Counting Cats in Zanzibar Rotating Header Image

The Pragmatist philosopher William James and the Oslo murderer.

According to the Oslo muderer his favourate philosopher was William James.

Of course the ravings of a mass murderer may not be very reliable – but this favouring of William James seems to have gone back quite some time.

Well who was William James?

William James was an American philosopher known (along with Charles Pierce and John Dewey) as a founder of the “Pragmatist” school of philosophy.

This school of thought set itself up in opposition to both Artistotelianism and to the “Scottish Philosophy” favoured by such philosophers as Noah Porter and James McCosh (see the latter’s “The Scottish Philosophy”).

The central point of Pramatism is that (contrary to both Aristoteliamism and the “Scottish” Philosophy) no such thing as objective truth – as William James put it “the right is just the expedient in our way of thinking”.

William James was an influential writer in “Progressive” religious circles – indeed he was cited more than any other philosopher of the early 20th century. As, in opposition, to the “Fundementalists” he held one did not need to hold any particular doctrine (or set of doctrines) to be objectively true in order to hold a post in a Church (which was very useful for ministers, bishops, academics and so on – who wanted to hold such positions of authority, but did not believe the traditional creeds were objectively true).

Almost needless to say this follower of William James (the arch enemy of American “fundementalists”) was described as a “Christian fundementalist” by the Oslo police (the same people who took over an hour to reach victims begging for help on their mobile phones – victims who were a few minutes helecopter time from the H.Q. of the police in Norway). The moron “mainstream media” followed suit. Even ignoring the murderer’s favourable talk  about “Christian athieism” (I am not going to go into that).

However, the Oslo murderer was not the first person William James had influenced.

For example Sorel (the sickly “apostle of violence”) based his belief that a doctrine did not actually need to be true for it to be worth killing for on the work of William James – true a “myth” was not objectively true, but then nothing was objectively true. So it was O.K. that a myth was not objectively true.

One could make the philosophical attack that if nothing is objectively true how can Pragmatism be objectively true…… but I do not want to be accused of nit picking.

Evidence was piling up against Marxism by the early 1900s – for example about a century of rising wages (when the theory of Marxism predicted that wages would fall over time – hence Karl Marx’s deliberate distortion of what Gladstone said, Gladstone said that wages were rising and Karl Marx dishonestly cites him as saying that wages are falling). Some Marxists react to the ever increasing pile of evidence against Marxism (on this and other matters) by trying to think of rational ways out.

For example, “Lenin” takes the idea of the radical “liberal” Hobson that the reason wages are going up is because overseas colonies are being plundered – this leads to the “Imperialism” theory of Marxism, still (as “neo colonialism”) popular in academic (and other) circles to this day.

However, other leading Marxists choose to just give up the idea of objective truth all together – if nothing was really true (if “truth” is just whatever one desires to be true) then one can “justify” anything.

Mussolini took this course – giving up classical Marxism (he had been the leading Marxist in Italy – and senior to Lenin in international Marxist ranks) for his own subjective socialism based on his desires (and the desires of others) this bacame known as “Fascism”.

It is worth remembering what Aristotelianism and the “Scottish” school have in common – what they both share with such philosphers Ralph Cudworth (in 17th century England) and Harold Prichard, Sir William David Ross (and the rest of the “Oxford Realists” – argueably going up to Antony Flew).

The universe objectively exists independent of my (or your) mind – if a tree fell in a forest and we were not there it would still make a noise (there would still be an air pressure curve).

One exists – I exist (and so do you). The mind (agency – “free will”, the ability to choose) is not just an “illusion” (if the mind does not exist who is having this “illusion”). We are not just objects we are also subjects – human BEINGS (people).

Other minds (other people) also exist. They are not just thoughts in my (or your) own mind, and they are not just inanimate objects (with no moral moral importance than bits of clockwork).

The universe exists – it is not an illusion. One exists also (the mind is not an “illusion”). Other people (other minds) exist, and one can choose what one does or does not do to them. These actions are REAL (not a dream – because the universe is real), are a matter of CHOICE (because the mind exists), and, therefore, one has moral responsiblity for them – for one is a moral agent (a reasoning mind) and other humans are  BEINGS (moral agents – people) also.

Now William James did not go around murdering people – but as his philosophy denies the truth (the objective truth) of all of the above points (holding that “truth” is whatever one wants it to be), it is a perfect philosophy for someone who is going to go out and either support, or commit, mass murder.

For example, does one have to prove any specific crime against people before killing them?

According to Pragmatism – the whole concept of objective truth is wrong, so NO (one does not).

So perfect for Sorel, perfect for Mussolini, and perfect for the Oslo murderer.

“Paul the idea was designed to allow people who did not believe in the objective truth of Christian doctrines to stay Ministers and Bishops – how dare you associate it with mass murder on an island near Oslo”.

Once you discard the notion of truth (or “redefine truth” in a way that makes it without objective meaning) you open the door to horror.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer tried desperatly to explain this (both in Germany and in the United States) in the 1930s, but the “Progressives” choose to ignore his warnings.

Better (a thousand times better) an athiest who believes in objective truth than a “religious” person who does not.

As for claimed links (in thought) between the Pragmatists and David Hume (more than a century before) and the Pragmatists and the Logical Positivists (of their own time and after) – I am not going to go into all that here.

Other than to say that, my opinion is that David Hume asks QUESTIONS (he is a sceptic) he does not make the claim that objective truth (whether in relation to one’s own existance, the existance of the objective universe, and the objective existance of other reasoning and choosing minds – other PEOPLE) does not exist.

However,  I have not studied Hume enough to make a stand – even on this.


  1. cuffleyburgers says:

    Hmm… Occam’s razor would certainly suggest that you do really exist and I exist, but it can also be argued that so I am only aware of the world via a stream of signals from eyes ears nose and skin and that your existence, to me is merely a result of a particular pattern of signals and there is no objective proof that I am not hooked up to a supercomputer of some sort.

    It is merely more likely than not.

  2. Mr Ecks says:

    Don’t see what you are driving at.

    You can believe in objective truth and still be a killer.

    It is objectively true that socialism has done vast harm and is still doing vast harm. Someone inclined to kill might easily suppose that , objectively, killing those believed to be agents of that harm would put a spoke in the wheels of said harm.

  3. Ian B says:

    It is a very interesting philosophical question and discerning the nature of truth is an essential prerequisite to forming a moral theory. As you know Paul I am, in terms of moral theory, a Humean; that is I believe it is objectively provable that Hume’s Is/Ought split is an essential feature of the universe.

    It is clear from my above statement that I therefore believe in an objective universe which exists independent of its observers. The problem we have as thinking beings is in our perception of it. Effectively, each human mind is a “theory of reality”; our perceptions are conjectures. Some of these conjectures may be very reliable and effectively beyond dispute, e.g. “the Pacific Ocean is full of water”. As we move into more abstract areas, our theories become less reliable, which is why there is such diversity of belief in the world on matters abstract.

    It does not follow from this subjectivist view that all opinions are equal, as Pragmatism effectively seems to say. When we understand that every mind is a flawed “model” of reality, it simply urges us to test our own beliefs- our own mental models- against reality, and thus attempt to come as close to the objective as we can.

    It annoys me that subjectivism, in the terms I have described it, is frequently associated with the Pragmatist view (“there is no reality”) as you have described it. They are quite different. There are facts. The hard part is to figure out what they are. The harder part still is to swallow the reality that morals and ethics are not part of the factual realm of the universe, although they must be informed by it. It is a fact that giving poison to a baby will kill it. Whether or not it is wrong to kill a baby is a moral judgement, and beyond the factual realm.

  4. NickM says:

    “As we move into more abstract areas, our theories become less reliable, which is why there is such diversity of belief in the world on matters abstract.”

    I’m really not sure about that. Certain abstractions are easier to grasp than the reality. This is why we build computer models. The fundamental theories of physics are pretty solid in many areas but by gods once you expand them into the real world of complicated stuff then you get into very murky waters. Climatology is a current prime example.

    I know Ian that this is just a science example but this also applies to other things surely? Moral principles are frequently easier to state than to apply to real situations. If we take the libertarian non-aggression principle at some point people have to decide what constitutes aggression. Do you let someone who confronts you and you are pretty certain they mean you harm to get in the first blow to be sure? What if you are almost certain if they get that first blow you’re dead or at least rendered unable to resist further blows?

  5. NickM says:

    Ah, the old brain in the vat! Now if we are just agents in a computer simulation then it’s one of staggering technical complexity. I would argue that that is the same as being alive and moreover the “game universe” is therefore isomorphic to a “real universe”. Presumably there would be a higher being or beings running this simulation. Fine, let’s call him or them God or The Gods. What I am saying is that it doesn’t really change anything.

  6. Ian B says:

    Nick, the “non-aggressison principle” is not a fact of nature. It’s a choice. You can’t prove it to be morally superior to the “you can kill anyone who gets up your nose principle”. You can prefer it- I do- but it’s not in the realm of fact.

    As to physics, me, I think there’s something fundamentally wrong with our interpretations of quantum mechanics at present. I don’t know what it is- if I did, I’d be off to get a Nobel, not writing about it here- but I think we’re in for a paradigm shift at some point. We’ve got the wrong mental model of what the equations describe, and it’s stopping us seeing what is actually “true”. What does the wave function actually describe? Nobody knows, and the only advice is to not care about that, just do the math. That’s a pretty big fucking hole in physics.

  7. Roue le Jour says:

    This is only tangential to what Paul is saying, but I’m coming round to the idea that the difference in politics these days is not left vs right, or capital vs labour, but objective reality vs subjective reality.

    Most of us here believe in objective reality because that’s the world we live in. If you want to eat, you have to add value. As it is for us, so it has been for farmers and hunter gathers before us for thousands of years. Our opponents, on the other hand, live in a world of patronage. If they want to eat, they have to please their patron, the state. (Or more accurately, their superiors in the state.) They are intellectually committed to the state and cannot disagree with it, over AGW, for example, without undermining the whole foundation of their existence. It would be the same as us accepting quantum computers have demons in them, one falsehood disproves the concept of verifiable science and the whole edifice collapses.

    We seem to be facing a similar position on economics. On one side those who think money is a limited resource which must be allocated carefully, and on the other those who think money is not a limited resource at all, there is really plenty of it, enough for us all to live like kings, it’s just that those rich bastards are hoarding it. It’s like one party trying to debate how to spend the one hundred dollars in the kitty when the other side doesn’t even accept that there is only a hundred dollars in the first place.

    None of this really matters as long as government is small, realists can out vote the fantasists, but once there’s millions and millions of them, not so good.

  8. Sam Duncan says:

    Great post, Paul. Not just the philosophical side (which I might get to in a later comment; bit busy at the moment) but for digging up the fascinating nugget that Breivik was a follower of James. Because that’s a bit of a bombshell. Or would be, if the mainstream was interested in seriosuly investigating the killer’s motivations instead of screaming “right wing!”.

    The name didn’t mean much to me, but as soon as I saw “Pragmatist” (with the capitalization) I knew what was coming. Roué has a point, although Ian’s closer to my thinking: there’s nothing wrong with the subjective per se – even Randian Objectivists accept the subjective nature of value – but the Pragmatists took it too far. So if James was as important to Breivik’s thinking as you say, then in the great intellectual conflict of the last century-and-a-bit, he was clearly on the other side.

  9. NickM says:

    You don’t seem to be replying to my comment as such. What I was getting at is that I disagree with you that abstraction is in general more subjective. What I was saying is that putting principles either physical or moral or whatever into action is where the complexity comes in. I didn’t claim the non-aggression principle is a fact of nature I just said that the principle is easier to grasp than to apply. I mentioned the science issue (I didn’t mention or even think of QM) as an analogy. Just knowing the physical principles is not enough to construct a model of a complicated system. Similarly knowing moral principles is not enough to apply them in real life. It might be necessary but it is not sufficient.

  10. Paul Marks says:

    “You can believe in objective truth and still be a murderer” – yes you can, but this particular murderer (to judge by his support for William James – and by his, the Oslo murderer, particular brand of cultural politics) did not.

    It is considered bad form on the internet to cite the National Socialists, but in this case it is fitting. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer pointed out – some of the leading Nazis did not believe that everything was controlled by “the Jews” (some did not even believe there was such a thing, properly speaking, as a “Jewish race” – but I will not get into all that here). After all if the Jews were so powerful such things as the Nazis comming to power were very hard to explain. However, claiming the Jews controlled everything was a useful “myth” to unify people and maintain their loyality.

    “But Paul the Nazis murdered millions of people” – and why not? Remember there is (to such people) no such thing as objective right and wrong, any more than that there is objective truth in such things as claims that the Jews control the world. If it USEFUL “expedient” to claim it, then it is “true” – the Marxists have the same principle which they use for “agitation/propaganda” or “agitprop”, propaganda designed to “agitate”, to whip up hatred and push people into action.

    For example, to say that American culture says that corporations do no wrong is not just a lie – it is almost the exact opposite of the truth. In reality American culture (the schools, the universities, literature, television shows, films, and on and on) are saturated with stories about the terrible deeds of corporations (mostly fictional – but with some real terrible deeds mixed in).

    However, if one watches the “Kaiser Report” on Russian television the claim that American culture is “market fundementalist” (a term from George Soros I believe) and teaches people that corporations never do anything wrong, is made with a straight face.

    Max Kaiser and Stacy Herbert are not morons (they know this is not true), and nor are they Marxists (they are all over the place politically), but they well trained in the tradition of “agitprop” – it does not matter whether a specific statement is true or false (so true statements and false statements will both be used), because what is important is to push hatred of the target (in this case corporations – but it could be Jews or whoever) in order to whip up people into “direct action”.

    Ian makes the important point that believeing in such things as the objective existance of the universe and the objective existance of the self does NOT mean that one has to believe in the objective existence of right and wrong.

    Many in the Aristotelian tradition (including, of course, the Randian Objectivists)) believe that they CAN prove the basic principles of morality (they can get an ought from an is).

    The intuitivists (from back in the time of Thomas Reid right to the time of Harold Prichard and Sir William David Ross) believe that right and wrong are self evident (the term “self evident” found in the Declaration of Independence is, of course, from the writings of Thomas Reid – the United States is a nation “based on an idea, a philosophy, rather than an ethnic group” the trouble is that this founding philosophy has been dropping out of favour in elite circles for more than a century – the philosophical basis of the very existance of the United States has been undermined.

    Anyway Reid and co might well agree with Hume that one can not get “an ought from an is” – they would be more likely to say “the is just IS – and you know it perfectly well Mr Hume”, and (in his own conduct) David Hume did indeed act as if he “knew it perfectly well”.

    Whether one believes (like the Aristotelians) that one can prove the nonaggression principle (the principle of Lycrophon more than Aristotle – but I am in danger of boring people), or whether one believes (like the Scots school – and the Oxford Realists) that it just IS…… is a moot point.

    The real point is – does one (in one’s own conduct) uphold this principle or not?

  11. Paul Marks says:

    The existance of the external universe……

    Surely it is up to the sceptic (not the believer) to prove his or her case?

    If we are to reject the evidence of our senses (and our experience) surely some clear new EVIDENCE must be provided by the sceptic? Why should the burden of proof be on the general population (i.e. against “common sense” – the common sense of mankind) rather than upon the sceptic? By the way the move from “common sense” to “good sense” (the move made by Duguld Stewart after Thomas Reid) was a mistake – it planted the seed of elitism (of the idea of “special knowledge” unknowable to the common herd) and had political as well as philosophical consequences. The common people are against such and such a change – we could try and convince them of correctness of such a move, but they lack the reasoning capcity to understand our arguments (how convenient – as that means “we” need not bother to make an argument) so let us trick them into it – FOR THEIR OWN GOOD.

    This sort of thinking develops over the 19th century (I must stress that Stewart and others only planted a seed – they did not go far on this road) till one ends up with the horror of the American Progressives and the British Fabians.

    And if anyone thinks I am using the word “horror” lightly I am not – these were evil folk, rotten to the core. For example there is no principle in Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” (Mao – the largest scale mass murderer in human history) that can not be found in the writings of H.G. Wells and the rest of them. Even the lighter writings – such as the short story “The Comming of the Comet” – which refers to destroying all existing buildings and civilization, total collectivization, this supposedly leading to a world of limitless prosperity, the comparisons with both the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, and with Pol Pot’s “Year Zero” leap off the page.

    “But Wells, Shaw and the rest of them did not understand that this would lead to mass murder” – yes they did, and they WELCOMED this.

    By the way….

    The talk of computer simulations reminded me of one aspect of the Oslo murderer – the large amount of time he spent on computer role playing games.

    However, I do not believe he really thought the people on the island were the same as the “people” he “killed” in such things as “Call of Duty” or “World of Warcraft” – although his lawyer may go down that road. “Blaming the computer” (or blaming role playing) is a desperate (indeed pathetic) defence – but American lawyers have tried it.

  12. Ian B says:

    Paul, I’ve got a little confused by what point you’re making regarding truth. Are you asserting that there are certain truths which are self evident, and in that case objectively true?

  13. Paul Marks says:

    Yes there are certain truths that are self evident (one can list many of them – for example the basic rules of logic, “A is A” law-of-indenity) and so on.

    The question remains is morality (in terms of basic principles – not details) one of these self evident truths – Reid would have said “yes”, Hume would have said “this is not clear to me” (not quite the same thing as “no” but close).

    However, William James was a lot more radical than this – he did not just deny self evident truths (indeed as a friend of Pierce the new logic man – he had to be careful not formally deny the existance of logical truths) he denied the existance of objective truth in general. He denied that evidence and reasoning can lead to one to an objective truth – to James “truth” was just what one wanted to be true (what worked for you – as it were).

    Once you do that (once truth and right are just “the expeident in our way of thinking”) you open the door to just about anything.

  14. NickM says:

    Well, yes Paul,

    (do I sound like Debbie McGee?)

    I did 20 credits in discrete math (a lot of formal logic) at Nottingham. I have read Kurt Gödel. A lot of his stuff. I got 80% in both modules. I should have done better but for the Quine-McCluskey reduction question (I missed that lecture to have sex with a (female) morris-dancer). I’m still fecked as to what the buggery that is (Quine-McCluskey reduction – not sex). The point is logic is very powerful. It must be handled with respect. It is so powerful that the only way to defeat it is logic itself. And it is old. Gods is it not old! When not buggering kiddies those Greeks knew it. It is the foundation of Western civilization and it’s crowning glory. Well, the work of Alan Turing, Alonzo Church and Kurt Gödel is.

    I miss math. I miss covering a chalk-board in stuff you lesser mortals couldn’t tell from a hen-scratch in the barnyard but meant the Universe to me. I write words now. “Words” not the symbology of the real. I can’t even recall how to derive the speed of light from Maxwell’s Equations. I ought to be shot for that.

  15. Paul Marks says:

    Mmmm – short and bald.

    Yes Paul D. and myself have things in common.

    The Morris.

    I would not go in for that – not because dressing up and doing a silly looking dance would bother me (I think I would enjoy that).

    No it is all the beer afterwards – my belly is big enough as it is.

  16. Paul Marks says:

    Mathematics – the “universal language”.

    Alas, I never learned it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *