Was Swami Vivekananda a Pragmatist—a la William James?

Apr 9, 2020 | Articles, Issue 76 | 0 comments

by Asim Chaudhuri


William James
William James

When Swami Vivekananda arrived in the U.S. in 1893, “Pragmatism” was then emerging as America’s first major contribution to philosophy, with Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) as its standard flag bearer, William James (1842-1910) as its main facilitator who made it popular, and John Dewey (1859-1952) as its passionate proponent who later applied the philosophy to diverse social arenas. The Metaphysical Club in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was the birthplace of Pragmatism; and, in addition to Peirce and James, the club included luminaries such as Oliver Wendell Holmes and Chauncey Wright as its members. Its adherents treated philosophical issues in a ‘scientific’ manner, and focused on what ‘works’ in actual practice rather than what metaphysical speculation leads us to believe.

This article is not about Pierce or Dewey, nor about their views as they relate to those of Swami Vivekananda, who probably never had the chance to meet either of them.* {Footnote: Although Burke hinted at the possibility that Swamiji might have met Pierce in Cambridge. (Marie Louise Burke, Swami Vivekananda in the West—New Discoveries (Advaita Ashrama, Calcutta, 1987), vol. 2, p. 236),} But he did meet William James, probably multiple times in Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts, and was quite intimate with him; the intimacy between them was propelled by mutual admiration and respect. This article is about their meetings, and how, and to what extent, James’s views on “Pragmatism,” or the “Pragmatic Method,” align with Swamiji’s worldview and his method of operation, mainly on religious issues.

It is important to remember, however, that Swamiji, as far as it is known, never used the word “pragmatism” or any of its derivatives in his lectures, classes, writings, and conversations.{Footnote: Swamiji, however, used the word “practicality” multiple times. He frequently praised the “practicality” of the Westerners, and criticized Indians for their lack of it. The two words, practicality and pragmatism, are often used as synonyms, but cannot be always used interchangeably. James used pragmatism as a method, as a way of thinking; it is different from practicality, which means the state of being practical. James’s pragmatism can be regarded as a means in pursuit of practicality.} In point of fact, the first public mention of the word occurs in James’s lecture at Berkeley in 1898.1

Pragmatism as defined by William James

William James referred to the “pragmatic method,” and explained it thus: The pragmatic method is primarily a method of settling metaphysical disputes that otherwise might be interminable. Is the world one or many?—fated [deterministic] or free [free-willing]?—material or spiritual?—here are notions either of which may or may not hold good of the world; and disputes over such notions are unending. The pragmatic method in such cases is to try to interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences. What difference would it practically make to anyone if this notion rather than that notion were true? If no practical difference whatever can be traced, the alternatives mean practically the same thing, and all dispute is idle. Whenever a dispute is serious, we ought to be able to show some practical difference that must follow from one side or the other’s being right.2

Summarizing, we can say that pragmatic method evaluates different philosophies based on their practical results when implemented; true philosophy is the one that has the maximum practical value. In the case of the belief of a single individual, which could be political, social, religious, or otherwise, and which might or might not be rational, James expected the individual to act upon his belief. If the result proves useful, productive, and has practical utility, then the belief should be regarded as “truth.” James went a step further by warning us not to hold any “truth” as absolute because, according to him, all existential truths are open to revision as a result of new, emerging information. Here’s an example of how the pragmatic method works. The example is not what James would have called a “metaphysical dispute”, but it carries all the elements of James’s philosophy of Pragmatism. Around 1700, Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727) concluded that light was a group of particles (corpuscular theory). That was considered to be the truth until in the early 19th century when Thomas Young (1773-1829) unequivocally established the wave theory of light over Newton’s particle theory; that became the “new” truth. In the late 19th or early 20th century, Albert Einstein (1879-1955) showed that light functions as both a particle and a wave, depending upon the circumstances of the experiment; thus evolved the wave-particle-duality theory of quantum physics, the “newest” truth. Among the infinite number of useful things having a “cash-value” that the theory led to, one is the photoelectric cell used in elevators to protect us from getting crushed by the door. According to James, “True ideas [that become the truth] are those that we can assimilate, validate, corroborate and verify.”3

We will later touch on the specific religious/metaphysical issues, as they relate to the pragmatic method, when we address them from Swami Vivekananda’s perspective. James believed that the application of pragmatism could help resolve a number of religious issues. In a broad sense, however, if one’s religious faith makes a positive difference in his life, if it helps him make better sense of the world and resolves the problems he faces, then it can be justified as following the pragmatic method because of its experiential and practical consequences. This is what is behind the act of voluntary conversion, where one accepts a faith different from his own because it steers him in the direction of his passion and assists him in getting more control over his attitudes towards life and his environment—and eventually leads toward his own happiness. 

Indian Vedantist meets American Pragmatist

According to the records, Swami Vivekananda met William James in 1894, and then again in 1896. Sara Bull had invited Swamiji into her Cambridge home in October 1894, and then again in December. It was during his second visit that Mrs. Bull had arranged for him to have some informal talks with, among other people, the academic luminaries from Harvard. Swamiji gave a number of talks at the house of Mrs. Ann Richards next door and met the stalwarts of Harvard’s Department of Philosophy, Prof. William James being one of them.{Footnote: Swamiji had given a lecture at the Sever Hall of Harvard in May 1894, but there is no record of him meeting William James then. His subject was “Aspects of Religious Life in India.” Swamiji didn’t know Sara Bull at that time.} This acquaintance probably culminated in his being invited to speak before the Graduate Philosophical Club at Harvard later in 1896.4

When Swamiji went back to Mrs. Bull’s house in Cambridge again in March 1896, his interaction with William James became more frequent and personal, although Burke said it was perhaps during his last visit in 1894 that Swamiji had demonstrated to Prof. James the mystery of divine communion by plunging into samadhi in his presence.5 Swamiji’s lecture on March 25 during this sojourn, at the Dane Hall’s Psychological Laboratory, has been referred to by his biographers as one of the most remarkable incidents of his whole American career.6 The subject was “The Vedanta Philosophy.” Three days later, on March 28, when Swamiji was scheduled to deliver his last two lectures in the Boston area, he received the following letter in the morning delivered to him in person by the professor’s son:

95 Irving St.
Cambridge March 28

Dear Master,

I hate not to have any talk with you before you go away.

I am willing to give up two engagements I have this afternoon for the sake of meeting you, if you yourself should be free between 4 and 6:30 o’clock. Or if it suits you better can you lunch with me tomorrow at one? Or can you dine with me at 6:00 this evening and still be in time for your lecture at 8?

Pray choose one of these alternatives and let the messenger, my son, know which. A verbal message will suffice.

In case you choose this afternoon at 4, pray say whether you prefer to come to my house or to have me call at Mrs. Bull’s? I can do either, but naturally I should like to see you for once under my own roof. If I go to Mrs. Bull’s I may not be there before half past four. If you stay to dinner tonight, pray come as early in the afternoon as you can.

Sincerely yours

Wm. James7

The letter clearly indicates how eager Prof. James was to meet Swamiji privately; his addressing Swamiji as “Master” was probably a sign of respect—nothing more should be read into it. It seems that the professor didn’t have to give up his two engagements that day because he met Swamiji the next day, October 29, for lunch. It is not known what exactly transpired between the two before, during, and after the lunch, but Burke said:

The conversation at that lunch, which took place on the last day but one of Swamiji’s stay in Boston, could not have been anything but rich and brilliant, the two men delighting in one another’s company, though not necessarily agreeing with one another’s thought, which was as it should have been in Cambridge, where no philosopher worthy of the name agreed with any other.8

One can get some idea about the subjects of their conversations through the writings of Prof. James that referred to Vivekananda. Eleven years later he paid his sincere tribute to Swamiji by saying, “The paragon of all monistic systems is the Vedanta philosophy of Hindostan [sic], and the paragon of Vedantist missionaries was the late Swami Vivekananda who visited our shores some years ago.”9

The lunch-meeting with William James was Vivekananda’s last engagement in the Boston area. He left for Chicago the next day and is not known to have visited the area again. He left for England shortly thereafter, ending his first trip to America. Swamiji never met Prof. James again, but James wrote to Sara Bull from Paris in the summer of 1899, “I have just been reading some of Vivekananda’s addresses in England, which I had not seen. That man is simply a wonder for oratorical power. As for the doctrine of the One I began to have some talk with that most interesting Miss Noble about it, but it was cut short, and I confess that my difficulties have never yet been cleared up. But the Swami is an honour to humanity, in any case.”10 James was referring to his views on monism, to which he was opposed. We will address that in the following section.

Not that Vivekananda needed any character certificate, but praise from a preeminent American man of letters, probably second only to Emerson, shows to what extent Swamiji’s knowledge and charisma had impressed people.

Swamiji also wasn’t reluctant to shower praise on Prof. James. The Life of Swami Vivekananda recounted:

It was at this time that the Swami met the distinguished Professor, William James of Harvard at dinner at the residence of Mrs. Ole Bull. After dinner the Swami and the Professor drew together in earnest and subdued conversation. It was midnight when they rose from their long discourse. Eager to know the result of the meeting of these two great minds, Mrs. Bull asked “Well, Swami how did you like Professor James?” He replied, in a sort of abstracted way, “A very nice man, a very nice man!” laying emphasis on the word nice.11

Pragmatism and Vivekananda

If we take the dictionary definition of pragmatism, which is “dealing with things sensibly and realistically in a way that is based on practical rather than theoretical considerations,” Swami Vivekananda was definitely a pragmatist. William James called him, as we have seen earlier, the “paragon of Vedantist missionaries,” and “an honour to humanity,” but he never characterized him as a pragmatist, or even alluded to that notion. But Swamiji was one, according to James’s own definition and broad characterization of the term! As we shall see now.

Prof. James said, “Mystical states of mind in every degree are shown by history, usually tho not always, to make for the monistic view. The method of Vedantism is the mystical method. You do not reason, but after going through a certain discipline you see, and having seen, you can report the truth.”9 Swamiji, a mystic, showed similar views when he said, “What we perceive directly we take as the basis, and upon that basis we reason.12 In other words, perceive first, and then reason. James also said, “We find our pragmatism, though originally nothing but a method, has forced us to be friendly to the pluralistic view.”13 James’s use of the qualifier, “usually tho not always,” was on mark. The following episode in Swamiji’s life shows how a mystical Vedantist would verify the truth through experiential observation, and in the course of that would integrate the pluralistic and monistic views.

It started with a question from a disciple, “Pray, Swamiji, if the One Brahman is the only Reality, why then exists all this differentiation in the world?” Swamiji first said that it is possible to arrive at the root of Oneness through the diversity of phenomenal existence by the process of reasoning and discrimination, and then the conversation proceeded as follows:

Swamiji:…. Look here, a time comes when what you call differentiation vanishes, and we cannot perceive it at all. I have experienced that state in my own life.

Disciple: When have you done so?

Swamiji: One day in the temple-garden at Dakshineswar Shri Ramakrishna touched me over the heart, and first of all I began to see that the houses—rooms, doors, windows, verandahs—the trees, the sun, the moon—all were flying off, shattering to pieces as it were—reduced to atoms and molecules—and ultimately became merged in the Akasha. Gradually again, the Akasha also vanished, and after that, my consciousness of the ego with it; what happened next I do not recollect. I was at first frightened. Coming back from that state, again I began to see the houses, doors, windows, verandahs, and other things. On another occasion, I had exactly the same realisation by the side of a lake in America.[Probably at the Lincoln Park in Chicago.]

Disciple: Might not this state as well be brought about by a derangement of the brain? And I do not understand what happiness there can be in realising such a state.

Swamiji: A derangement of the brain! How can you call it so, when it comes neither as the result of delirium from any disease, nor of intoxication from drinking, nor as an illusion produced by various sorts of queer breathing exercises—but when it comes to a normal man in full possession of his health and wits? Then again, this experience is in perfect harmony with the Vedas. It also coincides with the words of realisation of the inspired Rishis and Acharyas of old. Do you take me, at last, to be a crack – brained man? (smiling).14

Swamiji regarded the ultimate reality, Brahman, as One, but its manifestation as relative reality, or phenomenal existence (Maya), as plural. This illustrates the Vedanta’s grand paradox in allowing two completely contradictory statements to be true at the same time: The reality (Brahman) is one, but its manifestation (Maya) is many. This makes Vivekananda a pluralistic monist.

We are not done yet. The disciple had asked the important question, “What happiness can there be in realising such a state?” “Happiness” here is what James would have called “cash-value,” only that it is utilitarian value in this case; James would have been comfortable with that interpretation, according to his views stated earlier. Swamiji answered the question later by saying, “This knowledge of Oneness is what the Shastras speak of as realisation of the Brahman, by knowing which, one gets rid of fear, and the shackles of birth and death break for ever. Having once realised that Supreme Bliss [complete happiness], one is no more overwhelmed by pleasure and pain of this world. Men being fettered by base lust-and-wealth cannot enjoy that Bliss of Brahman.”15 This may clarify James’s reference to the Vedanta as “a religion which, emotionally considered, has a high pragmatic value; it imparts a perfect sumptuosity of security.”16

Vivekananda appears to have embraced pluralism when he said in his maiden speech at the World’s Parliament of Religions, “We accept all religions as true.”17 His more complete statement elsewhere is, “”If one religion is true, all others must be true. There are differences in non-essentials [like doctrines, dogmas, rituals, and the likes], but in essentials they are all one. ”18 They are all looking for a communion with the Divine. This he elaborated on later in the same speech, “As the different streams having their sources in different places all mingle their water in the sea, so, O Lord, the different paths which men take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee.”

Pragmatism can be considered a bridge between pluralism and monism. If our world view leads to a plurality of possible interpretations, then pragmatism may be a way to ferret out from them the specific interpretation that appears most useful in living our lives.

During a lecture on Jnana Yoga Swamiji once said, “The real is one. It is the mind which makes it appear as many. When we perceive the diversity, the unity has gone; and as soon as we perceive the unity, the diversity has vanished. Just as in everyday life, when you perceive the unity, you do not perceive the diversity.”19 Relating this to the “streams and sea” metaphor, when we are in the sea we do not see the streams discharging into it, and vice versa when we are in the streams. This is a perfect example of diversity merging into unity.

If it is the mind that makes One appear as many, and all knowledge is within the mind, then we have to control the mind to acquire the knowledge to find unity in diversity. That is the whole point of Vivekananda’s Raja Yoga. During a Raja Yoga class in San Francisco in March 1900, where he was teaching how to breath properly to control the mind, he said, “Slowly and gradually you get into the chambers of the mind [by breathing properly] and gradually get control of the mind. It is a long, [hard struggle]. It must not be taken up as something curious. When one wants to do something, he has a plan. [Raja – yoga] proposes no faith, no belief, no God….Practise a few days, and if you do not find any benefit, then come and curse me…. [emphasis by the author]20 Here we see Swamiji teaching a yogic method for long-term mystical benefit of attaining “knowledge”, but also emphasizing short-term practical benefits. “The first benefit is health;” he said, “Ninety-nine per cent of us do not at all breathe properly. We do not inflate the lungs enough. …Regularity [of breath] will purify the body. It quiets the mind. …When you are peaceful, your breath is going on peacefully, [it is] rhythmic. If the breath is rhythmic, you must be peaceful.”21 Health and peacefulness are the “practical consequences” that qualify Swamiji’s notion as pragmatic.

Supporting what we have seen so far, Norris Frederick writes:

Vivekananda stated that religious experiences should be judged pragmatically. His argument that religious experiences, like scientific truths, are based on “experimentation, observation, and verification,” must have appealed greatly to James. Vivekananda’s description in Raja-Yoga of a method of meditation whose practice should be judged by how well it works is consistent with James’s claim in The Varieties that religion is to be judged not by its roots (its origins), but by its fruits (its consequences).22

Examples of Swami Vivekananda’s pragmatism are plentiful in his life; it behooves us to recognize them by applying James’s “pragmatic method.” Probably the most important expression of the pragmatic ideas in which he invested much of his spiritual capital was: “Service to humanity is service to God.” That was his belief. He acted upon it with vigor, and persuaded his brother disciples to do the same. Pragmatism stresses activity. It has a bias for action with knowledge to back it up, and Swamiji demonstrated that. The result, as we all know, has proved useful, and has practical utility as it benefits humankind. This is pragmatism on steroids. His belief, therefore, became the “truth.” The competing belief, which some of his brother disciples held and had to be persuaded by him to relinquish, was seeking one’s own liberation through various rituals and austerities—the practical utility of which was very limited and self-serving; Vivekananda’s Master warned him against that.

The Ramakrishna Mission organization that Vivekananda founded has been working since 1897 to make that truth a reality by acting upon it. The practical consequences are: education for children and adults, treatment and medicine for patients, food and other sustenance for famine- or flood-stricken people, upliftment of rural and tribal communities, and spiritual ministration for making lives better for a lot of people. This may be another instance linking pluralism and monism. If we accept the concept of the “divinity of souls”, the major tenet of Vedanta, and differentiate people based on the extent to which each has manifested his or her divinity, then we can say that by serving diversity we are serving unity.

Concluding remarks

Actually, there was not much daylight between William James and Swami Vivekananda on the religious issues, except that James was not an absolutist like Vivekananda was. James, a self-proclaimed non-mystic, could not integrate pluralism and monism the way Swamiji did. James’s final comment on mysticism: “The mystic is, in short, invulnerable, and must be left, whether we relish it or not, in undisturbed enjoyment of his creed.”23 It is hard to guess if he said this in exasperation or revelation.

James divided people into two categories, the tender-minded and the tough-minded, based on their mental make-up. The two categories, with their secondary qualifying characteristics that James listed underneath each are shown below:24

The Tender-minded
The Tough-minded

Rationalistic (going by ‘principle’),
Empiricist (going by ‘facts’),

Intellectualistic, Sensationalistic,







In his philosophy of pragmatism, James took the middle-of-the-road approach between the two extremes, incorporating qualifying characteristics of either side, and harmonizing, or mediating, the opposite traits at times. In terms of monism versus pluralism, James wrote that his pragmatism “must obviously range upon the pluralistic side.”25 He was steadfast in that respect.

William James characterized Vivekananda as tender-minded, based mainly on the latter’s Rationalistic (going by principle) and Monistic characteristics.26 James was not too far off with respect to the other traits belonging to that category, except mainly for two: “Free-willist” and Dogmatism. He needed to harmonize between “Free-willist” and Fatalistic (deterministic), because free-willing Swamiji also believed in determinism.27 It is hard to harmonize Dogmatical and Sceptical to fit Swamiji’s pragmatist profile; they are not really opposite traits. Assertive or self-assured would have been the correct choice after harmonizing the terms. Swamiji was also an amalgam of rationalism and empiricism, for him it was not strictly one or the other.

It has been over one hundred and twenty-five years since one of the greatest psychologists of America met the first Vedantist missionary from India who left an indelible impression on the American spiritual landscape. After listening to Vivekananda’s speech, reading his books, and talking to him, William James spoke and wrote about Swamiji years later, after he was gone. James did his best to characterize Vivekananda on the basis of his own perception and the information he had gathered, but he didn’t realize how difficult it was to understand the man about whom his Master had once said that no body should judge him because no one would ever understand him fully.28 Swami Vivekananda’s greatness was not in his speeches, nor in his thoughts, nor in his conversations—his true greatness was in his actions, in his life, about which William James knew very little.

Asim Chaudhuri is a well known researcher on Swami Vivekananda; his books include: Swami Vivekananda: The Ultimate Paradox Manager; Swami Vivekananda in America: New Findings; Swami Vivekananda in Chicago: New findings; and Vivekananda: A Born Leader: The Attributes and Thoughts of an Extraordinary Leader-Manager. Now retired from a career in business, Asim lives in Burbank, and is associated with the Vedanta Society of Southern California. He can be reached at asimphoenix@gmail.com.

  1. Cornel West, The American Evasion of Philosophy—A Genealogy of Pragmatism (University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1989), p. 55. []
  2. William James (Writings 1902-1910), “Pragmatism” (The Library of America, 1987), p. 506. []
  3. Ibid., p. 573. []
  4. Asim Chaudhuri, Swami Vivekananda in America—New Findings (Advaita Ashrama, Calcutta, 2008), pp. 88-89. []
  5. Marie Louise Burke, Swami Vivekananda in the West—New Discoveries (Advaita Ashrama, Calcutta, 1987), vol. 2, p. 187. []
  6. Life of Swami Vivekananda by His Eastern and Western Disciples (Advaita Ashrama, Calcutta, 1989), p. 75. []
  7. Quoted in Asim Chaudhuri, Swami Vivekananda in America—New Findings (Advaita Ashrama, Calcutta, 2008), pp. 106-107. []
  8. Marie Louise Burke, Swami Vivekananda in the West—New Discoveries (Advaita Ashrama, Calcutta, 1987), vol. 4, p. 78. []
  9. William James (Writings 1902-1910), “Pragmatism” (The Library of America, 1987), p. 552. [] []
  10. Quoted in Asim Chaudhuri, Swami Vivekananda in England and Continental Europe (Advaita Ashrama, Calcutta, 2015), p. 39. []
  11. The Life of Swami Vivekananda by His Eastern and Western Disciples (Advaita Ashrama, Calcutta, 1989), vol. 2, p. 91.11 ((The Life of Swami Vivekananda by His Eastern and Western Disciples (Advaita Ashrama, Calcutta, 1989), vol. 2, p. 91. []
  12. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda (Advaita Ashrama, Calcutta, 1990), vol. 1, p. 232. []
  13. William James (Writings 1902-1910), “Pragmatism” (The Library of America, 1987), p. 558. []
  14. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda (Advaita Ashrama, Calcutta, 1990), vol. 5, pp. 391-392. []
  15. Ibid., pp. 391-393. []
  16. William James (Writings 1902-1910), “Pragmatism” (The Library of America, 1987), p. 553. []
  17. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda (Advaita Ashrama, Calcutta, 1990), vol. 1, p. 3. []
  18. Ibid., p. 318. []
  19. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda (Advaita Ashrama, Calcutta, 1990), vol. 5, p. 273. []
  20. Ibid., vol. 1, p. 511. []
  21. Ibid., pp. 507-508. []
  22. Norris Frederick, “William James and Swami Vivekananda: Religious Experience and Vedanta/Yoga in America” in William James Studies, Volume 9, Spring, 2013, p. 41; at https://williamjamesstudies.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/frederick.pdf []
  23. William James (Writings 1902-1910), “Varieties of Religious Experience” (The Library of America, 1987), p. 382. []
  24. Ibid., “Pragmatism” (The Library of America, 1987), p. 491. []
  25. Norris Frederick, “William James and Swami Vivekananda: Religious Experience and Vedanta/Yoga in America” in William James Studies, Volume 9, Spring, 2013, p. 44; at https://williamjamesstudies.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/frederick.pdf []
  26. William James (Writings 1902-1910), “Pragmatism” (The Library of America, 1987), p. 602. []
  27. Asim Chaudhuri, “Free Will and Determinism—A Synthesis,” Bulletin of the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, Vol. LXX, April 2019, No. 4, p. 38. []
  28. The Life of Swami Vivekananda by His Eastern and Western Disciples (Advaita Ashrama, Calcutta, 1989), vol. 1, p. 87. []


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