William James' Morals and Julien Benda's:
It is Not Pragmatism That is Opportunist
In his article, “The Attack on Western Morality” (COMMENTARY, November 1947), M. Julien Benda chose to include what he regards as pragmatic philosophy as a leading figure in that attack. In fact, he assigns to it, along with and by the side of Russian Bolshevist philosophy, a place in the very front rank of the intellectual forces engaged in undermining the morality of the Western world. This is a serious charge; none the less serious because those who call themselves pragmatists will be highly surprised to learn that the philosophy they profess has had any such extensive influence either for good or evil. One’s first impression is that M. Benda is using the term “pragmatic” loosely to stand for all movements that tend to put immediate and narrow expediency—in the sense of profit, whether financial, political, or personal—above all other considerations. Since “pragmatism” is a specific philosophical term having a definite meaning that has nothing in common with the usage just mentioned, this loose use would indicate also a loose sense of intellectual responsibility. But M. Benda cannot claim even this protection, slight as it is.
For after saying in his main sectional heading, “The Socratic Christian Morality was the Only One Honored a Few Years Ago,” and giving to his next main section the caption “Deliberate Assaults Against this Morality at the End of the 19th Century—the Preaching of Pragmatic Morals,” he proceeds to make a specific identification of these “pragmatic morals” with the doctrines of William James—who published, toward the “end of the 19th century,” his book entitled Pragmatism.
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