The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy

by William James
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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 683

Now a classic, this work takes its title from one of ten separate essays written at different times. Originally presented as lectures to academic clubs, these writings express “a tolerably definite philosophic attitude” that William James named “radical empiricism,” an ordinary person’s empiricism, which takes experience as it comes, “seeing” even matters of fact as subject to possible future reinterpretation and rejecting dogmatic monism in the face of the obvious plurality of the things making up the universe. James also wanted to make a case for our right to believe some moral and religious views for whose certainty the evidence can never fully be on hand. Sympathetic to a wide range of philosophical viewpoints, James sought to give intellectual significance to the role of the emotions in specified contexts. He also criticized the prevailing academic opinion that only scientific methods can produce an adequate understanding of the human condition.

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The first four essays—”The Will to Believe,” “Is Life Worth Living?,” “The Sentiment of Rationality,” and “Reflex Action and Theism”—are concerned directly with religious problems. Two others, “The Dilemma of Determinism” and “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life,” also give some attention to religious aspects of ethical problems. A final essay, “What Psychical Research Has Accomplished,” defends scholars who inquire into the possibility that mental life may involve phenomena that escape our ordinary scientific criteria. The remaining essays—”Great Men and Their Environment,” “The Importance of Individuals,” and “On Some Hegelisms”—show James’s concern to find commonsense facts philosophically interesting, to criticize some unexamined assumptions of rationalism, and to resist the spread of absolutist and totalist theories that swallow up the individual in an “environment,” overlook human differences by stressing only similarities, and ignore diversity in emphasizing unity.

Three broad types of subject matter receive treatment in James’s book: the nature and motives of philosophizing, the justification of religious and moral beliefs, and the nature of the moral enterprise. A common theme also runs through what would otherwise be a collection of unrelated essays: the problem of the relation of evidence to specific human beliefs. If the book has a positive thesis, it is that people may rightfully hold certain religious, moral, and metaphysical beliefs even when conclusive evidence for their adequacy is absent. James resists the positivistic tendency of his age to assume that scientific methods will prove able to decide all important questions about existence. Similarly, he expresses criticism of any extreme rationalistic reliance on logic as the sole criterion of philosophical adequacy. There are some beliefs that are truths in the making. “And often enough our faith beforehand in an uncertified result is the only thing that makes the result come true,” he writes. One comes to understand that James is moved to philosophical activity by a desire to justify the rightness of certain beliefs—that God exists, that people possess free will, that moral effort represents a genuinely objective worthiness, that pain and evil cannot justify suicide, and that practical as well as theoretical needs ought to influence one’s philosophical outlook.

The book’s historical influence partly stems from the nature of the problems addressed by the author. Most of these problems are close to ordinary human experience. James also reassures those thinkers who, unconvinced that a completed metaphysical system is really possible, want to resist making a forced choice between philosophical certainty and philosophical skepticism. Philosophical argument can take place fruitfully somewhere on this side of certainty, according to James. Yet such argument need not lapse into arbitrariness. Logic is a subservient instrument. It is subject to the felt needs of religious, moral, and practical demands. James argues that a qualified moral idealism need not lead to sentimentalism in escaping the twin threats of pessimism and nihilism. Some philosophical viewpoints are relatively more adequate than others, even though no one viewpoint can hope to exhaust the whole domain of reality. Such a generous spirit animates James’s essays that even critics who are unpersuaded by some of the arguments nevertheless recognize in them the evidences of a rare and gifted philosophical mind.

The Nature and Motives of Philosophizing

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The book’s opening essay is crucial for the broad way it sketches the nature, purposes, and possibilities of philosophizing. Written in 1879, “The Sentiment of Rationality” states convictions that are presupposed in James’s more restricted discussions of topics in religious and moral philosophy. A number of basic questions caused James to write this essay. What is the philosophic quest really about? What are the conditions that any philosophy must meet if it is to be accepted? How can one know that the philosophic demand for a peculiar kind of rationality has been satisfactorily met?

Philosophic pursuit of a rational conception of existence marked by universality and extensiveness succeeds whenever a feeling of intellectual “ease, peace, rest” is the result. Any adequate philosophy must satisfy two kinds of human distress. One is theoretical: the intellectual concern to form a general conception of the universe. The other is practical: the moral and religious desire to include our passional natures in any philosophical consideration of how we are to act and what we should believe.

Two cravings gnaw at the philosopher. Intellectual simplification is always one philosophic need. Simplification requires reduction of the world’s numerous details to fewer significant abstractions that stress similarities. Theoretical life would be an impossibility without such abstractions. The other need is the clear demand for recognition of the perceived differences among things. Philosophic rationality results only when each of these competing impulses receives serious consideration. James insists that philosophizing involves a continuous, yet never fully successful, synthesizing of these two cravings—a mark of whose successful handling is the feeling that some original puzzlement no longer proves irritating to the mind. As an activity, philosophizing must involve the whole person. Philosophizing must therefore often give way to hosts of other intellectual quests since its own unique function is to discover a general picture of “the hang of things.”

An important conviction operates at this point in James’s development. It is that any metaphysical conception must remain open to future possible theoretical anxiety. Our need of a philosophic view of the nature of things results only in partial and temporary satisfaction. Any instance of the feeling of rationality can itself founder on the shoals of the question about its justifiability. Even if the world is a certain way, it might yet be otherwise. Thus the worry about “nonentity” arises, named by James “the parent of the philosophic craving in its subtilist and profoundest sense.” Through awareness of a possible other state of affairs, people can lose the feeling of rationality once gained. No single logically consistent system can still people’s theoretical demands when they are faced by the query: Why just this sort of world and no other? “Every generation will produce its Job, its Hamlet, its Faust, or its Sartor Resartus.” Mystical ecstasy can realize the psychological equivalent of the feeling of rationality when logic proves inadequate. Yet “empiricism will be the ultimate philosophy,” for even the mysteriousness of existence depends on an irreducible fact about a universe that is dissatisfying to our theoretical demands.

Exclusive concern with the theoretical impulse leads people to skepticism or to a sense of wonder about the universe. One or the other arises when a completed metaphysical system begins to wane. Does the matter end here? Denying that it does, James argues that now the practical life acquires a heightened rational significance. Practical demands play a role in one’s choice of a philosophy when systems exist whose logical methods are equally sound. People’s belief that their wills can influence the future must receive justification in any important philosophical system. People can adopt that philosophy which most fully satisfies certain moral and aesthetic requirements of human nature.

The better philosophy is always relevant to people’s expectations about the future. Yet there is no one, final, “better” philosophy. For example, a philosophy that retains the notion of substance will remain a perennial contender for human acceptance. Similarly, idealism will remain a challenging possibility for thinkers requiring an identification of the universe with our personal selves, materialism for thinkers wanting an escape from self. James concludes that temperamental differences are important in the quest after the sentiment of rationality. To be humanly acceptable, a philosophy must limit moral skepticism and satisfy people’s belief that they “count” in the creation of a future world. According to James, no philosophy can succeed that ignores the practical craving for a world that is partly responsive to people’s future expectations, their human faiths, and their commonsense conviction that moral striving genuinely counts for something.

Moral and Religious Beliefs

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Take the question “Does God exist?” James rejects the agnostic argument that one ought never to hold beliefs for which conclusive evidence is lacking. Reasonable persons seek both to avoid error and to attain the maximum amount of truth. Yet there may be questions such that neither “yes” nor “no” replies are justified by existing evidence but to which people may rightfully give an affirmative belief-response. James insists that the matter of God’s existence is such a question, as are questions about the importance of the individual, the value of life versus suicide, and the possible existence of human free will. How people treat such questions is important. James argues that people may believe certain statements for reasons of the heart when conclusive evidence is lacking, and the beliefs help to initiate future discoveries of a practical kind. This thesis forces James to consider the problem of the relation of evidence to belief.

Belief involves a willingness to act on some hypothesis. James insists that any proposition may serve as a hypothesis—though he is not always clear about the form of such a hypothesis. Ordinarily, a proposition such as “This litmus paper is blue” is not considered a hypothesis because it lacks a proper hypothetical form. A proposition of the form “If this litmus paper is put into a given solution, it will turn red” is a hypothesis capable of some testing, provided that the proper details are supplied. However, James had in mind statements of moral and religious belief whose adoption by people might result in bringing about a desired truth. One may help to make another person’s attitude friendly toward oneself by adopting a believing attitude toward the statement “X is friendly toward me.” Belief in some propositions is a requirement for their future possible verification. According to James, religious beliefs may often be of this kind. Religious beliefs involve one in assenting to statements for which conclusive evidence is absent. James wants to defend the right to hold such beliefs if they meet specified conditions. A person has an option to believe certain hypotheses in religion and morals if the hypotheses are living rather than dead, forced rather than avoidable, and momentous rather than trivial.

What makes a hypothesis “living,” “forced,” and “momentous” is its relation to a thinker’s interests. The test here seems to be predominantly psychological and cultural, for an individual’s interests are what they are, however caused. James admits that not everyone will find the same hypothesis living, forced, and momentous, giving the example of a Christian confronted with the command, “Be a Theosophist or be a Mohammedan.” Yet James insists that the God-hypothesis confronts people with a genuine “option,” meaning that such an option is living, momentous, and forced. He argues that the agnostic who neither affirms nor denies God’s existence has already decided against such an existence. The agnostic decides to give up all hope of winning a possible truth in order to avoid a possible error in a situation for which evidence must in principle be inconclusive. The agnostic’s right to disbelieve in this case is no greater than the religious person’s right to believe.

A critic may say at this point that James’s way of arguing may encourage people to choose their beliefs by an individualistic criterion of psychological comfort—something on the order of the command: “Believe what you need to believe.” James warns his readers that he is countering academicians’ disregard of the passional aspects in human decision making and that the right to believe occurs only in a matter that “cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds.” James apparently thinks the genuine religious option concerns the thatness of God’s existence rather than the choice of an existing institutional means for expressing one’s decision to believe in God’s existence. Yet he does seem to argue, on the other hand, that those who are agnostics choose to treat the God-hypothesis as a dead one. Moral and religious options are such that, if the believer takes an affirmative stance regarding a belief, they promise that the better aspects will win out in the universe and a person will be better off for believing. One might put even the God-hypothesis in a psychological form: “If you believe that God exists, even now you will be benefited.” Yet it is not clear that James would wish to regard the force of the central religious hypothesis as purely psychological.

The Moral Life

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In discussing features of the moral landscape, James once again shows his distrust of intellectual abstractions and generalizations. He is convinced that philosophers can never produce an airtight, finished moral system. Nor can moral philosophers dogmatically solve all issues in advance of actual situations. Yet James openly defends two general moral notions. One is that human demands and obligations are coextensive. The second is that people have a right to believe they are free. Any genuinely moral philosophers place their own cherished ideals and norms in the scales of rational judgment even as they realize that no one standard measure is attainable that will apply to all occasions. The moral philosopher holds no privileged status for deciding concrete instances of conflict in human demands. James insists that the moral philosopher “only knows that if he makes a bad mistake the cries of the wounded will soon inform him of the fact.”

James advances the thesis about coextensiveness of demands and obligations in the essay “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life.” There are no intrinsically “bad” demands, since demands are simply what they are. Without them, there could be no basis of moral life. James seeks to give due recognition to biological and psychological facts. He wants an “ethical republic.” Terms such as “good” and “bad”—whose meanings constitute the metaphysical function of moral philosophizing—refer to objects of feeling and desire. Only “a mind which feels them” can realize moral relations and moral law. James insists that the moral philosopher must “vote for the richer universe”—that which can accommodate the widest possible range of human wants. Yet James fails to make clear how the philosopher may determine what should pass as the richer universe if all demands have equal status in principle. On this issue James seems to appeal to intuition, for he argues that “the nobler thing tastes better”—indicating that he recognized that some demands are more appealing than others.


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The most suggestive essay concerned with a moral issue is “The Dilemma of Determinism,” in which James argues that, though no proof is possible, the human being does possess free will. This is a unique defense of indeterminism, which presupposes a metaphysical position: namely, that the universe is in reality a pluriverse containing objective possibilities of novelty. The problem that concerns him is that of the relation of freedom to chance rather than of freedom to cause. “Chance” is a relative word that tells one nothing about that on which it is predicated. “Its origin is in a certain fashion negative: it escapes, and says, Hands off! coming, when it comes, as a free gift, or not at all.” James disliked the contemporary distinction between “hard” and “soft” forms of determinism. The “soft” form of determinism argues that causality is quite compatible with responsible action and ethical judicability. What James wanted to discover is the metaphysical view necessary to determinism. He concluded it is a view that takes possibilities never actualized as mere illusions. James insists that determinism is unable to give adequate account of human feelings about possibility—the feeling that the universe contains genuine choices or alternatives, objectively real risks. Indeterminism insists that future volitions can be ambiguous, and “indeterminate future volitions do mean chance.”

According to James, determinism results in an unavoidable dilemma. It must lead either to pessimism or to subjectivism. People share a universe that daily calls for judgments of regret about some things happening in it. However, if events are strictly necessitated, they can never be otherwise than what they are. In this case, human regrets suggest that, though some feature of the universe could not have been different, yet it would have been better if it were different. Such reasoning leads to pessimism. James argues that people can give up pessimism only if they jettison their judgments of regret. People can perhaps regard regrettable incidents—including the most atrocious murders—as teleological links in a chain leading to some higher good. Murder and treachery then cease to be evils. However, a definite price must be paid for such a teleological optimism, because the original judgments of regret were themselves necessitated on the determinist’s position. Some other judgments should have existed in their place. “But as they are necessitated, nothing else can be in their place.” It seems then that, whether people are pessimists or optimists, their judgments are necessitated.

Subjectivism and Indeterminism

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One escape from this pessimism-optimism impasse is to adopt subjectivism. The practical impulse to realize some objective moral good can be subordinated to a theoretical development of an understanding of what is involved in goodness and evil. The facts of the universe can be valued only insofar as they produce consciousness in people. Subjectivism emphasizes the knowledge of good and evil in order to underscore the nature of human involvement. Experience rather than the objective goodness or badness of experience becomes the crucial factor for any moral subjectivism. However, the indeterminist must reject subjectivism because it fails to do justice to people’s empirical notions of the genuinely moral significance of human experiences. In addition, subjectivism leads to mere sentimentality and romanticism.

James concludes that common sense informs people that objective right and wrong involve real limits. Practical reason insists that “conduct, and not sensibility, is the ultimate fact for our recognition.” Only indeterminism can make sense out of this practical insistence on objective right and wrong. Yet indeterminism does not argue that Providence is necessarily incompatible with free will. In an example involving chess, James shows how Providence can be like a master chess player who, though knowing the ultimate outcome of the game, must face unpredictable moves by an amateur player. On the other hand, James concludes that indeterminism gives people a special view: “It gives us a pluralistic, restless universe, in which no single point of view can ever take in the whole scene.” James concludes that people have a right to be indeterminists and to believe in free will even in the absence of a persuasively final proof.


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Additional Reading

Allen, Gay Wilson. William James. New York: Viking Press, 1967. This reliable and readable biography situates James in his social and historical context.

Bauerlein, Mark. The Pragmatic Mind: Explorations in the Psychology of Belief. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997. A helpful treatment of James’s views about the relationships among belief, consciousness, the human will, and knowledge, and claims about truth.

Brown, Hunter. William James on Radical Empiricism and Religion. Toronto: Toronto University Press, 2000. A study that argues for the consistency of James’s philosophy of radical empiricism and his examination of religious experience in “The Will to Believe.”

Cotkin, George. William James, Public Philosopher. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990. Cotkin explores the social and political context in which James worked and draws out James’s contributions to the important debates of his day as well as the lasting implications of his work.

Croce, Paul Jerome. Science and Religion in the Era of William James. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995. Assess how debates about science and religion informed James’s philosophy.

Myers, Gerald E. William James: His Life and Thought. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1986. A well-written, carefully researched, comprehensive study of James’s life and thought.

Perry, Ralph Barton. The Thought and Character of William James. Nashville, Tenn.: Vanderbilt University Press, 1996. A reprint of a classic by a well-respected philosopher, this book contains valuable information about James’s life and work.

Putnam, Ruth Anna, ed. The Cambridge Companion to William James. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Significant essays by well-qualified James scholars interpret and assess a wide range of topics and problems in his philosophy and psychology.

Roth, John K. Freedom and the Moral Life: The Ethics of William James. Philadelphia, Pa.: Westminster Press, 1969. Focuses on key themes in James’s moral philosophy and evaluates the significance of James’s ethics.

Seigfried, Charlene Haddock. Pragmatism and Feminism: Reweaving the Social Fabric. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. An important interpreter of James’s philosophy appraises continuities and discontinuities between American pragmatism and feminist theory.

Simon, Linda. Genuine Reality: A Life of William James. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1998. A worthwhile account of James’s life and his pioneering work in psychology and philosophy.

Suckiel, Ellen Kappy. Heaven’s Champion: William James’s Philosophy of Religion. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1996. A study of the themes and lasting significance of James’s philosophy and its emphasis on religion.

Taylor, Eugene. William James on Consciousness Beyond the Margin. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996. Explores James’s interests in and theories about human consciousness, psychology, religious experience, and other forms of experience.

Wild, John. The Radical Empiricism of William James. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1969. Shows how James’s psychology and pragmatism relate to European phenomenology and existentialism.

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