Jonquils and Wild Orchids:  James and Rorty on the Politics of Sentiment

2009 SAAP paper submission



This paper makes a case for the relevance of William James to recent arguments that appeal to sentiment and imaginative identification as the ground of a politics of social justice.  Richard Rorty and Martha Nussbaum, among others, have turned to literature as the basis for cultivating, as James put it, “sympathetic insight into fellow lives.”  Absent a Jamesian conception of character realized through action, I argue, these accounts risk becoming a recipe for sentimental escapism where a felt concern for others takes the place of concrete action on their behalf.  James’s reflections on our fundamental “blindness” toward the deeper significance of others’ lives underscore both the inherent limitations of such projects and the importance of grounding our idealizing impulses in everyday experience.



            One of the primary “consequences” of Richard Rorty’s antifoundational pragmatism is a turn to what we might call the politics of sentiment.  As he put it in Truth and Progress, “The best, and probably the only, argument for putting foundationalism behind us is the one I have already suggested:  it would be more efficient to do so, because it would let us concentrate our energies on manipulating sentiments, on sentimental education.”  Rorty described the goal of sentimental education as a “progress of sentiments”[1]—that is, “an ability to see the similarities between ourselves and people very unlike us as outweighing the differences.”  By cultivating our ability to imaginatively identify with others, we can extend the reach of our sense of injustice and form the kind of democratic moral community in which sympathetic fellow feeling renders us more likely to act on behalf of less fortunate distant and different others.[2]

Other contemporary thinkers, like Martha Nussbaum, have appealed to a politics of sentiment as well.[3]  Highlighting the power of literature and other forms of narrative as a means of cultivating a “morality of perception,” these thinkers draw on Adam Smith and David Hume for an account of moral sentiments—“rational emotions,” in Nussbaum’s phrase—possessed of “a powerful, if partial, vision of social justice” and “powerful motives for just conduct.”[4]  The rich, detailed descriptions of the lives we encounter in social realist novels and even good narrative journalism, the argument goes, not only make us aware of previously unnoticed forms of suffering and injustice, but spark the kind of “fellow feeling,” to use Rorty’s term, that can serve as the engine of a melioristic politics of social justice.

In this paper I make a case for the relevance of William James to these contemporary arguments.  Specifically, I argue that these defenses of the politics of sentiment are vulnerable to what James called “the sentimentalist fallacy”:  the tendency “to shed tears over abstract justice and generosity, beauty, etc., and never to know these qualities when you meet them in the street.”[5]  Like Rorty, James sought “to enlarge [our] sympathetic insight into fellow-lives.”[6]  He not only understood that “our judgments concerning the worth of things, big or little, depend on the feelings the things arouse in us,” he acutely perceived the fundamental “blindness” toward “the feelings of creatures and people different from ourselves” that afflicts us all.[7]  But he was also cognizant of the need to ground this sympathy in concrete habits of action, lest our sympathetic identifications with others become a recipe for sentimental escapism.  Absent a Jamesian conception of character realized through action, perspectives like Rorty’s and Nussbaum’s run the risk of becoming a recipe for escapism and hypocrisy, where felt sentiments of empathy and an identification with suffering take the place of concrete acts.  What would seem a compelling turn away from appeals to abstract, theoretical justice in these accounts may itself become a victim of abstraction if not rooted in actual experience.  The differences between James and Rorty emerge in their contrasting views of the role moments of inner joy in our own experience play for our perceptions of others.  


Rorty and the Politics of Sentiment

            In essays in the late 1980s, Rorty began asserting that the novel is “the characteristic genre of democracy,” arguing that novelists and literary critics have done a lot more to advance “the struggle for freedom and equality” than philosophers and social theorists.[8]  Not because narrative is more intimately linked to moral foundations than theory, but because detailed descriptions of the lives of others can foster “an ability to identify imaginatively” with their plight and a politics driven by “sentimental calls for alleviation of suffering.”  On this view, through “sentimental education,” works like Dickens’s Bleak House and Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin can forge a democratic moral community of citizens more attuned to suffering and more likely to overlook differences with others to see them as “one of us.”[9]

            The role posited for sentiments in a transformative politics of “moral progress,” in Rorty’s phrase, specifically targets the affective domain as the path for making individuals more responsible and society more just.  Rorty appealed primarily to a shared category of collective identity, which he first called “solidarity,” then “loyalty,” for ethical import and suggested that absent this sentimental or affective dimension, citizens not only will be less likely to notice or perceive the suffering of others, but less inclined to act on their behalf when they do.[10]  As a sympathetic reader of such accounts, my argument is not that they are wrongheaded in their appeals to sentiment; my view is simply that they do not go far enough.  More specifically, I claim that they fall short in articulating the crucial connection between activated sentiments and concrete actions. 

In fairness, for his part Rorty attempted to link moral identification to moral action, holding to the view that “To believe that someone is ‘one of us,’ a member of our moral community, is to exhibit readiness to come to their assistance when they are in need.”[11]  In the spirit of Adam Smith and David Hume, sympathy plays a key role for Rorty, understood in terms of Baier’s notion of a “progress of sentiments” – that is, fostering “an ability to see the similarities between ourselves and people very unlike us as outweighing the differences.”  Rorty illustrated this progress with an example drawn from an issue of international concern at the time:  “the fate of the women in Bosnia depends on whether television journalists manage to do for them what Harriet Beecher Stowe did for black slaves […] make us, the audience back in the safe countries, feel that these women are more like us, more like real human beings than we have realized.”[12]

            Fostering such fellow feeling promises to remedy what James called our natural “blindness” toward others, especially when it comes our tendency to undervalue their “feelings,” an issue we will return to below.[13]  Despite these efforts, however, the links to action in Rorty’s account remain inadequate; imaginative identification, after all, is still at a significant remove from political action. Indeed, the point where Rorty’s account would benefit from greater attention is in elucidating the path from sympathy, imaginative identification, and more acute perception on the part of individuals, to everyday experience.  In the end, it remains vulnerable to James’s critique of emotional states of felt concern in which sympathetic identification with the suffering of others supplants the need to actually do something about it.

            My argument here is that incorporating a Jamesian conception of character realized through concrete acts is the best way for accounts like Rorty’s to address the sentimentalist fallacy.  Interestingly, to some extent Rorty did move in the direction of a greater attention to character in this sense, arguing that what he called “redescription”—restating views in an alternate vocabulary to reveal previously unseen possibilities—should be understood as “a tool for social and individual change,” and framing pragmatism as most fundamentally “an attempt to alter our self-image.”[14]  However, Rorty insisted upon making “a firm distinction” between our shared public commitments and our idiosyncratic “private” vocabularies, which he captured memorably through the metaphor of his own obsession with wild orchids.[15]  Combined with his reduction of the “webs of belief and desire” that define his nonessentialist view of the self to purely linguistic terms, his bifurcated approach divorces our public pursuit of social justice from the Jamesian stream of individual experience.  As a result, Rorty’s argument about the novel as the primary vehicle of moral reflection in a democracy seems to lack the kind of private-public interchange necessary, on the one hand, to get from the (private) practice of reading to a (public) concern for the injustices suffered by others, and, on the other, from a concern for the suffering of abstract others to concrete actions in our everyday lives.  This shortcoming is precisely what the conception of character realized through action found in James—to whom the idea of dividing public from private was rather foreign—would seem to remedy.  Without direct inroads from these imaginative states to our everyday experiences Rorty’s account remains vulnerable to the sentimentalist fallacy. [16]


James and the Sentimentalist Fallacy

In the sixth of his Pragmatism lectures, first delivered in 1906, James laments our tendency, in philosophy and in life, to divorce ideals and theories from concrete experience.  We often lose sight of the fact that all our abstractions, even the most pure and ideal, find their “mother soil in experience.”  When we traffic in abstractions, he argues, a certain blindness to these origins often results.  As James explains, we “ extract a quality from the muddy particulars of experience, and find it so pure when extracted that [we] contrast it with each and all its muddy instances as an opposite and higher nature.”  In other words, we fail to recognize this quality in its unidealized, everyday state.  Even emotional states are vulnerable to our tendency to abstract from concrete experience.  As we have seen, James called this the “sentimentalist fallacy”:  “to shed tears over abstract justice and generosity, beauty, etc., and never to know these qualities when you meet them in the street.”[17] 

Although James discussed the sentimentalist fallacy of feeling deep concern for abstract justice (or injustice) alongside a blindness to concrete injustice in front of one’s eyes in his Pragmatism lectures, the same issue was present nearly two decades earlier in his Principles of Psychology.  His penetrating inquiry into the role of “Habit” in the earlier text offers James’s thoughts on potential remedies for what he later would call the sentimentalist fallacy.  In a word,  for James habit is pervasive in human life.  Socially, as “the enormous fly-wheel of society,” habit is society’s “most precious conservative agent.”  “Set like plaster” by the age of thirty, individually, habit is the primary determinant of character, “doom[ing] us all to fight out the battle of life upon the lines of our nurture or our early choice.”  Akin to “an invisible law, as strong as gravitation,” habit keeps the individual “within his orbit” and requires the utmost attention and effort to change.[18] 

            Of greatest interest to James are the “ethical implications” of this “law of habit.”  When it comes to education, if we are “mere walking bundles of habits,” as he asserts, “the great thing,” he argues, “is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy.[19]  He draws on the conception of character he finds in John Stuart Mill—to whom he would later dedicate his Pragmatism lectures as the person from whom he learned “the pragmatic openness of mind”—as “a completely fashioned will” as the basis for articulating his own:  “an aggregate of tendencies to act in a firm and prompt and definite way upon all the principal emergencies of life.”  What results is an implicit critique of both Kant, on the one hand, and Smith and Hume, on the other:  “No matter how full a reservoir of maxims one may possess, and no matter how good one’s sentiments may be, if one have not taken advantage of every concrete opportunity to act in a firm act, one’s character may remain entirely unaffected for the better.”[20]  If in the end Rorty seeks to use the activation of sentiment as a vehicle for cultivating character, on James’s view this effort will fall short if not directly linked an understanding of character rooted in habits of action.

            Nowhere does James illustrate this more powerfully than in his discussion of “the nerveless sentimentalist and dreamer,” a person “who spends his life in a weltering sea of sensibility and emotion, but who never does a manly concrete deed.”  In what seems a direct assault on Rorty’s stance, he claims that “The habit of excessive novel-reading and theatre-going will produce true monsters in this line.”  James continues:

The weeping of a Russian lady over the fictitious personages in the play, while her coachman is freezing to death on his seat outside, is the sort of thing that everywhere happens on a less glaring scale. […] One becomes filled with emotions which habitually pass without prompting to any deed, and so the inertly sentimental condition is kept up.[21]


The remedy for James is simple, a matter of the active cultivation of contrary habits:  “never to suffer one's self to have an emotion at a concert, without expressing it afterward in some active way.  Let the expression be the least thing in the world – speaking genially to one's aunt, or giving up one's seat in a horse-car, if nothing more heroic offers – but let it not fail to take place.”[22]  By settling, if you will, for something less than heroic here, in terms of the reduction of human suffering and injustice around the globe, James not only forestalls the tendency of letting (salutary) sentiments pass without action, but begins to cultivate a habit of acting upon affective states that will enable more heroic action to occur when the opportunity presents itself.

            In the time between these comments, published in his Principles of Psychology (1890), and the discussion of the sentimentalist fallacy in Pragmatism (1907), James delivered a series of addresses that form an inquiry into, among other things, the need “to enlarge [our] sympathetic insight into fellow-lives”—precisely the issue of interest to Rorty.[23]  Keenly aware of the fact that life is “soaked and shot-through […] with values and meanings which we fail to realize because of our external and insensible point of view,” James first and foremost counseled tolerance—tolerance of ideals and ways of life so different from our own that we remain blind to their value and meaning for those who practice them.  Indeed, the pretense to “judge” and “dogmatize” about other ways of life is in his view “the root of most human injustices and cruelties.”  James advocated tolerance over understanding here because he believed the “great cloud-bank of ancestral blindness” to the meanings of others’ lives was virtually insurmountable.[24]

            Nevertheless, at times James seemed to point beyond mere tolerance to the active cultivation of our capacity for greater fellow-feeling.  In these moments one sees the interesting interweaving of pragmatism and Romanticism—or “empiricism and idealism”—present in James.[25]  If Rousseau was his foil in the passage from Principles, in “What Makes a Life Significant,” it is Tolstoy.  Here too James seeks to illustrate the limits and dangers of ideals and identifications abstracted from concrete experience, offering a critique of Tolstoy’s proclivity to romanticize.  For all of vastness of Tolstoy’s “love of the peasant” and acute perception of their “maladies and misfortunes” and “privations and pains” that enabled him to imaginatively enter into their life, his philosophy, as James put it, remains “a false abstraction.”  Tolstoy’s “deification” of the values he saw there “hardens his heart toward the educated man.”   James sums up his critique with these words:  “If it is idiotic in romanticism to recognize the heroic only when it sees it labeled and dressed-up in books, it is really just as idiotic to see it only in the dirty boots and sweaty shirt of someone in the fields.”[26]

            The power of James’s reading of Tolstoy resides in his view that once we leave the realm of concrete experience, even the most benevolent and well-intentioned ideals may prove counterproductive at best, dangerous at worst, when it comes to programs for political or social improvement.  It is not that James wishes to denigrate ideals or abstractions or imaginative identifications per se; he merely wants to ensure that their origins in the “mother soil of experience”—precisely what paves the way for the cultivation of habits of action— are not lost.[27] 

When it comes to ideals, he wrote that “the most worthless sentimentalists and dreamers, drunkards, shirks and verse-makers, who never show a grain of effort, courage, or endurance, possibly have them on the most copious scale.”  But the problem is not the ideals themselves; the problem is the lack of connection between ideals and actions.  This is the core of James’s bridging of idealism and empiricism:  “The more ideals a man has, the more contemptible, on the whole, do you continue to deem him, if the matter ends there for him, and if none of the laboring man’s virtues are called into action on his part.”[28]  As we saw above, James held that the cultivation of character in the absence of concrete opportunities to act amounts to no cultivation at all.   Never insisting on a divide between public and private, as did Rorty, James sought to merge inner ideals and sentiments to outer opportunities for action and to concrete others:  “a marriage, namely, of some unhabitual ideal, however special, with some fidelity, courage and endurance; with some man’s or woman’s pains.”[29]

James walks a rather fine line here.  Just as he critiqued Tolstoy’s detached romanticizing, he also recognized “the price we inevitably have to pay for being practical creatures” in which our hearts are “harden[ed]” to everything outside our own way of life.  Like Rorty and Nussbaum, James sought to awaken “responsive sensibilities” toward others by appealing to “feelings of excited significance.”[30]  Despite his harsh words for “worthless sentimentalists and dreamers” and “verse-makers,” James turns to Emerson and to Whitman, as well as Wordsworth, Shelley, and Robert Louis Stevenson, to praise the exalted, “gleaming moments” of transcendent self-absorption described in the “Crossing a bare common” passage in Emerson’s Nature and Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” in Leaves of Grass.  Indeed, James wrote that “Only in some pitiful dreamer, some philosopher, poet, or romancer, or when the practical man becomes a lover” does a “gleam of insight” into “the vast world of inner life beyond us” become available.”[31]

How do we may sense of these apparently conflicting stances toward sentimentalists and dreamers? What distinguishes the “worthless sentimentalists and dreamers” discussed above from Emerson and Whitman is that their flights of transcendence are rooted in moments of everyday experience, “the peculiar sources of joy connected with our simpler functions”—that is, the everyday and the “common,” rather than the “rare” and the “exquisite.”  In ways that relate to what Dewey would later call “having an experience,” James notes that “as Emerson says, there is a depth in those moments that constrains us to ascribe more reality to them than to all other experiences.”  Importantly, for James, this includes our experience of “non-human natural things.”  As an example, he quotes a passage from Senancour’s Obermann describing the experience of an “ideal of a better world which one feels” that he undergoes upon encountering “a jonquil in bloom” on a dark and gloomy day.  Unlike Rorty, who sought to disconnect such sublime moments of inner joy, exemplified by his own experience of wild orchids, from our attitudes toward others, James seems to argue that these moments are precisely what open us to the possibility of the suffering and joys of others being alive to us.  As James put it in a rhetorical flourish of his own, “But how can one attain to the feeling of the vital significance of an experience [of another], if one have it not to begin with?”[32]




The value of James’s insights for contemporary arguments about the cultivation of ethical character through literature is his insistence that attempts to improve character will prove ineffective if they do not involve regular opportunities for acting based on one’s ideals and sentiments.  As Joshua Miller has put it, for James “action is good in itself.”  Likening James to the Marx of the “Theses on Feuerbach,” Miller asserts that for both thinkers, “merely changing consciousness was ineffectual.”  What James called “the strenuous life” ensures that citizens do not merely hold ideals and experience sentiments, but act upon them.[33]

            Although the politically-motivated turn to sentiment and affect in recent work like that of Rorty and Nussbaum marks a salutary move away from narrow theory and disembodied rationalism, the link from felt sentiments to concrete acts cannot be assumed to automatically exist.  Neglecting this crucial dimension will on the best scenario result in an ineffectual, sentimental escapism where changes in consciousness remain just that.  Situated in a political context characterized by oppression and the persistence of social and political hierarchies, the result may be an even more pernicious exercise in politically impotent self-exculpation.[34]  James’s bridging of empiricism and idealism helps strengthen the politics of sentiment not only by preserving the imaginative, romantic impulses that can form the basis of insight into the lives of others but by grounding them in our everyday experience.

            Although perhaps less so than Dewey, James was attuned to the central role of education in advancing the democratic way of life.  If we are to make “cultivating humanity” a primary goal, which I think we should,[35] we would do well to conjoin to this, in a pragmatist spirit, equal attention to the cultivation of habits of action in our everyday lives.  When understood in terms of James’s conception of character realized through action, the words of Dewey offer an important reminder:

… powerful present enemies of democracy can be successfully met only by the creation of personal attitudes in individual human beings; that we must get over our tendency to think that its defense can be found in any external means whatever, whether military or civil, if they are separated from individual attitudes so deep-seated as to constitute personal character.[36]










[1] Rorty borrows this phrase from Annette Baier.  See her A Progress of Sentiments:  Reflections on Hume’s Treatise (Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 1991).


[2] Richard Rorty, Truth and Progress:  Philosophical Papers, Vol.3 (New York:  Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 176, 181.


[3] See, for example, Martha Nussbaum, Poetic Justice:  Literary Imagination and Public Life (Boston:  Beacon Press, 1995).


[4] Nussbaum, Poetic Justice, p. xvi; and chapter 3, passim.


[5] William James, Pragmatism, in Bruce Kuklick (ed.), William James:  Writings, 1902-1910 (New York:  Library of America, 1987), pp. 586-7.


[6] James, “What Makes a Life Significant,” in John J. McDermott (ed.), The Writings of William James: A Comprehensive Edition (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1977), p. 655.


[7] James, “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings” in The Writings of William James, p. 629.


[8] Rorty, “Heidegger, Kundera, and Dickens” in Essays on Heidegger and Others:  Philosophical Papers, Vol. 2  (New York:  Cambridge University Press, 1991), pp. 68, 80.  See also his “Thugs and Theorists:  A Reply to Bernstein,” Political Theory 15, no. 4 (1987), p. 579n26.


[9] Rorty, “Heidegger, Kundera, and Dickens,” p. 81.  See also “Human Rights, Rationality, and Sentimentality,” in Truth and Progress, pp. 167-85; and “Justice as a Larger Loyalty,” in Pheng Cheah and Bruce Robbins (eds.), Cosmopolitics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998), pp. 45-58. 

[10] On this point, see Rorty, “Justice as a Larger Loyalty.”


[11] Rorty, “Who Are We? Moral Universalism and Economic Triage,” Diogenes 173 (Spring 1996), p. 13.


[12] Rorty, “Human Rights, Rationality, and Sentimentality,” p. 181.


[13] James, “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” p. 629.


[14] Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope (New York: Penguin, 1999), pp. 220, 72.


[15] See Rorty, “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids,” in Philosophy and Social Hope (New York:  Penguin Books, 1999), pp. 3-20.


[16] Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 85. On Rorty’s public-private split, see op. cit., esp. chapter 4.


[17] James, Pragmatism, pp. 586-7.


[18] James, The Principles of Psychology, Vol. 1  (New York:  Dover Publications, 1950 [1890]), pp. 121-2.


[19] Principles, pp. 122, 127 (emphasis in original).  James’s thinking about habits influenced Dewey, who similarly equated the cultivation of habits with “character-building.”  See, for example, “The School and Society,” in Archambault (ed.), John Dewey  on Education:  Selected Writings (New York:  The Modern Library, 1964), pp. 297-298.


[20] Principles, p. 125 (emphasis in original).


[21] Principles, pp. 125-6.


[22] Principles, p. 126.


[23] James, “What Makes a Life Significant,” p. 655.  I am referring to this essay and “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings.”  Both were originally published in James’s Talks to Teachers on Psychology:  and to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals (New York:  Holt, 1899).


[24] “What Makes a Life Significant,” pp. 645-6.


[25] Russell B. Goodman, American Philosophy and the Romantic Tradition (New York:  Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 68 and chapter 3, passim.  Goodman suggests that James “construes pragmatism as a mediator between empiricism and idealism” and calls James “a Romantic in his basic vision” (59).  In his most direct treatment of James, Rorty called him a “romantic utilitarian.”  See “Pragmatism as Romantic Polytheism,” in Rorty, Philosophy as Cultural Politics:  Philosophical Papers, Vol. 4  (New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 28.


[26] “What Makes a Life Significant,” pp. 650-3.  James quotes Tolstoy from his work, My Confession.


[27] For James, this holds as true for sentiment as it does for rationality.  In Pragmatism, he also discusses the “rationalist fallacy,” which is also critiqued alongside the sentimentalist fallacy.  See pp. 587-90, and passim.


[28] “What Makes a Life Significant,” p. 657.


[29] “What Makes a Life Significant,” p. 659.  For Rorty’s argument for a “firm distinction” between public and private, see Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity; and “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids.” 


[30] Here James quotes a long passage from Josiah Royce’s The Religious Aspect of Philosophy that issues a call for us to “learn the truth” that “Pain is pain, joy is joy, everywhere, even as in thee,” rather than to say of our “neighbor” that “A pain in him is not like a pain in me, but something far easier to bear.”  James, “On a Certain Blindness,” pp. 634-5.


[31] “On a Certain Blindness,” p. 634.  James discusses the passage from Emerson on pp. 635, 642; and Whitman on pp. 637-41.


[32] “On a Certain Blindness,” pp. 635, 642, 640.  For Rorty’s argument, see “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids.”  Interestingly, in that essay Rorty discusses these very same “Wordsworthian moments” that he himself experienced in the presence of particularly rare wild orchids “in the woods around Flatbrookville [NJ],” where, not unlike Emerson or Whitman, he “felt touched by something numinous, something of ineffable importance.”  However, he concludes that these moments are nothing more than “interest in socially useless flowers” (7-8).  In the more recent “Pragmatism as Romantic Polytheism,” though, he did praise Whitman’s belief that “non-human nature culminates in a community of free men” (41).  See also Dewey, Art as Experience (New York:  Perigee Books, 1980), esp. chapter 3.


[33] Joshua I. Miller, Democratic Temperament:  The Legacy of William James (Lawrence, KA:  University Press of Kansas, 1997), pp. 13, 16, 126n31.


[34] Although I can’t pursue this here, consider as an example Martin Luther King, Jr.’s critique in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” of the “white moderate” as “the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom.”  The reason why he saw sympathetic whites as a greater obstacle than “the White Citizen's Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner” is that their sympathetic identification with the goals of the civil rights movement never translated into action.


[35] See Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education  (Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 1997).


[36] Dewey, “Creative Democracy—The Task Ahead of Us,” in The Later Works of John Dewey, ed. Jo Ann Boydston, vol. 14 (Carbondale:  Southern Illinois University Press, 1986), p. 226.