William James in Focus: Willing to Believe

William James in Focus: Willing to Believe

William James in Focus: Willing to Believe

William James in Focus: Willing to Believe


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.


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 be
tween 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.

Going further, the will to believe has presuppositions—metaphysical presuppositions. It can function only in an unfinished universe—“wild,” James would say, “game flavored as a hawk’s wing.” It requires affirming the type of universe described by James in Essays in Radical Empiricism and A Pluralistic Universe—one where we are called on to be participants.

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