Traversing the Corridors of ‘Mere’ Pragmatism & ‘Mere’ Christianity

“The Corridor” by Suman,   William James and C.S. Lewis make an impressive duo, being two of the most widely published authors of the past century, who came at the big questions of life from strikingly different directions.  In a fascinating coincidence, they each hit upon the same metaphor to depict the core of their beliefs: a corridor with many doors leading into rooms.  Apart from sharing this apt poetic device, their views were diametrically opposed.  

James takes credit for bringing the idea of ‘pragmatism’ into prominence.[1]  He claims that pragmatism is a method of knowledge capable of rescuing philosophy, metaphysics and religion from dogmatic rationalism, and from all dogma in general.  Pragmatism “has no dogmas, and no doctrines save its method.”[2]  He claims that pragmatism stands “armed and militant” against dogmas.  Pragmatism thus serves as the path to true knowledge, and in this regard, it is like a corridor through which one may walk on the path toward discovering meaning and truth in experience:

[I]t lies in the midst of our theories, like a corridor in a hotel. Innumerable chambers open out of it.  In one you may find a man writing an atheistic volume; in the next someone on his knees praying for faith and strength; in a third a chemist investigating a body’s properties.  In a fourth a system of idealistic metaphysics is being excogitated; in a fifth the impossibility of metaphysics is being shown.  But they all own the corridor, and all must pass through it if they want a practicable way of getting into or out of their respective rooms.  No particular results then, so far, but only an attitude of orientation, is what the pragmatic method means.  The attitude of looking away from first things, principles, “categories,” supposed necessities; and of looking towards last things, fruits, consequences, facts.[3]

Thus, James is interested not in what takes place in the rooms, whether they happen to be laboratories of scientific discovery or temples of idealistic absurdities.  The rooms contain an infinite variety of different pursuits and topics.[4]  The only thing that matters is the corridor itself-the pragmatic approach to the rooms.   The door of each room must be reached through the corridor of pragmatism.  The corridor is the place which matters, not the rooms where the activities take place.  The corridor represents the method of pragmatism, which presumes that all dogma is meaningless.  In other words, the content of any room is meaningless if not entered through this particular corridor.

For Lewis, the corridor also represents knowledge, but in a distinctly different sense.  On Lewis’ view, what happens in the rooms does matter; it matters very much, and so he says, 

“And above all you must be asking which door is the true one; not which pleases you best…”[5]

Lewis and James also have far different ideas in mind when they describe their corridors.  For James, the corridor represents an epistemological method-the practice of ‘pragmatism’ which rules out dogma.  For Lewis however, the corridor is not a method, but a place representing knowledge of ‘mere’ Christianity.  It is to explain what he means by the term ‘mere’ Christianity that Lewis devises the metaphor of a hall:

…I hope that no reader will suppose that ‘mere’ Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions-as if a man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodoxy or anything else.  It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms.  If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted.  But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals.  The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in.  For that purpose the worst of the rooms (whichever that may be) is, I think, preferable. 

 For Lewis, then, the corridor is a conduit for creeds-the beliefs that Christian churches have used to represent orthodoxy over the centuries.  James would declare this anathema to the very concept of pragmatism, because creeds and dogma embody the idea that beliefs are important, that they actually matter in and of themselves.

The difference between James’s and Lewis’s corridors is profound-Lewis’ corridor is a place of knowledge leading into rooms where knowledge matters; James’s corridor is a method devoid of knowledge, which cares not what content is being discussed in any of the rooms.

Despite this stark contrast, one more profound similarity remains in these metaphors-both James and Lewis invite us into faith.  Lewis’ faith is clear: it is stated up front, it is confessed in creeds, and practiced in rooms where it comes to life, where “there are fires and chairs and meals”.  It is a living faith that cannot ultimately survive in the corridor, but must be invited into a room where there is life.  James likewise extends an invitation into faith: he has faith in pragmatism.  But James’s faith resides in the corridor itself, independent and outside of what might be taking place in any of the rooms.  James’s faith can survive forever in the corridor, unlike you or I, who if we were to lock ourselves out of the hotel room some night, would eventually need some help to get back into a room sometime to find sustenance (and hopefully that help would arrive before we were embarrassed to be seen wandering about in our pajamas day after day).

Thus James and Lewis both espouse faith.  The salient difference seems to be that

James never explicitly recognized that his corridor was an embodiment of faith.  James’s corridor of pragmatism contains epistemological presumptions that determine the significance of every step taken through the corridor, and hold the key to every room.  Lewis’s faith on the other hand makes its presumptions explicit, even articulated in the form of creeds.  James’s denial of dogma turns out to be a dogma in itself,[6] and the faith served up by ‘mere’ pragmatism turns out to be a mere illusion.

[1] James, “What Pragmatism Means”, Lecture II in Pragmatism: New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, (Courier Dover Publications, 1995), pp. 18-19.[2] Ibid., p 21.[3] Ibid., pp. 21-22.

[4] To extend the metaphor, James is keenly interested to classify and provide a taxonomy to help explain people’s predilections for religious “rooms” in his classic, The Varieties of Religious Experience.

[5] Lewis, Mere Christianity, xvi.

[6] Stanley Hauerwas reminds us of the important pretext to James’s metaphysics found in his “deep moral objection to Christianity”, and his belief that modern scientific method, and especially Darwinism, had rendered the Christian belief in God unintelligible”. Hence James’s obvious disdain for dogma.  Hauerwas, With the Grain of the Universe: the Church’s Witness and Natural Theology, (London: SCM, 2002), p. 78.


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