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For twelve years, I’ve taught philosopher William James’s thought on pragmatism and progressivism to Hillsdale College freshman; it’s a part of our core, western and American heritage sequence, a history course of important ideas, political, legal, theological, and cultural. I’ve never liked or agreed any of the thought that I’ve encountered, but I’ve always found it an interesting challenge to teach. Indeed, there’s nothing too difficult about the philosophy, frankly, but there is something difficult about the way James tries to explain it.

Three years ago, as one of the editors of the new Western and American Heritage Readers, I had the job of going back to James’s lectures on pragmatism and re-editing them. If I had been familiar with James’s work prior to this (and, I had), I became really, really familiar with the work after editing these. Indeed, the relationship, academically speaking, might be described as repulsively intimate. What I read, frankly, repulsed me. “This pragmatist talks about truths in the plural, about their utility and satisfactoriness, about the success with which they work.” Hmm, so much for anything inherently dignified about the human person or about the Transcendent. Oh, that pesky Truth. “Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events. Its verity is in fact an event, a process.” Is there a god, James asks? Maybe. But, if so, he stands in relation to us in the way we stand in relation to our pets. Sometimes we notice and love them when they enter a room, but we generally ignore them, content to feed and water them, and, if necessary, cleaning up after they’ve made a mess.

Funny, I don’t seem to remember this in the Sermon on the Mount.

So, I was and wasn’t too surprised when I came across a reference this morning to James’s call for a permanent military draft in the early 1900s. So, he was not only a philosopher, but he was also a full-blown Progressive, involved in the affairs of the country and hoping to meddle even more with what was not his—the sons of other men. Yet another nail in the coffin of whatever respect (which was never much) I held for progressives.

Here’s the link to James on “The Moral Equivalent to War.”

Ok, the title of this piece is a bit hyperbolic. Had James been purely evil, he would, according to traditional Augustinian theology, have ceased to exist. So, somewhere in the man, at least an ounce of Grace remained. Of course, the same is true of Satan in the Inferno.


Abstract humanitarianism has come to regard servitude—so long as it be to the state—as a privilege. Greater self-love has no government than this: that all men must wear khaki so that some men may be taught to brush their teeth. —Russell Kirk, 1946, in opposition to a permanent draft.

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2 replies to this post
  1. "…brush their teeth." What a fine epigram! This is worthy of Mencken, Bierce or Twain. Maybe because he was such a polymath of humanities, Dr Kirk fails to get all the credit that he deserves for his mastery of so many literary genres.

  2. It seems I’m a bit late to the party…

    While I’m with you on 99% of what you write, Dr. Birzer, I have to take issue with this piece. I took a course on Pragmatism recently, and of all the Pragmatists found James to be the most attractive.

    James was obviously very interested in the way we use the word “truth” itself. In the common usage, “truth” takes on a relative quality. I can’t, for instance, say that “God is true”; that has nothing to do with the way we use the word “true”. Truth isn’t an inherent quality in a thing; it’s not a metaphysical category. Rather, it’s a property of a proposition. The entity we call “God” can’t be “true” as such; the proposition “God exists” can be.

    So it seems to me James makes a valuable insight when he separates “truth” from “being”. Calling something “true” depends on our ability to verify, because it’s a quality of a proposition. If God’s existence depended on our ability to say, “The proposition ‘God exists’ is true”, His existence would be rather weak indeed!

    Thank you for an interesting and engaging piece!

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