Tough-Minded vs. Tender-Minded: William James’ Pragmatism and the Empiricist-Rationalist Divide

June 7, 2011 at 9:43 am 9 comments

william_jamesIt’s been a while since my last post. Lest you think I have shuffled off this mortal coil, let me show a little sign of life.

And speaking of life, I am often struck by how lively discussions become when religious questions come up. I’m part of a book reading group, and I’d say there is definitely above-average participation whenever religious questions come up. That, in itself, is worthwhile to consider.

One person in the early 20th century who thought a lot about the important role religion played in exciting and driving us was William James.

James was born in 1842 and is “the quintessential Yankee philosopher,” as Daniel Robinson has called him. He was the oldest of four children and the grandson of a multimillionaire. After his studies at Harvard, he spent six years completing studies for a medical degree. A trip to Germany, where he listened to a few lectures, aroused his interest in psychology and the way we process our sensory input. After completing his medical training, James joined the faculty at Harvard and eventually started giving lectures on psychology, particularly physiological psychology.

Through it all, James experienced periods of depression and anxiety, and he used himself as the subject for his psychological investigations. He also read ferociously, which he considered a pretty helpful therapy for his inner turmoil. The result of his deep thinking about psychology was his massive work The Principles of Psychology, which is still considered by many the magnum opus of academic psychology.

Predictably, his philosophy emphasizes human psychology. He was against the kind of grand philosophical systems such as Hegel’s idealism and rather stressed a kind of American version of Nietzsche’s perspectivalism. That is, he stressed that thoughts and philosophies do not exist apart from individuals thinking those thoughts and coming up with those philosophies. Hence, in evaluating their philosophies, one should also look at the psychological motivations that drive them. Thoughts do not come in independent pieces but arise in an organic way out of the whole person.

That is why he interpreted the European divide between empiricists/positivists on the one hand and German idealists/rationalist on the other hand in a psychological way. He talked of the “tender-minded” and the “tough-minded.” The tender-minded are the German idealists and rationalists. Now I know this might sound confusing, since the word “rationalist” does not exactly call up a picture of “tenderness.” But, in fact, rationalists in the philosophical sense are tender-minded in that they have an emotional need for an overarching, rational system that gives hope and meaning to an otherwise (ultimately) meaningless existence.

The tender-minded are the religious and quasi-religious, the Platonists and Kantians and Hegelians, the system builders who become depressed if they do not have a definite cosmic worldview in which they can place the particulars of their everyday life. They need a sense of the spiritual, of the transcendent. They need inspiration and hope, even at the price of their intellectual conscience. As Darren Staloff has remarked: “They are idealistic and optimistic and stress the idea of free will.” In a word, the tender-minded want meaning—or, as James put it, principles.

Now don’t get me wrong. James did not deride the tender-minded. In fact, he thought he had a large tender-minded side to him as well. Hence his struggles with depression in the face of a lacking optimistic teleology.

The tough-minded, in contrast, are the empiricists and positivists (not to be confused with optimists!), the critics of religion and what they perceive to be false promises. They are pessimistic, pluralistic and skeptical. They, above all else, don’t want to be lured into any kind of slumber in which one fails to face up to the physical world. They always strive for objectivity and want to reserve judgment. Consequently, they are often not only irreligious themselves but tend to be insensitive toward more tender-minded people. They constantly step on other people’s toes, give offence, and have the tendency to talk as if all tender-minded people did not have a mind at all. To the tender-minded, they actually seem rather narrow-minded, obsessing over meaningless details while dismissing the big, more emotionally laden questions of life. In a word, the tough-minded want facts, facts, facts, and nothing but facts!

James thought that most people are somewhere in between tender-mindedness and tough-mindedness, and he stressed that this was an extremely simplified way of caricaturing the European empiricists/rationalists divide. Nevertheless, he considered it a helpful way of approaching the divide in a more psychological way—a way that, he hoped, would not deepen the divide but actually bring the two sides together.

“Facts are good, of course–give us lots of facts. Principles are good–give us plenty of principles.” That’s the pragmatic approach.

But that’s only the starting point for James’ Pragmatism. For further thoughts, you might want to read his Pragmatism for yourself, if you haven’t already done so.

Entry filed under: Critique of Religion, Philosophy, Psychology. Tags: , , , , , , , , , .

Lots of deadlines to meet Plato: Is the Good More Fundamental than Truth?

9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Edward T. Babinski  |  June 15, 2011 at 4:16 am

    I think there’s also tender-minded atheists and agnostics.

    And tough-minded theists who “constantly step on other people’s toes, give offence, and have the tendency to talk as if all tender-minded people did not have a mind at all.”

  • 2. Edward T. Babinski  |  June 15, 2011 at 4:26 am

    There’s lots of different kinds of people.

    Camus dialogued with priests. I’ve read Camus’ opening statement during a conference he attended for the purpose of such a dialogue. Quite cordial, seeking for common ethical intuitions and helping people. Perhaps both the priests and Camus were soft-hearted/tender-minded people.

    Also, tough minded A. J. Ayers had a NDE, and even though he didn’t count it as convincing evidence of an afterlife, he did grow closer as a friend with a Catholic philosopher he knew. But Ayers didn’t join a religion or start praying to Jesus.

    Even Antony Flew never converted because he still had many philosophical questions concerning the validity of so called “revealed holy writings,” and, concerning the problem of evil. Neither did he see how the idea of living forever made much sense. Neither did he fear hell. A video on youtube shows Lee Strobel trying to pull every apologetic sting to get Flew to acknowledge that he wanted to live forever.

  • 3. Edward T. Babinski  |  June 15, 2011 at 4:40 am

    A mystical friend of mind, Will Bagley (who also has a blog and facebook page where he can be contacted), has been meditating for decades, and studied such questions more intensely than anyone I know. He even went through a born again experience in his early college years (he’s in his 50s now). He’s studied Christianity, the Bible, Christian and Eastern mystics, and practiced a host of contemplative arts. I’ve asked him about his own personal “supernatural” experiences, and found them difficult to believe, but compelling coming from someone whom I’ve known as a friend since high school, and who entered the Christian fold and then left it before I did, and even helped me to leave it by calmly and rationally addressing each of barrage of letters that I sent to him insisting that he return to the fold. He got me reading some interesting comparative religion books, Christian mystics like Eckhart, and Christians who dialogued with Buddhists and Hindus, as well as reading Sufi wisdom tales and Alan Watts and others. I’d like to feel that kind of peace he exudes. And to some degree I have learned to let things “go” an simply “trust” in a great mystery, and in the weirdness. Though another side of me remains that continues to question and is concerned for humanity’s fragility and our precarious position in space and time, as well as my own. I do wish I had some insight into the eternal that was solidly convincing, or had half of the experiences Will has had, and his intuitive abilities, whatever they are based upon. He’s suggested that when I play my guitar, which I do a lot, I listen to a favorite chord or progression, and repeat playing and listening to it, and he suggests that whatever attracts me to that chord or progression could open up my insight into the part of my soul that’s eternal, perhaps even open up fragments of memories of a past life. But of course I want more than just fragments, and I bemoan all that is lost in one’s memories in a reincarnation-run cosmos. It just seems counter-intuitive to have to go through potty training again and again. He’s also sent me some of his own music, based on frequencies that he says has helped open others’ consciousness to something larger. But I fear that no single frequency or group of them, nor any single song may have the same effect on everyone, including myself. Perhaps that’s why he suggested I try using my own favorite chords. He’s a pretty pragmatic mystic.

  • 4. jacobschriftman  |  June 15, 2011 at 7:26 pm

    Hi Ed,

    Good point, and I agree. The tender-minded (in the Jamesonian sense) can also be pretty tough on the tough-minded. I mean, the tender-minded Hegel criticized the tough-minded natural philosophers of his day rather harshly, didn’t he?

  • […] reading William James’ Pragmatism and Varieties of Religious Experience this year, I also dabbled in his humungous Principles of […]

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  • 7. Multisense Realism  |  March 11, 2016 at 8:18 pm

    […] […]he interpreted the European divide between empiricists/positivists on the one hand and German idealists/rationalist on the other hand in a psychological way. He talked of the “tender-minded” and the “tough-minded.” The tender-minded are the German idealists and rationalists. Tough-Minded vs. Tender-Minded: William James’ Pragmatism and the Empiricist-Rationalist Divide […]

  • 8. RIP Hilary Putnam 1926-2016 « Samir Chopra  |  March 14, 2016 at 3:18 pm

    […] in philosophy,  it came to seem to me that William James‘ classic distinction between tough and tender-minded philosophers had been been reworked just a bit. The tough philosophers were still empiricists and positivists […]

  • 9. Continuum of Sense | Multisense Realism  |  March 18, 2016 at 2:56 pm

    […] Tough-Minded vs. Tender-Minded (William James) […]

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