While pragmatists accept the tragic and boundless nature of a constantly changing and foundationless reality, William James offers hope in a naturalized theism.

What Can Pragmatists Hope for in a Boundless World?

[In this two-part series, Nick Gall outlines the developmental arc of a philosophy of hope spanning the Pragmatists Chauncey Wright, Charles Sanders Peirce, and William James in part one; and John Dewey and Richard Rorty in part two.]


Although Immanuel Kant is best known for his work on epistemology and ethics, he is arguably the first philosopher to declare the central importance of a philosophy of hope. In his Critique of Pure Reason (1781), he claims there are three fundamental questions that philosophy should address:

  • What can I know? (Epistemology)
  • What should I do? (Ethics)
  • For what may I hope? (?)

Despite its fundamental importance, Kant’s third question went largely unheeded for over a century. Even today, the philosophy of hope is a minor topic in philosophy at best, especially when compared to epistemology and ethics. This is exemplified by the topic’s lack of its own label.

But hope becomes a central concern for a group of primarily American philosophers in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries aligned under the banner of pragmatism.

According to Louis Menard’s definitive history of the founding of pragmatism, The Metaphysical Club (2001), this focus on the philosophy of hope known as meliorism is sparked by three seismic events that upend the traditional religious answers to “For what may we hope?” These events are the US Civil War, Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection, and the development of the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Classical pragmatists respond to these events in a few different ways. While Chauncey Wright accepts a world of boundless change, he offers little hope or certainty beyond the constants of what he calls “cosmic weather.” Charles Sanders Peirce embraces a reality without foundations while believing humanity will progress toward a gradually perfecting and salvific existence.

But it’s in William James’ meliorism that we encounter a naturalized theism that accepts the tragic nature of a constantly changing reality while providing hope for a world in which eternally perfect unity is not guaranteed but, perhaps, remains possible.

This latter meliorism is what animates the hope of those with a pragmatist temperament similar to William James.

Read “The Power of One Idea

Pessimistic Materialism vs. Optimistic Theism

One of the founders of pragmatism, William James summarizes the two main opposing viewpoints that emerged from these events: pessimistic materialism and optimistic theism (or spiritualism).

Engaging with the traditional Christianity of his day, James argues that while “the notion of God” is inferior to the “clearness [of] . . . mathematical notions so current in mechanical philosophy,” it maintains superiority in at least one other way:

[The notion of God] guarantees an ideal order that shall be permanently preserved. 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. This need of an eternal moral order is one of the deepest needs of our breast.

In Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (1907), James says “[m]aterialism means simply the denial that the moral order is eternal, and the cutting off of ultimate hopes,” while “spiritualism means the affirmation of an eternal moral order and the letting loose of hope.”

As long as “men are men,” he believes this matter will foster “serious philosophical debate.”

“The letting loose of hope” is a beautiful way of describing the role religion has traditionally played. James’ goal is to make inspiring the proper degree of hope the central issue of philosophy. A philosophy that engenders a sense of hopelessness (e.g., Schopenhauer’s philosophy of anti-natalism, which argues that it is better to not have been born), no matter how factually grounded, is unlikely to gain many adherents.

Conversely, a philosophy that paints too rosy a picture of hopefulness is likely to be dismissed as naive and blinkered to the obvious tragedy around us.

Listen to “Can Pragmatism Help Us Live Well?

The Middle Way of Meliorism

Although the pragmatists—including Chauncy Wright, Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, John Dewey, and Richard Rorty—are usually grouped together based on their views of the nature of truth, it is arguably more fruitful to understand them as all grappling with this letting loose of hope—avoiding the Scylla of nihilistic pessimism and the Charybdis of naive optimism.

Collectively, the Pragmatists focus on a philosophy of hope known as meliorism.

The term meliorism (from the latin melior, “better”), although often equated with pragmatism, is actually coined by George Eliot in the 1870s. It denotes a kind of middle way between extreme optimism and extreme pessimism.

Two of the first pragmatists to wrestle with this “serious philosophical debate” happened to both be polymaths and, ironically, have arguably become the least well-known philosophers among the pragmatist pantheon, compared to more household names like William James, John Dewey, and Richard Rorty.

Read “A Wishing Stone for Dick

Chauncey Wright’s Philosophy of Boundless Change

Born in 1830, Chauncey Wright is perhaps the least remembered of the covey of philosophers at the core of pragmatism, but the most influential within that circle, despite living only to his 45th birthday.

He is a modern Socrates in that his influence is born from his conversations, not his writings. Wright is a strict (some might say severe) naturalist. He embraces Darwin’s theory unflinchingly and vocally opposes attempts by evolutionists such as Herbert Spencer to interpret Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection as implying any kind of aim or direction (i.e., teleology) to the process of evolution. (In fact, he dislikes the term “theory of evolution” because it suggests a teleological direction to Darwin’s theory of descent with modification.)

Wright correctly emphasizes Darwin’s theory of evolution as directionless, or as I prefer, boundless, which is less pejorative. Put simply, it ensures species are suited to thrive in any given environment; it does not, however, establish that the variety of species is progressing in any ultimate direction.

In Philosophical Discussions (1878), Wright coins the term “cosmical weather” as a metaphor for his philosophy of boundless change “founded in the laws of nature.” He describes it as “the principle of counter-movements—a principle in accordance with which there is no action in nature to which there is not some counteraction, and no production in nature from which in infinite ages there can result an infinite product.”

In biological terms, just as life and death are counterforces to one another, so are nutrition and waste, growth and degeneration. In the realm of geology, the earth’s crust is “elevated and denuded, depressed and deposited, ground to mud or hardened to rock, are all of the compensative sort.”

Or, as with the “movements of the gaseous and liquid oceans which surround the earth,” they too are influenced by “the principle of counter-movements in the familiar phenomena of the weather.”

When it comes to “cosmical weather,” or that which occurs in the “interstellar spaces,” there is very little we know:

Of the general cosmical effects of the opposing actions of heat and gravitation, the great dispersive and concentrative principles of the universe, we can at present only form vague conjectures; but that these two principles are the agents of vast counter-movements in the formation and destruction of systems of worlds, always operative in never-ending cycles and in infinite time, seems to us to be by far the most rational supposition which we can form concerning the matter.

The material world is an eternal dance of boundless change.

Although Wright’s philosophy lacks any optimism regarding absolute progress, it also avoids the materialist pessimism of a world bound for complete dissolution and destruction. Wright believes the overall order of the universe is conserved even though he is aware this appears to contradict the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which most materialists of his day interpret as inevitably leading to what is called the “heat death of the universe.”

All in all, Wright’s philosophy barely qualifies as a form of meliorism, since it apparently doesn’t offer any concept of cumulative betterment or improvement, which is at the heart of meliorism. The only hope it lets loose is the hope that cosmic weather, with its seasons of good conditions and bad, is perpetual.

Might we find some hope of improvement in the works of Charles Sanders Peirce, the philosopher who first utters the name pragmatism?

Listen to “Charles Peirce and Inquiry as an Act of Love

Charles Sanders Peirce’s Asymptotic Hope

A mathematician, logician, and philosopher, Charles Sanders Peirce remains closest to Wright in scientific temperament. Similarly, Peirce is also difficult to position as a full-fledged meliorist because his writings suggest he opposes, or is at least skeptical of, social reform efforts, the sort of political activism one would expect from a meliorist.

While suspicious of social reform efforts, and in stark contrast to Wright’s views, Peirce’s material and scientific philosophy, as manifested in Chance, Love, and Logic (1923), is one of absolute progression:

Thus, the tendency to habit would be started; and from this with the other principles of evolution all the regularities of the universe would be evolved. At any time, however, an element of pure chance survives and will remain until the world becomes an absolutely perfect, rational, and symmetrical system, in which mind is at last crystallized in the infinitely distant future.

Peirce embraces a kind of perpetual, incremental approach to perfection that is often called asymptotic, based on the metaphor of the graph of a curve that draws ever closer to an axis without ever touching it. Although the world, and our scientific understanding of it, will never achieve absolute perfection, Peirce believes we will come ever closer to such completeness.

So, Peirce, like Wright, lets loose only a very specific, some might say, scientific materialist, kind of hope. The universe and our scientific knowledge of it will asymptotically approach perfection across the eons. No doubt a line of thought connected to Peirce’s notion of truth being “at the end of inquiry.”

It is not until William James that we begin to see the flowering of meliorism and hope now equated with pragmatism.

Listen to “Scientific Knowledge Is Metaphorical

William James Takes Up Meliorism

The great popularizer of pragmatism, William James, can be credited with first attempting to formulate a philosophy specifically designed to inspire the full letting loose of hope. It is important to note that James’ work on meliorism is not, per se, a metaphysical philosophy on the issue of progress, unlike that of Wright and Peirce.

It is not primarily directed at how the world will change in the future.

James’s focus is on how we should feel about the future of the world—for what should we hope, given our beliefs about such a future. This differs dramatically from virtually all philosophy that has come before. This is philosophy taking up an issue traditionally left to religion.

However, in order to broadly inspire a sense of hope in the culture of late-nineteenth-century America, James is unable to completely shake loose from traditional Christian religious notions of ultimate salvation and final deliverance from tragedy.

One might argue that James’s book Pragmatism (1907) is an extended response to Wright’s philosophy of “cosmical weather,” which James refers to as “cosmic weather.”

He argues the state of things “sting” because according to materialism, “in the vast driftings of the cosmic weather, though many a jewelled shore appears, and many an enchanted cloud-bank floats away, long lingering ere it to be dissolved. . . yet when these transient products are gone, nothing, absolutely nothing remains.”

All that we hold precious and enjoy will soon be “dead and gone. . . gone utterly from the very sphere and room of being. Without an echo; without a memory.” He laments “this utter final wreck and tragedy is of the essence of scientific materialism.”

Impermanence is our fate.

James concludes the “true objection to materialism is not positive but negative,“ for it would “be farcical at this day to make complaint of it for what it is, for ‘grossness.’ Grossness is what grossness does—we now know that.” We complain about pessimistic materialism for its failure to appease our “more ideal interests” or fulfill “our remotest hopes.”

James’s main argument against Wright’s theory of perpetual cosmical weather is not that it degrades humanity with its grossness, it’s that it robs us of hope—the longing for some kind of permanent result, i.e., salvation.

For James, meliorism is a particular kind of expectation, midway between the hopeless pessimism of the impossibility of salvation offered by Wright’s cosmical weather, and the naively hopeful optimism of the inevitability of salvation offered by traditional Christianity.

A keen observer of the human condition, James observes that acting “indifferent and neutral in questions like that of the world’s salvation” is to “contradict the very spirit of life.” It is a common human desire to “wish to minimize the insecurity of the universe; we are and ought to be unhappy when we regard it as exposed to every enemy and open to every life-destroying draft.”

Pessimism belongs to those “unhappy men who think the salvation of the world impossible,” while optimism is “the doctrine that thinks the world’s salvation inevitable.” Instead, James employs the pragmatist’s usual strategy—a via media between two extremes. “Midway between the two there stands what may be called the doctrine of meliorism,” he asserts, although he sees it “less as a doctrine than as an attitude in human affairs.”

European philosophy is replete with optimism while “pessimism was only recently introduced by Schopenhauer” and had few adherents during the days of classical pragmatism. Alternatively, James argues, “Meliorism treats salvation as neither inevitable nor impossible,” but “a possibility, which becomes more and more of a probability the more numerous the actual conditions of salvation become.”

James concludes: “It is clear that pragmatism must incline towards meliorism.”

Read “The Dude Abides: Pragmatism as an Alternative to Deontology and Nihilism

Possible Unification of a Pluralistic World

James is definitely the most tender-minded of the pragmatists, but he makes a great effort to not completely fall into naively optimistic spiritualism. In fact, his discussion of tragic pluralism and the butchering of values in The Will to Believe, and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (1897) is as clear-eyed and tough-minded a description of the often harsh reality of the world as there is:

There is hardly a good which we can imagine except as competing for the possession of the same bit of space and time with some other imagined good. Every end of desire that presents itself appears exclusive of some other end of desire . . . . So that the ethical philosopher’s demand for the right scale of subordination in ideals is the fruit of an altogether practical need. Some part of the ideal must be butchered, and he needs to know which part. It is a tragic situation, and no mere speculative conundrum, with which he has to deal.

However, James does not let go of the hope that one day we may progress to a world in which pluralism is no longer tragic—a world in which we reach some form of salvation.

This is the heart of James’ asymptotic meliorism, his belief in the possibility of the ultimate unification of a pluralistic world. In Pragmatism (1907), he refers to a particular letter writer who “speaks of what he calls the rational unity of things, when all the while he really means their possible empirical unification.”

Critical of James’ stance, this letter writer “supposes at the same time that the pragmatist, because he criticises rationalism’s abstract One, is cut off from the consolation of believing in the saving possibilities of the many.” Hope is supposed to only be found in a whole and unified world.

James believes the letter writer “fails to distinguish between taking the world’s perfection as a necessary principle, and taking it only as a possible terminus ad quem.”

Perfection isn’t a given, but a possibility.

While James regards this letter writer as “a genuine pragmatist,” he is but “a pragmatist sans le savoir [unknowingly].” He is “one of the numerous class of philosophic amateurs. . . wishing to have all the good things, without being too careful as to how they agree or disagree.”

This philosophic amateur trots out the “rational unity of all things” and “abstractly accuses pluralism of conflicting with it. . . altho concretely he means by it just the pragmatistically unified and ameliorated world.”

Focusing on “this particular religious point,” James wonders whether “this absolutely real world, this unity that yields the moral inspiration and has the religious value,” should be “taken monistically or pluralistically” from a pragmatist perspective.

He then runs the principle through a pragmatist interrogation, focusing on the practical fruits of either route: “Is it ante rem or in rebus? Is it a principle or an end, an absolute or an ultimate, a first or a last? Does it make you look forward or lie back?” He determines “it is certainly worth while not to clump the two things together, for if discriminate, they have decidedly diverse means for life.”

Terminus ad quem means the endpoint or limit of a process. Thus, for James, meliorism takes the form of an asymptotic process inching ever closer to the possibility of eternal salvation—a permanently “unified and ameliorated world.”

Though the world is thoroughly pluralistic in its present state, James’ philosophical meliorism holds out the hope of the possibility of progressing ever closer to perfect unity. This deviates from the traditional religious optimism only in claiming that there is merely the possibility of ultimate salvation due to the efforts of humanity with some assistance, not the certainty of salvation guaranteed solely by the will of God.

Salvation is possible only through the diligence of meliorists and pragmatists working and hoping to resolve the problems and ills we face in our concrete, daily lives—rather than putting our hope in some abstract inevitability.

Regarding how to “treat the problem of the One and the Many in a purely intellectual way,” James asks us to focus on the “practical differences” these “theories make.” Based on that criteria, a pragmatist “must equally abjure absolute monism and absolute pluralism.”

He reasons “the world is One just so far as its parts hang together by any definite pluralism.” On the other hand, “it is many just so far as any definite connexion fails to obtain. Ultimately, he argues our world is “growing more and more unified by those systems of connexion at least which human energy keeps framing as time goes on.”

Although our world is pluralistic, humanity is unifying more and more of it. Progress is an increase in the number and size of the systems we have unified through our efforts.

Read “The Pragmatic Truth of Existentialism

Meliorism Naturalizes Theism and Lets Loose Hope

In summary, for a meliorist like James, salvation is “neither inevitable nor impossible,” but “a possibility, which becomes more and more a probability the more numerous the actual conditions of salvation become.”

This is a vision of progress as the ever-increasing probability of the world’s salvation as the number of conditions of salvation increases over time. James holds up human efforts to unify the world as increasing the number of conditions of salvation: “Human efforts are daily unifying the world more and more in definite systematic ways. We found colonial, postal, consular, commercial systems, all the parts of which obey definite influences that propagate themselves within the system . . .”

Overall, James offers a kind of meliorism that is basically a naturalized theism. He believes in the possibility of a quasi-religious salvation in which the tragedy of pluralism and the butchering of values finally comes to an end and humanity lives on in eternal harmony. (For a contrary interpretation of James’s commitment to pluralism see, Martin Savransky, “Around the Day in Eighty Worlds: Politics of the Pluriverse.”)

For those who are tough-minded enough to accept the current reality of tragic pluralism, yet too tender-minded to accept that it is perpetual, James’ meliorism is designed to spark the letting loose of hope by offering confidence in the possibility that we may one day transcend tragic pluralism—reaching the goal of eternally perfect unity (monism).

Nick Gall

Nick received his BA in Philosophy at Yale University in the heyday of deconstruction and his MS in Computer Science at WPI in the heyday of AI expert systems. He didn't recover until encountering the work of Richard Rorty at NYU Law School, where he received his JD. His careers have spanned software engineering, intellectual property litigation, IT research and analysis, and design thinking. Nick is currently developing a post-pragmatist philosophy he calls Fruitionism. You can find him on Twitter and read more of his writing on Medium.

2 thoughts on “What Can Pragmatists Hope for in a Boundless World?

  • This is a really fine piece, and I’m looking forward to part II. Many thanks for it!

    Reply
  • Thanks, Walter! I greatly appreciate the compliment. Part II should be published sometime next week.

    Reply

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