William James, “The Will to Believe”

The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy was a collection of James’ lectures on religion and some other issues on philosophy in the later 1890s.  All of these essays have interesting items to teach us and I will first summarize some of his theses as best as I can in a few sentences each before commenting on what I think they can teach us when taken as a ten-course meal.  See my other posts on James in the archives on January 14 and January 15.

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“The Will to Believe” (1896): The argument of this essay is that it would be irrational to reject religious beliefs (and for James, experiences) since the validity of these claims and experiences cannot be denied or defended with scientific certainty.  “We have the right to believe at our own risk any hypothesis that is live enough to tempt our will.”  (477)  Now for many, this or that religious belief will be dead and useless.  But when believes can be real, and reinforced with experiences, they should be embraced.  This clearly does not apply to only religious claims.  Indeed, most religious claims are dead for most of us.  For me, it is the goodness of humanity and our potential for solidarity that holds the most power – is the most live – now.  This is a powerful argument and should not be used to justify the indoctrination of “dead” beliefs, but rather a celebration of experiences, ideas, and beliefs, which may in the end be impossible to support with scientific certainty.  But love, friendship, and joy all exist in that realm.

“Is Life Worth Living” (1895): This argument is a corollary to “The Will to Believe” as well as a pragmatic argument against suicide.  Life’s purpose is one of those beliefs that cannot be scientifically justified.  Again, this could be a defense of theistic claims, but I do not see James’ limiting life’s meaning to God’s purpose.  “If this life be not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is not better than a game of private theatricals from which one may withdraw at will.  But it feels like a real fight – as if there were something really wild in the universe which we, with all our idealities and faithfulness, are needed to redeem.” (502)

“The Sentiment of Rationality” (1880): Although presented long before “The Will to Believe” it is rightfully placed near it in this volume.  There is a poverty to strict rationality.  It of course discounts subjective experiences, such as those of the “more mystical minds.”  Moral questions are clouded by strict rationality or evolutionary logic.  Morality is experienced subjectively and on some level escapes rational consideration.  Furthermore, rationality will never be agreed to by all.  Even two “rational” thinkers will disagree.  Given these facts, forgoing certainty seems a normal part of life and should be accepted as part of our considerations of truth.

“Reflex Action and Theism” (1881): Here, the position James makes is that all philosophical inquiry and our entire psychological mentality are bound by experience.  “Philosophies, whether expressed in sonnets or systems, all must wear this form.  The thinker starts from some experience of the practical world, and asks its meaning.”  He contrasts philosophy with a voyage.  Theism exists in some of these states of consciousnesses, produced most strongly in mystical experiences.

“The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life” (1891) Moral systems cannot be worked out in advance, James suggests.  Instead they are lived and contingent.  (Part of this contingency is the waiting we need to endure until the religious questions are understood.  Until, for instance, we know there is or is not an afterlife, or know that the Ten Commandments are or are not God’s will, we cannot really have a clear answer to all moral questions.)  Given this, particularly the impossibility of perfect clarity on ethical questions he states: “It is not in heaven, neither is it beyond the sea; but the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it.” (617)

“Great Men and Their Environment” (1880): This essay attempts to find some common ground between evolutionary environmentalism (slow change) and the rather rapid historical change we experience.  As I understand it, James is positing a evolutionary theory of greatness in respect to historical times.  Some mentalities, ideas, and geniuses are adapted to certain times producing greatness.  “The mutations of societies, them, from generations to generation, are in the main due directly or indirectly to the acts or the examples of individuals whose genius was so adapted to the receptivities of the moment, or whose accidental position of authority was so critical that they became ferments, initiators of movement, setters of precedent or fashion, cenetres of corruption, or destroyers of other persons, whose grist, had they had a free play, would have led society in another direction.” (626)

These are the essays that I find most apt for our purposes.  Without exception these essays promote an active engagement with the world as individuals, as moral agents, and as believers.  At criticism is the strict intellectualism.  In this sentiment I find much common ground with James.  For your use, here is Wolfi Landstreicher (Against the Logic of Submission) on that same question.

I think it would be limiting to look at James’ The Will to Believe purely through the lens of religious dogmas.  James often identifies other attitudes (pessimism, optimism, morality) as fundamentally religious because they cannot be scientifically determined.  While I would not use that phrase because of my personal relationship with religions and its evolution over the years, I find it often necessary to take a “Leap of Faith” in many of parts of life.  Revolutionaries need no small amount of faith in order to act.  And action itself, reinforces our belief in the visions we make real.
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The remainder of this volume of James’ earlier writings includes his “Talks to Teachers on Psychology and the Students on Some of Life’s Ideals” and some essays. The lectures to teachers have some interesting comments on teaching in what we would now call a “child-centered” way, by understanding how children learn. Ultimately, he is still part of the effort to dispense learning most effectively to children, rather than encourage children to teach themselves and facilitate autonomous learning (what we might now call “unschooling.”) His lectures to “students” (really college students) covered his views on the meaning of life, the poverty of intellectual absolutism, the need for diversity of perspectives in ideas, and the necessity of the relaxation of the tensions of modern American society (he points out the problem of moral anxiety as particularly acute).

With this, I will move on from William James, with the promise to explore his later writings later in this blog.

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