The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy Analysis

William James


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...

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The Nature and Motives of Philosophizing

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,...

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Moral and Religious Beliefs

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...

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The Moral Life

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.


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...

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Subjectivism and Indeterminism

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...

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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...

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