Talk:The Will to Believe

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Article title[edit]

According to Wikipedia's manual of style, Philosophies, doctrines, and systems of economic thought do not begin with a capital letter. So we could rename the article "Will to believe doctrine", or just "Will to believe". However, I suggest naming it by the title of his essay "The Will to Believe", which was also the title of the collection of essays published in 1897.--Blainster 03:27, 13 August 2006 (UTC)

ATF: This may just be me, but I would go for "will to believe doctrine" rather than "The Will to Believe." James seems to have a tendency to name his books with his positions (e.g. Pragmatism) but there isn't an entry for that work of his either. Plus, I just generally think positions, doctrines and schools deserve primacy over essays and books. - Atfyfe () 18:46, 13 August 2006 (UTC)

"The Will to Believe" chronology[edit]

Here is the chronology as reported in James' biographical timeline from William James Writings, 1902–1910 (Library of America), and R. B. Perry's Essays on Faith and Morals by James:

  • Spring, 1896 – Lecture, "The Will to Believe" is given to philosophical clubs at both Yale and Brown Universities.
  • June, 1896 – Essay is published in the New World
  • December 1896 – James signs the preface for the book, The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy
  • March 1897 – The book is published by Longmans, Green, & Co. However, Perry states in his 1912 preface to Essays in Radical Empiricism and also in the 1942 preface to Essays on Faith and Morals that the book was published in 1898. Evidence mitigates against Perry's late date for several reasons: first, James finished the book by the end of 1896, and press production of three months was more typical for the time; second, both month and date of publication are given by editor Bruce Kuklick in the Writings timeline; and finally, Perry has made just this sort of date error previously. In his preface to Essays in Radical Empiricism he stated that James had deposited the early version of the 12 essay collection bearing that title, to the Harvard Library in 1907. James had indeed written up a list of prospective contents for a book of that name in mid-1907, but he had deposited the collection in the library back in August 1906 for the use of his students in the fall term (the library collection bears the August 1906 date stamp). This is described in the 1976 Harvard critical edition of Essays in Radical Empiricism, p. 200–203. Still, it would be useful to gather some more evidence either way. --Blainster 20:34, 19 August 2006 (UTC)
ATF: Great stuff! Good digging Blainster. --Atfyfe () 21:28, 19 August 2006 (UTC)

Thanks. If it means anything, Googling ("The Will to Believe" 1897) brings up 12,600 hits, but ("The Will to Believe" 1898) yields 893 hits. --Blainster 21:33, 19 August 2006 (UTC)

  • I just noticed that the 1976 Harvard critical edition of Essays in Radical Empiricism cites The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy on p. xii with an 1897 publication date. With this, I think, definitive support, I will change the date in the article to 1897. --Blainster 22:12, 19 August 2006 (UTC)

Can we quote and put this chronology of the doctrine into the actual entry as a new section? -Atfyfe 03:42, 6 November 2007 (UTC)

Intro paragraph[edit]

I think the first paragraph could be improved in two ways. It should be an introduction that does not surprise the general reader with graduate level terms like evidentialism and especially hypothetico-deductivism. The casual searcher needs something they can understand without having to resort to checking links or references. It is better to save the big guns for the development of the discussion anyway. Secondly, the subject of the article should have their case presented first, before it is criticized, except perhaps in the instance of obviously extremist or fringe theories. Since James has had a significant influence on American philosophy as well as psychology, I think he deserves a hearing first. The present version delves into judgement and then analysis of the doctrine without explaining what it is. --Blainster 03:44, 26 August 2006 (UTC)

(1) I'll try re-writing the second section so that it does more than just repeat in techincal language the information already presented in the intro. I can give some more history and perhaps turn that into more of a history section. (2) I'll also look to add a good number of references to add. (3) I think the Russell quote should be cited as an example of unfair criticism rather than listed as a serious criticism. - Atfyfe 00:55, 15 April 2007 (UTC)

There were a few redundancies I took out of the intro, but it still needs work. There are some style issues with the rest of the article as well. Jeff Wimbush 17:19, 12 July 2011 (UTC) — Preceding unsigned comment added by Jeffwimbush (talkcontribs)

Criticism Section[edit]

While this is a fairly short article, I thought it might be good to add a criticism section, if only because Bertrand Russell offers some great points in his study A History of Western Philosophy and in a lesser known essay by Russell titled "The Ancestry of Fascism". Any objections? --Teetotaler

That would be great! - Atfyfe 18:41, 14 April 2007 (UTC)

Cleaned out some (not all) of the POV stuff in the Crticism Section and added another quote, this one from Walter Kaufmann. --Teetotaler{{subst:image source|Image:1897-James-TheWillToBelieve.gif)) Betacommand (talkcontribsBot) 00:21, 25 May 2007 (UTC) {{missing rationale|Image:1897-James-TheWillToBelieve.gif

Feedback about article[edit]

I read it. The initial paragraph is understandable. Then the article brings in terms and ways of phrasing concepts that take the level of writing up some distance over my head, and I have a master's degree (in an unrelated field), so I wouldn't say I'm just uneducated. IMHO since this is a general encyclopedia rather than a sophisticated special-purpose reference tool, I, or someone like me, should be able to understand all or nearly all of this article without recourse to other Wikipedia articles, a dictionary of philosophy, or a friend with a degree in the field to do us a favor by rendering the content into upper-middlebrow lay language. Songflower 19:12, 12 July 2007 (UTC)


This article is about the essay: The Will to Believe and what William James argued therein; we should use that title, instead of devising the "will to believe doctrine". Septentrionalis PMAnderson 05:28, 18 November 2008 (UTC)

I'm not an expert on James, but have studied the WtB essay pretty carefully. The main exposition of the doctrine here seems to miss what's most important about the position articulated in that essay. I really think a complete re-write is called for. To get some idea what's missing here, see e.g. this ( page for a good outline that hits the high points of the doctrine as expressed in the essay. (e.g. that the doctrine is only supposed to hold for choices that are forced, momentus, etc.) —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 18:52, 11 January 2009 (UTC)

I would perhaps agree: The first section of this article seems to contain more (OR?) interpretation of James than it contains exposition of what James argued! The Jade Knight (talk) 22:49, 4 April 2009 (UTC)
Maybe if you spent less time editing the talkpage and more time editing the main article it wouldn't be so shitty.-- (talk) 15:51, 21 November 2010 (UTC)
The main section is about the doctrine James was defending in the Will to Believe (and elsewhere). That is why the section is titled "The Doctrine". If you want an outline of the article, then feel free to write it. - Atfyfe (talk) 19:19, 21 November 2010 (UTC)

Recent Changes to the Introduction[edit]

First, I am excited to see another editor on this entry. But I worry about some of the changes. Here are my worries:

"James' central argument in "The Will to Believe" is that the foundations of all beliefs are ultimately more "passional" than they are rational, and as cultural (or generally contextual) as they are individual."

James isn't talking about all of our beliefs, but only the ones for which the evidence or truth comes after belief. Furthermore, I don't know about the claim that they are more passional than rational, since he is arguing that it is rational for our beliefs to be passional in these cases. Furthermore, I am not clear on what "or general contextual" means.

"Our "will" to believe amounts to what he calls a "clincher" -- the desire to believe what we already believe."

Where does James use this term "clincher"? Furthermore, a "will" is not just a clincher. I presume you mean that our will plays the role of a clincher. I do agree that our "desire to believe what we already believe" does seem to play a role, but that isn't all that this doctrine amounts to.

"This does not invalidate our beliefs: indeed, all truth, whether religious, philosophical, or even scientific, is based upon belief."

I don't know what you are saying here. No one really disputes that our beliefs are based upon our beliefs. This doctrine certainly does not amount to this mere truism.

"Further, beliefs become reality by being acted upon..."

I am not sure how beliefs become "reality" but I presume you mean "true". However, James' Will to Believe doesn't concern all beliefs, only the small set whose truth depends on our first believing them. You might also be running together James' pragmatism with his Will to Believe doctrine, which he is very careful to keep seperate. James' Will to Believe doctrine is entirely distinct from his pragmatism (as James states many times). He means to be giving an argument that has independent force even if pragmatism wasn't true.

" the same manner that my belief that I will be able to accomplish some hard task makes it possible for me to accomplish that hard task, or that my belief in a just God might make me a moral person."

James never says that a belief in God makes it possible for you to be a moral person. I am not sure where you are getting this claim.

"In terms of religion, James argues, against agnosticism, that to wait for some ultimate truth before deciding is absurd:"

Well, James isn't that harsh. He allows someone to use their will differently than he does. James isn't arguing that agnostics shouldn't believe the way they do, only that agnosticism is just as much an issue of a will to believe as being religious.

" should decide to believe or not to believe based on the insufficient evidence that is all that we ever will have."

No. James never says this. James' entire argument is based on the idea that we can get to the truth and the evidence for that truth by first believing on insufficient evidence. For example, you first believe you can accomplish some hard task on insufficient evidence, that belief gives you the confidence to accomplish that task, and then it is both true that you can accomplish that task AND you come to have evidence that you can (i.e. you accomplish it).

Given all of these concerns, I am going to go ahead and revert the introduction back to its original state. I hope you see my reasons for doing so.

- Atfyfe (talk) 06:29, 3 June 2011 (UTC)