Philosophy Word of the Day – William James

William James

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“Harvard philosopher William James (1842-1910) is considered the founder of pragmatism, the distinctive American philosophy. In Pragmatism (1907), James contends that human inquiry unavoidably reflects our temperament, needs, concerns, fears, hopes and passions.  The centrality of temperament and inclination in intellectual disputes is rooted in ‘the underdetermination of theory by data.’

“Underdetermination holds that for any given set of data, there are many hypotheses which adequately account for the data but which are incompatible with one another.  When such theories are in competition, no appeal to the evidence could determine the winner.  In order to decide which to accept, we must bring all that we are as human beings to bear on these matters; this means that rational choice must involve passions, intellect, reason and even ‘dumb conviction.’  In addition, James rejects the traditional conception of truth that claims that a belief is true if it corresponds to reality.  James contends that the idea of beliefs (statements) corresponding to reality (facts) has no real meaning.  For the pragmatist, beliefs are true if they prove useful to us in the practice of our lives.

“Although many later pragmatists would be atheists, James used the pragmatic approach to philosophy to defend, at nearly every turn, the rationality of religious belief.  His two most influential books in defense of religious belief are The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (1897) and The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902).  In The Will to Believe James defends religious belief against the increasingly strident criticism of Enlightenment evidentialism.  By the time of James, belief in God had been denigrated due to an alleged lack of evidence.  James courageously criticized Enlightenment evidentialism and defended the right to believe in God.

“James argued that while it is perfectly rational for the scientist to hold up his or her scientific beliefs to the demand for evidence, the universal demand for evidence is simply not tenable.  In certain cases one is forced to make a decision in the absence of adequate evidence.  To believe in God or not is one of those forced choices and the stakes are so high that, even in the absence of evidence, each person has a right to  believe in God based on an assessment of the benefits and costs of belief or unbelief.  Each person may legitimately bring passion to bear on the question of belief in God.  In so doing, a person helps create the kind of reality that the person seeks and desires involving a personal relationship with God.”

— Kelly James Clark, New Dictionary of Christian Apologetics, 366.

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