William James on the Courage to Believe

William James on the Courage to Believe

William James on the Courage to Believe

William James on the Courage to Believe

Excerpt

It is sometimes hard to realize that William James's lecture on "The Will to Believe" must actually date from nearly ninety years ago, the spirit animating its every line is so unquenchably youthful; we almost fancy we can hear James delivering it. And its appeal to young philosophical minds seems never to grow old.

For nearly twenty years now, I have used it (along with others) as a text for introductory courses in philosophy, and never cease to marvel at its power. For James himself, when he gave it as a lecture, it represented an occasion to have his "say about the deepest reasons of the universe," and to say that say with the fullest human resources at his command. Youthful minds, more haunted by those cosmic questions than we often give them credit for, and at the same time so responsive to the broad humanity, not merely the braininess, of thinkers who address them, delight in James as in a kindred spirit; they find it hard to believe he ever grew a gray hair.

But professional philosophers of every stamp have equally succumbed to "The Will to Believe." Once read, it does not admit of being easily left aside: it bothers the mind and heart somewhat as Plato's Symposium, Augustine's Confessions, and Pascal's Pensées do. Its provocative power has stimulated adverse criticisms, some of them fierce, as well as equally impassioned essays in defense; it will not let us rest. Philosophers naturally come at an essay of this sort with their own preoccupations, priorities, and methodological suppositions; it is a rare essay, though, that can respond to such a varied lot of thinkers by providing such chewy grist for each of their mills.

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