“The Will to Believe” Reconsidered

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“This image is taken from The letters of William James, Vol. 2” by Medical Heritage Library, Inc. is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

(Part 2: analysis and critique)

My previously published Medium article on William James’s “The Will to Believe” (henceforth TWTB) tried to stick as closely as possible to textual exegesis while placing James’s essay in historical and cultural context. What I would like to do here is critically analyze it, first by raising questions about James’s method and substantial claims, then finishing off with what I think are the genuine and lasting achievements of “The Will to Believe”


Is “The Will to Believe” a hatchet-job on Clifford? To some extent, it is. The vehemence with which James goes after William Clifford’s “The Ethics of Belief” is remarkable. TWTB has a scorched-earth / take no prisoners aura about it. Fortunately for James, Clifford had been dead for eighteen years when TWTB was published, so the latter was unable to defend himself. Were he alive Clifford would have had much to say.

First, Clifford explicitly acknowledged that there are many cases where our beliefs go beyond available evidence. We bank on probabilities and educated guesses in most of our daily lives: even scientists are not always making judgments and formulating beliefs “scientifically.” Clifford’s main moral point was that it is wrong to hold beliefs uncritically. Even ordinary convictions need to be put to the test. I am pretty sure James would agree; but it was a bit disingenuous of James not to give Clifford his due.

Furthermore, Clifford would be on board with James in understanding the value of beliefs to be centered on advancing human needs and human happiness. But Clifford cautioned that great harm can ensue when people refuse to subject their pragmatically-settled convictions about their needs and happiness to the test of self-criticism. Clifford cites a hypothetical case where a ship magnate, pragmatically convinced of his vessels’ seaworthiness, does not perform safety-checks before setting sail. He believes that he and his employees need to set sail. One of the ships malfunctions: many hundreds die. His moral failure is clear. By not seeking to continually gather evidence that his ships were in good repair, he is guilty of negligent homicide. Rational critique is not just a key element in knowledge: it is a moral imperative. Lives can be at stake. I am sure James would agree, though at the price of admitting he was unfair to Clifford.

On the other hand, Clifford did have an axe to grind: he had no use for organized religion, the Church of England in particular. The established church was a large institution that wielded significant political and cultural power, often arbitrarily. It did much, in the Victorian era, to stifle and slam natural science, especially evolutionary biology. On this too James would have agreed with Clifford. James himself was not a member of any established church, and in fact was post-Christian. James, however, also wanted to show that religious conviction, of many different stripes, could be consistent with belief in science and scientific progress. As one commentator put it, “‘The Will to Believe’ was a distinctive moment in James’s search for a scientifically respectable framework in which the essential religious sensibility of the liberal Protestantism of his milieu could be affirmed.” (David Hollinger, “James, Clifford, and the Scientific Conscience”, in Ruth Anna Putnam. ed., The Cambridge Companion to William James)

James wanted to counsel all those who, like Thomas Hardy in “Hap”, were thrown into existential despair at what they thought was a mutually exclusive choice between science and Christian faith. So Clifford was guilty of at least one of the charges James levelled at him: he was a dogmatic agnostic (if that’s not too much of an oxymoron), a puritan about empiricism who ignored the actual life-experiences of individuals committing themselves to a religious faith.

This in turn raises the question: does James go too far in the other direction?


Does James insulate all religion from criticism? One of James’s buzzwords was “pluralism.” This can be understood, in part, as flowing from his understanding (or misunderstanding) of the Absolute Idealism of Fichte, Hegel, and his Harvard Colleague Josiah Royce. Absolute Idealists see reality as basically spiritual in nature, but more importantly as one coherent, necessary, determinate, and rationally ordered system. In contrast, for James, reality was many coherent systems, loosely related at best, not assimilable to one absolute rational order. James’s cosmos is “messy”, and this leads him to reject both Idealism and Materialism.

James, the “radically empirical” pluralist, felt it no place of his to tell Clifford and his scientistic materialist allies that they should not be deterministic naturalists. In effect, he affirms that their over-beliefs (i.e. large-scale metaphysical beliefs concerning the unreality of God, Freedom, and Immortality) are their business and not his. “Live, forced, and momentous” options for over-beliefs are not the same for everybody: options are for individuals, and individuals differ. But if scientific materialism is their business, they are in no position to tell devotees of the “theistic hypothesis” what their business is, that they are not entitled to believe. So James is not just a metaphysical pluralist — there is not one way but many ways the world is — but an epistemological and moral one as well. We know in many ways, and what is good and obligatory is also pluriform. One’s over-beliefs, e.g., belief in God or free will, are distributed across individuals, whose needs and desires diverge, sometimes radically.

So is James saying, despite his protest to the contrary, “Believe what works for you”, or more bluntly “Believe whatever you want if it makes you happy”? No. What he takes pains to explain, in TWTB and elsewhere, is that one has the right to believe something because “it works” or produces beneficial consequences when, and only when, the “objective evidence” cannot settle the matter.

For example, suppose I am a “young earth creationist” who believes that the earth was created no earlier than 6000 years ago, on the authority of what is (supposed to be) in the Bible according to Bishop Ussher et. al. James does not let me off the hook because of my “passional” devotion to this theory. I am actually rationally compelled to revise my beliefs about both evolution and biblical interpretation, since well-confirmed scientific evidence demonstrates that the earth is many millions of years older than that. This evidence is objective, hence not optional. Rejecting it is not a live option, since it isn’t optional to begin with. But as to whether God exists, or whether free will is real, or whether life has a meaning that transcends the ebb and flow of everyday events, there is no settled scientific conviction, nor can there be. James’s pluralism acknowledges constraints. One cannot believe anything one wants on whim, or because one wants to.

But I think James glosses over three important aspects of the ethics of belief.

First, is science the only source of “objective evidence”? Is, say, the “common sense” conviction that human beings are morally responsible and hence free to be rejected, or at least held in suspended judgment, because behavioral science has not definitively and hence “objectively” established it? Is written history without “objectivity” because it is not natural science? Is there nothing “objective” about art criticism, even if critics constantly refer to qualities and properties of the art work, an object, when making their aesthetic judgments? This is not to suggest that science is not objective: it is only to make the point that other disciplined human endeavors might at least have a claim to some kind of objectivity as well.

Second, is scientific objectivity something that is always and everywhere clearly established? I am not merely drawing attention to the fact that science has a history, where, as Thomas Kuhn argued in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions scientists often disagree on whether not only a particular theory is true or false but on whether an entire matrix of disciplinary practices and assumptions — what Kuhn called a paradigm — is objectively justifiable. I am suggesting that, even within a period of “normal science”, where paradigms are stable and there is general consensus on what counts as doing things “scientifically”, scientists disagree on what is “objectively” justifiable or not. For some scientists “Superstring Theory” or “Theories of Quantum Gravity” are valid ways of unifying the various stands of Physics; for others they are “wild speculations.” There is no question that it is the job of scientists themselves to sort out disputes like this. But one shouldn’t deny that scientists themselves are often not of one mind about what is objectively established or not.

Finally does religion have little or nothing to do with “objectivity” and certainly should not lay claim to it? Why not? , James is somewhat glib in his thinking about this. Doesn’t James give short shrift to, say, the Christian claim that the faith itself stands or falls on the existence and ministry of an objectively real being named “Jesus of Nazareth”? Christians may (and do) disagree sharply on the nature of Jesus Christ, on the Resurrection and the precise nature of what it means to be the “Christ”. But their faith rests on claims to objectivity about Jesus, however contested a dogma might be. Christians might cavil about, say, the virgin birth or the historicity of the miracle narratives or the exact nature of the Trinity, but if Jesus of Nazareth never existed, frankly, the game is over. Likewise with Muslims and Allah and his prophet Muhammad, Buddhists and the Fourfold Noble Truths, Jews and Yahweh’s covenant with the Jewish people. While none of the above claim scientific objectivity for their convictions — how could they? — they do not think their over-beliefs are just matters of subjective preference or fancy — that is, something you embrace only “it works for you.” Faith traditions have claimed their own measure of objectivity other than that of empirical science.

James thus seems to oscillate between two notions of “objectivity”: what people claim and have claimed about the state of the world, and what “science” says it is. Given the above this is, I fear, unacceptably vague.

To be fair, James modifies his position in a later work, Pragmatism: a New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. There, he places scientific beliefs on the same plane as religious beliefs and indeed all beliefs. The acid test for beliefs is whether or not they pass the pragmatic test: that in some rationally justifiable way they work: they cohere with other beliefs, they are effective in helping one cope in and with the world at large. In Pragmatism, science and religion take the same test, and they both pass it.

But I think in Pragmatism James is merely exchanging one conundrum for another. In TWTB, religion is a live option that an individual may choose or reject “on passional grounds”, science being otherwise because not “live” in the same way. In Pragmatism, scientific conviction is no more or no less “optional” than religious belief — science and religion stand or fall as live options on exactly the same ground. But I this will license far more latitude on the part of individuals than James would care to admit. A wholesale rejection of established scientific theories — natural selection, space-time relativity, abnormal psychology — could be relinquished by individuals “on passional grounds.” While James himself was convinced that science and religion could peacefully co-exist, his position in Pragmatism does not securely support his convictions.

The wider question is: what gives our many human practices — Science, Ethics, Politics, Religious Faith, and so on — the right to claim cognitive authority over us? Meaning: why, say, should I take an epidemiologist’s assertions about the spread of a virus, or a reporter’s claims about governmental corruption, or St. Paul’s claims about Jesus of Nazareth, seriously? One way of doing so would be to view all practices as in part extended rational arguments about the beliefs, deeds, and traditions the practice sustains — what is true or false, better or worse, complete or incomplete, in whatever the practice is about. Viewed thus, it is the practices themselves that exercise authority over its participants, who in turn question, maintain, and revise those practices through rational self-critique. Science looks like this, as does painting, farming, and theology. Nothing outside practices like these gives them cognitive authority: they are the source of cognitive authority themselves.

This, I take it, is what makes pragmatism pragmatism. We start with human practices, and only then theorize about them and subject them to rational critique from within. James shared this pragmatic sensibility with Charles Sanders Peirce and John Dewey, but unlike them said very little about the nuts-and-bolts of practices themselves. Instead, he focused on the individual’s practical engagements with the world. And while this is laudable, even necessary, it leaves much out, and also surreptitiously constrains the kind of religious belief that is at home within his philosophy.


What kind of faith is consistent with the argument of TWTB? It is easy to see what kind is not: religious fundamentalism and scientific naturalism. The former looks askance at any religious commitment that is based on subjective preference or the satisfaction of personal need: an embrace of a religious tradition for any reason other than that it is demonstrably and universally true is at least false belief and at worst heresy. And for scientific naturalists like Clifford or, presently, Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker, any belief not based on the findings of empirical science is superstition and sophistry. Both, from James’s perspective, are epistemological puritans. But there are other ways of being religious between these extremes. In TWTB James refers to Cardinal John Henry Newman, who moved from High-Church Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism in 1845. For James, Newman was choosing between live, forced, and momentous options that emerged from his own idiosyncratic history; his choice of Catholicism flowed from his own “passional nature” and personal need. But it is doubtful that Newman would have put it that way himself. It is far more likely that he’d explain his move to the Roman church in terms of church history, apostolic succession, a robust view of the sacraments and tradition, and the need for ultimate authority on these matters invested in the Papacy. I doubt he’d he’s have said “well, Roman Catholicism works for me!” For Newman personal comfort wouldn’t matter. What matters is theology.

James might be right about what was going on with Newman; on the other hand, Newman himself might be the better judge. The point is: they have very different views about the kind of religion worth having, and how to determine these views. And to see this, one needs to place James in his own context, that of American Liberal Protestantism, which was very different from Newman’s background as a disenchanted High-Church Oxford Anglican.

The history of American Protestantism can be understood as a confrontation between two different construals of faith: faith as objectively displayed in scriptural revelation, and faith as subjectively manifested in the experience of individuals and groups. New England Protestantism in particular was an extended confrontation between Conservative Calvinists who insisted on “scripture alone” as the medium of salvation, and Arminian, Quaker, and Unitarian Liberals who stressed the immediate contact of the Spirit with the believer. The latter camp proved to be the more theologically fertile one for James, insofar as it generated the Transcendentalist movement and the unorthodox theology of Ralph Waldo Emerson, a major influence on James.

For Emerson, and the Transcendentalists generally, God is not found in the dusty remnants of Christian tradition, whether Protestant, Anglican, Catholic, or Orthodox. These doctrines are not just dead but ossified, out of touch with the Divine as it manifests itself in the spirit of the self-trusting, self-reliant individual and in the glories of the natural world. Emerson rejected Unitarianism, Christianity, and dogmatic religion generally, as inimical to the immediate discernment of the Divine in all things and everyone. Emerson’s God was real, but impersonal — an indwelling force that illuminated the personal and the natural. God, the world-soul, infused all things and was beyond all doctrine and clerical authority. Emerson’s was an immanent God — a Spirit-God in the world and only in the world, infusing it with the beautiful and the sublime, inhabiting but never captured in the networks of human institutions and practices. It is the world-spirit and the human-spirit, neither the abstract God of the philosophers nor the frozen God of organized religion.

Much of New England Transcendentalism in general, and Emerson in particular, can be understood as an appropriation and transformation of German Romantic and Idealist philosophy — Kant, Fichte, Hegel — seen through a glass darkly. It certainly lacked the systematic, rigorously-worked-out character of German Idealism. It is a very-American variant of Romanticism, though, blurring the lines between the individual-absorbing world-spirit of Hegel and the world-absorbing individual-spirit of Shelley and Byron and Walt Whitman. In any event, if Transcendentalism can be called a religion, or a religious movement, it was clearly post-Christian (Emerson explicitly rejected Trinitarianism and the divinity of Christ as so much dogmatic blather), and it was centered on fostering, in those individuals with ears to hear and courage to match, a sense of both cosmic harmony and individual freedom.

In short, it was very close to the sort of religion that James himself embraced. Having conquered his own chronic depression through faith in free will and a groundless hope in the meaningfulness of life, James concluded that any meaningful religious life centers in the courageous self-struggle with one’s self, on the way toward forging a better self, one more in tune with the majestic sweep of things in the universe. It aligns with Alfred North Whitehead’s understanding of religion as “the individual does with his own solitariness” (Religion in the Making, p.16).

For James, then, “the religious hypothesis” stands or falls with its ability to comfort and cajole the individual into a fuller, more intense human existence. It is an option that is there to save one’s life — quite literally for James, as his depression was often suicidal. It is not an option for everybody (e.g., Clifford), but for some it is the only option, and the best option.

One of James’ favorite terms for describing why “life is worth living” is “zest”. As a word it is perhaps a bit old-fashioned, but nevertheless quite appropriate. Without “zest” — an animated, passionate devotion to a strenuous but rewarding mode of life — life is not worth living. And one clear source of “zest” is the uncertain conviction that there may be higher, more enduring things than the usually mundane but often overwhelming sadness of human existence. “The religious hypothesis” thus stands or falls, for James, on its ability to help the individual soul manage its journey through time and space.


Is religion primarily about comforting and inspiring the individual? Hegel believed that every “moment” of human consciousness contained its truth, however distorted and inadequate. The James-Whitehead thesis of religion as what one does in and with one’s solitude clearly has its merits. The concept of religion, while not identical with the concept of faith, centrally involves faith-as-trust in the goodness of God, Being, or the Sacred, thus delivering hope to the suffering individual. But consider the antithesis: that religion is not just a comfort but a challenge. It disconcerts and discomforts. It is not just about oneself but about the practice of discipleship.

Salvation and Enlightenment are, when pursued only with oneself in mind, usually counterfeits. The Buddhist arhat is counterbalanced with the bodhisattva, the archetype of the Buddha’s universal compassion. And while Christ comforted the afflicted, he also afflicted the comfortable: discipleship has a clear message that while the way of the Father is the way of love, it also is the way of the cross. As the philosopher Herbert McCabe once put it, “If you don’t love, you’re dead, and if you do they’ll kill you”. Religion is not spiritual solipsism. It is social, communal, and political.

James tended to shy away from politics. He once described himself as a “Mugwump”, a quaint way of identifying himself with that now extinct species, the easygoing liberal Republican. But he was not apolitical. He was a vehement opponent of the Spanish American War and American imperialism generally, turning against Theodore Roosevelt, the archetypal liberal, progressive Republican and an erstwhile hero. And he also railed, in Emersonian fashion, against American materialism and avarice:

The moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS. That — with the squalid cash interpretation put on the word ‘success’ — is our national disease.”

But James’s political and social moralism did not flow from religious discipleship: ethics and politics are separate from James’s personal faith. This is understandable given James’s non-denominational religious convictions. Emersonians like James are not just post-Christian but post-institutional, the advance guard of the spiritual-but-not-religious of the present day. Therefore James’s faith is tangential, at best, to the kind of faith exemplified by a Walter Rauschenbusch, the key figure of the Social Gospel movement in the early 20th century. Or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who spearheaded the anti-Nazi Confessing Church in 1930s Germany. Or Oscar Romero, the resistance-bishop assassinated in 1980’s El Salvador. Or Thich Nhat Hanh, the Zen Buddhist monk opposing both the U.S. involvement in his native Vietnam and the Communist regime which came to power there. Or, perhaps most obviously, Martin Luther King, Jr. For the latter, commitment to their faith — discipleship — was not just, or even primarily, about attending to the state of their own Geist: it was about living their Christianity or Buddhism in the public sphere with others.

To use a bon mot of Hannah Arendt’s, James’s view of faith runs the risk of “world alienation”, of being so preoccupied with one’s own spiritual health or malaise that one misses the wider world in which that self participates and through which it is achieved. Tthat world is not just the political world either. Religions, faith-traditions, are present in the world through communal practices. Christians celebrate Eucharist and proclaim the Gospel in church, Jews study Tanakh in minyans, Buddhists meditate in sangha assemblies, and so on. These practices are communal, and these communities are defined by their practices: they are not just spiritual but religious. Their institutionalized practices preserve and transmit living traditions, which carry on an endless internal conversational argument about what is best in that tradition and what it entails for public and private life: what needs revision, what needs rejection, what needs re-affirmation and re-interpretation. Religious practices are intrinsically social affairs: even if one “practices” something alone, like sitting meditation or prayer, it is mediated by a community that trains one in the exercise of that practice. One is in constant dialogue with those who are not present; one is in fact engaged in a dialogue with the dead, the long-dead who preceded one in those practices, like Bodhidarma or Rabbi Hillel or St. Paul of Tarsus. Religious practice is not identical with self-contained spirituality.

It is ironic that James, a self-confessed pragmatist who certainly had a valid claim to be one, was rather quiet about actual practices — religious, social, political, or otherwise. This irony is also seen in a work subsequent to TWTB, his book The Varieties of Religious Experience, which views religion through the lens of philosophical psychology. And, to be Hegelian once more, while this is perfectly legitimate, it is glaringly incomplete. It detaches individual religious consciousness from the social practices of religions, practices that define not just worldviews but worlds.


I’ve delivered this at-times-severe critique of James with a bit of a bad conscience. I have no intention of slamming James the way he slammed Clifford, for two reasons. First, James seems to have been an exemplary human being. His struggles with depression were monumental, and his keeping melancholy at bay through self-therapy and willpower, in an age before Prozac and Xanax, was extraordinary and beyond commendable. He saved his own life, and I would venture the lives of many desperate souls who read him. He also saved his friend Peirce’s life when the latter was in desperate economic and personal straits. Peirce was, to put it mildly, a “difficult” personality: erratic, moody, arrogant, obnoxious, disorderly. Put bluntly, Peirce was nuts. But James financially supported Peirce and his wife until Peirce’s death. After James died in 1912, Peirce changed his middle name from “Sanders” to “Santiago”, “St. James” in Spanish, in honor of his friend. “St. James” isn’t an exaggeration, especially given the track record of philosophers when it comes to sterling moral character. Finding fault with his philosophy makes one wince when one contemplates how good a human James was.

Second, whatever the flaws in James’s thinking — and thought-flaws are inherent in any philosopher’s work — his work in TWTB and elsewhere has had mostly positive effects, both intellectual and institutional. TWTB remains a “live” and “momentous” text. How so?

One reason is that it makes a compelling, if not exactly watertight, case for the respectability of “the religious hypothesis.” He establishes that religious belief is rationally consistent and something on which reasonable people can disagree. In doing so he undercuts the intolerance of dogmatic atheists and religious fundamentalists alike. We have a plentiful supply of both nowadays: “new atheists” like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, who repeat the reductionist errors of 19th century empiricists like Clifford, alongside proponents of “scientific creationism” and biblical literalism who view their religious faith as something that can and must be vindicated on exactly the same grounds as scientific theory.

In TWTB James destroys the idea that to be rational religious faith, indeed any spiritual conviction, is something that has to be provable in order to be reasonable. But proof, like its cousins certainty and absoluteness, is a relatively empty and pointless idea in philosophy and inquiry generally speaking. James anticipates Wittgenstein’s conclusions, in the latter’s final work On Certainty, that many of our key beliefs cannot be proven, but since we have no reason to doubt them we are in our cognitive rights to continue in believing them until things indicate otherwise. Whether those convictions that “stand fast” for us are theistic, atheistic, or agnostic is irrelevant: others cannot demonstrate or prove them absolutely false any more than we can demonstrate or prove them to be absolutely true. Thus theists, given the content of their convictions, will take atheists to be mistaken, but they cannot take them to be idiots, or scoundrels, or diabolical. Atheists need to cut theists the same slack.

The kind of intellectual and spiritual humility that James’s TWTB advances has real-world consequences. The ecumenical movement is one example of this. Theological differences between Christians, Jews, and Muslims, or Catholics and Protestants and Anglicans and Orthodox, are real and significant differences, but not absolute differences. While one can argue one’s case for one faith-tradition over another, the argument will not obliterate one’s opponents’ case. “Knockdown” arguments are not in the vicinity.

The philosopher Robert Nozick made a Jamesian (and Kantian) point when, in his book Philosophical Explanations, he satirized understanding the force of philosophical argument to be “knockdown”, or coercive:

The terminology of philosophical art is coercive: arguments are powerful and best when they are knockdown, arguments force you to a conclusion, if you believe the premises you have to or must believe the conclusion, some arguments do not carry much punch, and so forth. A philosophical argument is an attempt to get someone to believe something, whether he wants to believe it or not. A successful philosophical argument, a strong argument, forces someone to a belief. (p. 4)

Besides being an exemplary case of toxic masculinity, philosophy-as-intellectual-war does not accurately depict how philosophy actually does manage to inspire reflection, conviction, and, on occasion, the impetus to re-think our certainties. Philosophy really isn’t cognitive warfare. There is argument in philosophy, but the argument is in the service of conversation and joint inquiry into a topic of human concern.

Conversation and dialogue is a central theme of contemporary pragmatists like Richard Rorty, as well as continental philosophers like Hans-Georg Gadamer: conversations are constrained by but not determined by the arguments conducted within them. They involve what Gadamer calls a spiel, an inter-play, between the conversants, the main goal of which is to understand what one’s counterpart means, in order to apply the points they make to your own self-understanding and self-interpretation. Argument figures in this process, but it is not the only element, and not the decisive one. Conversation per se, therefore, is intrincically “ecumenical”. It seeks not to critique in order that one may understand, but to understand in order that one might critique — and one might not wish to critique at all, understanding being worthy in itself.

It is this kind of interpretive charity that James’s “The Will to Believe” evangelizes for. Whatever its shortcomings as an argument, as a conversation partner, it has done its work.

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