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William James (1842-1910)
by Terence Green
The will to believe
Deliverance from bondage
The pragmatist’s balm
William James by Alice Boughton c. 1907
National Portrait Gallery/Public Domain
William James was both a man of science and a philosopher. As a man of science he was particularly curious about human psychology, while as a philosopher he contributed to the development of pragmatism, in order to reject the weirdness of the then-popular absolute idealism. Truth, pragmatism says, consists in useful ideas. An idea is useful if it allows us to make predictions about future experiences: for instance, the idea that if you stick your hand in that flame it will get burned is true, because it’s useful. In James’s words, truth is ‘what pays by way of belief’ – you could choose not to believe that the flame will burn your hand, but that would be stupid and it wouldn’t pay to do so. This might all seem obvious, but in the realm of epistemology (how do we know what we think we know?) it was rather a big deal.
By temperament, James was also much given to pondering God, faith, and human freedom. Disconcerted by his inability to establish that he had free will, James fell into a deep funk. He only emerged from his melancholy when he came across the works of Charles Renouvier (1815-1903). The Frenchman taught that we are free because we can choose what ideas we will allow to affect our behaviour. This was good enough for James: we may not be able to prove that we have this power, but we can choose to believe we have it – thereby exercising what he called ‘the will to believe’.
Interested as he was in the science of psychology, James liked to experiment with drugs (that was his excuse, at least). A key discovery to emerge from these investigations was realising that by taking nitrous oxide he believed he could understand what Hegel had written. This seems to me an eminently pragmatic approach to reading him. If nothing else, you’ll at least have a laugh and that doesn’t happen often when reading Hegel.
© Terence Green 2023
Terence Green is a writer, historian, and lecturer who lives in Eastbourne, New Zealand.