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Philosophy Book Summaries

William James (A History of Western Philosophy)

 William James was a psychologist who made important contributions to philosophy. He invented “radical empiricism” and was one of the three protagonists of the theory called “pragmatism” or “instrumentalism.” He came to be known as the leader of American philosophy.

In The Will to Believe, James argues that we are compelled to make decisions even when we lack enough theoretical grounds. Even to do nothing is a decision. We have a right to adopt a belief in God even though our ‘merely logical intellect’ may not have been convinced. Veracity

The moral duty of veracity, we are told, consists of two coequal precepts: ‘believe truth’, and ‘shun error’. The sceptic wrongly attends only to the second, and thus fails to believe various truths which a less cautious man will believe. If believing truth and avoiding error are of equal importance, I may do well, when presented with an alternative, to believe one of the possibilities at will, for then I have an even chance of believing truth, whereas I have none if I suspend judgment.

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy

An odd ethic would result from this, according to Russell.

The principle of pragmatism, according to James, was first articulated by C. S. Peirce, who
said that, in order to attain clearness in our thoughts of an object, we need only
consider what conceivable effects of a practical kind the object may involve. James says that the function of philosophy is to find out what difference it makes to you or me if this or that world-formula is true. In this sense, theories become instruments, not answers to enigmas.

An idea is true if it is profitable to our lives.

Truth is one species of good, not a separate category. Truth happens to an idea; it is made true by events. It is correct to say, with the intellectualists, that a true idea must agree with reality, but ‘agreeing’ does not mean ‘copying’. ‘To “agree” in the widest sense with a reality can only mean to be guided either straight up to it or into its surroundings, or to be put into such working touch with it as to handle either it or something connected with it better than if we disagreed.’ He adds that ‘the true is only the expedient in the way of our thinking … in the long run and on the whole of course’. In other words, ‘our obligation to seek truth is part of our general obligation to do what pays’.

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy

James insists that we cannot reject a hypothesis that produces useful consequences. If the hypothesis of God works, in the widest sense of the word, it is true. ‘We may well believe, on the proofs that religious experience affords, that higher powers exist and are at work to save the world on ideal lines similar to our own.’

Russell is not convinced with this doctrine. To believe something if its effects are good results in many complications. A historical fact, such as which year Columbus crosses the Atlantic (1492 or 1493) becomes subject to the effects of the belief (will it help me achieve higher marks?)

And the existence of Columbus is agreed upon because his existence caused the belief, and not because of the effects of the belief. ‘Santa Claus exists’ would be true, under James’ definition, even though he does not exist,

We come here to a fundamental difference between James’s religious outlook and that of
religious people in the past. James is interested in religion as a human phenomenon, but shows little interest in the objects which religion contemplates. He wants people to be happy, and if belief in God makes them happy let them believe in Him. This, so far, is only benevolence, not philosophy; it becomes philosophy when it is said that if the belief makes them happy it is ‘true’.

But to the man who desires an object of worship, this is not very convincing. He cannot say to himself, ‘If I believed in God I should be happy’, he wants to say, ‘I believe in God and therefore I am happy.’ God, for him, is an actual being, not merely a human idea which has desirable effects.


James’s doctrine is an attempt to build a superstructure of belief upon a foundation of scepticism, and like all such attempts it is dependent on fallacies. In his case the fallacies spring from an attempt to ignore all extra-human facts. Berkeleian idealism combined with scepticism causes him to substitute belief in God for God, and to pretend that this will do just as well. But this is only a form of the subjectivistic madness which is characteristic of most modern philosophy

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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