The Will to Believe, and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy Summary

William James


Of the ten essays in William James’s The Will to Believe, and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy, three have had lasting philosophical importance: “The Will to Believe” and the two that augment or clarify this piece, “Is Living Worth Living?” and “The Sentiment of Rationality.” The general subjects of these three essays are the nature of faith and the concept of self-verifying belief. The other seven essays have mostly historical or topical themes in philosophy, psychology, and physiology.

James opens the essay “The Will to Believe” by characterizing any hypothesis as one of three kinds of dilemma: living or dead, forced or unforced, momentous or trivial. For James, if the dilemma concerns a live issue, if it is one in which a decision must be made, and if it is one whose expected consequences are momentous, then the option is genuine. Otherwise, the option is of little or no import. Any option, whether genuine or not, may be thus reduced to a strict exclusive disjunction in which just two possibilities exhaust all cases. The question need only be stated properly, according to the logic of its own practicality—that is, consistent with James’s standard radical empiricist or pragmatic approach to philosophical issues: What works and what does not?

James argues in favor of the rationality and practical value of any kind of faith, not necessarily Christian or even religious. His ultimate aim, however, seems to be to bolster the Christian faith. He establishes his position between those of philosopher-mathematicians Blaise Pascal and William Kingdon Clifford. He criticizes both positions severely, but remains closer to Pascal’s theism.

In Pensées (1670; English translation, 1688), Pascal places religious faith into four exclusive categories: (1) God is real, and we (humans) so believe; (2) God is real, yet we do not so believe; (3) God is fictitious, yet we believe that God is real; and (4) God is fictitious, and we so believe. The decision the faithful make among the four has become known in both philosophy and theology as Pascal’s wager. If we choose (1), then we go to Heaven; but if we choose (2), then we go to Hell. If we choose either (3) or (4), then we probably just pass into gentle nonexistence upon death. It would then turn out that if we had chosen (3), we would have been wrong, and if we would have chosen (4), we would have been right. However, because there would be neither Heaven nor Hell, this difference would not matter. If humans choose to believe in God, humans have everything to gain and nothing to lose; if humans choose not to believe, then humans have nothing to gain and everything to lose. The decision between theistic belief and atheistic nonbelief is forced. Agnosticism—or refusing to decide—are not options, insofar as they are tantamount to the atheistic nonbelief of either (2) or (4). For Pascal and James, any faith short of full faith is not faith.

James declares that faith according to Pascal’s wager is merely expedient, and he jokes that God would take special delight in condemning to...

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Carmody, Denise Lardner, et al. The Republic of Many Mansions: Foundations of American Religious Thought. St. Paul, Minn.: Paragon House, 1998. A study of American religious thought from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries. Centers on the ideas of William James as a philosophical pragmatist, Jonathan Edwards as a Puritan thinker, and Thomas Jefferson as an Enlightenment secularist.

Gale, Richard M. The Philosophy of William James: An Introduction. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Considers James’s theory of belief in the context of his ethics, metaphysics, logic, and pragmatism, and as his theory of belief relates to mysticism, selfhood, and wider issues of religious experience and philosophical inquiry.

O’Connell, Robert J. William James on the Courage to Believe. New York: Fordham University Press, 1984. A detailed and multifaceted analysis of James’s philosophy of self-verifying belief, with sections on the logic of the argument, alternatives to the argument, Blaise Pascal’s influence on James, and James’s influence on later thinkers.

Pawelski, James O. The Dynamic Individualism of William James. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007. Examines how one’s mind could be changed through the exercise of faith or will, how the social role of faith helps with making decisions, and how perception affects volition.

Perry, Ralph Barton. The Thought and Character of William James as Revealed in Unpublished Correspondence and Notes, Together with His Published Writings. Boston: Little, Brown, 1935. Still the essential resource for James studies. A massive two-volume work that relies mostly on primary material to create an authoritative intellectual biography. Chapter 63 includes seven letters pertaining to The Will to Believe.

Taylor, Charles. Varieties of Religion Today: William James Revisited. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002. Transcript of lectures by scholar Taylor in Vienna in 2000. Taylor assesses the religious thought of James as he considers the place of religion in the present secular age.

Wernham, James C. S. James’s Will-to-Believe Doctrine: A Heretical View. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1987. Argues that both James and Pascal reduce religious faith to gambling, that James’s version of this theory is basically secular, and that what James really advocates is not a genuine faith but a “foolish-not-to-believe” doctrine.