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...
(The entire section is 683 words.)