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Moral Issues and Social Problems: The Moral Relevance of Moral Philosophy

  • Marcus G. Singer (a1)


At the beginning of one of his inimitable discourses William James once said, ‘I am only a philosopher, and there is only one thing that a philosopher can be relied on to do, and that is, to contradict other philosophers’.1 In his succeeding discourse James himself departed from this theme. And so shall I. I shall not be contradicting other philosophers—at least not very often. What I aim to do is to take a fresh look at one of the main traditions in American philosophy for insight and illumination on a way of dealing with some of the most serious issues of our time. But before I turn to that, my main theme, I want to pursue for a bit some variations on another, the cultural relevance of philosophy, for, as I view the matter, they are related.



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1 William, James, Remarks at the Peace Banquet, Memories and Studies (New York:Longmans Green and Co., 1911), 299.

2 Bruce, Kuklick, The Rise of American Philosophy: Cambridge Massachusetts, 18601930 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977), xxvi.

3 John, Dewey, The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy, in Creative Intelligence: Essays in the Pragmatic Attitude (New York: Holt, 1917), 67, 65.

4 W. T., Harris, Journal of Speculative Philosophy I, No. 4 (1867), Preface.

5 Iris, Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good (New York: Schocken Books, 1971), 46.

6 Josiah, Royce, William James and Other Essays on the Philosophy of Life (New York: Macmillan, 1911), 3-4, 7, 36.

7 Paul, Henle, ‘William James‘, in Classic American Philosophers, Max Fisch (ed.) (New York: Appleton–Century–Crofts, 1951), 115.

8 Franklin, D. Roosevelt, , Looking Forward (New York: John Day Company, 1933), 51. This was a commencement address delivered at Oglethorpe University, 22 May 1932. According to Raymond, Moley (After Seven Years (New York and London: Harper & Brothers, 1939), 24) the speech was drafted by Ernest Lindley; this does not make it any the less Roosevelt's. How much it represents Roosevelt's thinking is brought out by William E. Leuchtenburg in Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal (New York and London: Harper & Row, 1963), 344–345. Roosevelt was the William James of American politics. This assessment is borne out by Moley's narrative and assessments on pp. 385-397, and is not gainsaid by the fact that the the time he wrote this book Mr Moley was no longer a friend of Mr Roosevelt's. The connection between James and Roosevelt is more than coincidence. Though he was not a student of philosophy, Roosevelt was a pupil of Jame's at Harvard. (Cf. Moley, 174.) Arthur Schlesinger, Jr, has said of Roosevelt that ‘he had the larger wisdom to resist consistency’(The Crisis of the Old Order (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1957), 420), and this was true of James as well. There are still other parallels.

9 Roe v. Wade, 410 US 113 (1973).

10 John, Dewey, The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy (New York: Holt, 1910), 19.

11 James, TruslowAdams, , The Epic of America (Boston: Little Brown, 1931), 394, 250.

12 C. L., Sulzberger, Go Gentle into the Night (Englewood Cliffs:Prentice-Hall, 1971), 37.

13 Ralph, Barton Perry, The Thought and Character of William James, II (Boston: Little Brown 1935), 262, 274275.

14 Sulzberger, loc. cit.

15 Sidney, Hook, ‘Pragmatism and the Tragic Sense of Life’, Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, 19591960, XXXIII (Yellow Springs:Antioch Press, 1960), 1920, 23.

16 Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, 438 US 265 (1978).

17 Ralph Barton, Perry, General Theory of Value (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1926), 670672.

18 Max, Beerbohm, And Even Now (New York: Dutton, 1921), 172.

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  • ISSN: 0031-8191
  • EISSN: 1469-817X
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