Edited by Paul O'Brien


     William James was a very popular and famous late 19th century
American philosopher and psychologist. Born in 1842 in New York
City, William was raised in an eccentric yet intellectually liberal
family. His father was a transcendentalist, a very intuitive and
liberal form of thinking; he raised his children to question the
main issues in life and come to their own conclusions. Such freedom
paid off in that two of his children gained great creative fame and
success: William in philosophy and psychology, and Henry James in
literature and fiction (author of such stories as "The Turn of the
Screw" and "Daisy Miller").
     William studied throughout Europe in his youth and was
interested in both science and art. He attempted to focus on
painting, but concluded that he was more gifted in the sciences. He
went on to study chemistry first, then anatomy and physiology,
disciplines he continued to study when he transferred to medical
school. He ultimately received a medical degree from Cambridge in
     But there was more to James' life than what these facts
reveal. He, like most of his siblings, suffered from minor physical
ailments and various psychological neuroses. He also found himself
in a great philosophical dilemma, unable to make sense of his life.
One fateful reading, however, turned his entire life around; he was
reading an article by the Frenchman Charles Renouvier about human
freedom and free will. Suddenly James seemed able to find an order
in the chaos and formulate from some of Renouvier's ideas about
free will a rational and optimistic view of the world.
     From that point on his life was on an upswing until the day he
died. He began teaching as a professor at Harvard first in
physiology, then in psychology, and then in philosophy. Upon
marrying Alice Howe in 1878, his health and spirits lifted even
more, and he was generally known from that point on as an energetic
and charming person. 
     William James was very popular. His strides and insights in
philosophy are matched and perhaps even surpassed by his mastery of
human psychology. Many Americans and international figures thought
of him as the intellectual ambassador of the United States, for
like America, he was known for his energy, frankness, and humanism.
He was well known for his great kindness, curiosity, and warmth--
all excellent traits for any good philosopher.


     William James had no intention of pursuing topics he felt had
no practical value to the average person; as a result, his work is
remarkably readable, straight-forward, warm, and filled with common
     His primary interest was in what improved the lives of
humankind, and from this stems two main subjects among many he
wrote about: his justification for the belief in religion and
     Being raised under a very religious father, James had a
natural interest in the role religion played in people's lives. But
his angle on the age-old question of God and religion was fresh and
innovative; he chose not to determine whether God truly existed or
not, but rather whether the consequences of people's belief in God
were beneficial to them or not. Here he clearly called upon his
understanding of human psychology to assert that the belief in God
and religion was in fact a viable belief, and just as rational as
the scientific view of agnosticism and atheism.
     First, he set up the hypothesis that God either exists or does
not exist. We as intelligent human beings have a choice to believe
in God's existence or not; we take the evidence and are free to
make our own conclusions. James showed that the evidence can only
go so far before one realizes that, on this issue, the argument can
be made either for or against God with equal strength and validity.
Therefore, the option is ours to make, but it is an option we MUST
make because it is "forced" and "momentous"; "forced" because there
is no in-between, middle ground on the issue, and "momentous"
because the decision we make will greatly affect our lives. James
believed that God was a viable "living" option for many people,
because no good evidence good refute it empirically, it empirically
was compatible to reality, and people live productive lives because
of it. Therefore, God is not only an option according to James, but
a good one for many people. On many occasions James said that such
a belief was preferable to atheism, although he respected that
belief as well. 
     This was an unpopular opinion in a time when many philosophers
and scientists were rejecting God and religion. It was generally
thought of by many as a moot issue with too little evidence to make
any real conclusion about, but James boldly showed that it is too
important an issue to simply have no opinion about. Agnostics and
people who chose not to address the issue were essentially
nonbelievers in God for all intents and purposes, according to
James. This all ties directly into his concept of the right and
"will to believe" (which is the title of one of his most famous
essays); it applies to any "living," "momentous," and "forced"
moral options in our lives, including religion.
     This relatively unorthodox method of evaluating religion based
on its consequences is also part of the theory of "pragmatism" that
C.S. Pierce first coined, and William James quickly elaborated and
revised upon. James did not believe that truth is some absolute
state of things, and even if it was, it would be beyond human
understanding. Instead he thought truth "happens to an idea"; an
idea is made, and if it works compatibly with life and nature, it
is essentially true.
     James said ideas must have a "cash-value" for us as humans if
we are to use them and consider them true. Many of the issues he
saw being discussed by philosophers were ideas with no "cash-
value"; believing in them or disbelieving in them affected one's
life in no way. If certain ideas do not affect our lives, they are
essentially ideas that have no meaning and should not really be
discussed. This view is essentially "pragmatism"; an idea is only
as true as it practically helps you by believing in it. Ideas must
be practical and empirically compatible to be considered true or
not, though; you can't just believe in ANYTHING you want, because
if an idea doesn't square away with the "brute facts" of nature, it
can only hurt you and fool you. 
     He also tried to show that pragmatism is not only a theory
about what is true or not, but also a method of resolving disputes.
He believed that if parties who disagree over a certain issue look
at the practical consequences of that debate, they can settle the
issue pragmatically. If the two opinions make no practical
difference from each other, the dispute is merely verbal; it is a
misunderstanding or failure to communicate terms, not a real issue
or real disagreement on the hard facts of the matter.
     Other than the belief in God, James believed it was
pragmatically preferable to believe in free will as well. This is
apparently an issue that plagued him in his younger days, but one
that he seemingly solved in his later life. He believed that any
religion, or at least any satisfactory system of thought, must
provide in it a belief that the individual is able to make a
difference in the world. Without that, he felt there was no
emotional gratification or motivation for living a productive life.


     Some of the books you will find regarding the philosophy of
William James are in compilations of his essays; this makes for
good reading, for James' directness suits him well for the medium
of essay. You can just browse and choose which subject you wish to
read about.
     -The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy
(1897). These essays include "The Will to Believe," "The Sentiment
of Rationality," and "The Dilemma of Determinism." Each title tells
you exactly what the essays are about, and these posit some of
James's most famous ideas about free will and the right of the
thinking individual to choose.
     -Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (1907).
This book is THE text that defines and elaborates upon James's
notion of pragmatism. He primarily talks about the theory and
nature of truth, and tries to prove his philosophy that ideas are
as true as they are practical. This book and its thesis were
incredibly popular at that time, for, as the subtitle suggests, it
seemed James had finally pinpointed and articulated what many
thinkers had been thinking all along.
     -The Meaning of Truth: A Sequel to "Pragmatism" (1909). As the
title says, this is a continuation of those concepts first
presented in Pragmatism. It is here that James attempts to address
the criticism that his pragmatism can justify ANY belief; he shows
that ideas must square away with "brute facts" and empirical data
in order to work. He also elaborates upon the nature of truthful
ideas, so this basically complements those notions presented in
     -Principles of Psychology (1890). The psychological subject
matter in this two volume work was not discussed in this overview,
but it is worth looking into nonetheless. James was every bit the
psychologist as he was the philosopher, and his ideas presented in
these books are still considered by many psychologists as major
texts for current psychology.


     There is a unique appeal to James's frankness and down-to-
earth quality, but this style is also a double-edged sword. There
is a strange, vague intuition that James uses and justifies, but
what is this intuition? It was never defined. He wields common
sense brilliantly, but he occasionally seems to oversimplify the
issues at hand by addressing them so vaguely and generally.
     There is something to pragmatism that still reeks of reckless
ideological abandonment; couldn't you essentially justify belief in
anything? James was quick try to counter the critics in his own
lifetime by underscoring that beliefs need to be empirically
compatible in order to be "living;" if they aren't living, they are
not viable and are thus just some idea that someone is pretending
to really believe in. Still, he seems to dangle very close to
rampant subjectivism, which seemingly was not his exact intention.
Many critics feel he never conquered this criticism.
     Overall, it is James's language that seems to come into
question the most. Oftentimes it is very vague, asking as many
questions as it attempts to answer. Take, for example, in his essay
"The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life:" he says of determining
whether something is right or wrong, "the nobler thing tastes
better." What does that mean? He is almost poetic at times, and he
seems to concede to a certain incomprehension of the scheme of
morality. Nonetheless, many critics do not appreciate this
intuitive, vague approach. What James gains in level-headed, common
sense, he seems to lose in precision and definition. He gauges
reality with the strict rules of science, being the educated
scientist that he was, but then seems to fly into arbitrary
faithfulness and intuition when the facts fall short of the issue.
Like so many philosophers, he at times can be just as inconsistent
as he can be eloquent and insightful.


Editor: Paul O'Brien
Faculty Advisor: David C. Lane
Publisher: Mt. SAC Philosophy Group, Mt. San Antonio College,
Walnut, CA Phone: (909) 594-5611 (ext. 4593)
ISSN: 1052-1402