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William James

            William James (1842-1910) taught anatomy, physiology, psychology, and philosophy at Harvard.  He came back from the brink of suicide (1870) by deciding to adopt a belief in the freedom of the will.  Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer portrayed organisms in challenging environments solving problems.  WJ's psychology emphasized that the value of an idea is to enable the organism successfully to cope with the future.  An idea, thus, is best regarded as a hypothesis to act on, such that future experience will either lead one to revise it or not.  Plato had described trans-philosophic experiences of beauty and goodness; and Aquinas and Descartes had offered proofs for the existence of God; but Kant had argued that the theoretical reason cannot resolve our urgent metaphysical questions about God, freedom, and the soul.  How could pragmatism offer a way for a late nineteenth century. American scientist and philosopher to make affirmations about what could not be proven?

                        For WJ the will is the primary function of the person.  According to "The Sentiment of Rationality," some questions can be answered by establishing facts scientifically and some questions can be answered by logic; but the other questions engage our sense of beauty and our will (42, 44).  For WJ the will is higher than the intellect.  Some truths depend upon our decision and action.  To call a belief true is to affirm that experience has given no reason to reject it and to predict that people will eventually agree.

            The Sentiment of Rationality.  First segment of the essay, 1879 (pp. 3-11).  Philosophers desire a more rational conception of the universe, but can only recognize such a conception by subjective marks: “a strong feeling of ease, peace, rest”; “the transition from a state of puzzle and perplexity” is characterized by “lively relief and pleasure” [hence the title, “The Sentiment of Rationality”].  Only when the flow of our thinking encounters obstacles do we feel a sense of the irrational; otherwise, things make sense; things seem to be normally intelligible, understandable, rational.  The theoretic approach is one possible way to enhance the sense of rationality.

            The theoretic approach proceeds by some combination of (i) the striving for unity, e.g., the scientific striving for ever more encompassing theories) and (ii) a complementary striving for a clear and distinct grasp of concrete parts.  Theory culminates in classification (which, because it abstracts from the empirical [experiential] richness of particulars, presents a notion of essence which is inevitably incomplete) and in laws of the relations between classifications and of the conduct of the elements thus classified.

            "Every way of classifying a thing is but a way of handling it for some particular purpose."  (7-8)

            In the absence of a satisfactory total system (accounting smoothly for everything), we are left in wonder.  “Existence then will be a brute fact [i.e., resisting full theoretical expanation] to which as a whole the emotion of ontologic wonder [i.e., wonder in the very fact that it is] shall rightfully cleave, but remain eternally unsatisfied.”

            Second segment of the essay, 1882.  Sometimes competing accounts are equally acceptable on logical grounds.  How shall we decide between them?  We may use Aesthetic and practical tests of rationality. 

            Every person has a psychological need to “in a general way at least, banish uncertainty from the future” (13).  Every animal has a vital need to anticipate the opportunities and dangers connoted by surrounding objects (14).  Science, religion, and philosophy respond to these needs. (13-16).

            An appealing philosophy must provide meaningful challenge to our powers (16-20).  In other words, it must provide an invigorating challenge to our capacities, but must promise that the universe rewards our supreme effort, that striving is not futile.

            Every kind of action requires faith, not necessarily in the specifically religious sense, but in a broad sense—a readiness to act beyond what is scientifically certain (22-26).  Faith is necessary to arrive at some truths which can only be achieved by acting on a certain hypothesis.

            For the mountain climber at risk, faith creates its own verification (27).  It is necessary to decide whether life is worth living (29).  It is possible to live out the pessimistic hypothesis, so as to cultivate disgust and dread, leading one to cease striving and finally to commit suicide.  There is another possibility, however, which regards evil as necessary to stimulate a vigorous response: then, if we are overwhelmed by evil, it is we who are sick (26-31).

            The most basic question is whether or not the universe is moral (31).  The hypothesis of a moral universe is testable; if it is rational, then experience based on this hypothesis will not lead humanity, in the end to revise the hypothesis (34).  [That is the only meaningful sense in which the hypothesis may be said to be true.]  There is no neutral ground.  To refuse to decide is to decide not to engage in the heroic living demanded by the (hypothetical) moral universe (17).  Thousands of people are paralyzed by the pseudo-scientific sophistry that claims that one must await full evidential confirmation before making any risky commitment to any philosophic hypothesis about the universe (36). 

            In sum, faith is necessary to a rational philosophy; faith brings about its own verification (or disconfirmation, as facts increasingly baffle the experimenter).  Difference and disagreement are inevitable in philosophy.  Therefore, there can be no philosophic orthodoxy.  Beyond the realm where reason seeks for universal and necessary truths, there is a realm where the soul may risk faith.


Foreign phrases

Pro tanto: for as much

Par excellence: the best example

Grau . . .: Dear friend, all theory is gray and the golden tree of life is green.

In se: in itself

Verstandesmenschen: men of (merely scientific) understanding

Das Behaarliche: that which stubbornly persists

Per substantiam: in terms of (an underlying, stable) substance

Unheimlichkeit: an uncanny feeling of strangeness, “un-[at-]home-ness”

Was fang’ich an?  What shall I begin?

Sursum corda: rising mood

Per se: through itself

Aberglaube: superstition

Inconcussum: that which is unchallengeable, cannot be broken in a collision

Hier gilt . . . : Here only one advice is valid: trust and act.

Aufklarung: Enlightenment

Vim naturae magis sentient: feel more greatly the force of nature

Status belli: the state of [the] war

Vanitas vanitatum: vanity of vanities

Ubique, semper, et ab omnibus: everywhere, always, and by all