James and Waismann on Temperament in Philosophy

The Pluralist 18 (2):46-65 (2023)
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In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:James and Waismann on Temperament in PhilosophyJohn Cappsfor william james, philosophyis inextricably linked to what he calls temperament. In the first of his Pragmatismlectures, he claims that "the history of philosophy is to a great extent that of a certain clash of human temperaments" ( Pragmatism11), while conceding that this will strike many philosophers as "undignified." In a similar vein, he elsewhere writes that philosophy seeks "by hard reasoning for results emotionally valuable" ( Some Problems of Philosophy11). It's not hard to see a connection between these two claims: whether a philosophical conclusion is "emotionally valuable" will presumably depend, at least in part, on the reader's temperament. A philosophical work will leave some readers cold while resonating with others; some philosophy will engage one's interest and energy, while other philosophy will seem not so much mistaken as alien, remote from what one might ever find useful, interesting, or enlightening.James's meta-philosophical claim—his philosophy of philosophy—has received surprisingly little attention. Much of the literature has focused instead on what he meant by "temperament" in the context of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century theories of psychology and brain science. Much less attention has been paid to whether he is right and what the consequences would be if he is right. 1I aim to address this gap by first raising some fundamental issues with James's position. To see better what he should have said, I will then turn to some later but surprisingly similar remarks by the Anglo-Austrian philosopher and mathematician Friedrich Waismann, before turning to a more recent account of philosophical methodology defended by Timothy Williamson.1. James on Philosophy and TemperamentHilary and Ruth Anna Putnam have written that "perhaps the most shocking claim that James makes—the claim that is the centerpiece of the very first of the Lectures on Pragmatism—is that the decision we make on any metaphysical [End Page 46]question … is and ought to be a matter of 'temperament'" (227). While the Putnams do not explain what makes this his "most shocking" claim, it is likely because James accuses philosophers of being either systematically dishonest or self-deluded. Here is what James writes:Of whatever temperament a professional philosopher is, he tries when philosophizing to sink the fact of his temperament. Temperament is no conventionally recognized reason, so he urges impersonal reasons only for his conclusions. Yet his temperament really gives him a stronger bias than any of his more strictly objective premises. It loads the evidence for him one way or the other, making for a more sentimental or a more hard-hearted view of the universe, just as this fact or that principle would. He trustshis temperament…. Yet in the forum he can make no claim, on the bare ground of his temperament, to superior discernment or authority. There arises thus a certain insincerity in our philosophic discussions: the potentest of all our premises is never mentioned.( Pragmatism11)According to James, then, one's "temperament" plays an important role in determining the sorts of philosophical positions one finds congenial—and yet professional philosophers are either in denial that temperament plays this role or are actively committed to concealing this fact. Nor does James limit his claim, as the Putnams suggest, to only metaphysical questions: while he tends to focus on more large-scale alternatives (empiricism vs. rationalism, atheism vs. theism—perhaps because the lectures were delivered before a popular audience), the same point should hold across the board. So whether it is the choice between consequentialism vs. deontological ethical theories, or procedural vs. substantive accounts of justice, or functionalist vs. behaviorist philosophies of mind, James would argue that temperament plays a crucial role. 2I will refer to this as his "temperament thesis" (TT): TT: One's philosophical commitments are, in part, a function of one's temperament. A few points of clarification are in order. First, while James describes temperament as providing the "potentest" support for philosophical claims, he does not claim that it is decisive or that it swamps all other considerations. Temperament "loads the evidence" but can apparently be overridden when sufficient evidence or compelling...



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John Capps
Rochester Institute of Technology

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True enough.Catherine Z. Elgin - 2004 - Philosophical Issues 14 (1):113–131.
Pragmatism.William James - 1977 - Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 13 (4):306-312.
On what there is.W. V. O. Quine - 1948 - Review of Metaphysics 2 (5):21-38.
Truth as convenient friction.Huw Price - 2003 - Journal of Philosophy 100 (4):167--190.

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