William James is a great figure, historically important as a philosopher (pragmatism and radical empiricism), a student of religion (au...
Russell Goodman, who was our guest a couple of weeks ago, for our episode on William James sent the following remarks as a follow up to our on-air conversation. They are posted here with his permission.
I wanted to comment on that squirrel going around the tree story with which James opens the second chapter of Pragmatism. It's a great story, but it seems, from my experience, to itself provoke as much disagreement and puzzlement as the squirrel and the man themselves do.
At first blush, it seems like a good verificationist story- a dispute about two terms or hypotheses that have the same empirical consequences. James's point would be then be that the dispute is idle (as you put it in your introduction, the campers are “arguing about nothing.”) This seems to be James's conclusion in the second paragraph, where he writes: “If no practical difference whatever can be traced, then the alternatives mean practically the same thing, and all dispute is idle.” That's fine, and this statement fits Peirce's example (in “How to Make our Ideas Clear”) of a cup of wine that is allegedly Christ's blood but gives all the signs of just plain wine.
But James's conclusion does not fit what he says in the first paragraph, where the point is NOT that there is no “practical difference” between the cases but rather that if one makes the distinction between two senses of “going around” (i. e. passing north of, east of, south of, west of, vs. facing the belly, then the side, then the back, then the other side of the squirrel) there is no need for disagreement. That's because each sense determines a DIFFERENT, empirically verifiable set of consequences, either for the man himself (if he can catch sight of the squirrel's belly, etc, it being a narrow tree) or certainly for the observers, who can tell whether the man is facing the squirrel's back or belly (is the squirrel standing?) or merely circling a squirrel who keeps his belly facing the man.
So, James misinterprets his own example as one in which there is no practical difference between the two hypotheses, when there actually is. In either interpretation however, the example is meant to furnish a picture of traditional philosophy, as (in the words of one of James's heroes, George Berkeley) raising a dust and then complaining that one cannot see. In this guise pragmatism is a critical philosophy or therapeutic philosophy, freeing us from pseudo problems. There's also a positive side (e. g. his 'humanistic epistemology') that the example doesn't seem to exemplify.
Another puzzling thing about James's example is the question of what it has to do with pragmatism, or why we need pragmatism to tell us this? As James points out, the idea of making a distinction when we encounter a (seeming) contradiction is an old one in philosophy. It's a funny idea to invoke at the beginning of a chapter where one expects to learn about what is distinctive about pragmatism.
From years of teaching this chapter I've learned not to start with the squirrel example, but to pass to other points he makes in this really quite amazing piece of writing. Last spring I gave a seminar on the chapter in North Carolina and we had a very lively discussion about the squirrel example for most of an hour, with people disagreeing about whether James really did misinterpret his own example! We didn't get much further however. What do you think?