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William James in Focus: Willing to Believe

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William James (1842-1910) is a canonical figure of American pragmatism. Trained as a medical doctor, James was more engaged by psychology and philosophy and wrote a foundational text, Pragmatism, for this characteristically American way of thinking. Distilling the main currents of James's thought, William J. Gavin focuses on "latent" and "manifest" ideas in James to disclose the notion of "will to believe," which courses through his work. For students who may be approaching James for the first time and for specialists who may not know James as deeply as they wish, Gavin provides a clear path to understanding James’s philosophy even as he embraces James’s complications and hesitations.

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Preface

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William James is arguably America’s foremost philosopher—or at least one of them. But the one thesis for which he became most “infamous” was his espousal of “the will to believe”:

Our passional nature not only lawfully may, but must, decide an option between propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds; for to say, under such circumstances, “Do not decide, but leave the question open,” is itself a passional decision—just like deciding yes or no—and is attended with the same risk of losing the truth.

Many thought that this kind of psychological subjectivism had no place in the cold logical circles of philosophy, where one sought objectivity and, ultimately, certainty. A strategy was undertaken to engage in some sort of “damage control,” that is, to allow sentimental concerns in “soft” areas like morality, interpersonal relationships, and religion, but not in the “hard” areas dominated by the sciences. The present study argues for the opposite of this position. It suggests that the will to believe should not be relegated to specific domains; rather, it should be employed wherever choices between options are “forced, living, and momentous.” It also argues that the will to believe is not a onetime affair but must be continually reaffirmed in life.

 

Acknowledgments

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For over four decades, I have had the opportunity to teach courses on American philosophy and William James in particular at the University of Southern Maine. I am most grateful for all the insights provided by USM students during this period of time.

Ms. Kaye Kunz, my work-study student, did a wonderful job of organizing a first draft of this manuscript.

My wife Cathy spent endless hours organizing, typing, and proofreading this text. This book is dedicated to her.

Ms. Dee Mortensen, senior sponsoring editor at Indiana University Press, provided constant support and enthusiasm for this project, as well as displaying generous patience in awaiting its conclusion.

John Stuhr has from the outset been a persistent advocate for this book.

I am most grateful to the following publishers for permission to use material already published in whole or in part:

William James Studies for permission to use “ ‘Problem’ vs. ‘Trouble’: James, Kafka, Dostoevsky, and ‘The Will to Believe’ ” (vol. 2, no. 1, 2007).

 

List of Abbreviations

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Citations of the writings of William James are included in an abbreviated format in all chapters for ease of reference. All abbreviated citations and references are to The Works of William James, published by Harvard University Press (Frederick Burkhardt, general editor, and Fredson Bowers, textual editor). The abbreviations and full references (including original publication dates) are as follows:

ECR

Essays, Comments, and Reviews (1987 [1865–1909])

EP

Essays in Philosophy (1978 [1876–1910])

ERE

Essays in Radical Empiricism (1976 [1912])

ERM

Essays in Religion and Morality (1982 [1884–1910])

MEN

Manuscript Essays and Notes (1988 [1872–1910])

MT

The Meaning of Truth (1975 [1909])

Prag

Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (1975 [1907])

PP

The Principles of Psychology (1981 [1890]: 2 vols.)

PU

 

1 James’s Life: Will to Believe as Affirmation

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William James was born on January 11, 1842, in New York City, at the Astor House.1 His father’s father made a great deal of money. Among other things, he invested in the Erie Canal. At one time, he was reputed to be the second-richest person in New York State, after John Jacob Astor. James’s father inherited a considerable amount of this fortune; he also suffered a serious accident, which required that his leg be amputated at the knee. This loss of mobility gave him large amounts of time to dote on the education of his children, the two most famous of whom were William and Henry, although Alice was a formidable figure in her own right. William made the first of many trips to Europe at the age of two. In the 1850s, he attended a private school in New York City, where he impressed his drawing teacher with his natural talent for sketching. During the period 1855–58, he was in London and Paris and attended college in Boulogne-sur-Mer; in 1859, he was at school in Newport, Rhode Island. In 1860, he was at the Academy in Geneva. In 1861, he was back in America, studying painting under William Hunt. James’s father, however, did not approve of art as a vocation. A devotee of Emanuel Swedenborg, he believed that salvation could only be granted en masse, not through individual effort. This was something William could never accept.

 

2 “The Will to Believe”: Policing versus Free-Roaming

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In 1879 and 1882, James published two parts of articles that collectively would become known as “The Sentiment of Rationality.” It is remarkable how much this early text anticipates his more mature and even his final positions in philosophy. He begins by looking over various conceptualizations of the universe and noting that, while some people seek out similarities, others seek out differences in providing descriptions. This became the notorious issue of “the one and the many,” which James later called the most important problem in philosophy. Here he quickly moves on, telling the reader that “the only possible philosophy must be a compromise between an abstract monotony and a concrete heterogeneity.”1But he quickly concluded from this that pluralism is necessary, that “none of our explanations are complete.” A completed explanation is always perspectival and also incomplete. “In a word, so far as A and B contain l,m,n, and o,p,q respectively, in addition to x, they are not explained by x. . . . A single explanation of a fact only explains it from a single point of view” (WB, 60). Going further, conceptualizations are teleological in nature. We see things from a particular point of view for a particular purpose. Hence, certainty is not possible.

 

3 The Principles of Psychology: Consciousness as a Constitutive Stream

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The Principles of Psychology (PP), James’s first major work, was twelve years in the making and earned for him the title “father of American psychology.” Initially, James adopted a “functional dualism” for this text, separating the domain of psychology from other domains, such as metaphysics: “Every natural science assumes certain data critically. . . . Psychology, the science of finite individual minds, assumes as its data (1) thoughts and feelings, and (2) a physical world with which they coexist and which (3) they know. Of course these data are discussible; but the discussion of them (as of other elements) is called metaphysics and falls outside the province of this book.”1 And again, “This book consequently rejects both the associational and the spiritualist theories; and in this strictly positivistic point of view consists the only feature of it for which I feel tempted to claim originality” (PP, 1: 6). This, then, is the “manifest image” presented by James to the reader. Also part of the manifest image is his radically new view of consciousness as a stream rather than an object or a substance. The latent content of his position becomes manifest when he realizes that the dualism he espouses cannot be maintained and that psychology leaks into metaphysics itself. This chapter focuses primarily on an analysis of the “stream of consciousness” and to the realization that its characteristics, as outlined by James, entail its undoing as a neutrally functioning object.

 

4 The Varieties of Religious Experience: Mysticism as a Vague “Exemplar”

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The very title The Varieties of Religious Experience gives us a clue to James’s intent. The book itself is one long plea that religious experience is pervasive. Taking his examples from all areas of organized religion, James again and again ostensively makes this point—there is simply no ignoring the amount of “evidence” for religious experience. For the same reason, that is, the pervasiveness of religion, no finished formula is available. “The word ‘religion’ cannot stand for any single principle or essence, but is rather a collective name.”1 This plea for the richness of religious experience is negatively expressed in James’s harsh critiques against vicious intellectualism in religion: “The intellectualism in religion which I wish to discredit . . . assumes to construct religious objects out of . . . logical reason alone. . . . It reaches [its conclusions] in an a priori way” (VRE, 342–43). And again, “In all sad sincerity I think we must conclude that the attempt to demonstrate by purely intellectual processes the truth of the deliverances of direct religious experience is absolutely hopeless” (ibid., 359).

 

5 Pragmatism: Corridor as “Latent” and “The Will to Believe”

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Like many of his other texts, James’s Pragmatism (Prag) contains both a manifest and a latent image. On the surface level, it is a “method only.” James describes it as a corridor with various topics leading to different rooms by our asking “What difference does it make?” if a given theory is true. It is a way of resolving issues rather than dissolving them. James’s pragmatism differed from that of his colleague Charles Sanders Peirce who saw pragmatism as a way of dissolving issues, that is, explaining them away. In suggesting that “an idea is true if it makes a difference,” James offered a theory of truth fundamentally different from the paradigm offered by René Descartes, for whom knowledge was equated with certainty. Let us see how James develops his position.

To begin with, we should note what pragmatism was supposed to do. In an era that had become one of scientific positivism, the place of the romantic in a theory of truth was indeed a perilous one. The division existed in philosophy between those who were tenderhearted and those who were hard-nosed, with the understanding that these were mutually exclusive. With the rise of positivism, James laments,

 

6 Metaphysics: Radical Empiricism and Pure Experience

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As is well known, in The Principles of Psychology (PP) James adopted a functional dualism, between psychology and philosophy, or thought and reality. However, his description of consciousness as selective and intentional was a “nascent attack” on the subject-object dichotomy. For several years after, James struggled with the issue of how to reject this dualistic division. His answer, tentative as it is, is contained in Essays in Radical Empiricism (ERE). For it is here that James introduces the notion of “pure experience.”

Let us commence by recalling exactly what “radical empiricism” is, as James himself verbalized it in the preface to The Meaning of Truth (MT):

Radical empiricism consists first of a postulate, next of a statement of fact, and finally of a generalized conclusion.

The postulate is that the only things that shall be debatable among philosophers shall be things definable in terms drawn from experience. . . .

The statement of fact is that the relations between things, conjunctive as well as disjunctive, are just as much matters of direct particular experience, neither more so nor less so, than the things themselves.

 

7 “Pure” versus “Impure” Experience: Examples of Pure Experience

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The question of the availability of pure experience leads directly to the issue of language and to James’s ambivalence about language. The question of the availability of pure experience also constitutes the latent content of Essays in Radical Empiricism (ERE) and A Pluralistic Universe (PU). Let us take up the issue of language first. There actually exist two different views on language in the Jamesian texts. One of these is disparaging toward language, but the second is more positive in nature.

The first position is the one most readily identified with James, and it is scattered throughout his works. In The Principles of Psychology (PP), for example, he states that

language works against our perception of the truth. We name our thoughts simply, each after its thing, as if each knew its own thing and nothing else. What each really knows is clearly the thing it is named for, with dimly perhaps a thousand other things.1

Here James argues that we take language too much for granted. We all assume that each word has one meaning and that, when the word is used in “x” number of sentences, the meaning is the same. Language so taken, he asserts, is inadequate to the substantive and transitive parts of the stream of consciousness. The sheer inadequacy of language to describe the nuances of the stream is brought out by James in PP. Having asserted that relations between things are real, both in the existent order of events and in the stream of consciousness, he continues,

 

8 Challenges to “The Will to Believe”

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Challenges to “The Will to Believe” come from two sides, the Right and the Left. The “manifest” challenge comes from the Right and has traditionally been associated with the critique of A. J. Ayer and other positivists. It suggests that James was not as logically consistent as he should have been and that he should have been clearer. Ayer’s critique is forcefully stated in The Origins of Pragmatism. It stems from his earlier work Language, Truth and Logic. The more “latent” attack comes from the Left, and it suggests that the will to believe may be more difficult to carry out than James admits.

In Language, Truth and Logic, Ayer offers a general theory of meaning that can be summed up in a few general propositions.1 First, if you know something, you can say it; the “ineffable” has no place here. Second, statements “said” are either meaningful or meaningless, and these can be clearly distinguished. Third, a meaningful statement is one capable of being classified as “true” or “false.” Fourth, there are only two types of meaningful statements, tautologies and empirically verifiable propositions. (It is the latter that Ayer is most concerned with.) Finally, any statement not classifiable as either tautological or verifiable is “gibberish,” that is, meaningless. These include religious statements, aesthetic statements, ethical statements, metaphysical statements, etc. These are all termed “emotive utterances” and are expressions of feeling—as opposed to meaningful statements. As Ayer reads James, these distinctions are present in his writing but not drawn out precisely enough. For James, according to Ayer,

 

Conclusion: Pragmatism, Death, and “The Will to Believe”

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As was seen in the previous chapters, the importance of the individual was a topic central to James’s thought. This chapter will focus on how individuals comport themselves at the end of life insofar as this can be gleaned from the text of Pragmatism (Prag) itself. My analysis begins with an observation, perhaps with a detour of sorts. The “manifest content” of Prag concerns its image as a method and as a theory of truth. Both of these are important. However, there is also a more “latent” content to Prag. The method and the theory of truth are “situated” in a more nebulous “context.” That context can be found in the first and last lectures of the text. Both of these turn to the subject of “death” as an important theme with which pragmatism must deal. “Dealing,” it may be noted, does not necessarily mean “solving.” Dealing may have to do with affirming, even if not wholly accepting or, alternatively, declaring “tragic” and incomprehensible. Any view of pragmatism as a method or “problem solver” can be rejected or at least significantly limited in power and scope by noting domains where and how it does and does not apply. In sum, this concluding chapter will focus on death (suicide) and tragedy, as these are found in Prag. These seem not to be “solvable” via the pragmatic method because they are not problems to begin with. They may be “resolvable,” that is, appropriated or rejected, but that entails utilization of “the will to believe.” Thus, we return to the theme brought forth at the outset of this volume on James, namely, the pervasiveness of “the will to believe” in his thought.

 

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