Reading: William James, “The Will to Believe” (1896), abridged version
James began this classic and challenging essay with a lengthy but necessary introduction that set the stage for his larger argument. It’s important to follow these introductory concepts in order to be able to understand his main argument. The first paragraph (of this abridged version) includes a preliminary statement of James’s main point. Playing on the Protestant notion of “justification by faith,” James said that he offered a “an essay in justification of faith, a defence of our right to adopt a believing attitude in religious matters, in spite of the fact that our merely logical intellect may not have been coerced.” (Note that he stated his thesis again in paragraphs 14, 27, and 32.) Although he called this essay “The Will to Believe,” he later wished that he had called it “The Right to Believe,” as he was essentially defending the legitimacy of religious belief in the absence of definitive evidence.
In the introductory section (up through paragraph 19), James specified that he intended for the “right to believe” to apply only in certain situations. First, in paragraphs 2-7, he defined the “genuine option” — an option that he says must be forced, living, and momentous. He proposed that his principle applied only to such genuine options, which he acknowledged would vary from person to person. (He thus started with some recognition of cultural and even personal relativism.) Second, James recognized that his principle did not apply to all areas of human life. In many scenarios, he noted, it would seem “preposterous . . . to talk of our opinions being modifiable at will.” Particularly in the realm of science, he continued, we cannot legitimately believe simply based on our preferences. (At any rate, he didn’t think that scientific questions were generally pressing enough to count as genuine options.)
The final preliminary point that James made was that human passions (by which he meant not only emotions but also simple preferences and inclinations) play a role even in the most rigorous of scientific thinking. James denied that we can prove that truth exists or that scientific research yields truth — we can only accept the pursuit of “truth” as a matter of faith, rooted in what James called “desire” (see paragraph 12). Furthermore, he rejected what he called the “absolutist way of believing in truth,” because we cannot know anything with total certainty (paragraph 15). Within this context, James saw our passions playing another important role. While some thinkers, who James called “scientific absolutists,” seemed governed primarily by their desire to “shun error” at all costs, James was defending the right of people to follow their desire to “believe truth” (paragraph 19), even if that opened them to the risk of making a mistake.
Having established this framework for making his main argument, James then turned to the key areas of human life where he thought that his principle of the “will to believe” became necessary: questions of morality, value, and religion. Science, he argued, could not provide answers to these sorts of questions. Here in the heart of the essay, James gave a few examples to try to illustrate, if not conclusively prove, his main point. (See paragraphs 25, 26, and 31.) His examples focus on “personal relations,” and perhaps the most vivid example is that of the train robbery in paragraph 26. To make a long argument short, James concluded here that “faith in a fact can help create the fact.” In a sense then, as Louis Menand put it in the Metaphysical Club, we “get a vote” in deciding what the world will be like (Menand, p. 220).
James thus described a universe in which human freedom, human belief, and human decisions really mattered. He also put forward a vision of an “intellectual republic” (paragraph 33) in which the individual “right to believe” was held sacred. In this way, he brought the concept of the right of conscience into the modern pragmatic framework.
- What was James’s main argument, and how did he support it?
- In what sense was James’s argument a reflection of pragmatism?
- What position did James seem to be taking regarding science?
- What problems or weaknesses can you see with James’s argument?