Analytical Overview of the Legacy of William James

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Evolution was emphasized in the late 1800s which one of the biggest theories there was at the time was social Darwinism. Darwin’s famous theory was intended to explain biological diversity and a specie’s ability to adapt to its environment. And while his theory has been a staple of science ever since its first publication, the theory of evolution has had a far greater impact on the larger society and culture than just the study of biology. The impact that Darwinism had on philosophy were less dramatic, but in the end, were more significant.

In 1859, Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species was published and in the 1870s, it began to have an impact on society. Darwin’s theory of evolution began to influence the opinion of others in the United States where the nature of evolution sought that there will be a sort of inevitable progress that would be controlled by natural selection. Natural selection is the process whereby organisms are adapted to any environment they are in as well as to survive and produce more offspring. This seemed “eminently reasonable to most Americans, for it fitted well with their own experiences.” Henry O. Havemeyer stated that “You cannot wet-nurse people from the time they are born until the time they die. They have to wade and get stuck, and that is the way men are educated.” William Graham Sumner, a Yale professor taught his undergrads with the survival of the fittest analogy. “Professor,” one of Sumner’s students asked him, “don’t you believe in any government aid to industries?” Sumner said “No!” “It’s root, hog, or die.” His student followed up with another question, “Suppose some professor of political science came along and took your job away from you. Wouldn’t you be sore?” Sumner responded with “Any other professor is welcome to try,” “If he gets my job, it is my fault. My business is to teach the subject so well that no one can take the job away from me.” Sumner’s argument of the survival of the fittest analogy started to become known as social Darwinism. If you were the fittest, you will always survive if they are allowed to their capacities to their potential without any limitations. Except, Americans despise governments that had too much power and controlled a strict regulation of the economy, but the Americans didn’t mean that they opposed every government activity regarding economics. Banking laws, tariffs, internal-improvement legislation, and the granting of public land to railroads are only the most obvious of the economic regulations enforced in the nineteenth century by both the federal government and the states. Americans didn’t see any difference between government activities of this type and the free enterprise philosophy, the purpose of these laws were to release energy and as an effect, increase the area of freedom that someone could operate at. Tariffs raised the interest in the industry and as a result, created new jobs, railroad grants began opening up for new and different regions for development, and more. Industries were huge and financial organizations were growing as well as the complexity relations regarding economics in which scared people, but also made them greedy for more goods and services society was turning out to be some sort of greed.

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Regarding philosophy, Darwinism wasn’t so dramatic, but it ended up being more significant. William James was educated in London, Paris, Bonn, and Geneva, He was also at Harvard where he studied painting, participated in a zoological expedition to South America, graduated with a medical degree, and eventually became a professor at Harvard at the end, he was successful of comparative anatomy, psychology, and philosophy. His Principles of Psychology which was published in 1890 said that it established discipline as one of the modern sciences.

James also published Varieties of Religious Experience in 1902, the point of view of the subject regarding psychology and philosophy helped many readers restore their faith religiously with their better understanding of psychology and the physical universe. James was the most influential philosopher of his time, he used his imagination and verve as a writer and ultimately came to the conclusion to reject Darwinism and he would prove or explain why he did reject Darwinism, “all other one-idea explanations of existence.” He continued to say that the environment might influence survival, but the environment also influences the desire to survive. William James’s argument was known as pragmatism, pragmatism is an approach that tests the truth of theories or beliefs regarding how successful their practical application is. The mind, James wrote in a typically vivid phrase, has “a vote” in determining truth. Since people were religious, religion was in fact, true, at least in his argument of assessing the truth. Ultimately, the pragmatic approach had inspired the majority of the reform spirit in the late 19th century and continued through the early 20th century. James’s hammer blows shattered the laissez-faire extremism of Herbert Spencer.

In the Great Men and Their Environment which was published in 1880, William James argued that social changes came about by what geniuses did in which society had chose and were raised to positions that gave them power rather than by the force of the environment around them. This reasoning had fit the expectation of rugged individualists, but it had encouraged those who were not satisfied with society and how they had to work for change. John Dewey and other educational reformers, the institutionalist school of economists, settlement house workers, and others acquired pragmatism eagerly. Thanks to William James, his philosophy did much to resurrect the optimism that shaped the reform movement during the pre-Civil War, but pragmatism ended up bringing Americans face-to-face with somber problems. Relativism made the Americans optimistic, but it also created insecurity with it. No one could be sure of anything, there wasn’t any comforting dependency on any eternal value because of the absence of the truth.

Pragmatism also suggested that at the end, there will be a justification of the means, that whatever worked would end up being more important than what anyone could have thought of it to be. William James died in 1910 and during that time of his death, the Commercial and Financial Chronicle pointed out that the pragmatic philosophy helped businessmen make decisions. Since they were emphasizing practice and disregarding theory, there was a new philosophy that encouraged materialism, anti-intellectualism, and other aspects of the American character that wasn’t pleasant. Perhaps pragmatism created a dependency on the free will of human beings that resulted in them ignoring their capacity for selfishness and self-delusion.

Originally, Chauncey Wright, who is secretary of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences said “Nothing justifies the development of abstract principles but their utility in enlarging our concrete knowledge of nature,” and that’s where William James further developed the philosophy further. Even in society, media such as magazines were less concerned on anything intellectual like how Darwinism impacted law, sociology, and anthropology for example The theories of John Dewey and the progressive educators, realism in art and literature, and how pragmatism was implicated to psychology, philosophy, and theology. The media rather talked about sports like college football since it was powerful regarding culture.

Josiah Strong applied the “survival of the fittest” analogy to justify American expansion. Before the United States expanded towards the Pacific, they had a treaty with Hawaii in 1875. A reciprocity treaty with Hawaii was enacted in 1875 that meant that Hawaiian sugar would be imported to the United States for free for a promise to acquire no territory to a foreign power. In 1887, the treaty was renewed in which the United States obtained the right to establish a naval base at Pearl Harbor. In addition, after the United States occupied Midway, America obtained some land in the Samoan Islands in the South Pacific. During the 1890s, America intensely grew interested in acquiring land towards the Pacific. The reason why is because the conditions in Hawaii influenced the Americans more and more. The McKinley Tariff Act of 1890 discontinued raw sugar as well as compensating American producers of cane and beet sugar by giving Americans two cents a pound. It struck Hawaiian sugar growers hard because it had destroyed the advantage they had in the reciprocity treaty.

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Analytical Overview of the Legacy of William James. (2022, September 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 13, 2024, from
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