About the Author
The essays included in this volume, The Will to Believe and Human Immortality, are classic attempts to address fundamental concerns of religious faith from a philosophical, though not necessarily systematic, perspective. Written at the end of the nineteenth century, they set the tone for a strand of American philosophy that responds to science generally and
William James lived a life that embodied much of what is distinctive in American philosophy. Born in
William James had artistic talent, and biographers have made good use of this in their analyses of his sketchbooks. But he abandoned the study of art in 1861, at least partly under pressure from his father, in favor of medicine. The choice of medicine speaks volumes. Both art and “pure” science were considered somewhat romantic retreats from a real world in which one had to make a living. Medicine provided a means to do just that, a socially sanctioned space in which to study science without retreating from the “real” world of business and commerce. But medical training was notoriously haphazard, and James had to make his own way through what was essentially vocational training to scientific discipline. His attitude toward the practice of medicine reflects a contradiction in the American understanding of art and science. Both are treated with some suspicion, as merely theoretical, until they are applied in practice; but, once they are applied, they become impure, tainted by extraneous concerns and ulterior motives. James’ struggle to combine medical training with “pure” scientific research caused him to join the 1865 Amazon expedition led by Louis Agassiz, mounted at least in part to bolster Aggasiz’s opposition to the influence of Darwinian theory at Harvard. James contracted a mild form of smallpox on this expedition but recovered and collected specimens for the zoological museum at Harvard. He returned to medical school in 1866 and suffered a variety of physical symptoms almost certainly related to depression. His health problems sent him back to Europe, where he studied physiology, philosophy, and psychology in
“The Will to Believe” (first published in 1897) may be the best known of James’ works, and it is almost certainly the most criticized. It met with generally negative reviews from the beginning, and professional philosophers continue to criticize it as a seriously flawed argument. It began as an oral text, delivered as an address to the Philosophical Clubs of Yale and Brown Universities, and was intended as a defense of the legitimacy of religious faith (not, it is important to keep in mind, as a defense of the validity of such faith). James later wrote that the choice of title was an unfortunate one and suggested that it should have been called “The Right to Believe.” As James himself saw it, the argument was for the legitimacy of choosing to believe something that could not be rationally verified. But, as has been pointed out many times, his argument for the legitimacy of such a choice shades into an argument for its desirability. James responds to the often corrosive effect of rationality on religious faith by arguing that it is most rational to choose faith. He responds to William Clifford’s 1877 “Ethics of Belief,” which insisted that it is immoral to believe something that cannot be rationally substantiated, and he does it with an eye on the audience for which the lecture is prepared. In James’ view, the “American” audience at large needed encouragement to be properly critical of received dogma, and the task of the public intellectual in addressing such an audience would be to provoke a critical, questioning response. But for the academic audience, the problem is different. A critical, questioning response is expected of such an audience; so the task James sets for himself is to defend belief against criticism that is, paradoxically, a matter of faith for his academic audience. For James, the most important task of the philosopher is to criticize the given, the taken-for-granted; and this puts him in the quintessentially “American” tradition, as Cornel West has noted, of Emerson and Thoreau--a tradition West has dubbed “prophetic pragmatism.” It also highlights the experimental and occasional character of philosophy, which is context-sensitive in practice. This anticipates much of what would later become central to James’ version of pragmatism.
It is, as James explicitly states, a sermon--not a sermon on justification by faith but a sermon in justification of faith. This is a key to understanding James (especially because of the conflation of faith and belief, which inclines faith toward the kind of wager made famous in the seventeenth century by Blaise Pascal)--but also, more generally, to understanding “American” philosophy, a practice one is as likely to encounter in a sermon as in a philosophy classroom or text. This may also be a key to understanding why Peirce, who originated pragmatism and coined its name, felt compelled to rename it “pragmaticism” (thus rendering his child so ugly, he said, that there would be no danger of its being kidnapped) to distinguish his practice from that of James. This is not the place for a full treatment of the distinction, but it highlights James’ tilt away from system and away from the “coercive” sphere of reason. While fully respecting that sphere, he remained convinced that much of human existence--and much of what matters most in human existence--lies outside it. Philosophy, he believed, could legitimately illuminate the outside.
Much of “The Will to Believe” is a ground-clearing operation. (In part eight of this ten-part essay, James refers to all that has gone before as “preliminary.”) This is indicative of the extent to which the argument is against a “received” outlook. In this case, the challenge is to break down walls erected between science and religion as a first step in demonstrating that the two are not necessarily in conflict. James does this by way of an important discussion of hypotheses, which he understands as “anything that may be proposed to our belief.” James maintains that such proposals may be alive or dead, a distinction that depends almost entirely on the context of the one to whom the hypothesis is proposed. This is an important aspect of American philosophy. Changing context may change the status of an hypothesis, and “
The illustration James employs to make the distinction is timely. While he dismissed the hypothesis that we should “believe in the Mahdi” as “dead” in an American context, the transformation of the religious landscape in the
It is perhaps most important that, in the end, James’ argument is a call for tolerance. Some things, he maintains, are subject to reason and may be decided with certainty: Experimental proof may be forthcoming. But religious faith is not such a thing. This does not make it irrelevant, and it does not render the choice it involves dead. That it cannot be rationally decided is not an argument against it. It is an argument for the inclusion of passion in making and assessing it, and this leads James to a pluralism that tolerates a range of choices in matters that cannot be resolved by reason alone.
One of the most interesting questions “American” philosophy has posed, particularly in the kind of pragmatism James proposed, is the extent of that range. Which choices can be resolved by reason and are therefore matters of necessity? In the United States, that question has often haunted religious debates and debates about matters (including economics) held with religious fervor. James’ articulation of the expanse in which passion, not reason, governs will can make an important contribution to the civility of our debates.
When James published “The Will to Believe” in 1897, he combined it with nine other essays in “popular philosophy,” three of which explicitly defended the legitimacy of religious faith. A fourth took up the realm of psychical research--again defending as legitimate what many self-proclaimed rationalists were inclined to dismiss out of hand as entirely illegitimate. The collection is a good introduction to a characteristic rhythm of “American” philosophy, which has argued for an expansion of the legitimate field of philosophy beyond what is strictly rational while at the same time developing an approach in which reason is understood as experimental (if not always strictly empirical), pragmatic, and eclectic. Expanding the field involved James in careful exploration of relationships between reason and passion--equally important for the subsequent development of psychology and philosophy. He consistently embraced a pluralism that defied System and demanded tolerance of considerable difference on fundamental questions that could not be rationally decided. Much of his work in this “popular” collection seems intended to push back necessity and expand freedom while defining a rational inquiry that could move between the two territories and shed light on both. It is worth noting that this is related to Kant’s project--in spite of James’ dislike of Kant--and that it paves the way for Dewey. If freedom is the matter of ethics, as Kant claimed, expanding the realm of freedom expands the realm of ethics and ensures an important place for it in psychology as well as philosophy, a “place” defined in a characteristically pragmatic fashion as the practice of freedom.
“Human Immortality: Two Supposed Objections to the Doctrine,” delivered as the Ingersoll Lecture at Harvard in 1898, is another occasional piece; and it again demonstrates the play of rational inquiry across empirical and speculative discourse. It demonstrates how James turned philosophy to apologetic ends without making it subordinate to religious dogma. While he asserts that “immortality is one of the great spiritual needs” of humankind, he does not attempt to turn philosophy or science into tools for a rational demonstration of its existence. Instead, he turns the rational discourse of philosophy to the task of demonstrating that it is legitimate to believe in immortality to satisfy a spiritual need because, though science does not prove it (in which case one would not believe but know), it also does not exclude its possibility. In making his case, James lays out a theory of consciousness that has been criticized as pantheist. While he denies the charge, the frequency with which it has been made by readers competent to make it is a signal of the close interplay between an almost pantheistic sensibility of the relationship between human beings and the world we inhabit and an insistence on the personal identity of each human consciousness that has been evident in pragmatist and process traditions that shaped philosophy in the United States throughout the twentieth century and continue their influence into the twenty-first.
While acknowledging that “thought is a function of the brain,” James distinguishes three kinds of function--productive, permissive, and transmissive--and considers the last of the three to be the most relevant for understanding that truism of physiological psychology. His point is to argue that what can be asserted of thought and the brain with scientific certainty does not exclude the possibility of immortality. What is not excluded is permitted. It is the association of the brain with a transmissive function that leads to the charge of pantheism, but James argues in his preface to the second edition of the essay that there is no necessary reason why the larger consciousness transmitted through the brain should be singular. This is related to the second objection he deals with in the essay, the assertion that the plurality required if all life is immortal would be humanly inconceivable. James’ response, simply, is that our inability to conceive it demonstrates the limitations of our conceptual ability--not that it does not (or cannot) exist. Content aside, the structure of James’ argument is most instructive. He does not expect science to “prove” matters of religious belief. Instead, he makes the more modest claim that, in matters of religion, what is not disproven by science may be legitimately believed.
James’ writing remains relevant as a guide to reasoned discourse about matters of passionate concern and as a corrective to the tendency to impose particular visions globally. Here we see one of the dominant figures of American thought at work on the particular, embracing plurality with tolerance, and constructing a rational discourse that does not flatten a complex world into simple uniformity. These essays can still “break up and ventilate” faiths too easily formed, too tightly held, whether those “faiths” come in the form of academic, religious, or other dogmas. If that admits a northwest wind that can blow even a fraction of our “sickness and barbarism” away, a new generation of readers should find the breeze most refreshing.
Steven Schroeder is a poet and philosopher who divides his time between Chicago and Shenzhen, China, where he teaches American Philosophy, Peace Studies, and Poetry at Shenzhen University.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews