Tuesday, September 06, 2011

A Happy Convergence of William James and G.K. Chesterton

I am reading William James' Pragmatism. I am hoping that it will be a good philosophical text to teach in conjunction with the current empirical work that shows that the practical lives of most populations are, in fact, improving.

In this connection I also recently read G.K. Chesterton's What's Wrong With the World. Chesterton and James were contemporaries, but I had not previously thought of them as conversation partners with one another. Yet James quotes Chesterton approvingly at the opening of this book to the effect that the most important thing to know about someone is his philosophy.

The point of James' pragmatism is that all we can know of truth is what kind of practical action it leads to. He says that pragmatism is a method, and is not wedded to any particular conclusions about what will prove practical. In making this claim, he reviews the argument between materialism and idealism or spiritualism. What impressed me in this argument is how much William James sounds like G.K. Chesterton, both in his tone and in his conclusions, to wit:

A world with a God in it to say the last word, may indeed burn up or freeze, but we then think of him as still mindful of the old ideals and sure to bring them elsewhere to fruition; so that, where he is, tragedy is only provisional and partial, and shipwreck and dissolution not the absolutely final things.

1 comment:

A.Shafer said...

Chesterton's description of the priest's descent from the roof of St Paul's, in "The Ball and The Cross" is striking similar to William James's view of faith in his essey "The Will to Believe". I highly suspect Chesterton learned a thing or two from James.