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