The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy Analysis
by William James

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(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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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.

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 entire section is 3,664 words.)