William James.

Will to believe and other essays in popular philosophy online

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WILLIAM JAMES, M.D., Ph. et Litt.D., LL.D.

Professor of Psychology in Harvard University.


York : Henry Holt & Co. 1890.

Henry Holt & Co. 1892.

Works edited by Professor James :

troduction by the Editor, izmo. Boston : Houghton,
Mifflin, & Co. 1885.

I2mo. New York : Henry Holt & Co. 1887.





I8 97

Copyright, 1896,

First Edition, February, 1897
Reprinted, May, 1897



My Old Friend,

To whose philosophic comradeship in old times

and to whose writings in more recent years

I owe more incitement and help than

I can express or repay.


AT most of our American Colleges there are Clubs
formed by the students devoted to particular
branches of learning ; and these clubs have the laud-
able custom of inviting once or twice a year some
maturer scholar to address them, the occasion often
being made a public one. I have from time to time
accepted such invitations, and afterwards had my dis-
course printed in one or other of the Reviews. It
has seemed to me that these addresses might now be
worthy of collection in a volume, as they shed explana-
tory light upon each other, and taken together express
a tolerably definite philosophic attitude in a very un-
technical way.

Were I obliged to give a short name to the attitude
in question, I should call it that of radical empiri-
cism, in spite of the fact that such brief nicknames
are nowhere more misleading than in philosophy.
I say 'empiricism,' because it is contented to regard its
most assured conclusions concerning matters of fact
as hypotheses liable to modification in the course of
future experience ; and I say ' radical,' because it treats
the doctrine of monism itself as an hypothesis, and,

viii Preface.

unlike so much of the half-way empiricism that is
current under the name of positivism or agnosticism
or scientific naturalism, it does not dogmatically af-
firm monism as something with which all experience
has got to square. The difference between monism
and pluralism is perhaps the most pregnant of all the
differences in philosophy. Primd facie the world is
a pluralism ; as we find it, its unity seems to be that
of any collection ; and our higher thinking consists
chiefly of an effort to redeem it from that first crude
form. Postulating more unity than the first experi-
ences yield, we also discover more. But absolute unity,
in spite of brilliant dashes in its direction, still remains
undiscovered, still remains a Grenzbegriff. " Ever not
quite " must be the rationalistic philosopher's last con-
fession concerning it. After all that reason can do
has been done, there still remains the opacity of the
finite facts as merely given, with most of their pecu-
liarities mutually unmediated and unexplained. To
the very last, there are the various ' points of view '
which the philosopher must distinguish in discussing
the world ; and what is inwardly clear from one point
remains a bare externality and datum to the other.
The negative, the alogical, is never wholly banished.
Something "call it fate, chance, freedom, sponta-
neity, the devil, what you will " is still wrong and
other and outside and unincluded, from your point of
view, even though you be the greatest of philosophers.
Something is always mere fact and givenncss ; and
there may be in the whole universe no one point of
view extant from which this would not be found to
be the case. " Reason," as a gifted writer says, " is

Preface. ix

but one item in the mystery ; and behind the proud-
est consciousness that ever reigned, reason and won-
der blushed face to face. The inevitable stales, while
doubt and hope are sisters. Not unfortunately the
universe is wild, game-flavored as a hawk's wing.
Nature is miracle all ; the same returns not save to
bring the different. The slow round of the engrav-
er's lathe gains but the breadth of a hair, but the
difference is distributed back over the whole curve,
never an instant true, ever not quite." 1

This is pluralism, somewhat rhapsodically ex-
pressed. He who takes for his hypothesis the no-
tion that it is the permanent form of the world is
what I call a radical empiricist. For him the crudity
of experience remains an eternal element thereof.
There is no possible point of view from which the
world can appear an absolutely single fact. Real pos-
sibilities, real indeterminations, real beginnings, real
ends, real evil, real crises, catastrophes, and escapes,
a real God, and a real moral life, just as common-
sense conceives these things, may remain in empiri-
cism as conceptions which that philosophy gives up
the attempt either to ' overcome ' or to reinterpret in
monistic form.

Many of my professionally trained confreres will
smile at the irrationalism of this view, and at the
artlessness of my essays in point of technical form.
But they should be taken as illustrations of the radi-
cally empiricist attitude rather than as argumenta-
tions for its validity. That admits meanwhile of be-

1 B. P. Blood : The Flaw in Supremacy : Published by the Author,
Amsterdam, N. Y., 1893.

x Preface.

ing argued in as technical a shape as any one can
desire, and possibly I may be spared to do later a
share of that work. Meanwhile these essays seem
to light up with a certain dramatic reality the atti-
tude itself, and make it visible alongside of the higher
and lower dogmatisms between which in the pages of
philosophic history it has generally remained eclipsed
from sight.

The first four essays are largely concerned with
defending the legitimacy of religious faith. To some
rationalizing readers such advocacy will seem a sad
misuse of one's professional position. Mankind, they
will say, is only too prone to follow faith unreason-
ingly, and needs no preaching nor encouragement in
that direction. I quite agree that what mankind at
large most lacks is criticism and caution, not faith.
Its cardinal weakness is to let belief follow recklessly
upon lively conception, especially when the conception
has instinctive liking at its back. I admit, then, that
were I addressing the Salvation Army or a miscella-
neous popular crowd it would be a misuse of oppor-
tunity to preach the liberty of believing as I have in
these pages preached it. What such audiences most
need is that their faiths should be broken up and ven-
tilated, that the northwest wind of science should get
into them and blow their sickliness and barbarism
away. But academic audiences, fed already on sci-
ence, have a very different need. Paralysis of their
native capacity for faith and timorous abulia in the
religious field are their special forms of mental weak-
ness, brought about by the notion, carefully instilled,
that there is something called scientific evidence by

Preface. xi

waiting upon which they shall escape all danger of
shipwreck in regard to truth. But there is really no
scientific or other method by which men can steer
safely between the opposite dangers of believing too
little or of believing too much. To face such dangers
is apparently our duty, and to hit the right channel
between them is the measure of our wisdom as men.
It does not follow, because recklessness may be a
vice in soldiers, that courage ought never to be
preached to them. What should be preached is
courage weighted with responsibility, such courage
as the Nelsons and VVashingtons never failed to show
after they had taken everything into account that
might tell against their success, and made every pro-
vision to minimize disaster in case they met defeat.
I do not think that any one can accuse me of preach-
ing reckless faith. I have preached the right of the
individual to indulge his personal faith at his personal
risk. I have discussed the kinds of risk ; I have con-
tended that none of us escape all of them ; and I
have only pleaded that it is better to face them open-
eyed than to act as if we did not know them to be
there. *

After all, though, you will say, Why such an ado
about a matter concerning which, however we may
theoretically differ, we all practically agree? In this
age of toleration, no scientist will ever try actively to
interfere with our religious faith, provided we enjoy
it quietly with our friends and do not make a pub-
lic nuisance of it in the market-place. But it is just
on this matter of the market-place that I think the
utility of such essays as mine may turn. If reli-

xii Preface.

gious hypotheses about the universe be in order at
all, then the active faiths of individuals in them,
freely expressing themselves in life, are the experi-
mental tests by which they are verified, and the only
means by which their truth or falsehood can be
wrought out. The truest scientific hypothesis is that
which, as we say, ' works ' best ; and it can be no
otherwise with religious hypotheses. Religious his-
tory proves that one hypothesis after another has
worked ill, has crumbled at contact with a widening
knowledge of the world, and has lapsed from the
minds of men. Some articles of faith, however,
have maintained themselves through every vicissi-
tude, and possess even more vitality to-day than ever
before : it is for the ' science of religions ' to tell us
just which hypotheses these are. Meanwhile the free-
est competition of the various faiths with one another,
and their openest application to life by their several
champions, are the most favorable conditions under
which the survival of the fittest can proceed. They
ought therefore not to lie hid each under its bushel,
indulged-in quietly with friends. They ought to live
in publicity, vying with each other ; and it seems to
me that (the regime of tolerance once granted, and
a fair field shown) the scientist has nothing to fear for
his own interests from the liveliest possible state of
fermentation in the religious world of his time. Those
faiths will best stand the test which adopt also his hy-
potheses, and make them integral elements of their
own. He should welcome therefore every species of
religious agitation and discussion, so long as he is will-
ing to allow that some religious hypothesis may be

Preface. xiii

true. Of course there are plenty of scientists who would
deny that dogmatically, maintaining that science has
already ruled all possible religious hypotheses out of
court. Such scientists ought, I agree, to aim at im-
posing privacy on religious faiths, the public mani-
festation of which could only be a nuisance in their
eyes. With all such scientists, as well as with their
allies outside of science, my quarrel openly lies ; and
I hope that my book may do something to persuade
the reader of their crudity, and range him on my side.
Religious fermentation is always a symptom of the in-
tellectual vigor of a society ; and it is only when they
forget that they are hypotheses and put on rational-
istic and authoritative pretensions, that our faiths do
harm. The most interesting and valuable things about
a man are his ideals and over-beliefs. The same is
true of nations and historic epochs ; and the excesses
of which the particular individuals and epochs are
guilty are compensated in the total, and become pro-
fitable to mankind in the long run.

The essay ' On some Hegelisms ' doubtless needs
an apology for the superficiality with which it treats a
serious subject. It was written as a squib, to be read
in a college-seminary in Hegel's logic, several of whose
members, mature men, were devout champions of the
dialectical method. My blows therefore were aimed
almost entirely at that. I reprint the paper here (albeit
with some misgivings), partly because I believe the
dialectical method to be wholly abominable when
worked by concepts alone, and partly because the
essay casts some positive light on the pluralist-em-
piricist point of view.

xiv Preface.

The paper on Psychical Research is added to the
volume for convenience and utility. Attracted to this
study some years ago by my love of sportsmanlike fair
play in science, I have seen enough to convince me
of its great importance, and I wish to gain for it what
interest I can. The American Branch of the Society
is in need of more support, and if my article draws
some new associates thereto, it will have served its

Apology is also needed for the repetition of the
same passage in two essays (pp. 59-61 and 96-7,
100-1). My excuse is that one cannot always ex-
press the same thought in two ways that seem equally
forcible, so one has to copy one's former words.

The Crillon-quotation on page 62 is due to Mr.
W. M. Salter (who employed it in a similar manner
in the ' Index' for August 24, 1882), and the dream-
metaphor on p. 1 74 is a reminiscence from some novel
of George Sand's I forget which read by me thirty
years ago.

Finally, the revision of the essays has consisted
almost entirely in excisions. Probably less than a
page and a half in all of new matter has been added.


December, 1896.




Hypotheses and options, I. Pascal's wager, 5. Clifford's
veto, 8. Psychological causes of belief, 9. Thesis of the
Essay, n. Empiricism and absolutism, 12. Objective certi-
tude and its unattainability, 13. Two different sorts of risks in
believing, 17. Some risk unavoidable, 19. Faith may bring
forth its own verification, 22. Logical conditions of religious
belief, 25.


Temperamental Optimism and Pessimism, 33. How reconcile
with life one bent on suicide ? 38. Religious melancholy and its
cure, 39. Decay of Natural Theology, 43. Instinctive antidotes
to pessimism, 46. Religion involves belief in an unseen exten-
sion of the world, 51. Scientific positivism, 52. Doubt actuates
conduct as much as belief does, 54. To deny certain faiths is
logically absurd, for they make their objects true, 56. Conclu-
sion, Gi.


Rationality means fluent thinking, 63. Simplification, 65.
Clearness, 66. Their antagonism, 66. Inadequacy of the ab-
stract, 68. The thought of nonentity, 71. Mysticism, 74. Pure
theory cannot banish wonder, 75. The passage to practice may
restore the feeling of rationality, 75. Familiarity and expect-
ancy, 76. ' Substance,' 80. A rational world must appear con-

xvi Contents.

gruous with our powers, 82. But these differ from man to
man, 88. Faith is one of them, 90. Inseparable from doubt, 95.
May verify itself, 96. Its role in ethics, 98. Optimism and pes-
simism, 101. Is this a moral universe ? what does the problem
mean ? 103. Anaesthesia versus energy, 107. Active assumption
necessary, 107. Conclusion, no.


Prestige of Physiology, 112. Plan of neural action, 113. God
the mind's adequate object, 116. Contrast between world as
perceived and as conceived, 118. God, 120. The mind's three
departments, 123. Science due to a subjective demand, 129.
Theism a mean between two extremes, 134. Gnosticism, 137.
No intellection except for practical ends, 140. Conclusion, 142.


Philosophies seek a rational world, 146. Determinism and
Indeterminism defined, 149. Both are postulates of ration-
ality, 152. Objections to chance considered, 153. Determinism
involves pessimism, 159. Escape via Subjectivism, 164. Sub-
jectivism leads to corruption, 170. A world with chance in it is
morally the less irrational alternative, 176. Chance not incom-
patible with an ultimate Providence, 180.


The moral philosopher postulates a unified system, 185. Ori-
gin of moral judgments, 185. Goods and ills are created by
judgments, 189. Obligations are created by demands, 192. The
conflict of ideals, 198. Its solution, 205. Impossibility of an
abstract system of Ethics, 208. The easy-going and the strenu-
ous mood, 211. Connection between Ethics and Religion, 212.


Solidarity of causes in the world, 216. The human mind ab-
stracts in order to explain, 219. Different cycles of operation in
Nature, 220. Darwin's distinction between causes that produce
and causes that preserve a variation, 221. Physiological causes
produce, the environment only adopts or preserves, great men,
225. When adopted they become social ferments, 226. Messrs.

Contents. xvii

Spencer and Allen criticised, 232. Messrs. Wallace and Gry-
zanowski quoted, 239. The laws of history, 244. Mental evo-
lution, 245. Analogy between original ideas and Darwin's
accidental variations, 247. Criticism of Spencer's views, 251.


Small differences may be important, 256. Individual differ-
ences are important because they are the causes of social
change, 259. Hero-worship justified, 261.


The world appears as a pluralism, 264. Elements of unity in
the pluralism, 268. Hegel's excessive claims, 272. He makes of
negation a bond of union, 273. The principle of totality, 277.
Monism and pluralism, 279. The fallacy of accident in Hegel,
280. The good and the bad infinite, 284. Negation, 286. Con-
clusion, 292. Note on the Anaesthetic revelation, 294.


The unclassified residuum, 299. The Society for Psychical
Research and its history, 303. Thought-transference, 308.
Gurney's work, 309. The census of hallucinations, 312. Me-
diumship, 313. The 'subliminal self,' 315. ' Science ' and her
counter-presumptions, 317. The scientific character of Mr.
Myers's work, 320. The mechanical-impersonal view of life
versus the personal-romantic view, 324.

INDEX 3 2 9





IN the recently published Life by Leslie Stephen of
his brother, Fitz-James, there is an account of a
school to which the latter went when he was a boy.
The teacher, a certain Mr. Guest, used to converse
with his pupils in this wise : " Gurney, what is the
difference between justification and sanctification ?
Stephen, prove the omnipotence of God ! " etc. In
the midst of our Harvard freethinking and indiffer-
ence we are prone to imagine that here at your good
old orthodox College conversation continues to be
somewhat upon this order; and to show you that
we at Harvard have not lost all interest in these vital
subjects, I have brought with me to-night something
like a sermon on justification by faith to read to you,
I mean 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

1 An Address to the Philosophical Clubs of Yale and Brown
Universities. Published in the New World, June, 1896.


2 Essays in Popular Philosophy.

intellect may not have been coerced. ' The Will to
Believe,' accordingly, is the title of my paper.

I have long defended to my own students the law-
fulness of voluntarily adopted faith ; but as soon as
they have got well imbued with the logical spirit,
they have as a rule refused to admit my contention
to be lawful philosophically, even though in point
of fact they were personally all the time chock-full
of some faith or other themselves. I am all the
while, however, so profoundly convinced that my
own position is correct, that your invitation has
seemed to me a good occasion to make my state-
ments more clear. Perhaps your minds will be more
open than those with which I have hitherto had to
deal. I will be as little technical as I can, though
I must begin by setting up some technical distinc-
tions that will help us in the end.


Let us give the name of hypothesis to anything that
may be proposed to our belief; and just as the elec-
tricians speak of live and dead wires, let us speak of
any hypothesis as either live or dead. A live hy-
pothesis is one which appeals as a real possibility to
him to whom it is proposed. If I ask you to believe
in the Mahdi, the notion makes no electric connec-
tion with your nature, it refuses to scintillate with
any credibility at all. As an hypothesis it is com-
pletely dead. To an Arab, however (even if he be
not one of the Mahdi's followers), the hypothesis is
among the mind's possibilities: it is alive. This
shows that deadness and liveness in an hypoth-
esis are not intrinsic properties, but relations to the

The Will to Believe. 3

individual thinker. They are measured by his will-
ingness to act. The maximum of liveness in an
hypothesis means willingness to act irrevocably.
Practically, that means belief; but there is some
believing tendency wherever there is willingness to
act at all.

Next, let us call the decision between two hypoth-
eses an option. Options may be of several kinds.
They may be I, living or dead ; 2, forced or avoid-
able ; 3, momentous or trivial ; and for our purposes
we may call an option a genuine option when it is
of the forced, living, and momentous kind.

1. A living option is one in which both hypothe-
ses are live ones. If I say to you : " Be a theoso-
phist or be a Mohammedan," it is probably a dead
option, because for you neither hypothesis is likely
to be alive. But if I say : " Be an agnostic or be a
Christian," it is otherwise : trained as you are, each
hypothesis makes some appeal, however small, to
your belief.

2. Next, if I say to you : " Choose between going
out with your umbrella or without it," I do not offer
you a genuine option, for it is not forced. You can
easily avoid it by not going out at all. Similarly, if
I say, " Either love me or hate me," " Either call my
theory true or call it false," your option is avoidable.
You may remain indifferent to me, neither loving nor
hating, and you may decline to offer any judgment
as to my theory. But if I say, " Either accept this
truth or go without it," I put on you a forced option,
for there is no standing place outside of the alterna-
tive. Every dilemma based on a complete logical
disjunction, with no possibility of not choosing, is
an option of this forced kind.

4 Essays in Popular Philosophy.

3. Finally, if I were Dr. Nansen and proposed to
you to join my North Pole expedition, your option
would be momentous ; for this would probably be
your only similar opportunity, and your choice now
would either exclude you from the North Pole sort
of immortality altogether or put at least the chance
of it into your hands. He who refuses to embrace
a unique opportunity loses the prize as surely as if
he tried and failed. Per contra, the option is trivial
when the opportunity is not unique, when the stake
is insignificant, or when the decision is reversible if
it later prove unwise. Such trivial options abound
in the scientific life. A chemist finds an hypothesis
live enough to spend a year in its verification : he
believes in it to that extent. But if his experiments
prove inconclusive either way, he is quit for his loss
of time, no vital harm being done.

It will facilitate our discussion if we keep all these
distinctions well in mind.


The next matter to consider is the actual psychol-
ogy of human opinion. When we look at certain
facts, it seems as if our passional and volitional na-
ture lay at the root of all our convictions. When
we look at others, it seems as if they could do noth-
ing when the intellect had once said its say. Let
us take the latter facts up first.

Does it not seem preposterous on the very face of
it to talk of our opinions being modifiable at will?
Can our will either help or hinder our intellect in
its perceptions of truth? Can we, by just willing it,
believe that Abraham Lincoln's existence is a myth,

The Will to Believe. 5

and that the portraits of him in McClure's Maga-
zine are all of some one else ? Can we, by any effort
of our will, or by any strength of wish that it were
true, believe ourselves well and about when we are
roaring with rheumatism in bed, or feel certain that
the sum of the two one-dollar bills in our pocket
must be a hundred dollars? We can say any of
these things, but we are absolutely impotent to be-
lieve them ; and of just such things is the whole

Online LibraryWilliam JamesWill to believe and other essays in popular philosophy → online text (page 1 of 25)