Why James Can be an Existential Pluralist: A Response to Talisse and Aikin

In: Contemporary Pragmatism
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In this paper, I would like to revisit the revisiting of Robert Talisse and Scott Aikin’s response to Joshua Anderson. My work here will not render judgment about how they respond to Anderson, but instead, my thinking is that the response to the restatement of their argument is the most current iteration of “Why Pragmatists Cannot Be Pluralists.” In this way, I am responding to their most updated version of their argument and the substantial issues raised in the original paper. My concern here is that a spirited Jamesian response to their restated problem should be forthcoming. My response is motivated by the fact that pluralism is misunderstood with respect to James and what they dub meaning pragmatism, even though I know they are painting with a big brush of those, like myself, who find inspiration and identification with James’s philosophy. Therefore, my overall thesis is that pluralism is severely misunderstood, and this misunderstanding has several interesting consequences for the argument they want to make against it.


In this paper, I would like to revisit the revisiting of Robert Talisse and Scott Aikin’s response to Joshua Anderson. My work here will not render judgment about how they respond to Anderson, but instead, my thinking is that the response to the restatement of their argument is the most current iteration of “Why Pragmatists Cannot Be Pluralists.” In this way, I am responding to their most updated version of their argument and the substantial issues raised in the original paper. My concern here is that a spirited Jamesian response to their restated problem should be forthcoming. My response is motivated by the fact that pluralism is misunderstood with respect to James and what they dub meaning pragmatism, even though I know they are painting with a big brush of those, like myself, who find inspiration and identification with James’s philosophy. Therefore, my overall thesis is that pluralism is severely misunderstood, and this misunderstanding has several interesting consequences for the argument they want to make against it.


Originally, Robert Talisse and Scott Aikin published an essay entitled “Why Pragmatists Cannot Be Pluralists” (2005),1 which has drawn much attention for arguing that classical pragmatists cannot be pluralists in any substantive sense. In 2016, their paper still attracts sufficient attention, and over and over in the literature Talisse and Aikin continually assert that essay’s “challenge has never been met. That challenge is for pragmatists to articulate a genuine pluralism consistent with their broader commitments.”2 In this work, I will take up that challenge. By showing how William James’s pluralism is radically different than first conceived and framed in the argument below, I can show what a Jamesian pragmatist is committed to precisely concerning pluralism and then take out the legs of the following argument at the same time. Finally, the attention that James receives in the critique is just one version of classical pragmatism—the other, of course, is Charles Sanders Peirce. For purposes of brevity, I have decided to take on the challenge of classical pragmatism as a challenge to James’s philosophy only. I know this is narrower than both Talisse and Aikin intend, yet they also address and categorize James’s thought in its own specific way.

I The Revisited Argument and Its Expansion

In what follows, I wish to restate the argument in their terms exactly as they formulated in their response:

  1. 1.Pluralism is broadly motivated by
    1. (a)the conflict of values, and
    2. (b)the view that regularity and seeming permanence of this conflict is a consequence of the failure of human intellect
  2. 2.Three basic forms of pluralism emerge as explanations and prescriptions
    1. (a) Deep pluralism is an ontological explanation for conflict—namely that values themselves are at odds, and so these conflicts are rationally impenetrable and permanent.
    2. (b) Modus Vivendi Pluralism is the base prescription of non-interference against the background of rationally irresolvable conflict.
    3. (c) Shallow Pluralism is strictly epistemic approach that requires that tolerance should prevail in these disagreements with the hopes that dialogue may make some progress.
  3. 3.Pragmatisms come in two varieties:
    1. (a) Meaning Pragmatism is devoted to resolving philosophical and axiological questions against a background of clarifying what the issues are
    2. (b) Inquiry Pragmatism is devoted to resolving axiological problems by reconstructing them so that some research program may reasonably be led to answer the question either now or in the future.
  4. 4.Neither form of pragmatism is compatible with deep or modus vivendi pluralism, as deep pluralism denies both clarification and inquiry, and modus vivendi is unstable.
  5. 5.Inquiry pragmatism is consistent with and compatible with shallow pluralism, as both require tolerance and ongoing dialogue.
  6. 6.Shallow pluralism is clearly consistent with inquiry pragmatism.
  7. 7.However shallow pluralism is consistent with many other non-pluralist viewpoints.
  8. 8.Shallow pluralism, then, is pluralism in name only.
  9. 9.Pragmatists cannot be pluralists in any substantive sense.3

In the above argument, Talisse and Aikin needlessly separate pluralism along its epistemological and metaphysical dimensions when in truth, James’s notion of experience and the pragmatic attitude should be read as a challenge to the tendency to parse this distinction. Put another way, deep pluralism and shallow pluralism are what pluralism amounts to in James. Practically there is no separability between what I know and what is since, for James, all beliefs aim at making a difference in our lives. To make a difference one must know an object and be committed decisively to the object’s effect in my experience, and this occurs simultaneously in any relation to the object. This coalescing of the epistemic and the ontological has a consequence of dissolving deep pluralism and shallow pluralism into one existential pluralism, and this dissolution reverberates throughout the entire argument.4 More concretely, if I can show that there’s no such thing as shallow pluralism or deep pluralism on its own in James and that both imply each other, then Talisse and Aikin cannot conclude that Jamesians cannot be pluralists in a substantive sense.

This strategy may be a little confusing, and so let me give an analogy that I hope may illustrate the strangeness of Talisse and Aikin’s move. Suppose that rather than talking about epistemic pluralisms in James and pragmatism, someone were to write a paper titled “The Epistemology of Sartre’s Existentialism.” On its face, the paper does sound intriguing I admit. However, anyone that has read Sartre’s existential phenomenology knows that the analysis of the structures of existence take place on the whole of human existence. Indeed, I can slice up moments of experience and conceptualize some of those moments as epistemic ones (and others as ontological ones?), even in Sartre’s phenomenological descriptions, but in abstracting away from the whole of lived-experience and human life, I would not be explaining and conceiving Sartre’s existential phenomenology accurately in the spirit it is written anymore than Talisse and Aikin do here (at least) with respect to James’s rich notion of experience and his texts.

I do want to mention one last point briefly. There is a kernel of this existential insight operating in Talisse and Aikin, or at the very least, someone could argue they’re aware of it slightly even if it comes at the expense of denying clear boundary distinctions between meaning pragmatism and inquiry pragmatism. When Talisse and Aikin distinguish between meaning pragmatism and inquiry pragmatism, the implicit distinction is between Jamesian pragmatism for meaning pragmatism and the inquiry pragmatism made famous by John Dewey. In meaning pragmatism the decision to resolve conflicts is due to clarifying the issues against their relative background. Clarification, therefore, is part of the existential process of choice since one seeks out what gives rise to these conflicting issues in my experience and what’s at stake in it for one’s life in my proposed attempt to resolve them. Now, I know I’ve added significantly to the content there, but in every instance of settling a metaphysical dispute, James introduces the core element about what difference it will make: whether or not God exists, free will is real, or that there is a life after death. At the same time, however, pragmatists need not think that clarification does not involve inquiry in the life-transforming way that James embraces. We shouldn’t think, as Talisse and Aikin, insist that these are two exclusive forms, but rather tendencies of response to the onto-epistemic-dimension of lived-experience.

In what follows, I touch upon the methods of interpreting James’s thought. Then, I explain Talisse and Aikin’s typology of pluralism. Section iv forms the bulk of my argument as I think any talk of James’s pluralism (and even to call it metaphysical pluralism) invites us to consider what James says of experience in his Essays in Radical Empiricism. Once we see how the process of experience emerges, it’s possible to capture the true sense of James’s pluralism. I expound upon existential pluralism in Section v to collapse the distinction between Meaning Pragmatism and Inquiry Pragmatism problematizing the above argument from (3) onward. Next, I show how existential pluralism affects the two arguments that both Talisse and Aikin made in their 2005 statement of the problem. Finally, I show the separation between shallow and deep pluralism to be false and why this matters for Talisse and Aikin’s erroneous dismissal of what I take to be the redeeming features of Jamesian (existential) pluralism.

II Interpreting James: Two Camps

When one finds similar resources in another form of philosophy to address problems in another, one must make sure to address questions of methodological assumption. In being as transparent as possible about how terms are employed and issues understood, I want to show those assumptions I’ve made when challenging Talisse and Aikin’s argument.

In her work on James, Charlene Haddock Seigfried notes that James scholarship can be divided between two parties:

The secondary literature on James is divided on whether his writings are best grasped as a series of brilliant insights, their very disconnectedness being seen as evidence for his anti-rationalistic, anti-systematic, anti-foundational stances, or whether his writings form a unified whole, even through the coherence has to be sought despite often contrary to appearances.5

In this paper, the existential claim is more the latter than the former, and so the burden is on me to find more coherence to pluralism than is contrary to the appearances.6 However, I feel that my interpretive claims are assisted by existentialism with respect to the fact that the same level of responsibility and choice manifest in the pragmatic attitude, and this attitude is present in existentialism.

The well-known interpreter of existentialism, William Barrett, was right when he wrote, “Of all the non-European philosophers, William James probably best deserves to be labeled an existentialist,” and even more poignantly, “there are pages in James that could have been written by Kierkegaard, and the Epilogue to The Varieties of Religious Experience puts the case for primacy of personal experience over abstraction as strongly as any of the Existentialists has ever done.”7 The call for the religious in “The Moral Philosopher and Moral Life” resonates with the deeply existential and near-like Kierkegaardian flare when James argues that religion is necessary to motivate our morally strenuous nature. To affirm particular threads that run through experience is to take up a choice, “the genuine option” that pertains to the whole field of our lives. In seeking to resolve these problems of one’s life with the deeply felt affirmation underlying James’s thought reveals how existential James should be read, not the contentious imposition of analytic categories and -isms of 21st century philosophy thrust upon James.8

The main interpretive claim of this paper is that we should ground our discussion of James’s work in his Essays in Radical Empiricism and seek to read from here about pluralism for a fuller picture than afforded by Talisse and Aikin narrow analysis of meaning pragmatism. In that way, we find there is more unity and coherence than a trail of brilliant insights.9 The bumps in the road and inconsistencies never reflect the existential gusto of how James attempts to work out the problems he addresses, and so there is the constant ever-present emphasis on proto-existential themes that condition his later commitments. Let’s move now to characterize the types of pluralism Talisse and Aikin originally outlined in their original essay.

III Talisse and Aikin’s Typology of Pluralisms

In this section, I explain the distinctions Talisse and Aikin have drawn concerning pluralism.

First, they consider shallow pluralism. Shallow pluralism holds “that certain conflicts simply cannot be rationally adjudicated, the shallow pluralist recommends the epistemically modest position that tolerance should prevail.”10 So, a painter, a priest, and an atheist may all experience the reality of St. Bernard’s Parish in Akron, and it will be three separate things to each of them. The artist may only experience the architectural form and its contrast against the other utilitarian buildings of downtown Akron. The Priest may see this building as the living stone of Christ and the very place in which Jesus is encountered in the Mass, and the Atheist may see it as a travesty and lie. Between them, however, there is no principled rational way to parse the difference between them to know which interpretation of the church is ultimately true, but only being true in context these views may be tolerated for their differences. As such, the shallow pluralist prescribes tolerance. The artist, priest, and atheist may get along with each other respecting the differences in how they regard the church. These three may even go to a Cleveland Indians ballgame, discuss each other’s view about how best to experience the church, but tolerance should prevail.

The deep pluralist goes deeper than epistemological considerations. Instead, deep pluralism is a byproduct of a strong ontological account of conflicting values. “The deep pluralist lives in a world where conflicts among goods are arational and consequently often violence, and the only prescription could be to secure and protect one’s own values.”11 For the deep pluralism, only an agonism of values towards all values is possible since moral life will always be undergirded by power with no resources to adjudicate competing claims. No moral reason at all, only power. The Priest and Atheist might be two such people. The Priest may guard his worldview at the expense of everything else. For him, the Eucharistic Mass reveals the true power and presence of Christ, yet the Atheist can only see the sociological ritual and symbolism in the act, but certainly not transubstantiation of physical matter into God.

Finally, modus vivendi pluralism is the more liberal response to the same ontological condition as the deep pluralist, yet the prescription is not agonism, but tolerance. Talisse and Aikin define this pluralism in practice as having the commitment “to shape the political and intellectual terrain so that individuals and groups can co-exist in common institutions they accept as legitimate.”12 According to Talisse and Aikin, there are two fundamental ways one may build towards this Hobbesian truce of difference: Indifferentist or Recognistic. According to the indifferentist, the Priest and the Atheist ignore each other and remain indifferent to the fact that there are competing goods and values. No view has any normative weight over another view, and society requires institutional and cultural spaces to safeguard and promote indifference.

In recognistic modus vivendi pluralism, “all competing values are equally rational, so they must be treated as such.” In other words, the Priest and the Atheist are not indifferent to their differences. Instead, the differences between the Priest and the Atheist must be respected as “instantiations of their own unique brand of goodness.”13 One can imagine the many multicultural seminars on student diversity required by university staff. In this way, diversity is celebrated because all forms of difference should be recognized as equally rational and good.

IV Talisse and Aikin Only Talk about James’s Meaning Pragmatism without Mention of His Radical Empiricism

In working from James’s posthumously published Essays in Radical Empiricism, it becomes clear that both Talisse and Aikin have never amended their original argument to take stock of James in full, and while James also stated that one could very well be a pragmatist without adopting his radical empiricism, it’s plainly clear – at least to me – that how experience functions in James’s overall picture is extremely relevant to the topic of what Talisee and Aikin call James’s metaphysical pluralism. To not address his radical empiricism in connection to both pragmatism and pluralism is highly suspicious, if not erroneous and self-serving for their argument.

Both Talisse and Aikin define meaning pragmatism as “first and foremost a method of clarification.”14 Here, clarification makes light of how deeply affected we are by philosophical problems, but as I have already explained about clarification, the distinction between both inquiry and meaning pragmatism is a hard one to maintain. The point of the squirrels circling the tree is a silly one, a point of introduction that is to show the true depth and life-changing quality that metaphysical disputes possess, e.g. God’s existence or free-will have for one’s life. The squirrel analogy at the beginning of the Pragmatism lectures is nothing more than an anecdote to reveal the deeply problematic nature of experiencing difference in belief and the practices beliefs generate. Talisse and Aikin are right to characterize clarification as finding peaceful resolution, and insist that “theoretical tensions can be tolerated and perhaps even ignored insofar as they have no practical corollaries of conflict” and “James explicitly endorses metaphysical pluralism as pragmatism’s doctrine, as the theory of meaning cannot accommodate an absolute monism in light of the diversity of experience.”15 Yet, that’s where they stop, but that’s only the beginning for James! The theory of meaning and how “diverse experience” functions are systematized in the Essays in Radical Empiricism. The reason why theoretical tensions are known and can be tolerated is precisely because how experience functions. By looking at James’s later thought about experience, a greater sense of unity can be found in James than the lurking tensions in his earlier thought.

According to James, “taken as it does appear, our universe is to large extent chaotic. No one single type of connection runs through all the experiences that compose it.”16 Reality is open, and this openness is revealed in being epistemically modest before the richness of possibilities of experience. No single interpretation can do reality justice. This richness occurs with respect to the fact that “experience is a member of diverse processes that can be followed away from it along entirely different lines.”17 These different lines are all relate to the “one self-identical thing” in our experience, and these lines contain the object in its pre-epistemological and pre-ontological characterization. The one self-identical thing, in James’s example a room, can be taken “in disparate systems of association, and [treated] as belong with opposite contexts.”18 The room is both mental thought and the room you are sitting as a physical location. The many ways in which the room can be experienced in terms of the subject pole and an object pole is decided by us, but also constrained by how the one self-identical thing is given to us. What’s clear is that the room is “both in one.”19 This is the continuity of experience that both aspects of thought and the room’s physicality are equally real—James’s neutral monism.

For James, we experience the room as a discrete particular that. It must be a particular that before we decide what it is. In this way, James is putting questions of metaphysics of the room on the backburner and focused on describing the process of experience from within experiencing. He is describing the givenness of a that since its thatness contains the possible conceivable effects it can have in experience. In this essay, he concludes that there’s a continuity between thought and physical object, and that if we are to construct a metaphysics of experience, we start with concrete particular thats. We do not, therefore, seek to either reduce any particular to one essential unifying idea like matter or thought for all time. Before James offers his definition of radical empiricism, James’s metaphysical pluralism arises out of the methodological focus on concrete particulars.

…My description of things, accordingly, starts with the parts and makes whole a being of the second order. It is essentially a mosaic philosophy, a philosophy of plural facts, like that of Hume and his descendants who refer these facts neither to Substances in which they inhere nor to an Absolute Mind that creates them as its objects. But if differs from Humian type of empiricism in one particular which makes me add the epithet radical.

To be radical, an empiricism must neither admit into its constructions any element that it is not directly experienced nor exclude from them any element that is directly experienced.20

This process of experience comes from a critical distancing from robust metaphysical claims that transgress the limit of experience—especially rationalism and Hegelian absolute monism. In radical empiricism, this limit is to never admit any element not directly experienced, but also a claim of openness to never exclude any element that can be directly experienced. We must be open to any object’s givenness. From his earlier work, we know that James was what I like to call “a big tent naturalist” or soft naturalist including religious experience in all of its facets as part of his metaphysics of experience. In James, natural does not mean strictly physical as it might for our contemporaries, nor does it mean strictly mental as it would for any idealist. Instead, the natural includes all potential concrete particulars that may be experienced and therefore its non-eliminative to either the physical or ideal, and non-reductive through and through. James’s metaphysics of experience, therefore, never gives a pronouncement about the reality of particular concrete thats of experience, yet it also demands that “a real place must be found for every kind of thing experienced, whether term or relation, in the final philosophical arrangement.”21 Since so much can be experienced, a metaphysical pluralism is the only final philosophical arrangement that can meet that demand.

For James, reality is not a series of closed possibilities determined in advance by an overarching system of causal relations. Instead, reality is open as is our experience of it. The two terms – reality and experience – are interchangeable. Moreover, they are both open precisely because both reality and our experience of it are never complete. In choice, “the great point is that possibilities are really here.”22 As in existentialism, possibilities are immanent within our choosing. They are not fully actualized, and before the amazing totality of reality, we may discover reality in its very flow of possibility in our unfolding experience of it. The unfolding parts of experience are neither entirely physical nor psychical, but given the title of “pure experience.” Pure experience is, therefore that instant field of everything actual; it’s James’s word for the non-reductive content of experience realized in action. More precisely, James defined pure experience as “the immediate flux of life which furnishes the material to our later reflection with its conceptual categories” and is “but another name for feeling and sensation.”23 In this non-reductive level of experience, the thats of pure experience can consist of any content that manifests in lived-experience. One might notice that because James makes allowances for the beyondness of what can appear in lived-experience, it has never made any sense to regard the conceivable effects of pragmatism’s maxim in its nominalistic application as “a procedure for determining the meaning of a concept by references to sensations and to practical forms of sense experience.”24 Instead of being saddled with nominalism, James is more in line with the existential and phenomenological tradition that does not seek to foreclose what material pure experience can furnish for later reflection. The only metaphysical requirement of what is real is that it can appear within the immediate flux of life. This includes values as possibilities.

Possibilities are decided and made actual “nowhere else than here and now … That is what gives the palpitating reality to our moral life and makes it tingle.”25 Reality is, thus, always a “terminus within the general possibilities of experience.”26 Our experiences become meaningful in how they generate possibility. Put another way, what is possible is decided by our choosing to experience certain meaningful contents and to realize these contents into experience. We can either act upon our belief to realize more love into the world or that we should prefer our own selfishness. The consequences breathe life as new possibilities are forged in the furnace of creative action. The moral tenor of our intersubjective world can tend to greater love or selfishness, and we can create cultural institutions that reinforce these collective possibilities. In other words, reality is open to both possibilities because we make it so. In our participation of this felt reality, we realize contents into the world through choice, and it’s for this reason that I would like to borrow from phenomenology a term to talk about the realized contents of the world as intersubjectively generated and label my position an existential pluralism.

Now, up to this point, it may sound as if I am, as it were, providing a metaphysical foundation for subjectivism. In fact, Talisse and Aikin may not disagree with what I have said about James. Accordingly, what I’ve claimed about James may be just the reason to reject and dismiss his ideas since his metaphysics of experience is not a tentative philosophical position in itself. It leads to subjectivism and likewise a bad foundation for pluralism in general. However, this criticism of subjectivism that worries many about James only comes about when one reads James with the assumptions James’s philosophy already calls into question. These assumptions are (1) that truth is fixed by reference to stable structures in the universe, and (2) that this stability informs an ontological separation between mind and world. First, such a world is closed causally, not open to growth, possibility, and novelty. Second, (1) and (2) are nothing more than the foreclosed interests of James’s detractors. Like James, I hold these beliefs cannot be proven in metaphysics at all, and are subjected to, like James’s debate between God and atheism or determinism and indeterminism, the pragmatic benefit such beliefs generate. They are maintained for their a priori interest.

What’s more, prior metaphysical commitments vitiate a proper description of experience since these prior commitments force us to view experience from the outside apart from sustain a philosophical vision to capture undergoing experience. I must decide to drive a wedge between my interior mental states and the objects of awareness at the outset when objecting to James as a subjectivist. I must decide beforehand that James is creating a metaphysics of experience that gives pride of place to a person deciding what’s true for them apart from the world without as much as even showing why it is the case that his metaphysics of experience goes in that direction. Truth be told, no charitable presentation of James could come to that view without getting James historically wrong, and this is often why a proper hermeneutic treatment of his texts is never forthcoming from analytic critics of William James.

When such analytic treatment of texts is invited in criticizing James, some wrongly rely on Peirce’s erroneous view of James as the very starting place for engaging James. Consider Peirce’s own frustration with James:

Although James calls himself a pragmatist, and no doubt derived his ideas from me, yet there is a most essential difference between his pragmatism and mine. My point is that meaning of a concept … lies in the manner in which it could conceivably modify purposive action, and in this alone. James, on the contrary, whose natural turn of mind is away from generals, and who is besides so soaked in ultra-sensationalist psychology that like most modern psychologists he has almost lost the power of regarding matters from the logical point of view, in defining pragmatism, speaks of it as referring ideas to experiences, meaning evidently the sensational side of experience, while I regard concepts as affairs of habit or disposition, and of how we should react.27

For James’s critics, Peirce is engaged in a form of process realism whereas James’s conceivable effects are wrongly thought to be “soaked in ultra-sensationalist psychology” and nominalism. Meanings are cash values only, the effects of an idea upon action, yet even the phrase cash value is a metaphor to highlight how meanings are created from the existential depths of our power to respond and foster habits—that is, what we could like Peirce call “purposive action.” If I am interested in what James says, however, I might also want to understand the relation between this mind and the object to which it acts upon. Like Husserl, what James can show to any skeptic is how much of a process there is going on here within experience, and an in depth study reveals that James not only means sensation but the entire notion of lived-experience. Viewed and described from within, consciousness is relational. Ontological separation cannot hold anymore than correspondence theory of truth can lead to action.28

Our experience of reality is limited, and reality is, essentially, delivered through our various perceived involvements with reality. The Jamesian language that is relevant here is “additive.” Like Sartre’s inspiration of the artist (and perhaps Delacroix’s influence on the young James artist to be), experience is additive because we can choose what to add and we add to experience because it is never finished. There’s a component of creative self-drive growth in experience. Experience is an additive process also in the same way that Dewey’s organism and environment collapse the classic ontological separation of mind and world, and James’s want to not treat mind and world as discontinuous and separate is clearly evident in the Essays in Radical Empiricism. Consciousness is driven by the constant process of the relations it takes up, not in being a self-contained discrete unit but characterized by an ontologically free self that takes up relation to what it chooses. This trait of a relational consciousness, however, goes all the way back to James’s earliest days due to his theory of a teleological mind.

In Essays in Radical Empiricism, he also offers us a similar working definition of mind beholden to his earlier efforts. For James, a mind and personal consciousness are “the name for a series of experiences run together by certain definite transitions.”29 The ontological status of the world is not a unity that enables experience as its precondition. Instead, for James “an objective reality is a series of similar experiences knit by different transitions.”30 For James, the world hangs together in loosely arranged parts, and these parts are introduced by the choice to relate to attend and take up a relation to that part, and this is the part of James’s metaphysics of experience that is not nominalistic but rather constitutive. Experience constitutes the intended object.31 In this way, experience is additive, the primary ontological bulwark for the universe and world is the conjunctive relation since persons may add to the overall complexity of meaning, yet ontological meaning (unity of sense) of any content arise out of these chosen relations simultaneously circumscribing what we can know about it. In this way, James’s metaphysics of experience describes the advent and emergence of meaning in its very relation in both metaphysical and epistemological lines.

Existential Pluralism faces the fact that reality is in a process of growth and becoming, and this process cuts across both epistemic and metaphysical dimensions of lived-experience. Human choices seize upon some of that becoming directing what we can to become what we choose it to be or we choose to respond to the possible actualities of a thing itself. We ought to not use a baseball for neurosurgery where a scalpel will do. The unity of sense/meaning results from and out of these choices, and this process has implications that cut all the way down into what Talisse and Aikin would distinguish as both metaphysical and epistemological pluralism. Metaphysical pluralism bases its commitment to pluralism of values based on what values are whereas epistemological pluralism appeals to what values we can know.32 Existential pluralism bases its commitment to a pluralism of values because the starting place of conceiving values should be the process of how values emerge in experience from us, and when you start to see that there is no existential situation in which knowledge and possibility can be extricated, one should rethink the divide between epistemic and ontological moments of experience. Certainly, philosophers can take time slices of experience, carve them up at the joints of those experiences into epistemological and metaphysical analyses, but when these categories become more important than describing the experience of how values emerge in experience, like the natural attitude, such distinctions become blinding. They calcify experience rather than preserve its ongoing dynamic. The categories are imposed from the outside and remove the proper attention of looking at experience as we are inside of experience.

An example may help. Our perceptions of the same building do not terminate in some external thing, but instead our minds “insert themselves into it … coalescing with it.”33 Imagine approaching Memorial Hall from two different sides. For you, Memorial Hall is perceived on one side, me on the other. Moreover, you may have class in Memorial Hall and I may be attending a production in Sanders Theatre. For you, the building is a sight of academic struggle, and for me, I am merely a spectator admiring the old architecture as a campus visitor. Standing next to me, my European colleague mocks my judgment of Harvard as “old” since he did his doctoral work at Oxford, yet for me having done my doctoral work at siu Carbondale, Harvard is, indeed, older than Faner Hall. In the event of each relating consciousness, an array of meaning forms layers of value possibility of Memorial Hall itself. For the student, Memorial Hall embodies nervous apprehension of a dreaded class, to me it represents an exciting night of cultural production at Sanders Theatre and wondrous architecture, and my British colleague finds it rather typical, not fancied by the architecture at all.

This is also not to say that experiences do not terminate. They end. My perception of Memorial Hall’s exterior architecture ends when I walk inside it. When I walk away from it, and I, like you, have only a perspectival experience of it when we both look at it over our shoulders for the last time. Experience is as disjunctive as it is conjunctive, and James embraces a view of reality that finds neither unity nor disunity privileged. Instead, our experience is a process of unity and disunity mirrored in the dynamic universe of ever-becoming possibilities around us, and those actualized possibilities that hang together at the very edges of experience. “The world is in so far forth a pluralism of which unity is not fully experience as yet.”34 Yet, it’s also clear that the more complete our knowledge, the more unity we are capable of finding.

For the Jamesian, inherent in our grammar, and in English particularly, we often think the predicate is separate from the subject, so if philosophical problems are addressed in propositional form (as analytic philosophy tends), then it may be that analytically-based thinkers are likely to carve up our experience in terms they reflect through the language they employ like “subject” and “object”. In such a schema, subjects are different than structures in the world; it would make no sense to think that the subject folds into the object, or the object affects the subject. These moments give way to relational talk more often than not like his commitment to see changes in emotional experiences are also changes in embodied states.

V Existential Pluralism Collapses the Distinction between Meaning Pragmatism and Inquiry Pragmatism

Largely associated with Dewey, inquiry pragmatism attempts to resolve axiological problems by reconstructing them so that some research program may reasonably be led to answer the question either now or in the future and meaning pragmatism is the decision to resolve conflicts is due to clarifying the issues against their relative background. However, there’s no deep conflict here between them. While, of course, the relationship between Dewey and James is complicated and shouldn’t be spoiled by surface characterizations here, I deny the degree of difference between clarification and reconstruction that is assumed in Talisse and Aikin’s efforts. Let me explain.

The fact that experience is additive in James, and we can choose to add to the complexity of how we experience a phenomenon is reconstructive in spirit depending on why it is that we are adding new conjunctive relations. Since some concepts may be lacking explanatory power or stifling our collective possibility, James like Dewey will call for a reconstruction of our experience that better harmonizes with possibilities to generate unity. The process of adding to experience is what Dewey defined as inquiry. For him, inquiry is “the controlled or directed transformation of an indeterminate situation into one that is so determinate in its constituent distinctions and relations as to convert the elements of the original situation into a unified whole.”35 Persons are as free in Dewey to pose inquiries to resolve conflicts between the elements of experience to establish unity in their experience in the very same way that persons can add to experience in James (though they need not). Moreover, Dewey is so adamant of avoiding dualisms in thinking that mislead inquiry in the same way that motivates James’s neutral monism that Dewey is often criticized for reducing the individual into their social and organic functions. The clear difference is that Dewey has naturalized the process of experience whereas James (rightly or wrongly) remains more neutral to experience like existentialism and phenomenology. The fact of the matter that both thinkers articulate a process of experience also means that this process is primitively-basic and experience in both James and Dewey cannot be cut so easily into its epistemological and ontological moments.

Given that meaning pragmatism and inquiry pragmatism are collapsed, premise (3) in the starting argument subsequently affects how the taxonomy of the subsequent conclusion follows. Either Talisse and Aikin must rethink their classification to see if their points still follow, or the collapse of both pragmatisms is reasonable grounds to problematize their interpretations on which the argument relies.

VI Talisse and Aikin’s Argument that Deep Pluralism and Meaning Pragmatism are Incompatible

In this next section, I want to pay attention to two arguments made against James. Both Talisse and Aikin regard James primarily as a Meaning Pragmatist, and advance the thesis that “meaning pragmatism is inconsistent with deep pluralism.” Here’s the first. We’ll call this the argument from incoherent practice:

First, the plurality of values and world-views allowed by the meaning pluralist program are those translatable into either identical or coherent practical consequences. So, the Peircian and Jamesian pluralisms of free will and determinism, or optimism and pessimism, are possible insofar as the two programs can be translated into a set of consistent practices or temperaments. 36

Being committed to translatability of identical or coherent practical vocabularies means, however, that the resolution of the apparent difference of meaning references one form or set of practices and meaning comes only from that form or set of practices, not the other. If deep pluralism is committed to varying values, and the resolution of meaning pragmatism is at bottom only possible by translating meaning by reference to one form or set of practices, then meaning pragmatism is in conflict with the very deep pluralism it seeks to amend. On the level of practical consequences, there can be no consistency. This is not to say that all experiences are on par with each other. Some beliefs generate harmful practices in which no good consequences can be translated into action. Put more bluntly, not every value is equal to the task of fostering more unity among experiencers and there’s a normative reason to maintain one form or set of practices above others.

Let us take the 2016 Olympics. Fencing competitor Ibtihaj Muhammad is the first athlete in the us to wear a hijab while competing in a Olympic sport. Uncomfortable in volleyball and not valued as part of the team for her faith in high school, she sought out a sport wear she would no longer feel alienated while dressing modestly with her hijab. For that reason, she chose fencing. Ms. Muhammad experienced a discontinuity in value among her high school volleyball team, did not give up on her faith, but sacrificed one sport for another where she did not have to rely on others.37 She remained true to herself in how she wanted to dress, removed those who would judge her, and she commensurated one sport for another by bringing into harmony beliefs about her faith, dress, and sport. No doubt her teammates might still judge her. It does not matter if her bigoted high school teammates still hold their beliefs. The practical consequence of holding those bigoted beliefs generates harmful practices and admittedly any pluralism must have within it a process for building unity and coherence amongst ruptures where the practical consequences come apart. Existential pluralism is not an anything-goes-worldview.

As for their second argument, what we’ll call the argument from ontological concern, locates the flaw in deep pluralism and then moves to implicate meaning pragmatism.

The ontological feature of deep pluralism generates a second point of conflict with meaning pragmatism. If, as meaning pragmatism runs, content must be translatable into practical consequences, how are metaphysical claims of the deep pluralist to be understood? How could the strong ontological claims about incommensurability of moral entities be rendered in practical consequences? … any account of the incomparability of values that explains that incomparability in terms of features beyond our practices of comparison will be of no more content than the useless verbiage of transubstantiation theories … meaning pragmatism cannot accommodate the deep pluralists strong ontological commitments.38

In other words, we have no way to understand metaphysical claims, and accordingly, this undermines holding that values are incommensurable since we don’t have any real way to understand incommensurability itself.

Our beliefs and ideas come out of our practices. Understanding this translatability through radical empiricism facilitates understanding that the intelligibility of practices arises out of adding another conjunctive relation to another experience. Radical empiricism is how and why this translatability occurs of the many whats we encounter in the first place, and I should add that it helps that neutral monism is, therefore, a hypothesis entertained in that work to explain why and how it is the case that there are many whats. In the earlier example, the high school volleyball team members’ beliefs generate practical consequences that are in conflict with how Ms. Muhammad wanted to be treated. Both perspectives generate nonreductive content we can also call values—one values tribalism, the other inclusiveness and respect. However, these values will always be in tension until everyone can take stock of them and find that one matters more for our democratic society than another. As the United States moves to becoming more fair and inclusive, it would seem that there’s no place for holding anti-Muslim beliefs. With the added proviso of neutral monism, then, the values of tribalism and inclusive respect need not be accompanied with anything other than an openness for nonreductive content of experience and how such content emanates from action. One is clearly superior to the other although both may said to exist.

Before ending this section, it may also be appropriate now to come back to what Talisse and Aikin anticipated would be the objections they might face,

Pragmatists may retort that ‘pluralism’ as pragmatists employ the term does not fit in our proposed taxonomy. They may then argue that there is a type of pluralism that is fully a piece of pragmatism. That is, the pragmatist might object to our argument that of course pragmatists cannot be pluralists if by ‘pluralism’ one means what non-pragmatists mean by the term.39

Both Talisse and Aikin might think my efforts are in this vain, yet it would be unfair first to cast my efforts in going back to James’s radical empiricism fully. Moreover, I fully recognize that they are trying to advocate that the classical pragmatist notion of pluralism is out of step with the present debate about pluralism itself. In going back to James’s texts, I am not advocating a form of semantic insularity and seeing Talisse and Aikin’s work in pluralism as non-pragmatists. Instead, I am trying to show that metaphysical pluralism arises in a true description of experience, and James’s metaphysics of experience might be a way of calling into question how pluralism is understood outside of pragmatism. How might James call into question how Talisse and Aikin understand pluralism?

VII Collapsing Shallow Pluralism and Deep Pluralism

For Talisse and Aikin, pluralisms are questions about values. Deep pluralism is the thesis that there’s an ontological explanation for conflict. For them, this conflict goes all the way down and is a permanently irreconcilable state of affairs. Next, shallow pluralism is about conflict on the epistemic level. On this view, disagreements and conflicts should give way to tolerance hoping that some level of agreement may be reached in the future.

In the existential pluralism view under consideration, there is a point to be made about reality. According to James, reality is not fixed. As such, it’s possible that there will be conflicts at some points as much as it is possible that there may be periods of agreement and reduced conflict. Since reality is amenable to the purposes we choose, there is never a final moment in which any deep ontological explanation for conflict can persist indefinitely. Deep pluralism cannot be a permanent state. By extension, shallow pluralism on an epistemic level assumes that conflicts are known independently of the ability of human action. Through action we can create solutions and meanings in experience that diminish if not eliminate conflict.

VIII James’s Existential Pluralism

There is some evidence for thinking that James’s thought is driven by similar existential commitments as one might find in any existentialist. In fact, Section 1 “The Present Dilemma in Philosophy” of Pragmatism lecture aims to show the life-affirming depths of philosophy itself by wedging pragmatism as a middle ground between the excesses of rationalism and empiricism. Like an existentialist, James considers how we experience existence as the primary datum for philosophy. “We measure the total character of the universe as we feel it, against the flavor of the philosophy proffered us.”40 Indeed, pragmatism can be regarded only as a theory of truth and as a method to solve metaphysical disputes.41 Beyond that, it’s more robustly understood as an attitude and commitment that goes all the way down in a person’s whole field of lived-experience. In the words of Ruth Ann Putnam, “[pragmatism] is a philosophy precisely in the sense of being an attitude, a way of life, in particular a way of dealing with problems.”42

My aim in this paper was to show that an attitude in solving problems contains both epistemological and ontological moments of lived-experience, but this also indicates that meaning pragmatism of the Jamesian variety only makes sense if we see James’s pragmatism and the radical empiricism are held together. As such, my efforts here are more narrower than accepting the general challenge for all types of meaning pragmatism that inaugurated Talisse and Aikin’s efforts. Solving problems is not just philosophical pillow talk for the cottage industry of problems like Robo Mary knowing the color red. Instead, these are problems that make a huge difference in my life in both what I can know and what ultimately exists in relation to me. It’s in this spirit to which anyone addressing James’s thought should first conceive of his pluralism in relation to both his radical empiricism and pragmatism.


Robert Talisse and Scott Aikin, “Why Pragmatists Cannot Be Pluralists” in Transactions of the Charles Sanders Peirce Society vol. xli, no. 1 (Winter 2005): 101–118.


Robert Talisse and Scott Aikin, “Reply to Joshua Anderson” in The Pluralist vol. 10, no. 3 (Fall 2015): 335–343. Cited here as rja, 335.


Talisse and Aikin, rja, 335.


Even Scott Aikin’s most recent book on William James, Evidentialism and the Will to Believe (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014), uncritically imposes standard analytic – isms and tools that render the content and spirit of the text away from the true literary, existential, and philosophical merit of James’s ideas. The fact that the Alpine Climber example becomes the Alpine Climber case as one, an epistemic case and problem to be regarded in a rather austere and cookie-cutter abstraction typical of analytic training and style that one finds in Jackson’s Robo Mary or in Goldman’s case of perceiving barns in reliabilism. What’s interesting is that this abstraction from James’s “Sentiment of Rationality” essay written in 1880 and originally published in Mind. The essay is considered an early piece that sets up some interesting ­trajectories and Aikin treats it independently of the distance this essay has from James’s “Will to Believe” delivered as a lecture in 1896. The cavalier problem-solving and ahistoric method vitiates any proper understanding of James that a decent hermeneutic treatment of those texts should receive, as if one can simply cut the text out of time and history. While I understand the usefulness of talking about issues themselves, the book would have been better if it were about their conceptualization of how to understand James and Clifford whereupon Aikin could have offered us insights in epistemology of belief inspired by James and Clifford rather than a book about James and Clifford.


Charlene Haddock Seigfried, William James’s Radical Reconstruction of Philosophy (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990), 10.


Originally, I had tried to arrive at a neologism to express the inseparable dimensions of lived-experience (epistemic and ontological) implicated in James’s efforts and ignored by Talisse and Aikin. Hence, “epistemological-ontological-facticity” did not quite have the ring or eloquence this point requires. As such, I have decided to express this insight with the term “existential.”


William Barrett, Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy (New York: Anchor Books, 1958), 18–19.


It may be weird to some to insist on an existential vocabulary when refusing analytic categories are appropriate when talking about James, but it should be remembered that existentialists, phenomenologists, and pragmatists have all tried to describe experience from the inside out, not the outside in. This shift in perspective cuts all the way deep down into how James, Peirce and Dewey should be addressed just as much as it cuts all the way down into the heart of Sartre, Heidegger, and Husserl.


The bump in the road approach to James has its defenders, and indeed I am pushing the line that his pluralistic metaphysics give us a coherent view to deflect Talisse and Aikin. Michael R. Slater’s “William James’s Pluralism” in Review of Metaphysics vol. 65 no. 1 (2011): 63–90 offers the view that pluralism developed gradually in several domains of James’s thinking and that pluralism is not dependent on his later views in A Pluralistic Universe.


Talisse and Aikin, “Why Pragmatists Cannot Be Pluralists,” 103.


Talisse and Aikin, “Why Pragmatists Cannot Be Pluralists,” 103.


Talisse and Aikin, “Why Pragmatists Cannot Be Pluralists,” 103.


Talisse and Aikin, “Why Pragmatists Cannot Be Pluralists,” 104.


Talisse and Aikin, “Why Pragmatists Cannot Be Pluralists,” 104.


Talisse and Aikin, “Why Pragmatists Cannot Be Pluralists,” 105.


James, William, “A World of Pure Experience” in Essays in Radical Empiricism, (Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 2003), 24.


James, William, “Does Consciousness Exist?” in Essays in Radical Empiricism, (Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 2003), 7. Italics mine.


Ibid, 7.


Ibid, 12.


James, William “A World of Pure Experience” in Essays in Radical Empiricism, (Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 2003), 22. Italics are mine.


Ibid, p. 23.


James, William, “The Dilemma of Determinism” in Essays in Popular Philosophy (Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 1956), 183.


James, William, “The Thing and Its Relations,” in Essays in Radical Empiricism, (Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 2003), 49.


Thayer, H.S. Meaning and Action: A Critical History of Pragmatism (New York: Bobs Merrill Company, 1968), 139.


James, “The Dilemma of Determinism,” 183.


James, William, “The Essence of Humanism,” in Essays in Radical Empiricism (Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 2003), 106.


Cited from Thayer, Meaning and Action, p. 140. Thayer’s footnote reads “In a letter to ­Christine Ladd-Franklin quoted in her article in the Peirce commemorative issue of the Journal of Philosophy, 718.”


For instance, see James’s “Remarks on Spencer’s Definition of Mind as Correspondence” publishe in Mind, 1885.


James, “A World of Pure Experience,” 42.


Ibid, 42.


I admit I am reading Husserl’s doctrine of constitution into James.


Talisse, Robert and Aikin, Scott. “Pragmatism and Pluralism Revisited” in Political Studies Review 14.1 (2016), 20.


James, “A World of Pure Experience,” 43.


Ibid, 46.


Dewey, John. Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (New York: H. Holt and Company, 1938), 104–105.


Talisse and Aikin, “Why Pragmatists Cannot Be Pluralists,” 108.


Talisse and Aikin, “Why Pragmatists Cannot Be Pluralists,” 108.


Talisse and Aikin, “Why Pragmatists Cannot Be Pluralists,” 112.


James, William. Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1975), 24.


Ibid, 37.


Ruth Anna Putnam “Reflections on the Future of Pragmatism” in 100 Years of Pragmatism: William James’s Revolutionary Thought (Bloomington, in: Indiana University Press, 2010): 185–193, cited here, 188.