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James and Dewey on Belief and Experience

James and Dewey on Belief and Experience

by Donald Capps, John M. Capps

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Donald Capps and John Capps's James and Dewey on Belief and Experience juxtaposes the key writings of two philosophical superstars. As fathers of Pragmatism, America's unique contribution to world philosophy, their work has been enormously influential, and remains essential to any understanding of American intellectual history.
In these essays,


Donald Capps and John Capps's James and Dewey on Belief and Experience juxtaposes the key writings of two philosophical superstars. As fathers of Pragmatism, America's unique contribution to world philosophy, their work has been enormously influential, and remains essential to any understanding of American intellectual history.
In these essays, you'll find William James deeply embroiled in debates between religion and science. Combining philosophical charity with logical clarity, he defended the validity of religious experience against crass forms of scientism. Dewey identified the myriad ways in which supernatural concerns distract religious adherents from pressing social concerns, and sought to reconcile the tensions inherent in science's dual embrace of common sense and the aesthetic.
James and Dewey on Belief and Experience is divided into two sections: the former showcases James, the latter is devoted to Dewey. Two transitional passages in which each reflects on the work of the other bridge these two main segments. Together, the sections offer a unique perspective on the philosophers' complex relationship of influence and interdependence. An editors' introduction provides biographical information about both men, an overview of their respective philosophical orientations, a discussion of the editorial process, and a brief commentary on each of the selections.
Comparing what these foremost pragmatists wrote on both themes illumines their common convictions regarding the nature of philosophical inquiry and simultaneously reveals what made each a distinctive thinker. 

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University of Illinois Press
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James and Dewey on Belief and Experience


Copyright © 2004 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-252-02967-4


WILLIAM JAMES AND JOHN DEWEY rank among the most influential public intellectuals in the history of the United States. They are best known for their advocacy of pragmatism, America's unique contribution to world philosophy. Pragmatism, as they conceived of it, emphasizes a practical engagement with our everyday world: it avoids the overly theoretical, transcendental, and idealistic assumptions once current in European thought. James and Dewey hoped that pragmatism would help us grasp the actual significance and practical implications of our beliefs, thus leading to greater consensus and mutual understanding. Or, as Louis Menand writes, "pragmatism was designed to make it harder for people to be driven to violence by their beliefs." Both considered pragmatism to be a scientifically respectable philosophy that nonetheless recognized the irreducible richness of human experience. As these selections from his writings indicate, James took particular interest in religious experience and envisioned the development of a science of religions that would not engage, as theology does, in partisan argumentation and polemics. Because Dewey was interested in social intelligence understood as social inquiry, he too criticized partisan religious argumentation, but did so out of a concern to activate the "common faith" that humans shared toward the realization of human ideals. While Dewey wrote a book on religion, he also highlighted the similarities between aesthetic experience and scientific inquiry and gave greater attention to the political consequences of human action, including scientific endeavors.

Yet these differences also reflect the centrality of humane concerns in their respective visions of what philosophy is about and what it means to be a philosopher. With the current rebirth of pragmatism in contemporary philosophy, it seems to us that to combine writings by James and Dewey in a single volume will underscore the humane concerns that inspired the development of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century pragmatist philosophies. This is not to disparage the more technical focus of contemporary neopragmatist philosophers like W. V. O. Quine, Donald Davidson, Hillary Putnam, and others. Nor is it to suggest that philosophers who address contemporary sociocultural issues or concern themselves with the conflict between science and religion that concerned both James and Dewey are the only true heirs of early pragmatism. Rather, our claim is simply that James and Dewey have so much in common that the juxtaposition of their writings on belief and experience will highlight not only their similarities but also the points at which they diverge.

Belief and Experience

Belief and experience were central to the work of James and Dewey, and by comparing what each has to say on these two central themes, we can learn a great deal about their common convictions regarding the nature of philosophical inquiry and about the distinctive qualities of their work. Their distinctiveness testifies to the ability of pragmatism to accommodate itself to different, even contesting voices, while at the same time representing a distinctive-and distinctively American-way of being philosophical. Other philosophical traditions, most notably British empiricism, had placed belief and experience at the center of their concerns, and in this regard, the writings of James and Dewey could be viewed as merely one strand of modern philosophy, and a rather derivative one at that. But the way in which they consistently address belief and experience in relation to one another and recognize that one cannot talk about belief without also talking about experience gives their writings on belief an inductive quality that was liberating for some and profoundly disconcerting to others. Photographs of James and Dewey may prompt today's readers to think that they were rather stuffy gentlemen engaging in armchair philosophizing. Rather, their work was radical and revolutionary, and their insistence on the relationship between belief and experience was at the heart of its radicality. In a nutshell, they were concerned with the effect of having, or not having, an experience on which to base the beliefs that one more or less uncritically holds, and they were interested in what happens to an individual-and also a society-when these beliefs are unsupported or even disconfirmed by one's experience. They were also concerned that uncritically held beliefs would inhibit an individual and also a society from responding adaptively to novel experiences.

The fact that beliefs are confirmed, disconfirmed, and modified in and through experience also raises the question: What is experience? What does it mean to say that I am experiencing or having an experience? Does an experience have a form? If there are different kinds and qualities of belief and disbelief, is the same to be said of experiences? Are experiences discrete, or are they connected to one another? To what extent do they constitute an experiential world? If believing is itself an experience, would we not wish to inquire into what individuals experience when they affirm their belief in something, when they do not believe something, or when they are in a state of uncertainty whether they believe or disbelieve something? Also, what are we to make of experiences that do not meet the more stringent empirical rules of verification that obtain in the natural and physical sciences, such as psychical, mystical, or hallucinatory experiences? Are they falsifiable? If so, on what grounds? If not, what are we to conclude about experiences that appeal to realities that are external to the world of experience itself? As the selections in this anthology indicate, James addressed this problem by creating the category of "over-beliefs," or beliefs that one may justifiably hold despite the absence of empirical evidence. Dewey, however, was far more cautious in this regard.

The selection of writings by James and Dewey presented here testifies to the importance they ascribed to experience and to their continuing interest in the relationship between belief and experience. Because they recognized that philosophical inquiry is itself an experience that involves the experiencer in a process of self-interrogation in the attempt to determine what one does and does not believe, and the degree to which and intensity with which one believes or disbelieves it, their writings have a self-reflexive quality, as though their own writings are experiments in pragmatic inquiry. The conviction that philosophical inquiry is itself experiential was so much a part of their own understanding of what it means to be a philosopher that it was not mere professional hubris for James to have claimed, near the end of his life, that "philosophies are intimate parts of the universe, they express something of its own thought of itself. A philosophy may indeed be a most momentous reaction of the universe upon itself." Nor was it an expression of philosophical triumphalism for Dewey to claim that for a philosophy of experience, "the breakdown of traditional ideas is an opportunity" because it affords the possibility of producing a new kind of experience, namely, "a philosophical faith [that] can be tried and tested only in action."

The Empiricist Temperament

The reader of these selections from James's and Dewey's writings on belief and experience is likely to sense the relevance to both philosophers of James's view that a philosopher's temperament is more influential than any of his or her more strictly objective premises. His point was that quarrels between philosophers are usually attributable to the fact that they have opposing temperaments. By naming these temperaments "tender-minded" and "tough-minded" and suggesting that the former is rationalistic while the latter is empiricistic, he makes clear that he has in mind philosophical temperaments, which may be very different from the psychological temperaments these same philosophers exhibit in personal relationships and activities unrelated to their professional lives. James and his Harvard colleague Josiah Royce were perfect examples of this temperamental opposition, yet the two men had high personal respect for one another, and their relations were generally cordial. For all their differences in personal temperament, James and Dewey shared the empiricist philosophical temperament. More than this, they belonged to that subtype of the empiricist temperament that is resolutely humanist. As James expresses it in his chapter in Pragmatism on "Pragmatism and Humanism," the humanist is persuaded that "the world stands really malleable, waiting to receive its final touches at our hands." And, as Dewey adds, "We who now live are parts of a humanity that extends into the remote past, a humanity that has interacted with nature. The things in civilization we most prize are not of ourselves. They exist by grace of the doings and sufferings of the continuous human community in which we are a link. Ours is the responsibility of conserving, transmitting, rectifying, and expanding the heritage of values we have received that those who come after us may receive it more solid and secure, more widely accessible, and more generously shared than we have received it."

As humanist philosophers, James and Dewey supported and endorsed various social causes. But they were not so much "activists" as "actualists," which is Erik H. Erikson's term for individuals who understand that "to do enough means nothing else than always to begin again." For them, thinking is itself a creative engagement with a world that is incomplete and "still in the making." 8 Thus, their own professional lives are testaments to a philosophy put into practice and provide compelling evidence of the intrinsic value of their pragmatism and humanist empiricism. In James's words, they exhibited a preference for the "open air and possibilities of nature, as against dogma, artificiality, and the pretense of finality in truth." Thus, Dewey could write of James that "here is a man who believes something and whose belief is not professional and acquired, but personal and native.... Our greatest act of piety to him to whom we owe so much is to accept from him some rekindling of a human faith in the human significance of philosophy." As it is often said that it takes one to know one, Dewey's comment on James applies equally well to himself, a man who also kept faith in the human significance of philosophy. Their contemporaries also recognized in James and Dewey an intellectual restlessness that is characteristic of the empiricistic temperament and, in their view, of the universe itself. It was as if they were temperamentally attuned to the world of which they were temporary inhabitants. As James says in "Is Life Worth Living?" it seems as though "there were something really wild in the universe which we, with all our idealities and faithfulnesses, are needed to redeem; and first of all to redeem our own hearts from atheisms and fears. For such a half-wild, half-saved universe our nature is adapted."

How We Put This Book Together

This anthology may itself be viewed as an exercise in the pragmatic method. It was first conceived during an informal conversation in which we lamented the fact that neither of us knew of a textbook that focused exclusively on the writings of James and Dewey. There were texts that included excerpts from the writings of several American philosophers, and there were texts comprised of selected writings from James or from Dewey, but not both. It seemed to us that a book that began with selected early writings of James and concluded with selected later writings of Dewey would serve three important educational purposes. First, it would illustrate the emergence, development, and refinement of a philosophical tradition, thus demonstrating that philosophy is in many respects similar to scientific inquiry, in that scientific inquiry, at least under normal circumstances, follows a similar trajectory. Second, it would provide an exhibit of two important and influential philosophers working independently but also deriving insights from one another, engaged in creative thinking, and writing about common themes. Thus, it would demonstrate that philosophy is also similar to art, for art involves creative self-expression in a tangible form that in some way communicates to others. Third, it would illustrate James's and Dewey's shared conviction that the world is incomplete and also malleable to human action. We would therefore be acting in the spirit of James and Dewey if we tried to do something about our shared lament.

But how to go about it? We agreed that a useful beginning would be for one of us to assume responsibility for James, the other for Dewey. We would each review the corpus of our assigned philosopher and make some initial judgments about what might be included in the text and what would not be included. These judgments would be shared and defended, and suggestions and countersuggestions would be offered by the other. We would not worry, initially, about the amount of material, nor would we give much thought to the optimum size of a text of this nature, though, no doubt, we each had an implicit ideal in the back of our minds. As might be expected, given our esteem for both philosophers, it became clear that we simply had too much material and that we would need to make some difficult choices. But how and on what basis? It was at this point of uncertainty as to how to proceed that we reminded ourselves of our original complaint, namely, that we were unaware of any textbook that placed the writings of James and Dewey in a single volume. Why was this lamentable? We weren't exactly sure, but as we talked further it became clear that this was a lamentable state of affairs because the writings of James and Dewey have much to say to one another.

Dewey's writings might be said to begin where James leaves off, so in a sense their writings are disconnected from one another. But this is to oversimplify a complex process of influence and interdependence. After all, James was aware of Dewey's early essays, and in a letter of commendation (October 17, 1903), he urged Dewey to collect them together in a book. A year later, in a review of Dewey's Studies in Logical Theory, he predicted that Dewey's "school of thought" would figure for twenty-five years to come because Dewey and his disciples "have collectively put into the world a statement, homogeneous in spite of so many cooperating minds, of a view of the world, both theoretical and practical, which is so simple, massive, and positive that, in spite of the fact that many parts of it yet need to be worked out, it deserves the title of a new system of philosophy." We were intrigued by the fact that their professional lives overlapped and that it could not be said that Dewey was a "disciple" of James.


Excerpted from James and Dewey on Belief and Experience Copyright © 2004 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

John Capps is an assistant professor of philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology. Donald Capps is William Harte Felmeth Professor of Pastoral Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary and author of several books including Men, Religion and Melancholia: James, Otto, Jung and Erikson.

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