Loose Talk about Religion from William James

Critical Inquiry 11 (2):299-316 (1984)
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Abstract

In this paper I want to say some things about the way William James talks—as, for example, in The Varieties of Religious Experience , the famous Gifford Lectures in which James attempted to rehabilitate religion as a subject fit for philosophical discourse, or as something still worth talking about.1 Some familiar background for this matter is provided by the epigraph I have just given from “What Pragmatism Means,” in which James shows himself to be a nominalist as against a metaphysical realist . The nominalist position, as it applies to James, would be that words make sense to us but not for the reasons we give when we say that we designate things by them, because these things are never quite there, or at all events never quite things, in the way our language makes them out to be. It does not matter whether we are speaking of universals or particulars: words mean because of the way they hang together in sentences and contexts, and they fail to mean when they fail to fit in, not because of a failure of reference. It is not necessary to claim for our words that they are anchored in reality. The intelligibility of a word is always a hermeneutical construction, in the sense that the word depends for its meaning upon how it is taken. Whence the meaning of a word is always rhetorically contingent as well, because it is determined in varying measures by the situation in which it occurs and also, therefore, by the audience who is meant to hear it in a certain way, and who may take it in this certain way or perhaps in another way entirely, depending on the situations. We shall see how James exploits this contingency in his own way of speaking. A word can, of course, be taken as referring to some really existing entity, and in fact most words are taken in this way because this is how they works for us. Words usually end up being about something. A nominalist in this case would be just someone who believes that words do not have to refer to really existing entities in order to be taken in this realistic way, and most words are taken in this realistic way for no good philosophical reason. But what might be allowed to stand as a good philosophical reason for taking words one way rather than another is exactly what our problem is, and it is also one of the things this paper is about. Gerald L. Bruns is the author of Modern Poetry and the Idea of Language and Inventions: Writing, Textuality, and Understanding in Literary History . He is currently at work on a new book, Hermeneutics, Ancient and Modern. His most recent contribution to Critical Inquiry, “Canon and Power in the Hebrew Scriptures,” appeared in the March 1984 issue

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