essays

Jun 1, 1980

William James as Individualist

“Prof. Boller depicts [James] as a “confirmed individualist” whose outlook reflected both aristocratic and democratic ideals.”

“William James as an Educator: Individualism and Democracy.” Teachers College Record 80(February 1979):587–601.

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In his portrait of William James as both theoretical and practical educator, Prof. Boller depicts the American psychologist and philosopher as a “confirmed individualist” whose outlook reflected both aristocratic and democratic ideals. Four basic elements comprise the essence of James’ teaching: pluralism, radical empiricism, indeterminism, and pragmatism. All four provided a basic foundation for the individual autonomy and creativity that James cherished and regarded as the aim of the educational process.

First of all, as a pluralist, James rejected a closed, deterministic “block universe” in favor of an “open universe”—an evolutionary world that is continually changing, growing, and developing and whose future is to a large extent unpredictable. For James, therefore, the world was constantly producing novelty and surprise.

Adopting a radical empiricist stance, James held that we must view reality as identical with our experience rather than allowing ourselves to be guided by neat, abstract categories which, while often useful, may mislead us into seeing much more order in the universe than there actually is. In his view, there may be sufficient connection among things to allow for useful generalizations, yet there is also enough looseness to allow for individual freedom.

As a result of his empiricism, James opposed the universal determinism espoused by many scientific scholars of his day. As an indeterminist, James viewed free will as a special effort of attention which an individual gives to one concern rather than to another. That focusing of attention results in an unpredictable and individually shaped choice. In this respect, free will is identical with the act of creation by which an individual generates unforeseen novelties in himself, objectifies them, and thus contributes to intellectual and social change.

Finally, James the pragmatist held that ideas were useful only in so far as they reflected the stream of experience and made a positive contribution to it. Here, as elsewhere, his emphasis was individualistic, stressing “the right to believe,” that is, the right to adopt any idea or belief that had fruitful consequences for one’s own life, so long as it did not clash with other vital pragmatic beliefs or produce social harm.

Observing American education, William James deplored the growing emphasis upon degrees, which he felt transferred “accredited value from essential manhood to an outward badge.” While holding that education provided America with a vital elite, he believed with Emerson that each individual knows some part of the world which others fail to see and has some “single specialized vocation of his own.” Education was involved in developing a sensitivity to this “depth of worth that lies around you, hid in alien lives,” which may be found in the blacksmith, as well as in the philosopher.

In the final analysis, James felt that no individual has a final truth or unassailable insight. It is only by sharing our individual experiences and pooling our knowledge that is possible to gain a better grasp of things, devise better ways of living, and move toward a more democratic, tolerant, and humane world.