William James and the Teachability of Human Will.
This paper aims to explore the Jamesian conceptualization of human agency in order to develop what can be identified as a specific pragmatist approach to the teachability of human will. The paper goes on to discuss some of the possibilities and limitations of that theory in light of recent discussions on the relationships between autonomy and education on one hand, and self-determination theories on the other.
The American philosopher William James (1842-1910) has been rightly portrayed as “an edifying philosopher, a lucid and provocative intellectual” who was himself “intentionally peripheral respecting the big systems of thought” (Del Castillo, 2007, 7). It is unlikely that William James’s philosophy give any systematic answer to the big questions about the nature of God, Truth, and Freedom. Instead, his works are more like essays on the meaning of religious experiences, the different ways through which the word “truth” operates in the course of our actions, and the affirmation of free will as the bedrock for understanding human conscience and human agency.
From his view, “no actions but such as are done for an end, and show a choice of means, can be called indubitable expressions of Mind” (James, 1890/2007a, 11). The mind expresses itself through decisions which human beings make their will. James distinguishes six kinds of decisions, would only two of which involve effort. These “creative acts” of our mind are characterized by the fact that when deciding, we feel as if we were the ones who were tipping the balance by an act of will. James not only made the classic pragmatist distinction between tough-minded and tender-minded, but between the “healthy” will and the “blocked” will. To James, only educated wills (healthy) are prepared for tipping the balance in these decisions requiring a mental effort. What is the pragmatic meaning of “healthy-willist”? What does the experience of “blocked-willists” consist of? Is that healthiness of human will teachable? How does James this can be learned?
The current importance given to American pragmatism is under extensive discussion, but what makes the specific contribution of William James on human agency so pertinent today is the rise of a renewed interest in the relationships between autonomy and education in the field of philosophy of education. Interestingly, that debate is likely driven by the proliferation of research in well-being and self-determination theories (SDT). SDT articulates a formal theory that defines intrinsic and varied extrinsic sources of motivation. However, perhaps more importantly for the point this paper hopes to make is that SDT propositions focus on how social and cultural factors challenge people’s sense of volition and initiative. This theory could add the social dimension that James’s works lack, as rightly pointed out by critics of his legacy. Then the paper will show why individualistic understanding of autonomy is being critized within the philosophy of education today.
This is a conceptual paper. For the development of the discussion, I will draw on the specific conceptualization of human will and human agency advocated by William James within the classic American pragmatist tradition. I will then highlight some pieces of the recent discussion on autonomy and education, human well-being and self-determination theories. I will conclude with a particular consideration of the possibilities and limitations of what a teachability of human will may imply, since being, first, a central aspect of James’s philosophy of education, and, second, a means to “compose” (Latour, 2010) better and fulfilled lives.
William James’s ideas on human agency were originally stated in his Principles of Psychology. The book took him twelve years to write and it is still considered a masterpiece of modern psychology, as well as a salient work in the history of the twentieth century thought. This paper hopes to show the relevance of this contribution. It will do its utmost to identify the teachability of human will as a specific pragmatist approach to education. That teachability will be presented through James’s description and will be put in relation with current discussions in autonomy and education.
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This proposal is part of a master or doctoral thesis.