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)

2 thoughts on “William James: the Politics of Pragmatism, Humility, and Smallness”

  1. Chris, thank you for all of your research for this writing. For those who put these most important qualities of a human being into action, the gift truly is in the giving – that’s how He blesses us. I pray that God’s Holy Spirit uses the reading of this paper to inspire all who read it to be instruments of His love, sympathy and empathy to serve others.

    1. Thank you, Amy. Kathy and I miss you and Bob. We keep up just a bit by visiting with Dave periodically. As you know, Bob was an important prayer partner and made a deep impact on my life, as did you over a longer period of time. Blessings. Chris

Comments are closed.