” Theory of Law. Homes then goes on to introduce his Bad Man theory of law, which will be used to distinguish law and morality:

You can see very plainly that a bad man has as much reason as a good one for wishing to avoid an encounter with the public force, and therefore you can see the practical importance of the distinction between morality and law. A man who cares nothing for an ethical rule which is believed and practised by his neighbors is likely nevertheless to care a good deal to avoid being made to pay money, and will want to keep out of jail if he can. [9]

Here we see set out the basis of a distinction between morality and law. While good people want to abide by the law and act with justice towards others, bad people have no such moral impulse to be law abiding citizens. They do, however, want to avoid punishment and the expense of litigation and the payment of damages. Therefore, the law is of interest to all people, good and bad, but for different reasons. So far as it goes, both Christian and a natural law thinker can agree with Holmes on this point. The law is different from morality. Not everything that is moral is legal, and not everything that is immoral is illegal.

The law, as a practical occupation, must take the human race as it finds it. The law has to be constructed so that good people and bad people are both alike instructed in the behaviors that are permitted and for bidden by a society. Thus, Holmes notes:

I have just shown the practical reason for saying so. If you want to know the law and nothing else, you must look at it as a bad man, who cares only for the material consequences which such knowledge enables him to predict, not as a good one, who finds his reasons for conduct, whether inside the law or outside of it, in the vaguer sanctions of conscience. [10]

Note Holmes’ distinction: If what you want to know is the law and nothing else, look to that person who is unconstrained by morality. Good men act properly from broader motives than law, and have reasons for good conduct that the bad person does not have.

Opposition to Conflation of Law and Morality. Having begun by distinguishing law and morality, in hopes to avoid confusion in matters of law, Holmes then attacks misguided attempts to confuse law and morality. In my view, it is this portion of homes argument that is both often misunderstood and partially ill-advised. Holmes begins his analysis with the following disclaimer:

I take it for granted that no hearer of mine will misinterpret what I have to say as the language of cynicism. The law is the witness and external deposit of our moral life. Its history is the history of the moral development of the race. The practice of it, in spite of popular jests, tends to make good citizens and good men. When I emphasize the difference between law and morals I do so with reference to a single end, that of learning and understanding the law. [11]

Commentators often miss this limitation on what Holmes is saying. He begins by stating clearly that he does not want to be seen as a defender of moral cynicism. Law is connected to morality, because it is the “witness an external deposit of our moral life”. In fact the law contains (or should contain) within it a history of human moral progress. In addition, as a practical matter, law tends to make people better human beings as well as better citizens. However, morality is not law, and in order to understand the law and apply it, it is necessary to hold the two ideas separate for purposes of analysis. This separation is pragmatic and theoretical not as a matter of life in its wholeness. Thus, Holmes goes on to say:

I do not say that there is not a wider point of view from which the distinction between law and morals becomes of secondary or no importance, as all mathematical distinctions vanish in presence of the infinite. But I do say that that distinction is of the first importance for the object which we are here to consider—a right study and mastery of the law as a business with well understood limits, a body of dogma enclosed within definite lines. [12]

The distinction between law and morality is a practical one as it enables us to focus on law and to create a coherent body of law within defined limits, being the limits of what the state is and is not willingness to enforce. It is also a theoretical distinction because it enables an analysis of law as law. [13] What Holmes is not saying (or at least in my view should not be saying) is that morality is irrelevant to the actors, legislators, administrators, bureaucrats, and judges who administer the law. It is the law that is different from morality, not people who should be bound by some moral vision. In fact, Holmes seems to be aware that “from a broader point of view” the distinction between morality and law might disappear.

What Holmes means is difficult to grasp, but I think this may be a point at which he was influenced by Peirce and his version of pragmatism. For Peirce and Royce, while within the boundaries of history there is little prospect of human agreement on certain points of law or other communal activities, the goal of any community of inquirers is to seek that point of agreement that they have discovered the truth about a matter under investigation. This, at the end of history, one can hope that any disagreements between law and morality would disappear. In the meantime, on many points further inquiry and careful experiment may result in such agreement.


Holmes was a complex thinker and not systematic in his approach to legal or philosophical issues. As a materialist, he lacked Peirce’s faith in the reality of such abstract universal notions as “Justice.” As a committed evolutionist, he saw the law as a constantly evolving body of rules for human behavior. As a Social Darwinist, he was inclined towards support of the powerful and socially successful as against the weak, poor, and powerless. [14]. Consistent with this overall view of law, he attempted to keep that search within the boundaries of the law as enacted by the people, the legislatures, and courts.

His attempt is to build a coherent body of law without reference to natural law and some ideal of human flourishing is, in my view, useful theoretically but dangerous practically. It is a short step from Holmes to the kind of legal nihilism common today in which law is “nothing but what the judges say it is.” A better jurisprudence is one constrained by notions of law and justice developed over centuries, and in the case of American Constitutional Law, over the history of the United States of America. The ideal of justice is a universal ideal that continually reveals itself as the members of the legal community embark on a shared journey seeking justice and the common good in the practice and theory of law.

Such an undertaking is not a journey of certainty but of measured attempts to achieve public wisdom and the public good under the constraints of human fallibility The courts are but one link in the chain of reasoning toward the public good. Legislative bodies, administrative bodies, and others have a role to play along with the judicial system. I would argue that the notion of Natural Law and ideals of justice and common good are more important for legislative bodies for they are the groups who in the first instance are to make laws and embody notions of morality and justice in their decisions.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] For those who wish a longer and very favorable treatment of Holmes’ life, I can only recommend Catherine Drinker Bowen’s work, Yank from Olympus, which has been the most popular of his biographies. I have relied on Wikipedia for some of the details of this introduction. See, Oliver Wendall Holmes, Jr. at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oliver_Wendell_Holmes_Jr. (downloaded April 12, 2022).

[2] Oliver Wendall Holmes, The Common Law Mark D. Howe, ed (Boston, MA: Little Brown & Co., 1881, reprinted 1963).

[3] Thomas B. Silver quoting “Pragmatism’s Four Horsemen” in Clairmont Review of Books, Volume 1, Number 4 (Summer 2001)at https://claremontreviewofbooks.com/pragmatisms-four-horsemen/ (downloaded April 12, 2022).

[4] See, Sheldon M. Novick, Justice Holmes’s Philosophy 40 Washington University Law Review No. 3 (1992) for a very fine analysis of the philosophical interests and commitments of Justice Holmes.

[5] Common Law, previously cited.

[6] This was suggested to me by a paper by Cheryl Misak, “A Pragmatist Account of Legitimacy and Authority” at https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5a47c831be42d6e6324a04f5/t/5a48fb758165f54918c12f2e/1514732410344/PRAGMATISM-AND-AUTHORITY-FINAL.pdf (downloaded April 12, 2022).

[7] Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr, The Path of the Law 10 Harvard Law Review 457 (1897), reprinted in Milton R. Konvitz, ed, The American Pragmatists (Cleveland, OH, Meridian Books, 1970).

[8] Id, at 145.

[9] Id, at 146.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id at 146.

[13] . Holmes goes on to note “The theoretical importance of the distinction is no less, if you would reason on your subject aright.” Id, at 147.

[14] See, Seth Vannatta, Justice Holmes the Social Darwinist 14 The Pluralist 1 (Spring 2019). This aspect of Holmes philosophy is by far the most often critiqued.

Pragmatism 4: Agapism and Political Thought

This week we take a final look at the philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914). Peirce’s life was something of a tragedy. He was a prodigy, reading Kant as a youth, studying under his famous father, a professor of mathematics at Harvard, and acknowledged to be one of the greatest and broadest minds of his day. He divorced his first wife and lived with his second wife before marriage. He lacked social skills and good political instincts. As a result, he was exiled from the most prestigious academic posts in America. He made a bare living writing articles for journals, lecturing and teaching where he could. For a time, he worked as a practicing scientist for the United States Coastal and Geodetic Survey, which is where he developed his theories of verification and his dislike of a kind of speculative philosophy he regarded as untrue to how human beings actually think. In the end, his suffering produced a rare, lovely, and brilliant character.

A Guess at the Riddle

If political life is to be essentially communal, and characterized by a communal search for a just social order, then some kind of unselfish, community-creating and community-sustaining ethic must be present. Peirce held that the evolution of the universe, and therefore of every society, involves a kind of love that expresses itself in a devotion to cherishing and tending to people or things other than oneself, as parent may do for offspring.

During the period from 1891 to 1893 Peirce wrote a series of articles collectively known as “A Guess at the Riddle.” [1] In these articles, Peirce sets out a system of understanding the world based on Chance, Necessity, and Love. This is to say that the process of evolution, which lies at the basis of much of his thought, involves, among other things, the response of the creature to the circumstances of existence, the orderly evolution by natural law, and the impact of love. Here is how Peirce describes these three modes of evolution:

Three modes of evolution have thus been brought before us: evolution by fortuitous variation, evolution by mechanical necessity, and evolution by creative love. We may term them tychastic evolution, or tychasm,anancastic evolution, or anancasm, and agapastic evolution, or agapasm. The doctrines which represent these as severally of principal importance we may term tychasticism, anancasticism, and agapasticism. On the other hand the mere propositions that absolute chance, mechanical necessity, and the law of love are severally operative in the cosmos may receive the names of tychism, anancism, and agapism. [2]

The term “Agapism” is the term Peirce uses for that cherishing or self-giving, sacrificial love that is at work in creation and in all human endeavors.

In Peirce’s view, all order emerges from chaos or what we might call in today’s quantum language, “pure potentiality.” This potentiality exists before the laws of nature and is the source and ground of whatever is. [3] In “A Guess at the Riddle,” written in the late 19th Century, Peirce expounds a theory of creation that anticipates modern “Big Bang” cosmology, and in which he sets out his view that there is at work in creation an evolutionary principle that we can call love.

As one author puts it

“Evolutionary Love” is one of Peirce’s most fascinating philosophical writings. It describes the existence of a cosmic principle of love throughout the universe creatively supporting the formation of new evolutionary forms. This love is a cherishing form of love, because it recognizes that which is lovely in another being and sympathetically supports its existence. Peirce calls his new theory “agapism,” and he contrasts it with evolutionary theories that are based on a selfish form of love; these preach “the Gospel of Greed.” Peirce points out the occurrence of such selfish, greed-based thinking in the modern politico-economical structures, and in Darwin’s biological principle of natural selection based on the competition of private interests. On the other hand, agapism promotes a devotion to helping one’s neighbors, and is a true doctrine of Christian ethics. [4]

This quotation by Nicholas Guardiano sets out the reason which Peirce’s Agapism is important for this blog: Peirce is partially motivated by a desire to overcome a kind of excessive laisse faire capitalism prominent at the time by setting out his own, Christian view of the role of love in society. However, underlying this position is the notion that the universe itself is characterized not just by competition, but also by love.


For Peirce, the evolution of human society, like the evolution of the world, is characterized by chance, deterministic features, and love. In order to understand what Peirce is trying to say, it is important to understand what he means by the term “Agapism.” In his “A Guess at the Riddle,” Peirce defines this love as (i) an active bestowal of energy by the lover to the beloved, (ii) a cherishing of the beloved by the lover, (iii) and a positive sympathy on the part of the lover for the benefit of the beloved. [5]

According to Peirce, Agapistic Love manifests itself in three specific ways:

  1. Agapistic Love may affect a people or a community and its collective personality as an idea or experience is communicated to individuals who in sympathy with the common connection of the collective mind of the group.
  2. Agapistic Love may affect an individual enabling that individual to apprehend an idea or appreciate the attractiveness of an idea due to an increase in sympathy with his community under the influence of a striking experience or development of thought.
  3. Agapistic Love may impact and individual independently of a human affection by virtue of an attraction exercise directly upon the mind prior to comprehension. [6]

As examples of the three kinds of experience of which Peirce is speaking, consider the appearance of Christ to his disciples after the crucifixion. This was a striking appearance to a group in sympathy with one another such that the group as a whole was enlightened and changed. Secondly, and an example Peirce uses, consider the experience of Paul on the Road to Damascus, a striking event that brought Paul into sympathy with the Christian movement. Peirce calls the third kind of example, “the divination of genius” by which a single individual is struck by an idea that immediately attracts the individual. Perhaps the famous incident of an apple falling at Isaac Newton’s feet, which gave him the immediate notion of gravity is an example.

From the perspective of political thought, all three characteristics of agapistic love are important. First, there are incidental moments of genius by which political thought is moved forward. This might for example, be seen in some of the great philosophers this blog has studied. Second, there are times in which an individual who is not in sympathy with a society or political system is struck by some virtue in that system and immediately grasps its importance. This might be seen in, for example, some of those who were in favor of communism but whose faith in freedom was kindled by contact with democracies. Finally, there are times when an idea impacts an entire society, as perhaps when the ideals of the Enlightenment impacted the American nation leading to the American revolution and national freedom.

Agapism and Politics and Morals

It is important to note that Peirce believes that Agapism is central to the evolution of the universe and human society, and the other features of evolutionary growth, chance and necessity, are derived from this primordial love. In other words, love is a central characteristic for the creation of the world and of human societies. It is not an “add on” or a psychological reaction of certain individuals to harmonies in the world or society. It is a feature of reality itself. In another context I have called the kind of love to which Peirce is referring, “Deep Love” or “Deep Relationality.” [7]

Peirce begins his analysis of agapism with with quotations from the letters of John in which he says that “God is love” (I John 4:8,16). He then proceeds to a discussion of the nature of that kind of love we see reflected in the life of Christ and to which John refers, as well as critiquing John’s supposed deviations from the pure gospel of love. After introducing this theme, Peirce proceeds to a discussion of the nature of that kind of love we see reflected in the life of Christ. He then begins to discuss its application to evolutionarily theory.  What is important in Peirce’s approach is that he gives an ontological basis for morality and politics: It is built into the nature of creation.

I, however, would like to approach agapism from a different point of view. Peirce wrote before modern relativity and quantum theory and before the abundant proofs in science that relationality is built into the universe. Beginning with Einstein’s insights, the notion of the world as built upon independent unites of matter related only by forces acting upon them was undermined. Time and Space are relational phenomena. According to the best science available, particles are waves or “excitements” in a universal field that permeates the universe. Both the quantum phenomenon of “Entanglement” and Chaos theory point towards a relationality of creation embedded in the universe, whatever one’s theory of creation may be. [8] The physicist Argyris Nicolaidis puts it this way:

In conclusion, a mode of thinking has been reached where the primacy focuses on an “interactive being,” a being constant in relation to the other and being in continuous ex-stasis to reach the other.  This relational mode of existence, which has been associated with creative growth, novelty, and free development is qualified as agape. Agape then is something more than an emotional state or sentimental experience it is a very principle of existence…. [9]

In defending an agapistic ethic, I would move from the phenomena of relationality within the creative order, a kind of Deep Relationality, to the emergence of the various kinds of love best captured from their Greek forms as a part of the process of the gradual evolution of the human race and human society:

  • “eros” or romantic love evoked by desire (ἔρως),
  • “storge” or affection ( στοργή),
  • “philia” or brotherly love ( φιλία),
  • “pragma” or practical love (πράγμα).
  • “agape” or self-giving love ( αγάπη),

These loves emerge out of a loving relationality at the root of creation. This loving relationality has evolved as human consciousness and human society evolved into new forms, forms that are not possible without the existence of the human race, for in the human race the inherent capacity for these loves has evolved in new and wonderful ways. From a Christian point of view, the created loves described above are derivative from and point to the uncreated love of God, reflected in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.

The Politics of Agapism

For political purposes, all the loves have some meaning, but three perhaps are important to any well-functioning society:

  • Philia, which considers the beloved part of a family or common community;
  • Pragma, which compromises to help the relationship work over time, showing patience and tolerance in sustaining and building a relationship; and
  • Agape, which remains committed, sacrifices, and cherishes even when the beloved, in the case of political love, a society, is unworthy. It is a commitment over time to the other.

Love and the Gospel of Greed

Although this blog is getting long, I would be untrue to Peirce if I were not to return to his original thought that his theory of “Agapism” can be contrasted to the “Gospel of Greed” that he found present in American society, and which he thought unworthy of human society. Peirce was appalled at the way in which Social Darwinism had used the scientific principles of natural selection and survival of the fittest to justify a social organization and social policy based upon unlimited, selfish striving for power and position, which he called “the Gospel of Greed.” He felt that the kind of political and economic structures that this way of thinking promoted were immoral. This does not mean that Peirce opposed free enterprise, just a particular form of free enterprise that operated without an underlying morality based on love.

Against this “Gospel of Greed,” Peirce posited his own “Agapism” as involving devotion to other people and a personal and social ethics built upon a personal and communal ethic of love. Human beings do not find their fulfillment in unlimited self-promotion, but in as participants in a community of persons who are engaged in a common endeavor. In the case of American democracy, the creation of a society based on freedom, equality, and a search for the common good.


This is Easter Week, and it is appropriate that I deal with Agapism on the week when Christians celebrate the death of Christ on the cross for the sins of the world and his resurrection as the assurance of his victory over sin and death. I will give the last word to the Apostle whom Peirce refers in his work:

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us (I John 4:7-12).

Copyright, 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

Happy Easter

[1] C. S. Peirce, “A Guess at the Riddle” in Charles S. Peirce: The Essential Writings Edward C. Moore, ed. (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1972), pp158-360, hereinafter “Guess,” at and page number.

[2] Id, at 245. These three terms are derived from Greek terms meaning chance or fortune (τύχη), Greek (ἀνάγκη) necessity, and agape, or love (ηγαπ).

[3] At the moment of creation, this “first” was followed by a “second” in which a kind of mediated habit begins to be formed due to reaction to the first, this is followed then by a third, involves reflection, reaction, and the beginning of cause and effect which forms a habit, law, convention, or rule of action.

[4] See, “Evolutionary Love” in “ Nicholas Guardino, Charles . Pierce and the open Court, 1890=1893:  Promoting an American Metaphysician at https://scrcexhibits.omeka.net/exhibits/show/charles-s-peirce-open-court/-evolutionary-love- (downloaded April 11, 2022).

[5] Guess, at 249-250.

[6] Id, at 251-252,

[7] See, G. Christopher Scruggs, Centered Living/Centered Leading: The Tao Te Ching Adapted for Christ-Followers rev. ed. (Permisio Por Favor/BookSurge, 2016).

[8] See, John Polkinghorne, ed, The Trinity and an Entangled world: Relationality in Physical Science and Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2010). This volume, in which Polkinghorne is a contributor and editor, contains a variety of articles by scientists and others on the theme of relationality in the universe.

[9] Argyris Nicolaidis, “Relational Nature” in The Trinity and an Entangled world: Relationality in Physical Science and Theology, at 106.

Peirce and Pragmatism 3: Politics and a Community of Seekers

As mentioned in prior blogs, in addition to founding pragmatism, Peirce struck what might be called the final intellectual blow to the kind of idealism represented by Descartes, and his essentially individualistic standard of truth. For Descartes, what was true was that which could not be doubted by any reasonable person. His argument, however, began with a fundamentally individualistic premise, “I think therefore I am.” Notice the “I.” For Descartes and much of the modern movement he began, the ideal was the solo individual, thinking on his own in the solitude of his or her study, reflecting on life and solving problems as a solitary individual.

Peirce’s philosophy, on the other hand, begins with a fundamentally communal, semiotic, communication-oriented standard of truth: truth is a matter of the correspondence of our ideas, which are inevitably expressed in signs, with some external reality we and others are trying to understand. Because human beings are inevitably controlled by their presuppositions, prejudices, limitations, and the like, no one human being can ever know the full and complete truth about any important matter. This drives Peirce to a theory of knowledge that is essentially communal. The truth is not known in solitude but as part of a community of inquiry, or what I have called a “Community of Seekers”.

If for Descartes and much of the modern world the ideal was the solitary individual deciding for his or her self, the ideal for Pearce is the individual scientist who, as part of a team of scientists is trying to solve some problem of science or medicine. Think of a research laboratory with many scientists in constant communication in the laboratory and in their private life, who read and comment on each other’s work, and who are in a common pursuit of a breakthrough in science or medicine. For Peirce, all knowledge is the result of this kind of a community of inquirers who work in both competition and in cooperation with each other.

We human beings are part of an infinite number of such communities. For example, I am a member of a family, and I have to understand my family and its relationships in order to solve problems. So does every other member of our family. I happen to be a lawyer and member of a bar association. As such, I am part of a community dedicated to the understanding the principles of American and Texas law. I’m also a pastor, a part of a community that is interested in the knowledge of God. I’m a citizen of San Antonio, Texas, interested in San Antonio and Texas and understanding its culture, laws, and government. I am a citizen of the United States, interested in the government and policies of our nation. My father, in addition to being a part of some of these things, grew roses. He was a member of the Rose Society interested in the methods and means of growing the best and most beautiful roses possible. Members of my family are farmers who beloing to various farming groups interested in the best methods of growing corn, soy beans, wheat, and other crops. You can see that all of us are members of many communities seeking understanding.

In a paper published in 1868, Peirce described philosophical inquiry as essentially social, claiming that, “We cannot reasonably hope to attain the ultimate philosophy which we pursue; we can only seek it, therefore, for the community of philosophers.” [1] At the end of the same essay, Peirce concludes:

Finally, as to it anything really is, is what it may finally come to be known to be in the ideal state of complete information, so that reality depends on the ultimate decision of the community; so thought is what it is only by virtue of addressing a future thought that is in its value as thought identical with it, the more to be developed. In this way, the existence of thought now, depends upon what is to be here after so that it has only a potential existence depended upon the future thought of the community. The individual man, since his separate existence is manifested only in ignorance and error, so far is he is anything apart from his fellows and from what he and they are to be is only a negation. This is man. [2]

Notice that for Pierce, the acquisition of knowledge is essentially communal. Twice in the passage quoted he speak of the “decision of the community” and “the future thought of the community.” He speaks of “the ignorance of human beings apart from their fellow human beings”. For Peirce, knowledge is the end result of a community’s process of reasoning not simply the result of an individual’s individual thoughts and reasoning.

Secondly, Peirce speaks of the dependence of the community not just upon its current thought, but upon the future thought of members of the community. In other words, there is no end within history of the expansion of meaning and progress of thought, for their will always be “future thought of the community.” As to political thought, there is no “end of history” in which a certain political theory or organization will be final and complete, for the communal process of understanding will continue so long as history continues. We human beings are essentially oriented both towards the past, the present, and the future. We emerge from our past. We live in the present. And, we seek a desirable future.

Community and Growing Political Wisdom

For the pragmatist, truth is never absolute in the sense that it cannot be revised based upon new information and insight; however, the goal of a pragmatic, scientific approach to learning is that it is possible that a perception of the truth will be accepted by the vast majority of the scientific community and will be proven by such adoption to have approached a kind of “operational (or pragmatic) certainty.” As demonstrated above, the most important analogy between science and politics is the fact that science does not take place among isolated individuals, but rather in communities of scientists who most often are engaged in programs of research requiring cooperation and interchange of information.

Despite the disputes remaining between participants in quantum research, there’s no doubt among scientist the Quantum physics is an improvement over Newtonian physics and has a deeper insight into reality. Although one cannot eliminate the possibility for a radical change in quantum physics, most scientists expect that any further progress will be made within the boundaries of the fundamental view of quantum physics. Disputes between the so-called “Copenhagen” approach and the “Hidden Variable” approach to the problem of indeterminacy are all conducted within a community that is working from the same general scientific data and involved in similar research programs designed to resolve the issues between them.

Politics operates in the same way. Politics is a communal effort and requires a community, bound together by common principles and a common set of values seeking to build a society for the benefit of all. In American society, those fundamental principles are set forth in our Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Bill of Rights, and the various decisions of policy makers and courts interpreting these fundamental principles. This is the past from which we live in the resent. The application of these principles to contemporary problems is the process of inquiry in which we are engaged as a society as we seek the common good for all participants in our society.

The problem we face in America and in much of the West is that, under the impact of Enlightenment distrust of history and tradition, we have been unable to maintain a consensus as to fundamental aspects of human life and human thriving that we all agree are necessary. We have lost that sense of a communal participation in a living tradition that is essential for maintenance of any society. At the same time, so-called “negative politics” and the search for a final victory over political opponents has undermined our ability to function as a cohesive society. This is a failure of our educational, media, and other institutions. There is no way forward unless and until we can recover a sense of communal solidarity in the search for “liberty and justice for all” or, as the Declaration of Independence puts it: “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” [3] or as the Consitution puts it:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. [4]

These are the foundational ideals of the American community of which we are all a part.

Political Life as a Tradition-bound Process.

The modern world was inclined to also believe in a kind of “tradition-free” thinking that a scientific approach to political philosophy undermines. Peirce and other philosophers of science point out that all thinking takes place within a tradition of inquiry conducted by a community of persons. At any time in history, that community has an established “world-view” and establish principles within which reasoning takes place. While there can be and are revolutionary changes of scientific insight, such as the change from a materialistic to a quantum way of viewing reality, these changes are not part of the ordinary operation of science.

The same is true of government. While revolutionary ideas cannot be rejected as a matter of course, it can be realized that they are not part of the ordinary function of government. Because revolutionary changes in approach cannot be ruled out, freedom of thought and speech is important so that the public square can hear and be informed of all possible approaches to public issues.

Consensus, Conflict,  and Hope in Community

For Peirce the process of inquiry of the community always seeks a consensus such that all members commonly recognize a position or theory as true. This is the hope of any community of inquiry: that doubt will be eliminated for all participants. However, this consensus is normally a future hope, not an experienced present reality. This would be especially true in the political arena. In a private letter to a critic, Peirce acknowledged this essentially incomplete and future-oriented hope of any community:

We cannot be quite sure that the community will ever settle down to an unalterable conclusion upon any given question. Even if they do so for the most part, we have no reason to think the unanimity will be quite complete, nor can we rationally presume any overwhelming consensus of opinion will be reached upon every question. All that we are entitled to assume is in the form of a hope that such conclusion may be substantially reached concerning the particular questions with which our inquirers are busied. [5]

No community of inquiry devoted to a subject like government is ever complete within human history as regards things that are complex and not subject to unanimous decision. As I have mentioned in the past, such an endeavor is a fool’s errand that dooms the society that undertakes to end debate to decay and despotism.


In a very fine ending to a dissertation entitled, “The Haunted Animal: Peirce’s Community of Inquiry and the Formation of the Self” Jacob Librizzi makes the following point:

No one is radically independent and self-supporting in this life. Rather, we are all sentimentally entwined with others in our thoughts and deeds. As such, to treat the memories of others poorly as means alone, and not equally as ends in themselves, is to falsely acknowledge one’s own existence as merely a means toward an end indifferent to its makings. Such a paradoxical, life negating thought—seeking radical independence and autonomy—achieves only to explain the self by explaining it away in isolation. [6]

Much of modern politics, left and right, is guilty of exactly this mistake, the mistake that St. Augustine pointed out so long ago: Treating those we should love as ends in themselves as means, and thus cutting ourselves off from the essential communal aspects of human life. [7] Isolated individuals, unconnected to a greater community, but only responsive to the needs of those who think and feel as he or she thinks and feels, are always unwilling and unable to act in the best interests of all members of society, for they lack the vital social connection necessary for such a task.

The greatest challenge political philosophy and theology face is the recovery of a kind of communal love that can sustain a democratic and free society while protecting minorities of all kinds. We need to find a way out of our cultural fixation on radical independence and autonomy, which increasingly makes us unable to solve serious social challenges, and into a community of seekers bound together by a kind of love in a common project to achieve the common good for all.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Charles Sanders Peirce, “Questions Concerning Certain Faculties Claimed for Man,” Journal of Speculative Philosophy,1868 as reprinted in Charles S. Peirce, Essential Writings Edward Moore, ed. (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1972), 87.

[2] Id, at 118.

[3] Declaration of Independence (US 1776).

[4] United States Constitution (US 1789).

[5] Peirce, Charles S., Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce Vols. 1 and 2. Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss eds. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965), at 6.610. (Private letter to Paul Carus) I am indebted for this quote to Librizzi, Jacob, “The Haunted Animal: Peirce’s Community of Inquiry and the Formation of the Self”(2017). All Theses & dissertations. 317. https://digitalcommons.usm.maine.edu/etd

[6] See, Jacob Librizzi, footnote 3 above, at 51.

[7] See, St. Augustine, “On Christian Doctrine” in A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. 28 First Series, Volume 2. 1886–1889. (Peabody MA: Hendrickson Publishers), 528-534.

Crisis of Discipleship Published

Dear Friends:

I recently finished and now published a book on Disciple-Making, Crisis of Discipleship: Renewing the Art of Relational Disciple-Making. As I say in the Preface, “Both my wife, Kathy, and I have a life-long interest in discipleship. Before we were married, Kathy participated in young adult discipling programs. We met in a small Bible Study made up of young people who were new Christians or seeking God. Over the last forty years, we have sponsored groups in our homes, businesses, schools, and churches. A few years ago, we published a practical workbook called, Salt & Light: Everyday Discipleship. [i] Salt & Light provides one simple, practical lay-training method for Christians and local congregations to make self-replicating disciples in an orderly and effective way. We continue to share our lives with others in discipleship groups.

This past weekend, we were in Houston for a reunion of that little group after forty or more years. It was a precious time of sharing, remembering, and fellowship–a taste of heaven as one person said. It was this little group that first shared Christ with me and helped me grow as a new disciple of Jesus.

The Great Commission was not just given to twelve first century people, professional clergy, and exceptionally gifted laypersons. Every Christians is intended to share the Good News and make mature disciples of those who respond. Crisis of Discipleship clarifies some of the causes of the crisis of disciple-making in our culture and suggests a possible strategy to respond. Hopefully, readers will be empowered to understand the crisis of discipleship more deeply and more effectively share their Christian faith with others as well as lead other church members in the way of Christ.”

You can find the book at:


and at https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/crisis-of-discipleship-g-christopher-scruggs/1141298125?ean=9781638680567

The ebook is or soon will be available at VirtualBookWorm, Amazon, and Apple IBooks.

[i] G. Christopher Scruggs with Kathy T. Scruggs, Salt and Light: Everyday Discipleship (Collierville, TN: Innovo Publishing, 2017), hereinafter, “Salt & Light.”