Transforming One's Self

The Therapeutic Ethical Pragmatism of William James

By Clifford S. Stagoll

Subjects: Philosophy, Ethics, American Philosophy, Psychology, American Studies
Series: SUNY series in American Philosophy and Cultural Thought
Hardcover : 9781438493268, 228 pages, July 2023
Paperback : 9781438493275, 228 pages, January 2024

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Table of contents

Introduction: William James’s Ethics in the Pragmatist Tradition

1. Locating James’s Therapeutic Project

2. Uncovering Life’s Potential: Relational Experience

3. Defining Life’s Potential: The Self-Transforming Self

4. Realizing Life’s Potential: An Ethics of Habit and Creative Willing

Conclusion: Recovering James’s Therapeutic Ethics

A fresh and rigorous interpretation of William James's ethical theory, showing how experimenting with life's opportunities can transform one's self and life.


William James (1842–1910) authored some of America's most original and evocative philosophy and psychology. Until recently, however, his work in ethics attracted little interest, despite suggestions from such distinguished peers as John Dewey that ethical themes suffused his writings. Taking those suggestions seriously, Clifford S. Stagoll provides an original and rigorous interpretation of James's ethics as a response to the socio-economic circumstances of his day, derived from key themes in his metaphysics, philosophical psychology, philosophy of religion, and pedagogical theory. By considering these apparently disparate projects together, Stagoll shows how James's recommendations for pursuing a richer, more rewarding life—an ethics in the classical sense—are justified by intricate and sophisticated analyses of how we think, act, and conceive of ourselves. For James, making a habit of experimenting with life's myriad opportunities is not just a way to counter thinking that has grown too rigid, but a crucial precondition for making the most of one's life and self.

Clifford S. Stagoll is Honorary Research Fellow in Philosophy at The University of Western Australia. He is the coeditor (with Michael P. Levine) of Pragmatism Applied: William James and the Challenges of Contemporary Life, also published by SUNY Press.


"Transforming One's Self represents an in-depth study of James's moral philosophy as hinged on the notion and practice of self-transformation. Stagoll contributes to the literature on James's ethics (and philosophy overall) by showing the extent to which moral reflection rests on open-ended experimentation rather than on established rules, on therapeutic instructions rather than on normative prescriptions. This pragmatist understanding of moral theorizing (or lack thereof) is paired with a fallibilist conception of experience, consciousness, habit, and will. In so doing, it joins a growing literature resisting a picture of James and pragmatism's moral thought as one more variety of either deontology or consequentialism." — Sarin Marchetti, author of Ethics and Philosophical Critique in William James