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Human nature, pragmatism and moral reflection in Kant and James

Sarin Marchetti – Sapienza Università di Roma

That is what makes him [James] a good philosopher;

he was a real human being - Wittgenstein to Drury

1. In what follows I’ll try to explore a way in which philosophical anthropology can inform
ethical theory; by investigating the positions of Kant and James I’ll try to bring to light a
way of thinking moral reflection as instructed by the concept of human being that is
overlooked in the contemporary debate. My interest here is in fact neither historical, nor
exegetical, but theoretical: in discussing Kant and James I hope to present some interesting
hints about the role *pragmatism* can play in the understanding of the place of the notion
of human being in ethical reflection. By investigating how ethical inquiry can be shaped by
the notion of human being from the pragmatist perspective as we can found it pictured in
Kant’s Anthropology from a Pragmatic Standpoint and James’ Principles of Psychology, one which
proposes the primacy of agency and the refusal of any metaphysical foundation for what
regards the characterization of the human point of view that is relevant for ethics, it
emerges an interesting image of ethics as anthropology. A pragmatist approach to both
anthropology and ethics can solve the tension that is usually credited between these two
alleged distinguished areas of though without blurring their respective physiognomies.

2. Pragmatism can be read as a way to bridge the is-ought gap, a narration of which could
run as follows. In doing philosophy, which means –among other things– reading books, we
are often lead astray by words. In what interest us today, ethics, such a deflection is


represented in our search for precise moral words that assures us that we’re really talking
about ethical matters. However, one can describe an account as an ethical one even if she
does not encounter words like good, right or virtue; that is one can speak about ethics
without using a vocabulary containing those very words that are usually taken to picture a
discourse as a moral one. The problem to which the is-ought gap gives voice is that you
cannot derive ethical conclusions from factual premises because in no factual description of
a certain situation could figure those very normative features relevant for ethics. What is
presupposed by this picture, however, can be –and has been– challenged: we can describe a
certain situation, for example one of extreme poverty or malnutrition, without using
‘normative moral words’ and nonetheless we can read it as ethically relevant –for example, by
being horrified or moved to improve it. Now this idea, recently explored at depth by those
philosopher who consider themselves influenced by the thought and teaching of
Wittgenstein, can be read as a challenge to the is-ought gap on which most contemporary
moral philosophy lies, and in this talk I’ll try to sketch a pragmatic variety of response which
proposes a peculiar account of such a fact about moral reflection. In particular, one
stressing the idea according to which a certain description of human beings, apparently
belonging to what could be loosely called anthropology, can be ethically relevant.

3. The problem of placing anthropology in ethical reflection, as we are introducing it, is that
what anthropology gives us is a factual description of human beings, while ethics deals with
normative notions such as those of duties, imperatives and principles. The first tells us what
there is, the second –very roughly– what should be. That of values is a somewhat puzzling
notion since it both indicate a state of things and its moral worth, but without entering in
the intricate meta-ethical debate about the metaphysics of values –that will however be
touched indirectly in our discourse and emerge from its narrative– we can treat them as
primary ethical ingredients. So according to the widely accepted view –the one which
defends the is-ought gap–, by merely describing how human beings are we cannot derive
any information that is relevant for ethics, if not by pointing out those very features of
human beings whose development would count as a valutation of their bearers. In this
picture ethics can profit from anthropological considerations, but only in an external way:
that is by picking from it some materials and arrange them according to its own principles.


Pragmatism refuses to accept such a picture of moral though since it lies on a paltry
conception of both anthropology and ethics, one in which they are presented as
independent inquiries into different aspect of reality, broadly conceived. But this forces
some among our convictions and experiences about the nature and scope of such inquiries.
In fact picturing ethical reflection as one among human activities means conceiving moral
though as something that has a certain shape in virtue of its being the expression of human
cravings and questionings about their conducts, characters or visions. However,
contemporary analytical meta-ethics tend to expunge such a human dimension by shaping
the inquiry into the foundation of moral thought as dependent on the analysis of the
meaning of moral terms, the rationality of moral reasoning or the consistency of moral
claims with broadly scientific ones. It is not that such investigations are unimportant for the
articulation of a moral position, but we must pay attention to the role they play in the
human moral life they should represent. Even if these inquiries throw light on the
understanding and unraveling of our moral activities and practices, if we want to understand
these last as human ones we must not conceal the anthropological assumptions about the
peculiar human point of view embedded in those very inquiries. For example, the inquiry
concerning the role of virtues in the cognitivist/non-cognitivist debate about the nature of
moral judgments should in first instance describe with care how their exercise expresses a
particular human point of view on the situation under judgment1.

However, in acknowledging such a closeness between ethics and anthropology we must pay
attention not to committing oneself to any –more or less lofty– reductionism of the former
to the latter, since that would mean reducing moral thought to a mere defense of a specific
anthropological image and thus violate the cornerstones of modern moral thought that
instead we feel prone to defend, that is the autonomy of ethics.

Our situation could be pictured as a dilemma: or we conceive morality as kept pure from
any human involvements, or we shape it on a certain picture of human beings that is hardly
justified by nor arguable from it. To render this scenario less vague I’ll hang some names to

1 This is how John McDowell suggests us to read Aristotle’s account of virtues, eudaimonia and
phronēsis, one that is still very instructive for the contemporary meta-ethical debate (McDowell: 1996
essays 1-3, 2009 essays 2-4).


characterize its opposite horns: on the one part we have authors working in the path of
Hare’s logical prescriptivism who want to built up ethics solely on considerations about the
functioning of moral language and moral principles expressed through it, and on the other
we have authors working in the path of Singer’s rampant naturalism who conceive moral
reflection as the activity of justification of a certain arrangement of facts concerning non-
moral properties such as ‘interests’. A pragmatist approach to ethical reflection –conceived
as an instance of a pragmatist approach to philosophical reflection as a whole– refutes the
dilemma by re-defining its opposites: we can think ethical reflection as informed by the
notion of something like a human perspective without debunking the intuition about the
irreducibility of ethics to a descriptive activity on the model of sciences. Description, both of
the world and of ourselves, is a central concept in moral reflection; in the case that is
interesting for us today given the theme of the conference2, descriptions of human beings
are ethically relevant only when their proper object is not the human being per se, taken as a
very piece of the fabric of the world, but instead what the human being makes of herself.
Conceived in this way, we could be in agreement both with Hare’s emphasis on normativity
and with Singer’s emphasis on interests, but disagree with their respective picturing of these
notions: for what regards normativity we can accept its importance as a necessary feature of
ethical discourse and at the same time refute to conceive it as something which merely
supervenes on facts by orienting them as an external force, since we can picture the facts
relevant for ethics as already value-oriented by presenting them appropriately; for what
regards instead interests, we can refute to conceive them as mere brute materials on which
to apply a piece of moral reasoning from sideways-on by picturing them as the results of a
certain description of human beings whose articulation reveals the moral perimeter we want
to defend.

2 But the very same point can be made about our descriptions of the world, being ourselves as
human beings one among the many things toward which our attention or gaze can align on. This
point will be shortly reprised in the presentation of both Kant’s and James’ positions, in which it will
be stressed that for what regards the descriptions of ourselves as human beings the peculiarity –that
however does not marks a moral distance but only a difference– consists in ourselves being both the
subject and the object of investigation. If in the case of the world what is at stake in moral reflection
is a human description of it, in the case of ourselves as human beings we’re those very authors of the
descriptions we’re under.


I am labeling the moves about ethics and anthropology that I am advancing as pragmatics
since they refute a sharp division between facts –at least those relevant for ethics, whose list,
as we’ll see, cannot be given in advance– and values by refuting the idea that a certain
description of some facts about human beings is morally neutral. The description I have in
mind is the one that emerges from the peculiar inquiry Kant and James calls pragmatic
anthropology, and in presenting it the way I am doing, I’m implicitly suggest some
conceptual re-definitions of both the notion of ethics and of anthropology when these two
areas of inquiry are investigated through a pragmatist approach. The philosophical moves that I
am about to present are animated by a certain philosophical picture about the nature of morality
that lies beneath them. Given the short time at my disposal, some of which has already gone
by these some necessary words of introduction, I will only be able to mock to some lines of
action through which those very moves proceed that however is in need of a broader and
deeper treatment. A selective use of Kant and James, to which I now pass, will help me to
articulate these thoughts and the picture animating them.

4. Part of the problem of Kant’s readers consists in placing the Pragmatic Anthropology in
the broader context of his ethical thought since what is usually expected from it is a picture
of morality as a system of imperatives, only described from the part of the subject. In this
picture, suggested by Kant himself in some passages from the Grundlegung, anthropology
would be a mere application of a self-contained, apriori and well-established moral system to
human beings, or at best the necessary knowledge of the particulars on which a moral system
can be built in splendid isolation from their content. Instead I suggest that the ethical
dimension of this part of Kant’s intellectual biography has to be found in its being a pragmatic
anthropology. In this acceptation, one which would be developed and enhanced by James,
anthropology is directly relevant for ethics not for assessing the condition for its factual
development, but because it gives us a description of human beings that is already ethically

According to Kant, the principles of pure ethics, precisely because of their purity, have no
special connection with the human life. Such a connection can only be established by
bringing empirical knowledge of human nature into the picture, but we can conceive such a


integration in two different ways: either externally or internally. In the former case,
according to the story narrated in the major ethical writings, anthropology is relevant for
ethics as long as it gives the materials and indicates the way in which an already formed
moral theory can apply to human beings, given their peculiar constitution; in such a
narration, a good representation of morality is in need of a good description of how human
beings are, but only because anthropology gives us information about the way freedom can
be grafted into human nature, in the same way as botany tells us how to cut the stem of a
rose in order to maintain it alive for the sake of some non-natural ethical or aesthetical
purposes we might have. Freedom is pictured here as a property of pure practical reason
with no connection with the contingencies of the human life and human beings if not in its
being conceived to rule their thoughts and conduct. In the latter case, instead, ethical
normative elements emerge from a certain –that is pragmatic– description of human beings
and their life: anthropology offers a description of human beings that pictures them in the
development of their moral life and morality is portrayed as one among the human
possibilities. The cultivation of our faculties, whose perfection is reached not through an
application of abstract moral concepts to the non-moral contingencies of human situations
but instead from the inside of our practices of liberty, portrays this pragmatic anthropology
as a moral anthropology3.

According to a pragmatic description of the mental life human beings are makers of
themselves and not mere spectators of a nature that in a second step has to be moralized.
The inner dimension of interiority is described and thus shaped for the realization of some
interests or ideals, and so our psychological life must be described from the very beginning
as value-oriented. This, however, does not threaten the autonomy of morality, reducing
ethics to a certain metaphysical picture of the human being. In fact, by stressing on the
adjective pragmatic, such an anthropology does not lay down in advance any given system of
values which a good person should realize to be labeled as such, but rather it gives the

3 Given the vast number of works dedicated to the analysis of the various meanings of the word
pragmatisher in reference to the Anthropologie, some of which has an ethical connotation, we suggest the
reading of the essays collected in Jacobs and Kain (2003) with the annexed bibliography. The
interpretation advanced and explored here is only sketchily acknowledged in the secondary literature,
in particular by those interested in the connection between ethics and aesthetics in the late writings of
Kant as the Kritik der Uteilskraft and the Anthropologie in pragmatischer Hinsicht itself.


conditions for human being to appreciate moral saliencies and worth by providing a moral
psychology which stress the importance of the development and refinement of our
attention, perception and vision. Those very features of our psychology does not in turn
depend on a quasi-aristotelean conception of ergon or arethé, but rather they are teleological in
respect to those very actions and states of things whose realization we found worth, interesting,
important. From this pragmatic perspective the very meaning of ethical reflection changes,
given its internal connection to the moral life it express and articulates, a moral life whose
bulk is the interiority of human beings, pragmatically described.

A way to articulate these thoughts is by noticing that in Kant the human being is both the
subject and object of inquiry: if human beings were mere objects, we could treat them –and
in particular their psychologies– as raw data for our ethical inquiry, but since they are also
the very actors of inquiry, than they have to play a more engaged position in our account of
morality. In the Anthropology Kant points out that the normativity that is relevant for the
articulation of our ethical life is in fact not that one deduced from the point of view of
Reason –that is the one we can attain only through a complete dismissal of everything that
is human and contingent– but rather the one which express the point of view of the agent
engaged in the practices of world-making.

Such a change of emphasis is very interesting because it throws new light on the whole
kantian characterization of human beings as torn between reason and nature. As Michel
Foucault showed us in his 1964 Introduction à l’Antropologie, Kant’s later work on
anthropology has deep intertwining with his critique period, not only for biographical
reasons –the Antropology class was held by Kant for some 25 years from 1772 to his
retirement in 1797– but also because what is at stake in Kant’s anthropology is a
redefinition of the boundaries of the human that stands as an interesting –even if
problematic– alternative to the one offered in the first and second Critique. Leaving aside if
this alternative is at odds with the usual kantian moral picture, or if it is rather to be
considered one of its declinations4 –a very interesting topic not only for its own sake but

4 According to Foucault, the two are closely related, and not understandable separately: Kant’s
anthropology ‘Il y aurait une certaine vérité critique de l’homme, fille de la critique des conditions de la vérité’
(Foucault 2008: 13); it ‘dècrire non pas ce que l’homme est, mais ce qu’il il peut faire de lui-même…à quoit il suffit
d’ajouter que ce que le Gemüt doit faire de lui-même, c’est «le plus grand usage empirique possible de la raison»’


also for the historiography of modern moral philosophy–, it is worth asking what kind of
shape this anthropology takes when characterizes as pragmatic. In the lectures Kant refuses
to picture human beings as mere observers of what nature makes of themselves, suggesting
a way in which their liberty is achieved through a good employment of their faculties: by
describing not what human being are, but what they make of themselves, in terms of what
we can expect from them when they are engaged in their everyday business of world-
making, we picture human beings as subjects and bearers of moral values and worth. To live
morally one must make something of herself according to some ideal of good life, in the
same manner as to live healthy one must make something of himself according some ideals
of an healthy life5. However, unlike the dietetic example, such ideals are not fixed in
advance: a good life does not consist in an activity of mere heuristic rule-following but is
instead an inventive practice in which we build up our life in accordance to some ideas of
perfection which should crown our activities –where what count as success is broadly
described as an activity in accordance to reason. If what guides our practices of self-
constitution is an activity according to reason, in the Anthropology such reason is portrayed
not as an a-priori feature of our metaphysical constitution, but rather as one of the
possibilities of the human life when approached via a pragmatic anthropology. The moral
ought [sollen] depends from an anthropological can [können], which is articulated as a daily
exercise [künstlicher Spiel/Ausübung] of our capacities for the sake of action. The pragmatic
should, without doubt a throughout normative notion, is derived from a description of one
among the possible postures of our mind in respect to a certain situation, one which is
ethically relevant.

In both Kant and James the adjective pragmatic characterizes anthropology not as a
scholastic knowledge of but instead as the knowledge of the ways human beings learns to

(Foucault 2008: 39). ‘L’homme, dans l’Anthropologie n’est ni homo natura, ni sujet pur de liberté; il est pris
dans les syntheses déjà opérées de sa liaison avec le monde’ (Foucault 2008: 34).
5 ‘Il y aussie une délectation spirituelle [Geistesgenuß gib] à communiquer ses pensées; mais on est rebuté si cette
communication est imposée sans être profitable comme nourriture pour l’esprit (par example la répétion identique de
certains traits qui devraient être spirituals ou drôles, peut, par cette identité meme, nous devenir insupportable); dans ce
cas, on appelle par analogie dégôut cet instinct naturel à se libérer, |bien que kw dégoût ici ne relève que du sens
interne’ (Kant 2008: 115). Later on Kant employs the notion of ‘psychological diet’ (2008: 134) to
characterize such regimes of conduct through which we educate our faculties to their right exercise.


encounter the world. Human beings, qua agents, needs moral anthropology throughout their
lives in order to continuously sharpen and refine their faculties; by organizing and
presenting relevant aspects of human experience to agents, anthropology allows them to
reflect better about what to do and thus about what kind of persons they are6. The
pragmatic study of our inner faculties allows us a deeper understanding of the condition of
our experiencing, and above all of our moral experiencing. In the Anthropology Kant
reinterprets the sharp dualism he elaborated in the Critiques between world-knowledge and
moral-knowledge. He’s still interested in defending the dualism, but now he presents it as
deriving from the two standpoints –theoretical and practical– we can take toward
experience, and not as a consequence of our metaphysical constitution: not all word-
knowledge will count as empirical moral knowledge, but many instances of world-
knowledge that at a first glance appear to be non-moral can suddenly acquire moral
significance when placed in the right perspective. According to this pragmatic perspective it
is impossible to tell in advance which human aspect is resistant to moral assessment,
because as agents human beings are capable of determining which aspect of the world might
turn out to be morally relevant in the very making of their lives. I will now explore this idea
by briefly sketching two recurring topics discussed at length in Kant’s Anthropology –that is
the notions of character and that of sound experiencing.

The Pragmatic Anthropology is divided in two parts: the Didactic or Doctrine of Elements
(Elementarlehre), and the Characteristic or Doctrine of Method (Methodenlehre). The former,
subtitled ‘on the art of knowing the interior as well as the exterior of man’, is concerned
with the analysis of the three faculties –theoretical, aesthetical and moral– of human beings
from the part of their formation and use; while the latter subtitled ‘on the art of knowing
the interior of man from his exterior’, articulates the ways in which these are shaped as to
form a character. Kant in fact describes character as ‘what men makes of himself’ (Kant
2008: 184): it indicates the way we conduct ourselves and thus represents the way we
articulate our agency. Its contents are the varieties of human practices as reveled in our

6 ‘Precise and correct understanding will know to limit itself in regard to the range of knowledge
expected of it, and that the man endowed with such understanding will use it modestly’ (Kant 2008:


relations with others and the world. Anthropology presents the good exercise of our
faculties as emerging from such a varieties of practices, refuting an external standpoint from
which to assess their right exercise. By conceiving the normativity of agency as always
embedded in the practices through which human beings conduct themselves, anthropology
pictures human beings as the sources of ethical normativity. Kant writes that a human being
is moral in the measure in which she fully express her character through the good exercise
of her rational capacities, but such an exercise stems from a certain description of human
beings as capable of forming their character. In order to have a character, and so to be moral,
human beings must do something, and thus they must become certain kind of persons.
Character is portrayed as a conduct of thought: achieving a character means cultivating our
faculties according to a system of values that is always embedded in our ordinary practices.
Morality is always exercised and never founded:

Man must, therefore, be educated to the good. But he who is to educate him
is again a human who still finds himself in the crudity of nature. This human,
now, is expected to bring about what he himself is still in need of (Kant
2008: 256).

The same goes with the notion of virtue, whose exercise makes the character morally good.
In the Anthropology it is presented from the point of view of its practice and not of his

Virtue…is moral strength in pursuit of one's duty, a duty which should never be a
matter of habit, but should always proceed, fresh and original, from one's mode of
thought (Kant 2008: 106).

Virtue, character and the moral life they envision are pictured as human possibilities whose
pursuit requires a never-ending engagement with our contingencies that takes the form of a


discovery or invention. Kant’s treatment of genius as the ‘exemplary originality of man’s
talent’ (§57-9) represents a limpid application of this pragmatic framework in which
anthropology lays down the conditions for our moral life.

To this image of character as something in the making, Kant juxtaposes one of experiencing
on the same lines. The Anthropology follows the division of the faculties as portrayed in the
Critiques; however, the domain that it privileges is not that of where the faculties positively
manifest what they are, but rather it is the domain where they manifest their weakness and
danger of perishing. With the words of Foucault ‘What is indicated, more than their nature
or plain forms of their activity, is the movement for which, to move away from their centre
and justification, they want to alienate themselves in the illegitimacy’ (2008: 43). This very
interesting change of emphasis portrays human beings in the middle of their struggles for
formation and self-education, and their faculties as something that is not merely given. The
good exercise of our faculties is reflected in the notion of sound experience. Kant struggles
to present a great varieties of ways in which our faculties (theoretical, aesthetical and moral)
can fail to achieve their proper perfection, that is fails to provide us with the kind of
knowledge they aims to. Both theoretical and practical judgment require the subject’s being
experienced in the right way with the relevant particulars, and thus they can be impaired in a
varieties of ways according to the failing in grasping the proper experience. Such incapability,
whose casuistry is not determined in advance but only in the very assessment by judgment, is
not a non-moral psychological deficiency that can be uprooted by means of an external
moral warrants, but rather an already moral feature of what we make of ourselves. From the
pragmatic standpoint of anthropology every can implies ought, provided that the content of
such normative notions can be specified only in reference to the practices undergone by
agents. What counts as a sound experience, for example in the aesthetics domain, is one that
increases the possibility for its enjoyment, and thus if it is in the reach of human capacities,
its pursuit counts as a morally normative activity, one that should be promoted or blamed7.
Taking a moral example this double movement between anthropology and ethics appears

7 See §§ 63-69 for an articulation of such a reading.


even more clearly. Kant discusses courage (§77)8 not as a property of disembodied or
minded-less actions, but rather as a certain description of human beings. He is not interested
in giving an abstract definition of it, but rather in describing the varieties of ways in which it
can be exhibited; only through such a description of human beings engaged in certain
activities it emerges a moral connotation of courage that marks the difference between a
(morally) good and a (morally) bad instance of it. The treatment of the morality of suicide
offers the best case in which such a dialectics is at play; judging if suicide driven by
considerations of courage is morally permissible requires investigating the soundness of the
experience provided by those considerations: acknowledging the point of view of the agent
in respect the relevant experience –if for example it express a respect for the autonomy of
one’s life threatened by an evil tyrant or rather a consuming grief for one’s big frailty– tells
us everything there is to know to judge such occurrence as morally permissible or not.

This way of presenting anthropology as an inquiry that is morally relevant brings to light an
image of ethics focused on what the self makes of herself through his thoughts and actions,
that is through those very features which brings her in a certain relation to herself. This idea,
articulated at length by Michel Foucault and his interlocutors as a theoretical instrument to
re-read the whole history of ethics9, can be presented as a central feature of pragmatism
intended as a moment in such an history, and in the last part of this talk I am about to sketch
the way James elaborates this idea in his 1890 masterpiece The Principles of Psychology.

5. The cornerstone of James’ pragmatic anthropology is a conception of human beings as

makers and not mere spectators of their psychological and moral lives. And this is not only
true for what regards complex patterns of activities, but also at the very level of their
elementary constitution. For James it is not possible to describe our mind and psychological
life without noticing how their good description is one form the point of view of the use –
and in particular the moral use intended in the peculiar sense that is emerging from this

8A similar point can be made in respect to other –moral and non-moral– notions; Kant discusses
passions (§§80-6), imagination (§§34-6) and taste (§§67-71) by using this very same dialectic.
9 For a survey of this readings see Davidson (1986, 1998 and 2005).


pragmatist perspective– we make of them. The pragmatic motto ‘our psychology is for the
sake of action’ can be read as a declination of the moral anthropology that we are presenting
in this talk. We can read The Principles of Psychology as an exhibition of the varieties of ways in
which our mind –very broadly conceived– encounters the world by contributing to its
experiencing: it tells the many kinds of relationship we can entertain with experience, by
presenting the ways in which our interiority is prompted to respond in respect to our
thoughts and perceptions.

The importance of a serious inquiry into the very nature of our psychology is a condition for
the elaboration of a profitable moral position. James’ Principles are in fact shot through with
the conviction that an accurate description of our very psychological makeup is relevant for
a full articulation of our ethical life. Ethics is intertwined with anthropology since it deals
with how we perceive and describe ourselves, and how much attentive and faithful we are to
our visions and reactions. Our moral life is portrayed by James as an activity of perception as
well as of choice: the attention and care we dedicate in our everyday experiencing and the
accuracy of the image we have of our inner life is something which we have to take notice,
develop and refine in order to become moral. Register what appears as valuable requires in
the first instance a kind of re-appropriation of the space of subjectivity in which actions
define the boundaries of the human by shaping the psychological life animating such a
concept: the cultivation of our faculties10 for the sake of recovering from the moral blindness
toward aspects of experience that can fail to touch us requires the acknowledgment of the
centrality of action in the shaping of our experiencing11. The character of our experiencing is

10[I]f we survey the held of history and ask what feature all great periods of revival, of expansion of
the human mind, display in common, we shall find, I think, simply this: that each and all of them
have said to the human being, 'The inmost nature of the reality is congenial to powers which you
possess’…Nothing could be more absurd than to hope for the definitive triumph of any philosophy
which should refuse to legitimate, and to legitimate in an emphatic manner, the more powerful of our
emotional and practical tendencies…Moral creeds which speak to that impulse will be widely
successful in spite of Inconsistency, vagueness, and shadowy determination of expectancy. Man
needs a rule for his will, and will invent one if one be not given him. (James 1950 II: 314-5)
11 [T]he fons et origo of all reality, whether from the absolute or the practical point of view, is thus
subjective, is ourselves. As bare logical thinkers, without emotional reaction, we give reality to
whatever objects we think of, for they are really phenomena, or objects of our pausing thought, if
nothing more. But, as thinkers with emotional reaction, to give what seems to be a still higher degree
of reality to whatever things we select and emphasize and turn to WITH A WILL. These are our
living realities …[W]hatever things have intimate and continuous connection with my life are things


directly relevant for ethical reflection since James’ conceived ethics not as an elaboration of a
systematic theory of virtues or rules, but rather as interested in the description of the
varieties of ethical stances human beings can take toward experience.

But then, what kind of psychology –that is anthropology– is relevant for ethics? James
conceived psychological states as directly relevant for the articulation of the moral life of the
subject who entertain them. According to his philosophy of psychology the analysis of mind
from a pragmatic standpoint allows a clarification and improvement of our cognitive and
affective life. By investigating the nature of our psychology we attain a clearer picture of
ourselves and a better grasp of the character of experiencing that is relevant for ethics.

Attention and interest, the two simplest features of the mind, are presented as the sources of
moral, epistemological and metaphysical claims: they do not only explain experience, but
create and justify it. Things are not considered real until they are noticed, selected, or found
interesting and important; the concept of reality does not come into play without active
intervention from our part, and thus not before we describe the existence of an experience
as meaningful and desirable. James introduces the topic of interest as the fundamental
principle of perception:

[M]illions of items of the outward order are present to my senses which never properly
enter into my experience. Why? Because they have no interest for me. My experience is what
I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind –without selective
interest, experience is an utter chaos. Interest alone gives accent and emphasis, light and
shade, background and foreground –intelligible perspective, in a word. (I, p. 402)

Our moral life consists in the enrichment of our experiences by being attentive to the many
aspects of reality that could touch us. Giving an exhaustive description of reality, one in

of whose reality I cannot doubt. Whatever things fail to establish this connection are things which are
practically no better for me than if they existed not at all. (James 1950 II: 295-6)


which there is space for ethical knowledge, requires in the first place acknowledging that
experiencing depends on a certain stance we can take toward it, one in which we take care
and refine our capacities of world-making. As James writes in the Principles

To sustain a representation, to think, is, in short the only moral act, for the
impulsive and the obstructed, for sane and lunatics alike (James 1950 II: 566).

Thinking is a moral act, because by an act of thought we decide what to attend and what to
ignore. A moral problem could take the form of getting the proper experience before the
mind so to be capable to act in the relevant ways. The existence of values in experience is
made possible by the very nature of attention: by an act of attention we describe certain
states of things as valuable living options for us, and focus on particular interests and features
of the world that otherwise would be lost as ground noises. Their reality and truth relies on
the importance and interest they have in organizing our experience. With the words of James

My experience is what I agree to attend to, Only those items which I notice shape my
mind –without selective interest, experience is a utterly chaos. Interest alone
gives accent and emphasis, light and shade, background and foreground –
intelligible perspectives, in a word (James 1950 I: 402).

Failing to account for these aspects of reality means being blind and unresponsive to them.
This is an ethical problem as much as an epistemic one: it means failing to acknowledge the
source and the character of our relationship with the world and avoiding the burdens of
responsibility that such a recognition implies.

6. As a concluding remark I want to address the question about the relevance of such a
conception of anthropology for the contemporary moral debate. The shattered ideas I


presented in this paper as inspired from a certain reading of two classics, once enriched and
systematized, could be very useful if framed in the contemporary debate about the nature of
moral thought. What I have suggested through my reading of Kant and James is that the
notion of human being can be relevant for ethics if we renounce to concentrate to what
human beings are, and investigate what human beings make of themselves. This means
renouncing to ground ethics on a given conception of human nature without renouncing the
idea according to which ethics has a certain shape in virtue of its being a certain human
practice. From such a perspective we can uncover a space for subjectivity which results as
the outcome of a work on ourselves in terms of a development and elaboration of a mental
life that is ethically connoted –one attentive to the richness of experience toward which we
could be morally blind, and aware of the burdens it has in it being justified from within its
practices of world-making.


A. Davidson (1986): Archeology, Genealogy, Ethics, in Foucault: A Critical Reader (ed. by David
Couzens Hoy), Blackwell.

A. Davidson (1998): Foucault and his Interlocutors, University of Chicago Press.

A. Davidson (2005): Ethics as Ascetics, in The Cambridge Companion to Foucault (ed. by Gary
Gutting), Cambridge University Press

M. Foucault (2008): Introduction à l’Anthropologie, in Kant (2008).

B. Jacobs and P. Kain (2003): Essays on Kant’s Anthropology, Cambridge University Press.

W. James (1950): Principles of Psychology, Dover.

I. Kant (2008) Anthropologie d’un point de vue pragmamatique (ed. by Michel Foucault), Vrin.

J. McDowell (1996): Mind, Value and Reality, Harvard.

J. McDowell (2009) The Engaged Intellect, Harvard.