Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Western Theology

William James (1842-1910)

Table of Contents
1. Background
2. Works (Selected List)
3. Themes
4. Outline of Major Works
5. Relation to Other Thinkers
6. Bibliography and Works Cited
7. Internet Resources
8. Related Topics

1. Background

The grandfather of William James (who was also named William) was a Calvinist from Ireland who came to the U.S. in 1789 and was quite successful in business, becoming a millionaire.  Among his fourteen children was Henry, Sr. who, being more spiritually adventurous, rebelled against his father’s religious inclinations and explored the mysticism of Swedenborg.  He was also attracted to the utopian socialism of the Frenchman Charles Fourier.  Henry James had five children and was keen to bequeath to them his interest in intellectual pursuits.  William James was the first child, born in 1842 (the year of the elder William’s death), and Henry, Jr. (the novelist) was born second a year later.  The fifth child, Alice, is known for her diary which recounted her experiences of suffering from terminal cancer.  The children were given a cosmopolitan upbringing, spending much time in Europe learning the languages and literature.

While William James had the talent to succeed in several fields, his early life included a number of unsuccessful attempts at choosing a career.   At one point he studied painting, but his zeal for that subsided and so he began to study science at Harvard in 1861.  He embarked on a research expedition to Brazil with Louis Agassiz, but became ill and returned.  In 1867 James attended the University of Berlin to study physiology.  Later, he returned to Harvard and completed a medical degree in 1869.  At some point around this time he had a nervous breakdown and claimed that his religious convictions helped him to recover.  Also during this period, James came under the influence of the French philosopher Charles Renouvier who advocated a critical idealism in opposition to the scientific philosophies of positivism, materialism and evolutionary naturalism.  James came to accept such doctrines as theism instead of agnosticism and freedom instead of determinism.  In 1872, he began to teach physiology at Harvard and over the years he taught anatomy, psychology and philosophy.

James’s first major effort, The Principles of Psychology (1890), took twelve years to write and was long considered an important work in psychology.  The Principles treated both introspectionism, which had an influence on European thinkers such as Bergson and Husserl, as well as experimentalism and behaviorism which influenced the social sciences in the US.  This work also includes James’s theory of emotions according to which emotions do not cause, but result from physiological activity.  For example, fear results from trembling and sorrow from crying.  James was interested in showing the interconnectedness of the body and mental activity.  He enunciated a theory of consciousness which opposed the British empiricists’ view that consciousness comprises a sequence of discrete perceptual states.  For James, consciousness is a continuous stream and individual sensations are intentionally picked out through discrimination.

2. Works (Selected List)

The Principles of Psychology (1890); The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902); Pragmatism (1907); Some Problems of Philosophy (1911); Essays on Faith and Morals (edited by Ralph Barton Perry, 1962); William James, The Essential Writings (edited by Bruce Wilshire, 1984).

3. Themes

[Forthcoming]

4. Outline of Major Works

The Will to Believe

The essay, The Will to Believe, was addressed to the Philosophical Clubs at Yale and Brown Universities and published in 1896.  James described his purpose as “a defense of our right to adopt a believing attitude in religious matters” (James 1962, 32). The essay begins with a series of definitions, for example, an hypothesis, or something that can be believed, can either be live or dead.  A live hypothesis is one upon which a believer is willing to act.  An option, or the choice between two hypotheses, can be live or dead; forced or avoidable; and momentous or trivial.  James defines a genuine option to be one in which the hypothesis has some plausibility for the potential believer, there is no possibility of not choosing (i.e., the choice to withhold judgment is, in effect, the same as a rejection of the belief), and the stakes are high.   An example of a genuine option would be the consideration of religious beliefs.

In considering the issue of whether beliefs can be induced by the will, James brings up Pascal’s Wager which recommends belief in God because it is the safer bet.   He thinks that the choice presented therein (to accept certain Roman Catholic doctrines) is not a live option for many, and he further questions whether such a faith, generated by a calculating will, would be pleasing to a god.  James also refers to W. K. Clifford’s essay, The Ethics of Belief, the climax of which is the assertion, “it is wrong always, everywhere and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”  James is somewhat sympathetic to Clifford’s rigorous, ideal standard, especially its applicability to scientific research, but he thinks the standard is too high when it comes to beliefs in general.  James develops his reply to Clifford by listing a number of non-intellectual factors which, in actual practice, influence our attitudes towards our beliefs.  Examples of these are passion, prejudice, partisanship, peer pressure and also a tendency to reject those beliefs for which we have no use.  Such influences affect every believer, even Clifford himself.  Disagreements can arise, not just over evidential concerns, but also over these non-intellectual factors.  E.g., those truth seekers who prefer to believe that their experiments and other intellectual exertions lead them ever closer to the truth would not be able to justify their belief to the satisfaction of a stern skeptic because the skeptic does not have the same attitude toward truth. James concludes that our non-intellectual or passional nature does indeed influence what we come to believe.

James makes a couple of points about the use of the passional nature when choosing among belief options.  First, in those cases in which the decision is forced and there are inadequate intellectual grounds to make a decision, the passional nature must make the decision.  Even a decision to leave the question open will be affected by the passional nature.  Another point has to do with the trade-off between the two epistemic goals of believing what is true and avoiding what is false both of which, in practice, cannot be achieved in all cases, according to James.  Clifford contends that avoiding false beliefs is so important that it is better to withhold belief than to risk believing something that is false, but James thinks that such a policy is overly cautious.  He thinks that since errors inevitably will occur despite our precautions, it would be healthier to adopt a less hesitant attitude.

Against the objection that there are no important forced options, James mentions moral questions which raise issues of value.  Such issues cannot be tabled until a scientific investigation is completed because science cannot settle issues of values.  Religion is another example of a forced option that cannot be evaded by the skeptic who thinks it better to risk losing truth than to incur error.  The skeptic is actually staking his claim that “to yield to our fear of [religion’s] being error is wiser and better than to yield to our hope that it may be true” (James 1962, 58). Against the objection that religion is not a live option, that it has no plausibility, James says that non-intellectual factors influence which options are live for us.  But if religion is a live option for a person, then that person has the right to believe it at his own risk.

The Varieties of Religious Experience

This work was originally presented as the Gifford Lectures of 1901-02 and was published in 1902.  Even though this is primarily a work of psychological description, James also tries to make apologetic points along the way.  James treats the personal rather than institutional aspect of religion and defines it, for the purposes of his lecture, as “the feelings, act, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.” (James 1984, 226) The divine means “a primal reality as the individual feels impelled to respond to solemnly and gravely” (227).  For James, people are absolutely dependent on the universe and this feeling emerges in his descriptions of religious attitudes.  For example, people feel motivated to or are required to make sacrifices and renunciations, sometimes in extreme forms.  But religion can make these hardships seem easier, it  can add a dimension of happiness.  This helps to prove the worth of religion.

James distinguished between two types of religious experience: that of the healthy-minded and that of the sick soul.  Those with a healthy-minded temperament are optimistic and have a positive outlook to the extent of willingly excluding evil from their awareness.  Such an outlook is beneficial in promoting their well being.  At the other end of the spectrum is the sick soul, or morbid-minded, who cannot help seeing the evil in life.  James dramatized this condition by relating the story of his own near nervous breakdown.  To the sick soul, the healthy-minded individual seems shallow; and to the healthy-minded, the sick soul seems weak.  But James concludes that morbid-mindedness is faithful to a wider range of experience than healthy-mindedness.  Within the realm of experience, the healthy-minded attitude can work up to a point, but as a philosophical position, it cannot give an account of the evil which makes up much of reality.  (On the subject of evil, James muses, “it may be that there are forms of evil so extreme as to enter into no good system whatsoever, and that, in respect of such evil, dumb submission or neglect to notice is the only practical resource” (236).) According to James, Christianity and Buddhism have well-developed pessimistic elements and can be considered religions of deliverance.

James speaks of conversion in both psychological and theological terms.  A person who is in a state of incompleteness desires to progress towards a better state, the imagined positive ideal.  However, this person’s progress may be thwarted by his own voluntary efforts, in which case an act of yielding or self-surrender is needed to continue the transformation.  The psychologist would say that there are subconscious forces at work in conversion, while the theologian would say that supernatural operations of the Deity were involved.

James describes mysticism by first listing four marks of mystical experiences, namely, ineffability, noetic quality (i.e. insights of knowledge), transiency and passivity.  The simplest form of mystical experience occurs when one suddenly realizes a deeper significance of a religious saying.  More elaborate experience can include sensorial images such as visions and physiological manifestations such as depressed pulse and respiration.   James recommends that the value of mystical experience should be judged not in medical terms, but with regard to its fruits for life.  The most common ideas associated with mystical experience are optimism and a kind of pantheism or the overcoming of the barriers between the individual and the Absolute.  James asks whether these ideas are authoritative and concludes that they are, but only for the individuals who have the experiences and not for others.  He goes on to say that it is possible that mystical states actually do provide a more inclusive glimpse of reality compared with what a rationalist critic can manage.

James concedes that purely intellectual processes are incapable of proving the truth of beliefs that issue from religious experience.  However, philosophy does have a role to play in producing a ‘science of religion’ which can analyze the diverse definitions of the divine and eliminate the non-essential and the unscientific doctrines.  The hypotheses which result from this process can be distilled through testing and verification, and then such a science of religion would be in a position to foster consensus among believers who embrace different doctrines.

In the conclusion, James tries to discern a distinct message among the varieties which he has described.  He finds that despite the variety of manifestations, the feelings and conduct associated with different religions are very similar.  The theories and other secondary aspects may differ and may someday converge, but the feelings and conduct are constant.  These feelings can be characterized as providing a ‘faith-state’, an emotional bonus which helps the believer endure sadness.  When a faith-state is combined with positive intellectual content as in a creed, it results in religious motivations and consolations for the believer.  Thus, religion can be justified as having at least a subjective utility for its adherents

James also identifies a pair of beliefs that seem to be universally held by the different religions.  The first he calls an uneasiness, or a sense that there is naturally something wrong about us.  The second is a proposed solution to the uneasiness by which the wrong is remedied.  During the process of conversion, or of the application of the remedy, that higher part of the individual which rejects the wrongness is identified with an external ‘more of the same quality’ with which the individual can come into contact and thereby save himself.

James wants to examine more closely this ‘more’ and uses the psychological concept of the subconscious self to help in understanding it.  When the contents of the subconscious self become conscious, it seems to the individual that something external is being experienced (as in the case of conversion) and so the theological and the psychological interpretations of the experience can be harmonized.  (This ability to harmonize with science helps to give credence to religion, on James’s view.)  James speculates that the subconscious self is like a portal to another reality, a supernatural region which in Christian terms is called God.  Since God produces real effects in our world, then God must be real.  James concludes by saying that the religious interpretation of world is essentially different from the materialistic interpretation.  Even though one could imagine that the world is nothing more than sensations and scientific laws, a religious outlook better accounts for the totality of human experience.

5. Relation to Other Thinkers

[Forthcoming]

6. Bibliography and Cited Works

James, William. 1890. The Principles of Psychology. New York: Holt.

James, William. 1902. The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Longmans, Green.

James, William. 1907. Pragmatism. New York: Longmans, Green.

James, William. 1911. Some Problems of Philosophy. New York: Longmans, Green.

James, William. 1962. Essays on Faith and Morals. Ralph Barton Perry, ed. New York: World.

James, William. 1984. William James, The Essential Writings. Bruce Wilshire, ed. Albany: SUNY.

Reck, Andrew J. 1967. Introduction to William James. Bloomingtion: Indiana University Press.

7. Internet Resources

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article

Frank Pajares' page on William James (many links to texts by and about James)

8. Related Topics

[Forthcoming]

 

Editors: Derek Michaud, incorporating material by Dennis Ford (2001).

 

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