William James (1842–1910) was an American philosopher and psychologist, born in New York City and educated at Harvard, the brother of Henry James, the novelist. James struggled through much of his life with ill heath. He studied science, medicine, and philosophy in France and Germany, earning a medical degree from Harvard in 1869, where he taught as a psychology instructor. In 1890 he published Principles of Psychology, a compendious textbook in experimental psychology. But his interests were more philosophical than scientific, so eventually he moved into the philosophy department at Harvard, where he taught for many years. Throughout his early years he was assailed by doubts over freedom of the will and the existence of God, and developed the philosophy of pragmatism, in part as a response to these difficulties. Pragmatism originated with James's friend Charles Peirce (Chapter 30) but underwent crucial changes and popularization in the hands of James. He wrote: “The whole function of philosophy ought to be to find out what definite difference it will make to you and me, at definite instants of our life, if this world-formula or that world-formula be the true one.”
His principal works are The Will to Believe (1897), reprinted below; The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902); Pragmatism, A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (1907), from which a selection is taken; and Essays in Radical Empiricism (1912).
In our first reading, The Will to Believe, James argues that life would be greatly impoverished if we confined our beliefs to such a Scrooge-like epistemology as W. K. Clifford proposes: “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” In everyday life, where the evidence for important propositions is often unclear, we must live by faith or cease to act at all. While we may not make leaps of faith just anywhere, sometimes practical considerations force us to make a decision regarding propositions which do not have their true value written on their faces. “Belief” is defined as a live, momentous, optional hypothesis, on which we cannot avoid a decision, for not to choose is, in effect, to choose against the hypothesis. James claims that religion may be such an optional hypothesis for many people, and where it is, the individual has the right to believe the better story rather than the worse. To do so, one must will to believe what the evidence alone is inadequate to support.
The second reading is from Pragmatism. After a brief introduction to Pragmatism by way of a fascinating example of resolving a dispute about the correct characterization of a squirrel's behavior, James sets forth his view of truth. He holds that truth is dynamic rather that static and is to be defined in terms of beliefs that are useful or satisfying. Unlike the “intellectualists” (James's characterization of the traditional static approaches to the question of truth, viz., the correspondence theorists) truth is in process, still becoming, and changing. Yesterday's truth is today's falsehood, and today's truth is tomorrow's half-truth. What really matters is what you can do with an idea, what difference it makes to your life,