Philosopher William James‘ concept of tender-minded vs. tough-minded thinkers helps us better understand what most informs our personal beliefs.

Tender-Minded vs. Tough-Minded Thinkers

I was recently digging around in William James’ foundational lectures on pragmatism that he delivered at the Lowell Institute in Boston between November 1906 and January 1907—a regular occurrence for me. 

I was struck, yet again, by the philosopher’s brilliance. I want to focus on insights from his first lecture, in particular, his concepts of philosophy-as-temperament, tender-mindedness, and tough-mindedness.

His perspectives here provide powerful insights into our relationships with each other and what we believe reality to be. Or, at least, what we ought to understand about the nature of those beliefs. 

Read “Truth as Pragmatism’s Only Hope

The Most Interesting Thing About Us

The pragmatist William James argues our personal philosophy and the “way in which it determines” our perspective on life is “the most interesting and most important thing” about us. 

Just as James was echoing the quippy Christian apologist G.K. Chesterton with this line of thought, so do I find myself largely in agreement. Once I’ve learned a few basic biographical things about another person—their hometown, family structure, hobbies, and profession—I immediately look to uncover their so-called “life philosophy.” 

I want to know the core values and principles that animate them. Or, as James puts it in his seminal book Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (1907):

“For the philosophy which is so important in each of us is not a technical matter; it is our more or less dumb sense of what life honestly and deeply means. It is only partly got from books; it is our individual way of just seeing and feeling the total push and pressure of the cosmos.”

Frequently, upon first meeting someone I ponder: What are the broad terms through which they understand their experience of the world? Perhaps, in hopes of fostering a connection, I also wonder how much their description of life and reality resonates with my own. On the other hand, I try my best to remain open to their divergent viewpoints, knowing these differences are often fertile ground for new insights—fresh truths I can apply to problems faced in my own life. 

While some don’t feel up to the task of articulating their personal philosophy to others, most find the wrestle with its questions can be very seductive and enriching.

“Let a controversy begin in a smoking-room anywhere,” James writes, “about free-will or God’s omniscience, or good and evil, and see how everyone in the place pricks up [their] ears. Philosophy’s results concern us all most vitally, and philosophy’s queerest arguments tickle agreeably our sense of subtlety and ingenuity.”

Listen to “A Tool for a Pluralistic World

Philosophy Is a Reflection of Your Temperament

Also considered the father of American psychology, William James famously writes, “The history of philosophy is to a great extent that of a certain clash of human temperaments.” In other words, we see the world as we are, not as it is.

Our temperaments can be viewed as the bundle of habits, unique encounters, patterns of thought, fleeting feelings, and regular rituals we experience. While behavior refers to a single action at a specific moment, temperament captures our overall way of existing across an extended period of time.

It’s relatively consistent, but changes according to context and gradually over time.

While you may have been shy, introverted, and dreamy-eyed as a teenager, you may have become more assertive, directing, and managerial as an adult. Our temperament evolves, but, according to James, remains stable enough that we will be drawn toward certain ideas or explanations of the world precisely because they resonate with how we experience life.

For instance, it wouldn’t be surprising to say that because I spend so much time in nature, either practicing horticulture, hiking, or forest bathing, I also tend to prioritize stewardship of the natural world and view many cultural and political issues through an ecological or environmentalist lens.

One could also argue, the activities I engage in and ideas I propound are mutually reinforcing. 

I’ve had many profound experiences in nature and spend a great deal of time tending to a small orchard and gardens I’ve personally planted. It’s, well, natural for me to be biased toward explanations of reality or descriptions of the world that track well with how I live my life and what I value.

To do otherwise would provoke intense cognitive dissonance. 

Some people push back against this perspectivist take on philosophy because they fear it undermines notions of objectivity or a so-called “view from nowhere.” They want to make assertions without having to acknowledge that their claims come from a radically subjective place

They’re right to worry. I believe it thoroughly undermines sterile notions of objectivity or abstract truths.

This is the main point I want to make: Our philosophical views are largely a mirror of our individual temperaments, not a snapshot of an unchanging world out there. In other words, our philosophies more closely resemble projections of ourselves, rather than reflections of reality.

“Of whatever temperament a professional philosopher is, he tries when philosophizing to sink the fact of his temperament,” James writes. “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 trusts his temperament.”

To illustrate this point, the great popularizer of pragmatism divides philosophically inclined people into two groups (or temperaments): tender-minded and tough-minded thinkers.

While William James admits he uses this dichotomy “solely for their convenience in helping me to my ulterior purpose of characterizing pragmatism,” I believe it’s a fruitful idea, whether your embrace of philosophy-as-temperament turns you into a pragmatist or not.

Listen to “Does Metamodernism Actually Move Us Past Postmodernism?

Differences Between Tender-Minded and Tough-Minded Thinkers

Though not identical terms, James sees tender-mindedness as akin to rationalism and intellectualism, while tough-mindedness shares a similar lineage with empiricism and sensationalism. 

He puts it this way:

[N]ature seems to combine most frequently with intellectualism an idealistic and optimistic tendency. Empiricists on the other hand are not uncommonly materialistic, and their optimism is apt to be decidedly conditional and tremulous. Rationalism is always monistic. It starts from wholes and universals, and makes much of the unity of things. Empiricism starts from the parts, and makes of the whole a collection—is not averse therefore to calling itself pluralistic. Rationalism usually considers itself more religious than empiricism, but there is much to say about this claim, so I merely mention it.

It is a true claim when the individual rationalist is what is called a man of feeling, and when the individual empiricist prides himself on being hard-headed. In that case the rationalist will usually also be in favor of what is called free-will, and the empiricist will be a fatalist—I use the terms most popularly current. The rationalist finally will be of dogmatic temper in his affirmations, while the empiricist may be more sceptical and open to discussion.

For shorthand, tender-minded and tough-minded thinkers can be grouped according to a dichotomy of traits.

Tender-Minded Thinkers

  • Rationalistic (going by “principles”)
  • Intellectualistic
  • Idealistic
  • Optimistic
  • Religious
  • Free-willist
  • Monistic
  • Dogmatical

Tough-Minded Thinkers

  • Empiricist (going by “facts”)
  • Sensationalistic
  • Materialistic
  • Pessimistic
  • Irreligious
  • Fatalistic
  • Pluralistic
  • Skeptical

These temperaments are constantly in contention with one another. “The tough think of the tender as sentimentalists and soft-heads,” James continues. “The tender feel the tough to be unrefined, callous, or brutal.”

This divide cuts a lot of different directions. For instance, I see the tough-mindedness of a Christopher Hitchens-styled atheist scorning a theist for their maudy and consoling beliefs about an all-loving God, while a tender-minded religionist finds their interlocutor’s disinterest in transcendence to be brutish and cynical.

Almost none of us is exclusively one or the other, James admits:

[F]ew of us are tender-foot Bostonians pure and simple, and few are typical Rocky Mountain toughs, in philosophy. Most of us have a hankering for the good things on both sides of the line. Facts are good, of course—give us lots of facts. Principles are good—give us plenty of principles. The world is indubitably one if you look at it in one way, but as indubitably is it many, if you look at it in another. It is both one and many—let us adopt a sort of pluralistic monism.

Ultimately, the great pragmatist is using tender-mindedness and tough-mindedness to demonstrate how his beloved philosophy pragmatism—which is also a reflection of his temperament—is a midway between two warring camps of philosophers doomed never to reconcile their views about reality or truth. 

Here, his prescient mind reveals a key insight into human psychology and how this philosophical division between tender-mindedness and tough-mindedness leaves us unsatisfied in a deeply existential way. He observes: 

You want a system that will combine both things, the scientific loyalty to facts and willingness to take account of them, the spirit of adaptation and accommodation, in short, but also the old confidence in human values and the resultant spontaneity, whether of the religious or of the romantic type. And this is then your dilemma: you find the two parts of your quaesitum hopelessly separated. You find empiricism with inhumanism and irreligion; or else you find a rationalistic philosophy that indeed may call itself religious, but that keeps out of all definite touch with concrete facts and joys and sorrows.

He then argues that pragmatism can satisfy both tender-minded and tough-minded impulses because “it can remain religious like the rationalisms, but at the same time, like the empiricisms, it can preserve the richest intimacy with facts.”

I’ll leave it to James to convince you whether pragmatism actually accomplishes that.

In simple terms, he recommends that we evaluate ideas not by their abstract roots—be those tough-minded or tender-minded—but by their practical fruits in our daily lives. One can’t reason their way to certainty about a particular truth, but if we test that idea out in the common ground of experience, we can determine whether it’s a useful idea, or not. 

Does treating philosophy as a clash in temperaments produce good fruits or not?

I offer up a few ways in which I regularly find it useful in helping me navigate my relationships with others and cope with the “blooming, buzzing confusion” of experience, as James describes life in The Principles of Psychology (1890). 

Read “What Can Pragmatists Hope for in a Boundless World?

The Value of Treating Philosophy as a Clash in Temperaments

Treating philosophy as a clash in temperaments is a valuable exercise for many reasons, but a few are front of mind for me.

Reminder to Practice Intellectual Humility

Understanding that personal temperament informs our views about the world and how we believe it works, reminds me to be a bit more humble in my own assertions. If I regularly recall the fact that my philosophical commitments are largely colored by a blend of habits and experiences unique to me, then I’m more likely to remain open to others.

For instance, it’s unsurprising that a friend who grew up in an authoritarian household within a psychologically abusive faith community now not only views religion with contempt, but sees it primarily as a vehicle for misogyny and oppression.

I’ve had other experiences with religion, but this knowledge reminds me that I might share a view similar to hers had I also had experiences akin to hers.

It’s hard to argue with personal experience.

Put simply, I have knowledge gaps and fluctuating biases—informed by my unique experiences, particular physiological make-up, and what ideas have proven useful in my daily life. As does everybody else. Treating philosophy as a clash in temperaments should help me mitigate my own dogmatism and absolutist posturing when I find myself in severe disagreement with another person. 

We’re coming at reality from different vantage points. Let us use that to our benefit as members of the same community trying to make the world a little bit better. 

Read “‘God Is a Question’: An Atheist’s Invitation to Intellectual Humility

Its Democratic Spirit

If James’ notion of philosophy as a clash in temperaments proves fruitful, that’s in part, I believe, because it hearkens back to a democratic way of living. A person’s particular experiences and life choices shape their temperament. This in turn molds which things they believe are true about the world, be it politics, science, religion, culture, or popular media.

For instance, just as a small business-owner friend of mine might be generally critical of higher taxes or stricter government regulations because their burden has made running her business painfully difficult, I might be skeptical of mass-scale agriculture because I’ve seen first-hand the unethical ways in which animals are usually treated within industrial systems. 

Our experiences and temperament inform how we see the world. And it’s a maddeningly narrow view we each hold of reality, as individuals. 

This makes navigating life, in a strictly atomistic sense, very difficult. Relying only on my own experiences and arguments as the arbiter of truth is going to fall short in lots of ways. I’m going to make many choices and adopt many heuristics that are unhelpful at best, and damaging at worst.

These damages are multiplied further when I try to direct society or politics toward my own view of the world.

However, if I take to heart philosophy-as-temperament, then I’m more likely to seek out and include as many other people as possible at the decision-making and truth-making tables of the world. Each of us has a limited vantage point of reality, but by enabling as many voices as possible to contribute to discussions about what exactly counts as “reality” or “truth,” we’re going to end up gravitating toward ideas that tend to be useful for more people in the long run. 

If I can not only ensure the freedom of other people but fight for their inclusion (as well as that of their philosophies), my community should be in a better place. That’s the power of democracy

As the pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty puts it: “If you take care of freedom, truth takes care of itself.”

Read “Who Cares About Democracy?

There Are Many Ways Up the Mountain

Lastly, I want to make an implicit point more explicit. By remembering there are tough-minded and tender-minded thinkers, as well as many other philosophical temperaments in the world, I’m more likely to carry a tolerant spirit with me.

As I see it, there are many ways up the mountain in life.

On the other hand, there does seem to be a collection of ideas about truth or reality that people tend to settle around. Think of the commonalities found among divergent wisdom traditions. Many faith communities have similar notions of morality, such as not stealing, killing, or lying. And many people agree that close friendships, financial stability, meaningful community, and safety are vital to living a flourishing life.

Imagine those roughly similar qualities to be a massive mountain we’re climbing together. Further, that mountain is continuously growing, for I don’t believe we’ll ever fully arrive at truth.

We have plenty in common, but there are still numberless turns and switchbacks an individual can make as they ascend. Each unique bend in a trail, or path shooting off from another, corresponds with the difference in philosophical temperament. People find different ideas about reality to be more or less efficacious. A claim about reality that works or resonates for you or your community, may not necessarily be as useful or reliable for another person or community elsewhere.

To put it another way, foods taste differently and hold varied nutritional values for each person. Sure, humans seem to need a broadly similar blend of vitamins, minerals, calories, and antioxidants. However, while a tomato may taste good to me and offers much-needed vitamin C, my neighbor may be severely allergic to nightshades (which include tomatoes) or dislike their taste.

Both of us will only discover this through personal experience and experimentation. 

That’s one of the broader points, I believe, William James makes with tender-mindedness and tough-mindedness. Perspective and lived experience matter. Life philosophies are deeply personal, but we must learn from each other. 

Our personal philosophies are one way we cope with life and the challenging situations we find ourselves in. I can’t get inside the experiences of the billions of people who have lived on this planet. 

However, if I listen to and learn from their philosophies, as filtered through their temperaments, I’m confident I’ll glean some ideas that will help me, my community, and the larger society to live more thriving lives. 

It’s usually when one of us acts as if we have acquired a temperament-free truth or fact about the world that we get into trouble. When committing that folly, I try to remember I too am incapable of stepping outside of my own subjective experience. 

After all, my views of the world probably say more about me than they do reality.

Jeffrey Howard

Jeffrey is the Founder and Editor-in-chief of Erraticus. He also hosts and produces the philosophy-centric podcast Damn the Absolute! He is a journalist and writer whose research interests center around bioregionalism, philosophical pragmatism, pluralism, and resilient communities. He lives in Southern Appalachia.

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