What Do American Pragmatism, Swedenborg, and Zen Hold in Common?

By John S. Haller, Jr., Emeritus Professor of History and Medical Humanities, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale


The philosophy of pragmatism is an artifact of our nation’s democratic heritage whose tendencies toward practicality, voluntarism, moralism, and openness give it a character to which few philosophies could ever aspire. Known as a philosophy of action, with beliefs tested not by their internal logic or even their origins, but by their consequences, it is valued for its combination of experience and possibility, anti-elitism, and experimental and democratic bias. Over the years, pragmatism has acquired many different characteristics (e.g., social, melioristic, empirical, evolutionistic, anti-supernatural, pluralistic, etc.), but in the main it offers a theory of meaning, a cluster of hopes (including the promise of helping to clarify ideas), and an openness to a range of options—all latent in American optimism and its sense of exceptionalism. Reflective of a nation of “doers,” pragmatism is less a philosophy than it is a results-driven approach tied to creative intelligence, faith in the possibility of progress, and a cautious but optimistically constructive view of change.


The differences between and among its leading representatives are essentially variations on a theme, determined in part by their different interests and choices of application. What is often missed in discussing pragmatism is its connection to both Swedenborgianism and Buddhism. As the late Harvard psychologist Eugene Taylor documented, both Charles Peirce and William James were well versed in Swedenborgianism based on the contents of their personal libraries; Harvard Library’s records of books charged out to each of them; the influence of Henry James, Sr. on their respective religious sensibilities; their personal correspondence; and references in their published writings. One aspect, in particular, that resonated in the writings of both men is the “doctrine of uses”—a principal topic in Swedenborg’s Divine Love and Wisdom. In this most philosophical of Swedenborg’s writings, he addresses three particular attributes of the Deity: the Divine of Love, the Divine of Wisdom, and the Divine of Use.

According to Swedenborg, “use” was the purpose of creation, since everything in the natural world has it derivation in the spiritual world. “All things which have been created by the Lord are uses; and they are uses in the order, degree, and respect in which they are related to man, and through man to the Lord from whom they are.” Uses were of three types: for sustaining the body, for perfecting the rational, and for receiving the spiritual from the Divine. “Use, therefore, becomes the basic standard by which we read the direction of personality development,” Taylor explained. “The will, which is the receptacle of love, and the understanding, which is the receptacle of wisdom within the person, express themselves in the world through uses.”

In 1910, Lewis F. Hite, editor for The New-Church Review, published an article tracing the transition in thinking from the closing years of the nineteenth century, when idealism held undisputed sway, to James’s attack on both the methods and conclusions of idealism. Hite explained how James substituted the prior and intimate nature of experience in place of universal and abstract conceptual schemes of experience where concepts, classes, and laws were formed by abstracting features of objects. This turn from the abstract and speculative to the concreteness of sense experience became the “new realism” in James’s The Will to Believe (1896), John Dewey’s How We Think (1910), and F. C. S. Schiller’sHumanism (1903). In varying degrees, they demonstrated their opposition to static, conventionalized, and institutionalized absolutes.

As leader of the “new realism,” James asserted that purely rational considerations did not determine the issues of life. As a matter of practical existence, life was full of chances, incomplete knowledge, and hypotheses whose belief or disbelief was of little consequence. There were, on the other hand, instances such as the existence of God, the concept of immortality, and even the credibility of Swedenborg, which involved moral decisions that could not be ignored. Here one had to take a chance “or do without the truth.” Taking a risk meant making a choice. “We must take part in making truth,” Hite insisted, “as Thomas Jefferson made democratic truth by the Declaration of Independence, or Swedenborg made religious truth by believing in his mission.”

By Hite’s standard, James’s will to believe was the proper way to make life worth living, provided that the satisfaction of combining will and choice gave character to each individual and meaning to the world by direct, creative, and determined actions. In short, the will to believe “enables us to bring the primal chaos of experience into some sort of order; and we utilize this order in carrying out our purposes.” Raw experience allows one to identify, distinguish, separate, and combine characteristics; obtain properties such as hardness, toughness, and mass; and formulate the relevant laws. All are the outcome of mental operations “upon the raw materials furnished by direct contact with the concrete world.”

The elements identified by James, Peirce, and Schiller for a union of philosophy and life were remarkably similar to Zen’s explanation of pure experience, means and ends, and the concept of uses. Both Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki’s “practical” Buddhism (e.g., finding enlightenment while hewing wood or drawing water) and Dewey’s Art as Experience explained life’s meaning not in the form of unapproachable abstractions but as a celebration that “life is its own end and answer.” Both taught how to live without the veil of dualism, recognizing that the eternal was now and that the supernatural was actual. In each, its sponsors were revolting against tradition and intellectualism, seeking to recast old ways of thinking in words that were new but also drawn from native roots as well as external sources. Each deprecated absolutism and rigid determinism, distrusted metaphysical system-makers, and encouraged adaptation to a changing world. And both were advocates of “usefulness” as the proper means of putting their tenets into practice.

Zen has sometimes been described as chopping wood and carrying water—representing the truth of life not in words but by living, moving, and acting. Suzuki, who communicated with both Peirce and James, explained that: “In the actual living of life there is no logic, for life is superior to logic.”[1] Zen meant giving up the love and sense of a separate self and living passionately in the moment so as to leave one open to the influx of wisdom and enlightenment. Zen included the notion of work or service. This was at the very core of the Zen monk’s education known as the “Meditation Hall.” The sanctification of work and service prevented Zen “from deteriorating into quietism or mere intellectual gymnastics.” If life was to be true, it had to be practical, developing all the faculties and having them work harmoniously. As Suzuki explained, life should be lived as a “perfect art,” which was self-forgetting and catching life as it flowed, much like a bird flying through the air or a fish swimming in water. The Zen experience was a joyous union of the self with the no-self or, as Christ explained, when “I and my Father are One.” An extraordinarily aesthetic philosophy, it broke through the duality of subject-object into egoless self-abandonment where, in the moment, the self surrendered its will to the will of God.


[1] D.T. Suzuki, D.T. Suzuki, Zen Buddhism: Selected Writings, edited by William Barrett (NYC: Doubleday, 1996), 151.


Suggested Readings

Hite, Lewis F. “Professor James’ Radical Empiricism.” The New-Church Review 17:2 (1910): 261–63, 265.

Suzuki, D. T. D. T. Suzuki, Zen Buddhism: Selected Writings. Edited by William Barrett. New York: Doubleday, 1996.

______ An Introduction to Zen Buddhism. New York: Grove Press, 1964.

Swedenborg, Emanuel. Divine Love and Wisdom. West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 2003.

Taylor, Eugene. “Peirce and Swedenborg. Studia Swedenborgiana 6:1 (1986).

______ “Swedenborgian Roots of American Pragmatism: The Case of D.T. Suzuki.”Studia Swedenborgiana 9:2 (1995).

White, Morton. Social Thought in America: The Revolt Against Formalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1949.

Woodbridge, Frederick J. E. “The Promise of Pragmatism.” The Journal of Philosophy 26:20 (1929): 541–52.


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