Volume 4, 1999
Philosophies of Religion, Art, and Creativity
Stephen F. Barker
James’ “The Will To Believe”
In “The Will to Believe,” William James affirms that we have some control over what we believe and asks how this control should be exercised. He rejects the evidentialists’ view that we ought to believe only when intellectual grounds make it quite sure that the belief is true. For him, “options” are choices among contrary beliefs. Some options are “living,” “forced,” and “momentous.” James’ thesis concerns belief-options that have these three features and where proof as to the truth is unavailable. He holds that in such cases we have a right to believe, provided believing has better consequences than not believing would. James is correct that sometimes it is permissible to believe without adequate grounds. His view is misleading, though, when he leaves the impression that this is so only where the option is living, forced, momentous, and not settleable by evidence. The right to believe has broader scope than this. Moreover, James’ right to believe presupposes a view of truth at odds with his later pragmatism.