James's Will-To-Believe Doctrine

James's Will-To-Believe Doctrine

Copyright Date: 1987
Pages: 141
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  • Book Info
    James's Will-To-Believe Doctrine
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-7735-6117-5
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[viii])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [ix]-[x])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 3-8)

    Without an orthodoxy there can be no heresies, and it is arguable that there is no received view of James’s will-to-believe doctrine. In the secondary literature, one finds a rich diversity of interpretations, even if one limits the survey to fairly recent discussions of it and ignores differences that are differences in detail only. Thereis, nevertheless, an orthodox view of the doctrine and it was blessed by James himself. That view is that the doctrine is a right-to-believe one, that it is about a right, therefore, and that it is about belief. It has much to commend it. Not...

    • CHAPTER ONE The Nation Affair
      (pp. 11-16)

      “When Dr. William James gets back from his journeys I shall have two bones to pick with him.”¹ So wrote Chauncey Wright in his letter to Grace Norton of 12 July 1875. He let no grass grow under his feet. His second letter of six days later reports the deed already done. “I have carried out my purpose of giving Dr. James the two lectures I had in store for him. ”² Wright then gives Mrs Norton, not a blow by blow account, but a reasonably full report of the encounter. It would be ungenerous to say that he crows....

    • CHAPTER TWO Message from the Mountains
      (pp. 17-23)

      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 ofCritique Philosophique¹ 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....

    • CHAPTER THREE From Mountaineering to Metaphysics
      (pp. 24-30)

      The story of A.C. was not meant for climbers only. Its lesson was for all of us. In part, it was a reply to Huxley’s ethics of belief. First and foremost, however, it was a prudential justification of the subjective method, a justification of wishful thinking. The subjective method had no place, James was quick to agree, where belief is a confessor only, not a factor. It was, however, the right method in metaphysics, for metaphysical beliefs, or some of them, were self-verifying ones. That is not, on the face of it, a very promising thesis. A.C.’s belief was a...

    • CHAPTER FOUR Forced Options
      (pp. 33-39)

      “The Will to Believe” got less than rave notices. A friend called it “one tissue of ingenious sophistry from outset to end.”¹ Some critics have been even less enthusiastic. Ready to endorse “sophistry,” they have not been ready to endorse “ingenious.” In our time, one has called it “a congeries of egregious errors,”² another “an unwitting compendium of common fallacies and a manual of self-deception.”³ For the bad reception, James blamed his choice of title; he should not have used “Will.” The best choice, he concluded, would have been “The Right to Believe.”⁴ That shows he thought his essay was...

    • CHAPTER FIVE Momentous and Intellectually Undecidable Options
      (pp. 40-46)

      An option is forced, we have said, if we cannot afford to leave the question open, if we cannot afford not to decide it. That leaves two things we can afford to do. One is to decide for something, the other is to decide against it. One of these has to be eliminated if the conclusion to be drawn in not just that we must decide the option but that we must decide in favour of something. It is the rôle of James’s term “momentous” to do that job. As a forced option is one which we cannot afford not...

    • CHAPTER SIX The Religious Hypothesis
      (pp. 47-53)

      The first question is what the religious option is, and James begins with it, with a definition of religion.¹ He notes that religions vary widely and that a definition must be broad enough to cover them all. The one he gives is put in terms of what religion affirms. It is said to affirm essentially two things. The first is given more than one formulation, but the one finally settled on is the phrase “perfection is eternal.” The second is that we are better off even now if we believe that first claim.

      Some undeserved ridicule has been directed against...

    • CHAPTER SEVEN Belief and Other Things
      (pp. 54-59)

      James, as we have seen, had second thoughts about his title for “The Will to Believe.” He would have done better, he thought, if he had written “Right” rather than “Will.” Apparently, he had no second thoughts about the word “Believe.” It remained in place in the alternative formulation which he came to prefer. Nevertheless, the question whether James’s essay is really about belief is not a frivolous one. There is a case to be made that “believe,” also, is not the right word. There are, at least, two arguments which lead quickly to that conclusion. One turns on the...

    • CHAPTER EIGHT Belief and Faith
      (pp. 60-66)

      James said his essay was about belief. He said, also, that it was about faith, and used these words interchangeably. If they are not interchangeable and we have to choose between them, it may be that the better way to read his essay is to read it as an essay on faith. Faith, notoriously, is a word of many meanings. Our first question, then, is whether saying that the essay is about faith adds any new candidates to the list we already have.

      In what looks like a clear attempt at definition, James wrote as follows: “Faith means belief in...

    • CHAPTER NINE Clifford
      (pp. 69-74)

      It is widely held that Clifford’s “The Ethics of Belief” is the foil for James’s will-to-believe doctrine, that his papers on that subject are best illumined when read against the background of Clifford’s own essay.¹ The claim is not more than a half-truth and perhaps less. The reason is this. Clifford’s paper, unlike James’s one, is admirably well named. It is about ethics, about duty. It is an ought-not-to-believe doctrine and the “ought” is unquestionably moral. Further, it is about belief and belief only, not about deciding to act, not about guessing or gambling, not about taking something as an...

    • CHAPTER TEN Pascal
      (pp. 75-80)

      Pascal has not been used as the foil for James. That is a pity, for it is Pascal’s pensée that best highlights features in his essay which hardly show up at all against the background of Huxley and Clifford.

      There are several things about Pascal’s argument that have to be noticed. One is that it develops through three stages.¹ Each stage draws the same conclusion, that it would be foolish not to gamble that God exists, that betting on God’s existence is the wise bet. The first stage depends on the premise that, if we wager that God does exist,...

      (pp. 81-86)

      Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, Alexander Bain promoted an account of belief which was novel and influential. The subject was a contentious one. As Bain saw it, he was opposing a majority view which treated belief as a function of the intellect. His own view was that it was a function of the will. His treatment of belief, accordingly, comes not in that volume of his psychology calledThe Senses and the Intellect,but in the other half of it calledThe Emotions and the Will.The chapter on belief underwent revision as the book was reissued...

    • CHAPTER TWELVE Renouvier and Pragmatism
      (pp. 87-92)

      Writing to Peirce about Renouvier, James said of his will-to-believe essay, “The whole of my essay ... is cribbed from him.”¹ Writing to Renouvier, he said much the same thing rather more formally. “I sent you aNew Worldthe other day, however, with an article in it called ‘The Will to Believe’ in which (if you took the trouble to glance at it) you probably recognized how completely I am still your disciple.”² It is surprising how little these remarks have been pondered, weighed, and sifted. When they have been noted, their importance has been discounted. In part, that...

    • CHAPTER THIRTEEN Two Critics
      (pp. 93-98)

      James’s essay has never been lacking in critics. Soon after its publication, he was, he said, “in much hot water” over it,¹ and, ever since, that has continued to be true. Much comment on it, in his day and in ours also, is useful only if one has a malevolent interest in showing how far philosophical misunderstanding can go.² Some of it is highly instructive, however. Two of the more valuable critics are Dickinson Miller and C.J. Ducasse. Miller published two papers on James’s essay some forty years apart. The first one, published in 1899, James dismissed rather too lightly....

  7. Conclusion
    (pp. 101-106)

    Our study has revolved around two questions. One is whether James’s will-to-believe doctrine is aright-to-believe doctrine. The other is whether it is a right-to-believedoctrine. Orthodoxy, with support from James himself, says yes to both questions. It is clearly mistaken on the first one. What James affirmed is an obligation, not just a right, and that obligation is a prudential, not a moral one. The doctrine begins, I have argued, and continues as a foolish-not-to-believe one. In response to Huxley and Clifford, it does quickly become a foolish-not-to-believe-and-not-immoral-to-believe doctrine. The addition is certainly important; but it is not all-important,...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 107-120)
  9. Bibliography
    (pp. 121-124)
  10. Index
    (pp. 125-130)