Although he doesn’t say this explicitly, Jonathan Rée argues that James can cure what ails us in this time of fanatical absolutism. James is “just about the only philosopher who didn’t end up as either a pettifogging nit-picker or an overbearing egomaniac with delusions of genius,” Rée says. This is a little unfair. Two counterexamples come immediately to mind: Walter Benjamin and James’s fellow Pragmatist John Dewey. However, there is no denying that William James was a grounded, generous, and humane thinker.
Could this description of James be applied to a public intellectual today?
His abiding intellectual passion was a love of open-mindedness and a
corresponding distrust of dogmatism and metaphysics. We should never
forget, he said, that all our opinions – even our “most assured
conclusions” – are “liable to modification in the course of future
experience”. But he warned against allowing a distrust of dogmatic
metaphysics to harden into a metaphysical dogma of its own, as seemed to
be happening with some of the evangelising atheists of his day. He
admired the evolutionary biologist T H Huxley and the mathematician C K
Clifford, for example, but when they used the idea of “science” as a
stick to beat religion with they were in danger of behaving like high
priests of a new religion – “the religion of scientificism” – and
defending it with the same intolerant zealotry as any old-style
What other thinker would make error a central facet of his philosophy? Who else would be willing to see how experience plays out before reaching any conclusions? I can’t imagine a Jamesian petroleum engineer any more than I could picture someone quoting The Varieties of Religious Experience
at a Tea Party rally.