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“Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.”. These words sum up the ideas of philosopher William James. Isn’t that an interesting statement? If you thought this way, how would it change your life?
Historical Facts about William James
New York born on January 11, 1842, this American philosopher became known as “Father of American psychology”. James had an unhurried education, and indeed it took him a while to figure out what he wanted to do. He started out with art, worked through chemisty, anatomy, etc. He worked for a while as an assistant to a naturalist until he got fed up with that and returned to medical school. Studies happened in Germany as well. Even though he was never really trained in psychology, he was the first educator to teach on the subject.
What William James believed
James was a pragmatist. A pragmatic psychology “is a philosophical movement that includes those who claim that an ideology or proposition is true if it works satisfactorily, that the meaning of a proposition is to be found in the practical consequences of accepting it, and that unpractical ideas are to be rejected.” (source)
James formed his philosophy around the idea that if it makes sense, do it.
For instance: If you are lost in a forest looking for a path. If the path looks like it goes nowhere, so you act upon that, giving up and doing nothing you have made your thought a reality. But if you are lost in the same forest and see a path that appears to end in your salvation (food, shelter) and therefore follow it and are saved. Again, you have made your thoughts a reality. Therefore we should act as if what we do makes a difference. Because what we do DOES matter.
More on James’ philosophy
The basic assumption of a pragmatist is that we learn mostly by doing. Our knowledge is only worth something to us if it is is useful. It needs to explain something, or help us do something. Once knowledge is redundant, proven incorrect, or otherwise doesn’t serve us it is forgotten.
“For James, the truth of an idea depends on how useful it is; that is to say, whether or not it does what is required of it”. Knowledge, therefore is true, if it doesn’t contradict other known truths, and works for our purposes. ….
James said “The truth of an idea is not a stagnant property inherent in it. Turth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events. Its verity is in fact an event, a process.” (source)
.When we put an idea into action, we prove it true. It only has the POTENTIAL to be true until we act upon it. That action can be by physically using it, or by using other knowledge that we know to be true as it’s point of verification. These ideas are different than facts. Facts merely exist. Our ideas about those facts can be true or not true. Ergo, back to the forest idea.
If you are in forest the fact is that the path goes somewhere, but if you believe that somewhere won’t be of aid to you, you won’t take it. And since you won’t take it, your idea about that fact makes it true. This is a simplistic explanation. Ideas that are outlandish aren’t true just because we act upon them.
Ideas need support to be true. Each idea needs to
- be useful
- withstand criticism
- justify itself
- have other evidence to weigh in it’s favour
How Does God factor in?
James wasn’t convinced that God was real, but he believed that for the person who believes in God, that belief is vital to them. He did think there was more the world than what we see, but couldn’t really be pinned down as to what that was. (check this source)
It allows a believer to lead a more fulfilling life, overcome a fear of death, be healed from illness etc. So whether or not God is real becomes inconsequential as the idea becomes truth to the person who believes. In the end it’s the experience that matters.
Wow. I am positive there is much about how James puts his philosophy together that I don’t quite understand. To have a life built around experiences seems so radical to my mind. I was raised to think and use knowledge as a basis before the immediacy of experiences. To not put experience before thought (even though sometimes in the immediate I go with the experience. For instance, when I grab a chocolate bar as a quick fix instead of thinking my way through what I truly need, more sleep or perhaps a walk. But to have a framework of ‘act like what you do matters’ (which in and of itself is a interesting challenge), but to have experience being the trump card in life. Hmm… I don’t know. It sits wrong. What do you think of philosopher William James?
What if we did though. Live our lives, as believers, like what we do matters. Not in the pragmatic sense of James, but in a God-focused way.
For instance, it matters if we praise God for the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the house we live in, and so forth. It MATTERS that we thank him. Can we live our lives showing this difference? It makes a difference how we live our lives as believers. We need to show that attending church services, going to bible studies, and volunteering is different than being a sports fan, or a weekend shopper. We need to act like having God in our lives makes a difference. Is there room on our lives as believers to have this type of pragmatic approach?
Asking the question, what do you think?