School of Humanities



Clifford Stagoll

Phone: (+61 4) 1727 3883

Start date

Apr 2009

Submission date

Nov 2016

Clifford Stagoll


Creating One's Self: The Prescriptive Pragmatism of William James


Despite William James’s melioristic commitment to helping his contemporaries cope with the clash between religious and scientific world views at the turn of the twentieth century, his prescriptive ethics are most often considered to be slight and unrefined. Yet in the late-1960s, an alternative reading found that ethics suffused James’s whole corpus, hidden amongst a rich and intricate mix of metaphysics and philosophical psychology. I revive this latter interpretation by tracing and teasing-out James’s systematic ethics of self-creation, founded in his conceptions of habit and will. James’s recommendations for a rich and rewarding life, as relevant today as in his own time, are accompanied by practical exercises for their implementation and warnings about the moral seriousness of the daily decisions that come to define one’s character.

Why my research is important

Early in the twenty-first century, contemporary Western society faces a rapid intrusion of technology into daily life, and consequent challenges to established morals and mores. There is no dominant prescriptive ethical guide for coping with such circumstances. As John J. McDermott puts it, we risk on the one hand ‘relation-saturation’ from exposure to new and intrusive stimuli while, on the other, a breakdown of communal relations and traditional values leads us towards ‘relation-starvation.’ I show that William James provides both a philosophical conception of selfhood that might enable us to make existential sense of such circumstances, and practical guidance for coping with and thriving in such circumstances. His complex and intricate ethics of self-creation take in such diverse elements as the relational ontology of self, the psychological fundaments of willing and habit-formation, and practical exercises for coping with the morally significant link between short-term decision-making and long-term character development. James’s century-old pragmatism provide melioristic hope for a wider public while recent pragmatist theory remains trapped within the academy by its linguistic preoccupations.

William James (1842-1910)