Readings

William James (1842-1910)

  • The Will to Believe (1897)
  • In 1897, James published The Will to Believe, a collection of essays about the rationality, or reasonableness, of religious belief, a theme he had been examining throughout his life. The book's primary claim is that religious belief works much like faith in scientific inquiry because both depend upon accepting certain beliefs as true before one has any evidence. Doing so can give us the confidence we need to be able to undertake the difficult work of inquiry at all. Belief also helps us to stay focused on inquiry because we are interested in pursuing what we believe in. James criticized the notion, which predominated by the twentieth century, that inquiry must be disinterested, or objective, because he found that objectivity could lead us to be inattentive and therefore to overlook or misunderstand much of what we set out to learn.
  • What Pragmatism Means (1907)
  • In 1907, James published a short book, Pragmatism, as a concise statement of the philosophical positions he had developed over the course of his life. The book is a compilation of lectures he had delivered in Boston and New York City in an attempt to clarify his views for a general audience. He defines "truth" as "what happens to an idea": ideas become true as we see how they make sense in explaining our own lives and as they fit together with other ideas. This was very different from the idealist (or "absolute") notion that truth is a fixed idea or set of explanations that exist independent of human experience, but that shape that experience. However, truth, for James, is not simply anything we want it to be. Though he held that what is true is only what we experience, he added that we must consider the whole of our experience (and not just parts of it) when we search for what is true. So we must see whether what our experience suggests is true actually holds up in practice: "The pragmatic method in such cases is to try to interpret each [potential truth] by tracing its respective practical consequences. What difference would it practically make to anyone if this notion rather than that notion were true?...[W]e ought to be able to show some practical difference that must follow from one side or the other's being right" (see page 2). The idea that truth should explain and have consequences for how facts hold together is an empirical and more scientific approach to truth than the "absolutist" approach. James called his pragmatic method by the name "radical empiricism."