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William James in Focus

Willing to Believe

William J. Gavin

Publication Year: 2012

William James (1842-1910) is a canonical figure of American pragmatism. Trained as a medical doctor, James was more engaged by psychology and philosophy and wrote a foundational text, Pragmatism, for this characteristically American way of thinking. Distilling the main currents of James's thought, William J. Gavin focuses on "latent" and "manifest" ideas in James to disclose the notion of "will to believe," which courses through his work. For students who may be approaching James for the first time and for specialists who may not know James as deeply as they wish, Gavin provides a clear path to understanding James's philosophy even as he embraces James's complications and hesitations.

Published by: Indiana University Press

Series: American Philosophy

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xii

Many thought that this kind of psychological subjectivism had no place in the cold logical circles of philosophy, where one sought objectivity and, ultimately, certainty. A strategy was undertaken to engage in some sort of “damage control,” that is, to allow sentimental concerns in “soft” areas like morality, interpersonal relationships, and religion, ...

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pp. xiii-xiv

For over four decades, I have had the opportunity to teach courses on American philosophy and William James in particular at the University of Southern Maine. I am most grateful for all the insights provided by USM students during this period of time. ...

List of Abbreviations

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pp. xv-xvi

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1. James’s Life: Will to Believe as Affirmation

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pp. 1-9

William James was born on January 11, 1842, in New York City, at the Astor House.1 His father’s father made a great deal of money. Among other things, he invested in the Erie Canal. At one time, he was reputed to be the second-richest person in New York State, after John Jacob Astor. James’s father inherited a considerable amount of this fortune; ...

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2. “The Will to Believe”: Policing versus Free-Roaming

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pp. 10-16

In 1879 and 1882, James published two parts of articles that collectively would become known as “The Sentiment of Rationality.” It is remarkable how much this early text anticipates his more mature and even his final positions in philosophy. He begins by looking over various conceptualizations of the universe ...

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3. The Principles of Psychology: Consciousness as a Constitutive Stream

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pp. 17-26

The Principles of Psychology (PP) James’s first major work, was twelve years in the making and earned for him the title “father of American psychology.” Initially, James adopted a “functional dualism” for this text, separating the domain of psychology from other domains, such as metaphysics: “Every natural science assumes certain data critically. ...

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4. The Varieties of Religious Experience: Mysticism as a Vague “Exemplar”

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pp. 27-35

The very title The Varieties of Religious Experience gives us a clue to James’s intent. The book itself is one long plea that religious experience is pervasive. Taking his examples from all areas of organized religion, James again and again ostensively makes this point—there is simply no ignoring the amount of “evidence” for religious experience. ...

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5. Pragmatism: Corridor as “Latent” and “The Will to Believe”

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pp. 36-44

Like many of his other texts, James’s contains both a manifest and a latent image. On the surface level, it is a “method only.” James describes it as a corridor with various topics leading to different rooms by our asking “What difference does it make?” if a given theory is true. It is a way of resolving issues rather than dissolving them. ...

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6. Metaphysics: Radical Empiricism and Pure Experience

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pp. 45-56

As is well known, in The Principles of Psychology (PP) James adopted a functional dualism, between psychology and philosophy, or thought and reality. However, his description of consciousness as selective and intentional was a “nascent attack” on the subject-object dichotomy. For several years after, James struggled with the issue of how to reject this dualistic division. ...

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7. “Pure” versus “Impure” Experience: Examples of Pure Experience

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pp. 57-65

The question of the availability of pure experience leads directly to the issue of language and to James’s ambivalence about language. The question of the availability of pure experience also constitutes the latent content of Essays in Radical Empiricism (ERE) and A Pluralistic Universe (PU). Let us take up the issue of language first. ...

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8. Challenges to “The Will to Believe”

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pp. 66-75

Challenges to “The Will to Believe” come from two sides, the Right and the Left. The “manifest” challenge comes from the Right and has traditionally been associated with the critique of A. J. Ayer and other positivists. It suggests that James was not as logically consistent as he should have been and that he should have been clearer. ...

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Conclusion: Pragmatism, Death, and “The Will to Believe”

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pp. 76-88

As was seen in the previous chapters, the importance of the individual was a topic central to James’s thought. This chapter will focus on how individuals comport themselves at the end of life insofar as this can be gleaned from the text of Pragmatism (Prag) itself. My analysis begins with an observation, perhaps with a detour of sorts. ...

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pp. 89-92

Questions remain. Did James really come to realize that a complete description of reality or pure experience was not to be had?1 That the “problem of being” could not be solved, so to speak? That one has to go on, knowing that there would be no final answer? That closure not only did not come today but indeed would never come and, hypothetically, even if it did come, we would reject it? ...


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pp. 93-102


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pp. 103-106


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pp. 107-111

E-ISBN-13: 9780253007957
Print-ISBN-13: 9780253007865

Page Count: 136
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: American Philosophy