William James on Science

by Luke Muehlhauser on January 29, 2010 in Quotes,Science


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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Jeff H January 30, 2010 at 7:42 am

This is interesting, considering that about five years later he published “The Varieties of Religious Experience”, wherein he seems to, at any rate, judge religious experiences not by their truth value, but rather by the consequences they had for the person. In other words, “Did it lead them to be a better person? Then I guess it was a good thing.”

Apparently it doesn’t seem that he thought these people were so “besotted and contemptible” after all. But perhaps I’m simply misunderstanding him; I’m not an expert on James.


Leon January 30, 2010 at 8:13 pm

Excellent quote. I searched for the source, and realized it is “The Will To Believe”, which, as I understand it, is an argument for the legitimacy of faith (or something like it) on “pragmatic” grounds (see here for an outline and here for excerpts). Time to slog through the whole essay!


Lorkas January 31, 2010 at 9:18 pm

It does look like you may have made yourself a victim of a quote-miner, Luke, but I’m not sure. James says the following in the essay you quoted:

The thesis I defend is, briefly stated, this: Our passional nature not only lawfully may, but must, decide an option between propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds.

Presumably, James is either using a rhetorical flourish in the quote you provided (and he would afterward provide an argument that sentimentalists aren’t actually “besotted and contemptible” even though they seem that way), or he’s referring to people who form beliefs that are in clear contradiction of the facts, such as creationists, and not people who make claims for which there are no facts one way or the other. It sounds like James thinks that the existence or nonexistence of God is a question that “cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds”.

It is quite a nice quote for a scientist, though.


lukeprog January 31, 2010 at 10:42 pm


I don’t think what James says above is inconsistent with the part you quoted. And anyway, I’m not interested in the quote than with who said it, but of course I must give attribution.


Conor Gilliland February 6, 2010 at 11:51 am


James is certainly not advocating the position you have here quoted. He is setting it up as a misleading approach to inquiry. If you read on, in the next chapter he reveals his point:

“Yet if any one should thereupon assume that intellectual insight is what remains after wish and will and sentimental preference have taken wing, or that pure reason is what then settles our opinions, he would fly quite as directly in the teeth of the facts.”

And then he goes on to defend this thesis.


Justin February 12, 2010 at 6:39 am

The most impressive leaps in theoretical science have depended on “private dreams.”


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