Science and Religion in the Era of William James

Science and Religion in the Era of William James

Science and Religion in the Era of William James

Science and Religion in the Era of William James


In this cultural biography, Paul Croce investigates the contexts surrounding the early intellectual development of American philosopher William James (1842-1910). Croce places the young James at the center of key scientific and religious debates in American intellectual life between the 1820s and 1870s.

Early in the nineteenth century, most Americans maintained their scientific and religious beliefs with certainty. Well before the end of the century, however, science and religion had parted company, and, despite the endurance of religious convictions and widespread confidence in science, professionals in both fields expressed belief in terms of hypotheses and probabilities rather than absolutes. Croce highlights the essential issues debated during this shift by investigating the education of James and the circle of intellectuals of which he was part. In particular, the implicit probabilism of Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection, especially as interpreted by Charles Sanders Peirce's recognition of the fallibility of knowledge, set the stage for James's reconstruction of belief based on uncertainty.

Croce is writing a second volume dealing with the intellectual development of the mature William James.


For just as necessity and search for a single all-comprehensive law was typical of the intellectual atmosphere of the forties of the last century, so probability and pluralism are the characteristics of the present state of science.

John dewey, 1939

This philosophy denies nothing of orthodoxy except its confidence.

Chauncey wright, 1867

While William James was still a young boy, Edgar Allan Poe tried to teach his contemporaries a lesson in perceiving and understanding the world around them. His character, C. Auguste Dupin, shows the unsuspecting reader of "The Purloined Letter" that sometimes the best way to hide something is to put it in an obvious spot. the Parisian police are perplexed by a deceptively simple mystery: a letter, with contents embarrassing and therefore politically potent, has been stolen; they know that a certain government minister has the letter still in his possession. But an investigation of his person and his premises has turned up no letter. the police then search in more elusive parts of his apartment, including a secret "cavity . . . [in a] piece of furniture," and "the rung[s] of every chair"; they even use "the aid of a most powerful microscope" for trace evidence, but all of this sophistication is to no avail. Dupin smiles at their exploits; the police, after all, are "persevering, ingenious, cunning, and thoroughly versed in the knowledge which their duties seem chiefly to demand."

Dupin, by contrast, thinks outside habitual channels. When first hearing . . .

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