212. William James on Heroism, Tragedy, and Progress

William James in 1908


The title of this post contains a conjunction of two words—progress and tragedy—that don’t usually sit well together. After all, tragedy, whether in art or life, often spells doom for progress. The situation is a bit more complex when it comes to the philosophy of William James (1842-1910). According to James, attempts to improve the human condition inevitably encounter the necessary sacrifices of tragic conflict. Progress and tragedy, so it seems, are intimately related. I want to briefly explore this relationship and James’ vision of the moral philosopher that emerges from it. I also want to show how James, by connecting progress to tragedy, offers moral philosophers – and indeed all of us – an opportunity to be heroic. All quotations will be from the book The Writings of William James edited by John McDermott (Chicago University Press, 1967).

Meliorism and Tragedy

Optimism and pessimism can be understood as two contrasting attitudes towards progress. Optimists believe things will necessarily work out well whereas pessimists believe things are doomed to fail. Now the tradition of American pragmatism, of which William James is founding a part, is well known for questioning rigid disjunctions and articulating possibilities that do greater justice to the facts of experience. This is certainly the case with the issue at hand. For many pragmatists attempt to steer a middle ground between forms of optimism and pessimism by adopting meliorism. James claims that meliorism is not so much a doctrine but an attitude that treats man’s salvation as neither necessary nor impossible (466). This attitude is the result of a radically empirical investigation of experience: “Pragmatism must incline towards meliorism. Some conditions of the world’s salvation are actually extant, and she cannot possibly close her eyes to this fact” (467). We do more justice to the facts of experience when we assert that some conditions of the world’s improvement exist and that progress becomes more probable as preventing conditions become less probable.  

His essay “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life” addresses the topic of progress in the face of conflict and prescribes that moral philosophers seek to satisfy as many moral demands as possible in order to bring about a more inclusive moral universe. This means they must try and reduce the costs of conflict in order to awaken “the least sum of dissatisfactions” (623). This is by no means easy since our world has a space-time that does not allow incompatible experiences to go in conjunction (621). Thus “there is hardly a good which we can imagine except as competing for the possession of the same bit of space and time with some other imagined good” (622). Such a world has a “tragic constitution” (618) and gives rise to situations that are “tragically practical” (621). James explains:

“Every end of desire that presents itself appears exclusive of some other end of desire. Shall a man drink and smoke, or keep his nerves in condition?—he cannot do both. Shall he follow his fancy for Amelia, or for Henrietta?—both cannot be the choice of his heart. Shall he have the dear old republican party, or a spirit of unsophistication in public affairs?—he cannot have both, etc. So the ethical philosopher’s demand for the right scale of subordination in ideals is the fruit of an altogether practical need. Some part of the ideal must be butchered, and he needs to know which part. It is a tragic situation, and no mere speculative conundrum, with which he has to deal” (622).

One could say that it is just because most of our most important moral choices involve a necessary sacrifice that moral philosophers should try and achieve the most inclusive harmony of values in every conflict.     

James suggests a few strategies to achieve a higher degree of moral inclusivity. The first is to mediate a conflict without committing to any ideals of the conflict. For were we committed to a particular view we would “become an advocate for some limited element in the case” (611). During a tragic conflict strong feelings are bound to blind those involved to less devastating courses of action. But a person committed to the ideal of moral inclusivity “sees, indeed, somewhat better than most men what the question always is,—not the question of this good or that good simply taken, but of the two total universes with which these goods respectively belong. He knows he must vote always for the richer universe, for the good which seems the most organizable, most fit to enter into complex combinations, most apt to be a member of a more inclusive whole” (626).

The second strategy is to approach conflicts with others in an experimental manner. James observes that “every real dilemma is in literal strictness a unique situation; and the exact combination of ideals realized and ideals disappointed which each decision creates is always a universe without precedent, and for which no adequate previous rule exists” (626). But if this is the case then we should adopt an experimental approach that makes us acutely aware of our fallibility. And given all our individual limitations, the question of how to best proceed is to be made with the aid and experience of others (625). In fact, the success of any meliorist effort will usually entail a majority of agents doing their “level best” (468). 

And the third strategy is to judge our success in dealing with conflict by considering how much “outcry” or “appeasement” is generated (624). Accurate history has all too often shown that visions of so-called progress conceal injustice, cruelty, murder, theft, and so on. This is especially the case when certain narratives about progress harden into ideologies with the power to silence those who suffer under them. Thus James stresses keeping a sympathetic ear open for outcry and keeping our conclusions about progress tentative rather than final.  

These strategies are obviously difficult to employ. Those of us who believe that we, too, want to be moral philosophers in James’ sense – people interested in conflict mediation and the realization of a more morally inclusive world – will often find it hard, if not impossible, to be impartial, to work with others, to be flexible, and to be adequately aware of, and sympathetic to, the suffering of those who are affected by decisions. But it is precisely the difficulty of James’ prescriptions that make a consideration of his views on heroism appropriate.

James’ View of Heroism

According to James there are three characteristics central to any hero. The first is found in Psychology: The Briefer Course where we read: “If the ‘searching of our heart and reins’ be the purpose of this human drama, then what is sought seems to be what effort we can make. He who can make none is but a shadow; he who can make much is a hero” (715). This passage introduces us to the first heroic characteristic: the ability to put forth effort. But not just any effort. For the effort James has in mind is put forth when “life as a whole turns up its dark abysses to our view” and the “worthless ones among us lose their hold on the situation altogether” (716). He continues with a description of the heroic mind: “[T]he heroic mind does things differently. To it, too, the objects are sinister and dreadful, unwelcome, incompatible with wished-for things.  But it can face them if necessary, without for that losing its hold on the rest of life.  The world thus finds in the heroic man its worthy match and mate; and the effort which he is able to put forth to hold himself erect and keep his heart unshaken is the direct measure of his worth and function in the game of human life.  He can stand the Universe” (716).

The second characteristic of the hero is the ability to take risks. For if one has the courage to take a stand in the face of an abyss then one has the ability to stake a great deal on a maybe. The hero can embrace the maybes of experience since he or she realizes that it is only by risking our selves from one hour to hour that we live at all. 

The last characteristic is that the hero strives to realize an ideal. In his essay “What Makes a Life Significant” James claims morally exceptional individuals are different from others because their souls work in obedience to some inner ideal. When a man strenuously pursues an ideal “his sweat and toil acquire a certain heroic significance, and make us accord to him exceptional esteem” (655). The strenuous pursuit of an ideal is intimately related to the meaning of life: “The solid meaning of life is always the same eternal thing—the marriage, namely, of some unhabitual ideal, however special, with some fidelity, courage, and endurance; with some man’s or woman’s pains.—And, whatever or wherever life may be, there will always be the chance for that marriage to take place” (659). For James, heroism can appear in any walk of life. What matters is that there is an ideal present that can give a life direction and significance.  

So we see that the hero is one who, under conditions that would make most people turn away, can put forth strenuous effort. A hero is also one who can take risks on the perilous edge of life where one’s life is threatened in various ways. And the hero acts with effort and takes risks in the name of an ideal that gives life significance. Does the hero have to be successful in realizing this ideal? It doesn’t seem so. After all, we recognize many people as heroes who meet the above conditions but fail in some way. For example, a group of people who die in a failed attempt to stop terrorists on an airplane can be heroic because they put forth effort in the face of danger, risked their lives, and acted in accordance with some ideal as to what should be. Thus I think James’ account, while certainly including heroes who are successful, can also include heroes who are not.   

Heroic Meliorism

Let us now see how these characteristics apply to the meliorist who is trying to reduce the consequences of tragic conflict in order to make a more morally inclusive world.  

We saw above the ideal of satisfying as many demands as possible in situations of tragic conflict. I believe this ideal of moral conduct can be understood as an heroic ideal. It is an ideal that can give direction to the lives of meliorists who pursue conflict mediation. As we have seen, such mediation can be incredibly difficult since it entails familiarizing oneself with the competing claims, giving each interest a voice, investigating the conditions under which the problem emerged, considering its approximate causes and consequences, weighing the costs of different courses of action, being sympathetic to others who are harmed, and being flexible and open to reform in light of what we come to know about our actions. Clearly meeting all these demands and many others will entail a great deal of effort. And is there risk? Absolutely. We have seen that the meliorist’s ideal is something which only a large group of individuals can realize. Meliorists may find that their sacrifices are for nothing if others do not, or cannot, conspire with them. James explains: “As individual members of a pluralistic universe, we must recognize that, even if we do our best, the other factors also will have a voice in the result. If they refuse to conspire, our good will and labor may be thrown away. No insurance company here can cover us or save us from the risks we run in being part of such a world” (739). Thus a meliorist must act knowing that “utter final wreck and tragedy” is a possible outcome (398). According to James we must take one of four attitudes towards our risky relation to others: (1) wait for evidence that men are willing and able to conspire with us and, while waiting, do nothing; (2) mistrust others and let the universe fail; (3) trust others and try to do our best despite the possibility that others will not do their best; and (4) flounder and spend one day in one attitude and another day in another attitude (739). James recommends the third attitude.  He asserts that the proposition ‘if we do our best, and the other powers do their best, the world will be perfected’ doesn’t express a fact but a challenge to our will—a challenge that is “the only wise way” (740).  

The Circle of Heroic Meliorism

Of course it may be the case that the meliorist’s efforts will inspire others to conspire. For “neither in the theoretic nor in the practical sphere do we care for, or go for help to, those who have no head for risks, or sense for living on the perilous edge….We draw new life from the heroic example” (716). Thus heroes who fight in the name of the melioristic cause can improve the world through their own work and through the work they inspire in others. Without these others their efforts will surely be wasted. I call this relationship of mutual dependency the circle of heroic meliorism. We saw above that “the solid meaning of life is always the same eternal thing—the marriage, namely, of some unhabitual ideal, however special, with some fidelity, courage, and endurance; with some man’s or woman’s pains” (659). Heroic meliorism provides the conditions for this marriage to take place. We have an ideal—to realize the most inclusive moral universe—and we have a world of tragic conflict that, in resisting this ideal, requires us to put forth effort and run plenty of risks. Such a world of resistance, far from leading us to paralyzing pessimistic excuses or optimistic delusions of salvation, can actually lead to action with significance: “What excites and interests the looker-on at life, what the romances and the statues celebrate and the grim civic monuments remind us of, is the everlasting battle of the powers of light with those of darkness; with heroism, reduced to its bare chance, yet ever and anon snatching victory from the jaws of death” (648).   

Perhaps all this sounds a bit unrealistic. In 1899 James lamented “even now, in our own country, correctness, fairness, and compromise for every small advantage are crowding out the other qualities. The higher heroisms and the old rare flavors are passing out of life” (648). Is this not the case now as well? There are certainly many facts that support an affirmative answer to this question. But there are many facts that allow us to provide a negative answer as well. Perhaps even you, the reader, are—or will be—a fact that contributes to the actualization of the ideal of heroic meliorism. James’ melioristic universe is a pluralism of powers analogous to a society. As a result, “it will succeed just in proportion as more of these work for its success. If none work, it will fail. If each does his best, it will not fail” (739). If this is the case then perhaps it is time to figure out how we might lend a hand and follow “the windings of the spectacle, confident that the line of least resistance will always be towards the richer and the more inclusive arrangement, and that by one tack after another some approach to the kingdom of heaven is incessantly made” (625).

For my two post series on how we can reduce current polarization, demonization, and conflict in America, a series that offers some more specific strategies to fill out James’ inspiring yet general vision, go here.

For my series on how we can intelligently deal with tragic conflict using insights from James and other American pragmatists, go here.

For my series on some useful philosophical ideas in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, go here.

For more on James’ vision of a pluralistic universe and how it supports tragic conflict, go here.

For my post on James’ fallacy of blindness and how we can avoid it, go here.

3 replies on “212. William James on Heroism, Tragedy, and Progress”

    • Dwight Goodyear on

      I’m so happy you enjoyed the post Michael. William James is one my favorites for sure and my dissertation focuses a lot on him. Check out my other posts on James if you get a few minutes – you might like them as well. Thanks for reading!

  1. Michael deeley on

    Always delightful to hear from a kindred spirit. Thank you for your reply, it made my day

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