James's Will-To-Believe Doctrine: A Heretical View

James's Will-To-Believe Doctrine: A Heretical View

James's Will-To-Believe Doctrine: A Heretical View

James's Will-To-Believe Doctrine: A Heretical View

Synopsis

In 1896 William James published an essay entitled The Will to Believe, in which he defended the legitimacy of religious faith against the attacks of such champions of scientific method as W. K. Clifford and Thomas Huxley. James's work quickly became one of the most important writings in the philosophy of religious belief. James Wernham analyses James's arguments, discusses his relation to Pascal and Renouvier, and considers the interpretations, and misinterpretations, of James's major critics. Wernham shows convincingly that James was unaware of many destructive ambiguitities in his own doctrines and arguments, although clear and consistent in his view that our obligation to believe in theism is not a moral but a prudential obligation -- a foolish-not-to-believe doctrine, rather than a not-immoral-to-believe one. Wernham also shows that the doctrine is best read as affirming the wisdom of gambling that God exists, a notion which James failed to distinguish from believing and which, among other things, he explicitly identified with faith. James's pragmatism, a theory concerning the meaning of truth, is shown to be quite distinct from the doctrine of The Will to Believe. In concentrating on a careful analysis of this doctrine of the will-to-believe, Wernham not only makes a major contribution to understanding James's philosophy, but also clarifies issues in the philosophy of religion and in the analysis of belief and faith.

Excerpt

Message from the
Mountains

Late in 1877 James sent off to France an expanded exposition of his ought-to-believe doctrine.He had reason to anticipate a good reception for it, and he was not disappointed. The editor of Critique Philosophique was enthusiastic about the new work.It was, he said, a very remarkable paper, consonant — as James himself had more than hinted — with views espoused by the journal, but fresh and original in its presentation.He did, indeed, concede that readers might have reservations here or there, or need for clarification, but, as far as he was concerned, the paper was a winner. Written by James in French, it was published in 1878, after some polishing by Renouvier, as "Quelques Considérations sur la Méthode Subjective." Had Wright been still alive, he would certainly have echoed the comment about reservations and the need for clarification.He would not, one suspects, have echoed the note of enthusiasm. Wright had died suddenly in 1875. In the Nation, James paid him an elegant, moving, and affectionate tribute, recognizing in him "a character of which his friends feel more than ever now the elevation and the rarity." It was not all eulogy, however. "Never in a human head was contemplation more separated from desire." That comment was meant critically, although Wright would not have taken it so.It is James's case against that separation of head and heart that is the burden of his paper on the subjective method.

Wright's death was not the only notable event to have occurred in the interval. The moral challenge had been sounded with a veritable blast of trumpets. In January of 1877,Clifford "The Ethics of Belief " had been published in Contemporary Review. Its central thesis is the moral claim that "it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence." In the spring of the same year, Huxley had raised the level of stridency, condemning, not just as wrong but as the lowest depths of immorality, believing, because of the utility of so doing, what one has no ground at all for believing.It is possible that James did . . .

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