William James: An ethics of thought?

RP 157 () / Article

William James’s pragmatism, and in particular the thesis according to which the sole truth of ideas is the difference that they make, and therefore also the interest that they create, has often been felt to be an offence by those who consider themselves to be engaged ‘for’ thought. [1] Shouldn’t ideas be disinterested, supremely indifferent to the interest that they create? I will try to show here that – at once both thematically, that is to say in a declared manner, and practically, that is to say immanently – there is an ethics of thought at work in James’s œuvre. This ethics is pragmatic, certainly, because the question is posed at the level of effects, not at the level of what authorizes. But it will be a matter here, we will see, of a pragmatic constraint, a constraint which confers on the refusal of certain effects, accepted as perfectly legitimate by many ‘ethical’ philosophers, the power to put thinking to the test, to oblige it to expose itself to the violence of the world. If my attempt succeeds, it should lead to wonder about the tranquil and consensual judgement like this one: ‘history is lit by the deeds of men and women for whom ideas were things other than instruments of adjustment. Pragmatism explains everything about ideas except why a person would be willing to die for one.’2

Questions of engagement

Let us begin with the thematic point of view, that is to say the manner in which James links thought and choices that engage and expose. This link corresponds to what in The Wil to Believe James calls ‘genuine option’. Such an option is defined by the triple quality of being living, obliged and momentous. [3] For an option to be living, its two terms must provoke a willingness to act, that is to say be situated in a concrete bifurcation. Excluded, then, are the absurd choices invented for the needs of a philosophical argument, for example, or so as to place an interlocutor in difficulty. But not all bifurcations demand an option. Some can be avoided and do not oblige one to choose. And some have no importance. The choice that matters has the characteristics of the ‘chance to be seized’, which will not occur again; its stake must count and it must engage in an irrevocable manner.