William James tried to show the meaningfulness of (some kinds of) spirituality but, like other pragmatists, refused to see religion as the basis of meaning or morality.
Charles Peirce: the American polymath who first identified pragmatism.
Drinking beer with my old Professor
Dr. Gill came over to where I was sitting and asked, “Would you like some company?”
“Why not,” I replied. And then after he ordered two beers, one for him
and me, he said, “Why did you get up and leave my lecture?”
I looked at him curiously, and then said, “I couldn’t take it
anymore. I had to leave or scream. Which would you have preferred?”
“That’s what I figured,” he said. “Well, you’ve got my full attention
now; so why did you get so upset? Was it the lecture? Sometimes I get
carried away, you know.”
“No. When I left you weren’t even lecturing,” I said. “You were in
the middle of one of your famous digressions. You went from `why
mechanical principles don’t apply in social and psychological
situations’ to describing a hike you once took in Washington State’s
“Oh yeah, I remember that,” he said. “I was talking about the natural
beauty of the place, and how I loved to get away from it all by going
there. But, why did that upset you?”
“There was more,” I said. “You were describing how impossible it was
for a person to be sensitive in a selfish society. Where people cared
only for themselves, where greed, killing, and war were the norm,
where love and hypocrisy were joined at the hip, in a society like
that you said, `hearts turn to stone.’ `In the darkest hours,’ you
said, `thoughts of life turn into thoughts of death.’ After that I left.”
“I remember,” came the reply, “but I didn’t mean to sound like we
actually lived in that place. I was talking more hypothetically.”
“It doesn’t matter,” I said. “You said it, and you meant it, every
word of it, I could tell. I didn’t just get up and leave because of
that. I left because most of the time you talked as if `right and
wrong’ were inviolable absolutes, yet other times you would go on and
on about how life was one big massive confusion. I can take only so
much of that. Which is it anyway? Who exactly should I believe–the
Pope or the pragmatist?”
“It’s not as if a professor has to think for his class you know,”
Dr. Gill responded, “It’s a professor’s job to make the class think.
Some students like that method; it even excites them, while others do
not. I always thought you were in the group that enjoyed independent
“I do,” I said, “that’s the problem. I totally disagree with you.
When you start talking about how logical inferences will one day set
humanity free, my stomach starts to churn. That’s bullshit. Logical
calculations are what nuclear bombs are made of–not human kindness
and compassion. The only reason I go to class is to see what
disagreements will arise. In fact, you seem to encourage them. It
blows my mind. I don’t know how you can go on teaching when the whole
class doesn’t know what the hell you’re talking about. You’re an
enigma! So, I say it again, which is it, the Pope or the pragmatist?
There’s no time like the present. I really want to know. I need to know!”
“I doubt very much if behind Papal decrees you’ll find much deductive
reasoning,” Dr. Gill responded.
“What’s the difference,” I said, “its all about `authority,’ isn’t it?
Your paper scratching isn’t science. Astronomers predict events. What
can you predict–headaches???