Darwinism and Pragmatism: William James on Evolution and Self-Transformation, 1st Edition (Hardback) book cover

Darwinism and Pragmatism

William James on Evolution and Self-Transformation, 1st Edition

By Lucas McGranahan


186 pages | 1 B/W Illus.

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Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection challenges our very sense of belonging in the world. Unlike prior evolutionary theories, Darwinism construes species as mutable historical products of a blind process that serves no inherent purpose. It also represents a distinctly modern kind of fallible science that relies on statistical evidence and is not verifiable by simple laboratory experiments. What are human purpose and knowledge if humanity has no pre-given essence and science itself is our finite and fallible product?

According to the Received Image of Darwinism, Darwin’s theory signals the triumph of mechanism and reductionism in all science. On this view, the individual virtually disappears at the intersection of (internal) genes and (external) environment. In contrast, William James creatively employs Darwinian concepts to support his core conviction that both knowledge and reality are in the making, with individuals as active participants. In promoting this Pragmatic Image of Darwinism, McGranahan provides a novel reading of James as a philosopher of self-transformation. Like his contemporary Nietzsche, James is concerned first and foremost with the structure and dynamics of the finite purposive individual.

This timely volume is suitable for advanced undergraduate, postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers interested in the fields of history of philosophy, history and philosophy of science, history of psychology, American pragmatism and Darwinism.


In this historically grounded study of William James’s philosophy, Lucas McGranahan highlights the role of Darwinian selectionist thinking in James’s commitment to the power of individual choices, and then presents this Darwinian James in persuasive pre-emptive contrast to Social Darwinism and Sociobiology. At the heart of this compelling framework is a sensitivity to James’s existentialist concern with self-transformation, the ultimate personal selection, which shows the power of philosophy to shape individual direction; this offers a way to understand the religious character of James’s thinking the way he intended it, dispersed throughout his work and throughout experience. This is a useful and lively book.

Paul J. Croce, Professor of History, Director of American Studies, Stetson University, USA

Contributing to a striking new generation of scholarship on the scientific contexts and consequences of pragmatist thought, McGranahan convincingly details the importance of Darwinism for William James's psychology, moral theory, and social thought during pragmatism's dawning moment. This book ushers ample light onto pragmatism's transformative impulse and its historical conditions.

Colin Koopman, Associate Professor, Department of Philosophy, University of Oregon

That James owed a great deal to Darwinian evolutionism (to its psychology and epistemology alike) is by now a truism in pragmatist circles and beyond, and it thus comes as a surprise how relatively little attention has been paid to the particular, sophisticated uses James made of it. McGranahan’s nicely crafted and lucidly argued book delves deep into this often acknowledged yet little explored territory, offering us a compelling heterodox picture of James’ ethics and philosophy of self-transformation in the light of his original handling of Darwin’s revolutionary thinking. The result is an impressive overall re-orientation of James’ center and fringes of vision hinged on the key notions and practices of fashioning, cultivation, reformation, and care of the self. The volume will prove of immediate interest for scholars of James and Darwin alike, as well as for anyone interested in getting a hold on how we might have been Darwinians all the way down since James and in the wake of him.

Sarin Marchetti, Assistant Professor, Department of Philosophy, Sapienza University of Rome, Sapienza Università di Roma

Darwinism and Pragmatism is a well-executed project. Well-written, amply documented, and wide ranging, McGranahan’s book will serve as a worthy guide for understanding not only the work of William James, but of the broader intellectual context and its seemingly inescapable effects on the development of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century philosophy. It might also usefully function as an introduction to pragmatist thought both for philosophers and people working in other disciplines. It constitutes a serious contribution to the welcome resurgence of pragmatism in contemporary analytic philosophy.

Chris Haufe, Department of Philosophy, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, OH, USA writing in Metascience (2018) 27:255–257, Springer Science+Business Media B.V., part of Springer Nature 2018

It should be of interest to almost any James scholar, along with those focusing on pragmatism in general, as well as its specific implications for metaphysics, moral theory and philosophy of mind. It should also be helpful to those

working on the history and philosophy of biology, psychology and evolutionary theory, and educators teaching in these areas may find chapters useful in their preparations or as assigned readings.

Matthew Crippen, Science & Education

McGranahan’s Darwinism and Pragmatism is an excellent book which engages a variety of important topics including agency, reductionism, and essentialism. They certainly are fundamental topics for historians and philosophers of biology. We all have much to learn about what James, the pragmatists, and the author have to say about them in an evolutionary context.

Jay Odenbaugh, History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, June 2019, 41:23

Table of Contents

Introduction: A Pragmatic Image of Darwinism Chapter 1. Individuals in Evolution: James’s Darwinian Psychology Chapter 2. Individuals in History: Social Evolution without Social Darwinism Chapter 3. Self-Transformation: Habit, Will and Selection Chapter 4. Character Ideals and Evolutionary Logics in James and Nietzsche Chapter 5. Higher-Order Individuals: Truth and Reality as Organic Systems Conclusion: Divided Selves and Dialectical Selves

About the Author

Dr Lucas McGranahan is an independent scholar with research interests in American pragmatism, nineteenth-century philosophy and the history and philosophy of science.

About the Series

History and Philosophy of Biology

This series explores significant developments in the life sciences from historical and philosophical perspectives. Historical episodes include Aristotelian biology, Greek and Islamic biology and medicine, Renaissance biology, natural history, Darwinian evolution, Nineteenth-century physiology and cell theory, Twentieth-century genetics, ecology, and systematics, and the biological theories and practices of non-Western perspectives. Philosophical topics include individuality, reductionism and holism, fitness, levels of selection, mechanism and teleology, and the nature-nurture debates, as well as explanation, confirmation, inference, experiment, scientific practice, and models and theories vis-à-vis the biological sciences.

Authors are also invited to inquire into the "and" of this series. How has, does, and will the history of biology impact philosophical understandings of life? How can philosophy help us analyze the historical contingency of, and structural constraints on, scientific knowledge about biological processes and systems? In probing the interweaving of history and philosophy of biology, scholarly investigation could usefully turn to values, power, and potential future uses and abuses of biological knowledge.

The scientific scope of the series includes evolutionary theory, environmental sciences, genomics, molecular biology, systems biology, biotechnology, biomedicine, race and ethnicity, and sex and gender. These areas of the biological sciences are not silos, and tracking their impact on other sciences such as psychology, economics, and sociology, and the behavioral and human sciences more generally, is also within the purview of this series.

Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), and Visiting Scholar of Philosophy at Stanford University (2015-2016). He works in the philosophy of science and philosophy of biology and has strong interests in metaphysics, epistemology, and political philosophy, in addition to cartography and GIS, cosmology and particle physics, psychological and cognitive science, and science in general. Recent publications include "The Structure of Scientific Theories," The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and "Race and Biology," The Routledge Companion to the Philosophy of Race. His book with University of Chicago Press, When Maps Become the World, is forthcoming.

[email protected]


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Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
SCIENCE / Life Sciences / Evolution
SOCIAL SCIENCE / Sociology / General