William James, the late 19th and early 20th century American psychologist and philosopher, turned against the modern philosophical tradition with his philosophy of pragmatism. Specifically, James disagreed with the well-established philosophical theories that one can build existential truths from a single foundation, that sharp divisions exist between mental and temporal entities, that we know the world through mental representations. James' writings on pragmatism emphasized the practical relevance of philosophy in everyday human life.
He was a proponent of the empirical testing of ideas, and his philosophy revolved around the pragmatic maxim, which defines the meaning of an idea or belief as the sum of its conceivable practical effects. In his address to the Philosophical Clubs of Yale and Brown Universities, The Will to Believe, James argues that we are justified in holding beliefs that have desirable practical effects and that add meaning to our lives.
The modern British mathematician and philosopher, Bertrand Russell, disagreed with James' The Will to Believe in his chapter on William James in his 1945 book, History of Western Philosophy. In this chapter, Russell argues that James' theory is illogical and absurd. Russell's essay, however, is not a well-formed rebuttal of James' theory because Russell misinterprets The Will to Believe. He thinks that James mistakenly equates true beliefs with beliefs that are desirable.
James does not feel it is justified in holding beliefs that make us happy, but only under certain circumstances (which Russell ignores). Instead of refuting the logic of James' claims about truth, he applies these claims to inappropriate examples in orders to ridicule James. He also makes it sound as if James is referring to truth in the traditional sense, instead of acknowledging James' pragmatist interpretation. Lastly, he argues that James' theory is too concerned with the petty interests of humans.
However, James' goal as a philosopher was to improve the human condition, which Russell fails to mention. Due to the fact that Russell misunderstands James' arguments in The Will to Believe and fails to include the context in which these arguments were formed (including pragmatism's definition of truth and the objective of James' philosophy) his criticism of James is unconvincing.
[...] Due to the fact that Russell misunderstands James' arguments in Will to Believe” and fails to include the context in which these arguments were formed (including pragmatism's definition of truth and the objective of James' philosophy) his criticism of James is unconvincing. In Will to Believe,” James argues that under certain conditions we have the right to hold faith-based beliefs. The first of these conditions is that the option of whether or not to adopt the belief must be “genuine.” For James, options that fit into the “genuine” category are forced, and momentous.” For an option to be it must appeal to the individual and be deserving of serious consideration. [...]
[...] In summary, Russell over-simplifies James' concepts, fails to acknowledge James' conditions for faith-based belief, and fails to mention the wider implications of James' philosophical concepts and overarching objectives. For these reasons, Russell's chapter on James in History of Western Philosophy is an incomplete and unconvincing criticism of Will to Believe.” Ironically, the arguments Russell makes in other essays, such as I Am Not A Christian” and Religion Made Useful Contributions to Society?” constitute a more convincing rebuttal of Will to Believe” because they argue that religion is detrimental to human progress, and the central idea of Will to Believe” [...]
[...] Yet, if it is impossible to know when we have reached truth, how do we “gain an ever better position towards Recall that James is not using the conventional definition of truth, which holds that truth is the correspondence of belief with absolute reality. James rejects absolutes and focuses on truth as it relates to human lives. He is a proponent of the unorthodox claim that “faith in a fact can help create the fact” (731). For example, the mountaineer who believes he can leap the chasm succeeds, whereas the unfortunate hiker who does not believe in his abilities falls to his death. [...]
[...] First he quotes James from Will to Believe”: the hypothesis of God works satisfactorily in the widest sense of the word, it is true.” Then he states: have always found that the hypothesis of Santa Claus ‘works satisfactorily in the widest sense of the world'; therefore ‘Santa Claus exists' is true, although Santa Claus does not exist” (818). First, this example is somewhat inappropriate in the context of Will to Believe.” Whereas James' existential examples are genuine for most people (atheism vs. [...]
[...] In Will to Believe,” James only uses examples of beliefs that become truer because they are believed. One could argue that there is no such thing as a belief that becomes true merely by being believed (indeed, this is James' most dubious claim), but Russell entirely declines to acknowledge James' arguments in this regard. Overall, due to the fact that Russell's example of Santa Claus is not a genuine, un-investigable belief that becomes true by virtue of faith, it does not fit in with the other examples of James' Will to Believe.” Although Russell would have been more convincing if he had chosen to analyze something more appropriate than the belief in Santa Claus, one could argue that Russell's example is still relevant. [...]
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