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James on Collective Akrasia and Social Progress

Most of William James’s work has a distinct individualist streak, especially compared with many of his colleagues and fellow pragmatists. This is peculiar, given the importance that James placed on the practical consequences of philosophical concepts. In this paper, I seek to remedy this problem by showing how his psychological work on action found in The Principles of Psychology can be extrapolated into a model of collective agency. I do this by considering how James would view both individual and collective akrasia. I argue that the term ‘akratic action’ must be reserved for cases in which an individual or group attempts to act against its settled habits, but fails. The upshot of this characterization is that it reveals a way in which akrasia is a necessary component of social progress, in that it alone reveals that progress is within society’s hands, limited only by the energy to see it through.

Kyle Bromhall
Independent Scholar
Canada

 

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