B. H. Roberts and Pragmatism. Part II on William James and Mormonism

By February 24, 2008

(continued from Part I

Brigham Henry Roberts (1857-1933), LDS general authority, historian, and theologian–twice nominated as “the most eminent intellectual in Mormon history”[1]–owned copies of at least five of James’s works: Psychology, Pragmatism, A Pluralistic Universe, The Meaning of Truth, and Some Problems of Philosophy. Of those books, Roberts first read Pragmatism, which he finished reading, as indicated by an inscription on the last page of Roberts’s personal copy of the book, on the morning of March 16, 1908. In July of that same year he purchased A Pluralistic Universe and in October, Psychology.[2] These five books are now housed as part of the B. H. Roberts Memorial Library in the archives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City, Utah. Due to Roberts’s habit of writing in the margins of his books, an examination of the collection can be revealing of how he read, particularly where he saw resonance with Mormon thought and where he parted ways with certain ideas.

As a prolific and indefatigable writer, Roberts always seemed to read with an eye to how he was going to incorporate what he was reading into his own works. His books were the raw material from which he fashioned his own system of thought. His marginal notes were often notes to himself of how he was going use certain passages. He was always on the lookout for definitions of truth or anything that might help him to lay out his expositions of the Mormon gospel and his development of Mormon thought into a system of philosophy he referred to as “eternalism” or “New Dispensation Philosophy.” Roberts’s reading of William James and his incorporation of many of James’s ideas and words into his own writings played an important role in shaping that philosophy.

Roberts described James as one of the “foremost” and one of the “greatest American philosophers”; yet, wary of an unguarded acceptance of the philosophies of men, he also instructed his readers that James’s writings (in this case Psychology) “should be read, not with the view of accepting all Mr. James’s premises or his conclusions…but to become familiar with the subject and its treatment.”[3] Roberts’s first use of James’s philosophy in his writings, so far as I have discovered, was in the fourth yearbook of the Seventy’s Course in Theology, an annually-published instruction manual for the Seventy’s Quorum of the Mormon Priesthood, in a section titled “Eternal Intelligences and Progress.” Though Roberts’s use of the term “intelligences” clearly comes from Latter-day revelations and from Joseph Smith’s teachings, in laying out the characteristics of these “eternal, self-existing entities,” Roberts borrows heavily from James–more so than from any other source. His characterization of intelligences as entities capable of generalization, ratiocination, and the perception of a priori principles appear to have come primarily from his reading of James and he cites passages from Psychology and Pragmatism in laying out these characteristics.[4]

One of the most poignant, indeed “startling,” instances of resonance with Mormon thought that Roberts recognized in James’s writings was in a “wonderful passage” from Pragmatism in the chapter titled “Pragmatism and Religion.”[5] In this passage, James poses a hypothetical dialogue between God and his creation–a sort of premortal screening of a nascent humanity in which God proposes a plan in which life on an as-yet-uncreated earth is described as contingent and uncertain in nature. The passage, which Roberts later quoted in full in his own writings, reads as follows:

Suppose that the world’s Author put the case to you before creation, saying: “I am going to make a world not certain to be saved, a world the perfection of which shall be conditional merely, the condition being that each several agent does its own ‘level best.’ I offer you the chance of taking part in such a world. Its safety, you see, is unwarranted. It is a real adventure, with real danger, yet it may win through. It is a social scheme of cooperative work genuinely to be done. Will you join the procession? Will you trust yourself and trust the other agents enough to face the risk?” [6]

This passage automatically registers a familiar ring to any Latter-day Saint, due to its narrative similarities with passages from LDS scripture and teachings that describe what is popularly referred to in Mormon culture as “the council in heaven.” B. H. Roberts found the resonance between this paragraph and the Mormon doctrine of a premortal council in heaven so compelling that he queried in the margin of his own personal copy of Pragmatism, next to the above-quoted paragraph: “Had James read of the Council in heaven?” [7]

(continued in Part III)

[1] These nominations were the result of two surveys conducted in 1969 and 1993, distributed among LDS scholars. See Sterling M. McMurrin, “The Mormon Theology of B. H. Roberts,” in B. H. Roberts, The Truth, The Way, The Life: An Elementary Treatise on Theology: The Masterwork of B. H. Roberts, ed. Stan Larson (San Francisco: Smith Research Associates, 1994), xiii.
[2] The publication information for these books is as follows: Pragmatism (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1908); A Pluralistic Universe (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1909); Psychology (New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1900); The Meaning of Truth: A Sequel to Pragmatism. New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1909; Some Problems of Philosophy (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1911). Roberts does not indicate when he purchased or read the latter-mentioned books. References to Roberts’s markings in these books will hereafter be cited by the name of the book, the page number, and B. H. Roberts Memorial Library.
[3] TWL, 326; Seventy’s Course, 32; TWL, 21.
[4]Seventy’s Course, 2-4.
[5] These quotations by Roberts are found in both his Seventy’s Course in Theology, Fourth Year (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1911), 30-32, and in TWL, 324.
[6] Quote taken from TWL; B. H. Roberts capitalizes the initial “A” in author whereas Library of America edition does not [need to check Roberts’s version at Archives]
[7] Pragmatism, 290, B. H. Roberts Memorial Library. In his biography of Roberts, Truman G. Madsen indicates that Roberts made this marginal note in A Pluralistic Universe [re-check the collection to see if this is an error].

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Note though that Roberts explicitly makes “intelligence” a Cartesian mind. So there is a weird ontology at work.

    Comment by Clark — February 24, 2008 @ 10:22 pm

  2. That thought experiment is also classic Rawls, Theory of Justice. Wonder whether he read James.
    “Intelligences” actually doesn’t date from the Mormons, though they had filtered it to Roberts by 70 years later. Intelligences was long a codeword for the sentient entities in the Great Chain of Being.

    Comment by smb — February 25, 2008 @ 12:38 am

  3. Stan, I’m waiting for your dissertation on Robert’s marginalia. Great post.

    Comment by Ben — February 25, 2008 @ 1:37 am

  4. Fascinating stuff, Stan. Thanks.

    Comment by Christopher — February 25, 2008 @ 2:34 pm

  5. I like the marginalia stuff. Thanks for the post.

    Comment by BHodges — February 27, 2008 @ 2:25 pm


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