Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Pragmatism is Western philosophy that seeks to speak once again to the practical needs of everyday life, including religious life. In this book, Bennett Ramsey reads the pragmatic philosophy of William James both in the way it may have spoken to the religious needs of James’ society and in the way it speaks to the religious needs of ours.

Toward both ends, the most telling passage of the book comes in the middle, when Ramsey describes James’ only public oration, on May 31, 1897, at the Boston Music Hall, on the occasion of the unveiling of a war memorial to Colonel Robert Shaw. Here was the incongruous event of James, the neurasthenic, “standing before the assembled gathering of soldiers and citizens, speaking about a colonel in a war from which James had been excused.”

Fortunately for James, there was something equally incongruous about Colonel Shaw . . . . James took as his theme . . . what amounted to the antiheroics of Shaw and his Fifty-fourth Regiment. He aimed his praise at the . . . statue’s . . . being . . . “the first soldier’s monument to be raised to a particular set of comparatively undistinguished men . . . [to a ‘young colonel,’ in a] regiment of black men [’outcasts,’] [in] its maiden battle-a battle, moreover, which was lost.’”

The virtue James proceeded to praise was not military prowess, but ”common civic courage . . . : faithfulness to a cause [here, the fight against racism and slavery] . . . the willingness to suffer ridicule, abuse, and failure in the performance of one’s tasks.” These soldiers were, then, “saints of a religious faith, lonely followers of what James called ‘our American religion,’ namely, that ‘a man requires no master to take care of him, and that common people can work out their own salvation well enough if left free to try.’” According to Ramsey, blockquote>what James offered in his portrait of Shaw was a counter to the redescribed self that [he had] presented in The Principles [of Psychology] . . . . Whereas before James’ emphasis had been on the self of assertion, filled with the chance at adventure and heroic action, now the reverse was stressed: loneliness, submission, and suffering for the sake of cause, risk, failure, and antiheroics.This transformation in James’ thought prefigures the transformation Ramsey would like to see in contemporary American religion.

Ramsey sets James’ earlier writings-up to the completion of the Principles in 1890-in the context of America’s post-Civil War cultural crisis. “Urbanization and industrialization; a scientific and technological revolution; an increasingly impersonal and bureaucratized social order”-all these conspired, he concludes with some degree of over-generalization, to produce a single national condition: “the loss of stability and plasticity, of purpose, immediacy, and self- determination-all of this struck bottom against a disintegrating framework of religious meaning, a crumbling definition of the ultimate dimension of the self.” James’ early response to the crisis was to offer a psychology that “rewove” the self, in Ramsey’s terms: a model of a self characterized by inner breaks and discontinuities, but also by the power to act by its own free choice and, through the habit-forming effect of repeated actions, to reweave its plural forms into complex continuities.

Attempting once again to capture the character of an entire age, Ramsey suggests that the America of 1890-1910 seemed to adopt James’ model of self-realization only too well. “The obstructed American will, steeped in disappointment . . . was suddenly explosive, caught up and carried forward by a national crusading impulse . . . . It was a time of historical romance, of the aggressive, imperial self.” In religion, this meant a time of romantic, militant Christianity-on the one hand, an evangelical Christianity of global missions and, on the other, a spiritual Christianity turned inward to an invisible, timeless realm of Christian ideals. James’ oration for Colonel Shaw indicated his own response to the cultural change: if this kind of self-realization was supposed to cure America’s ills, then it was time for him to offer a new prescription.

In The Varieties of Religious Experience , published in 1902, James presented his new prescription by way of a distinction between the religiously “healthy-minded” and the “sick souled.” “What James meant by the religiously healthy-minded,” Ramsey says, “were those who systematically denied the existence of contingency, relativism, and possible evil, whose ‘sky-blue optimism’ was built on a conscious rejection of any experience of life as ‘curdling cold and gloom.’” This was not an absurd option-it was “consonant with important currents in human nature” and it provided practical results, endowing the self with ”a sense of practical efficacy.” But it was also “deceptive and dangerous” in its incapacity to acknowledge failure. For James, the optimist’s “contentment with the finite incases him like a lobster-shell and shields him from all morbid repining at his distance from the Infinite.”

The sick-souled self, to the contrary, “was not just mildly melancholic but pathologically so, an individual with an all-embracing sensitivity to the negative in life, an ‘extremity of pessimism.’” This was the truly religious individual “for whom the world appeared as a ‘double- storied mystery’” and who says with Saint Paul, “’What I should, that do I not; but what I hate, that I do,’ . . . self-loathing, self-despair, an unintelligible and intolerable burden to which one is mysteriously the heir.”

James was sick-souled himself. In Ramsey’s reading, he had offered his earlier doctrine of self-realization as if to displace his melancholy, and that of his age, through a simple, curative act of will. Now, however, he relabeled that cure deceptive and looked, instead, to religious conversion as that “crisis of self-surrender” through which the sick-souled self is conjoined to a “wider life,” in which “religious ideas, previously peripheral to [its] consciousness, now take a central place, and . . . religious aims [now] form the habitual center of [its] energy.” In this conversion, melancholy is not covered over, but redeemed as the finite soul’s means of perceiving its need to submit its will to the “wider spiritual life” that delimits “our superficial consciousness” and opens it to the unseen.

Ramsey’s powerful theses are, first, that this doctrine of conversion was James’ alternative to both the unrelieved melancholy and the deceptive healthy-mindedness of his age; and, second, that we would have good reason to take up the doctrine ourselves, as an alternative to both the nihilistic relativisms of postmodernity and the spate of healthy-minded religious sects that now advertise themselves as cures to this relativism. James would easily recognize the dialectic that characterizes our own America-between cynical individualism on the one side and romantic religiosity on the other. And we would have good reason to trust his suspicions that the latter may, down deep, be as uncertain of its faith as the former: unwilling to resign itself to the sad realities that God may at times offer us, as well as the happy.

Ramsey’s situated philosophic reading finds in James more of an ally than we might have realized of sober-minded faithfulness, in the tradition, for example, of Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian pragmatism, or of what we might call the biblical realisms of Hans Frei and George Lindbeck among Christians, or of Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber, and now Moshe Greenberg, Michael Wyschogrod, and David Novak among Jews. In mentioning these examples, however, I realize that I am also pushing James’ realism further than he or Ramsey would want to.

A realist (or a non-nominalist), we might say, believes not only that we encounter what is real directly in our experience of the world, but also that we do so by way of, and not despite, our use of language. A biblical realist believes, furthermore, that we directly encounter the real by way of our use of biblical language. In these terms, James criticizes healthy-minded believers for employing religious or biblical language to cover over, rather than encounter, certain unwanted aspects of our experience of reality. In his corrective appeal to direct experience, however, James also displays a suspicion that the use of language may in general tend to cover up more than it reveals. This is a sense that the “something more” to which the converted self is reopened is also something more than can make its way into words. There is no oppressive nominalism here: even James’ “A World of Pure Experience” offers a wondrous paean to our living in a world both of real objects and of real relations, like love or understanding or experience. Along with the other classical pragmatists, James has simply not yet shared in the later twentieth century’s linguistic turn-nor in its discovery that real relations may be displayed by way of linguistic practices. Thus, despite his elegant effort, Ramsey cannot fully achieve his ultimate goal of transforming James into a postmodern realist: a sick-souled pragmatist, that is, whose accounts of our experiences of the real could withstand the efforts of postmodern nominalists to reduce such accounts to “mere” linguistic play.

A case in point is James’ agnostic description of religion as, for example, “the belief that beyond each man and in a fashion continuous with him there exists a larger power which is friendly to him and to his ideals.” The term “larger power” won’t stand up to linguistic criticism: how does it get attached to the “other” in religious experience? James does better when he notes that “God is the natural appellation, for us Christians at least, for the supreme reality, so I will call the higher part of the universe by the name of God.” But out of what biblical stories, interpreted by what hermeneutical traditions, have James and his philosophic forebears borrowed this name of God? If the name refers to reality, it must refer by way of the role it plays in those stories and those traditions. Otherwise, it is an empty linguistic operator whose relation to anyone’s actual experience is either mysterious or as arbitrary as the postmodernists claim.

If, on the other hand, the name has a textual life, then it can be misused. James accuses Hegel of such a misuse, of promoting a healthy- minded “theistic monism” that reduces the plurality of divine relations to one. I fear, however, that Ramsey may himself perpetuate another misuse. Reading James’ critique of monism as a critique of “monotheism,” he allows his reader to imagine that James censured the biblical accounts of God themselves, rather than attempts by modern philosophers to reduce those accounts to simple monisms. That this is a dangerous reading is evident in Ramsey’s own conclusion that “pragmatism did away with monism in all its forms: in its religious form of monotheism, the worship of the One God, One truth, and One right way.” A Marcionite turn? This is not the conclusion of the founder of pragmatism, Charles Peirce, who wrote that his pragmatism simply enunciated Jesus’ teaching that “ye may know them by their fruits!” The problem for pragmatism is not one God, but attempts to reduce God’s name to the unity of mere concepts, rather than the oneness-among-many displayed in both Jewish and Christian scriptural traditions. More careful textual study is needed here, in the fashion of the scriptural realists mentioned earlier.

My complaint, however, is only with the way Ramsey labels his and James’ strongest claim, not with the way he performs it. The way Ramsey has composed this book displays a “will of resignation” worthy both of James’ “religious soul” and of the biblical realism mentioned earlier: this is a will to hear the reality in philosophic or rational claims, by hearing them in the human contexts out of which they were uttered and into which they are now received. Such an author would undoubtedly hear more in my complaint than I might yet recognize, and I would be instructed by his hearing.

Peter Ochs is the Wallerstein Associate Professor and Program Director of Jewish Studies at Drew University. His most recent publication is The Return of Scripture in Judaism and Christianity (Paulist Press) .