The Will to Believe, and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy

by William James

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Will to Believe, And Other Essays in Popular Philosophy was published in 1896. The essays were written by Williams James, a leading philosopher in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who also taught the first psychology course in the United States. James was a key figure in the development of pragmatism, a school of thought that focuses on the practical use of things such as language, culture, and science. It is a direct contradiction of idealist thinking, which portrays science and natural laws as ultimately things too complex for humans to ever fully understand. James, like other pragmatist philosophers, chose to view ideas as true if they were productive—something that had useful outcomes for everyone. Several of the essays in The Will to Believe are excerpts from talks that James gave to academic groups at universities such as Harvard and Yale about his pragmatist philosophies; publishing them gave him access to a broader audience beyond that of Ivy League societies.

The Will to Believe focuses on several common philosophical themes, notably our capacity to hold certain beliefs without physical evidence of their truthfulness. James ties this theme to religious beliefs to examine society's willfulness to rationally believe in religion while lacking sufficient proof of its existence. The essays are divided into the following sections:

"The Will to Believe": this contains his central thesis, focusing on the argument that some beliefs must be accepted without evidence before we can begin searching for this evidence. There is a level of confidence required, and accepting something before having evidence of its existence does not have to always be irrational (James highlights scientific inquiry as an example).

"Is Life Worth Living?": this focuses on religion and the acceptance of an "invisible" world outside of our physical order.

"The Sentiment of Rationality": in which James champions clear, rational thinking, even over ideas that we do not fully understand.

"Relax Action and Theism": this focuses on the conflicts between science and theology to analyze the reconciliation of religious thinking with scientific rationalism.

"The Dilemma of Determinism": this claims that philosophers seek to rationalize the world, and that subjectivism is used as an escape from moral and philosophical problems.

"The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life": this examines the relationship between ethics and religion while analyzing the origins of our moral codes.

"Great Men and their Environment": in which James examines the psychology behind philosophical thinking and our inherent need to understand the world around us.

"The Importance of Individuals": in which James highlights the importance of individual thought as a driving force in cultural change and evolution.

"On Some Hegelisms": this examines the relationship between pluralism and totality.

"What Physical Research Has Accomplished": in this final essay, James gives a history of psychology's efforts in understanding human nature, the ever-evasive "self", and scientific truths.

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