Mar 11, 2015

Wed Review (William James - The Will to Believe)

James states in his Pragmatism that abstract arguments are only important if choosing one or the other leads to a real difference. If no real difference is discernible, than there's no real difference in the arguments; more just a difference in terminology. In this essay he begins with the notion of Hypothesis. A hypothesis is "anything that may be proposed to our belief" - this is in accordance with the standard public-school notion of hypothesis. Now, a hypothesis is measured in importance by being "live or dead" - live meaning that the hypothesis is of some importance to you and your willingness to act on them.

James puts the emphasis on what we are going to do and how our choice of the options in the hypothesis affect our actions. James states, "As a rule we disbelieve all facts and theories for which we have no use." I don't quite understand this statement; I get confused because I spend most of my days involved in bullshit debates with friends about things I probably don't really care much about - but, I suppose, the very act of thinking about a 'hypothesis' gives it a use; just not a use of very much gravity, making it less 'live' and more 'dead' - but not totally dead. The less 'live' a hypothesis is, the less time and attention I (should) give it.

James turns the notion of truth on its head. My notion of truth is correlation. "That cat is black" is true if the cat referred to is indeed of black color.

James believes that a person's non-intellectual nature influences our convictions. Our nature not only does decide between the options, but its decision is completely valid. Even opting for skepticism (or choosing not to choose an option) is a decision based on one's nature.

He further defends his thesis by stating that neither rationalism or empiricism is fully functioning. In fact, "No concrete test of what is really true has ever been agreed upon". Even science has its problems because it necessarily assumes its methods to be effective in gathering truths.

James's thoughts seem to be a nice middle-ground between skepticism, science, and religion. James dismisses the skeptics as avoiding error; preferring to believe truth at the risk of making mistakes. I guess this is why its a practical philosophy: every day we make necessary decisions between multiple options - do we choose them randomly or based on our knowledge?


  1. I wasn't familiar with William James until I read your post. Informative and well written. That's the way to go.


    1. Thank you for the comment. I really appreciate it.