requiem for certainty

William James’s Ethics of Faith

with 11 comments

William James’s writings on philosophical ethics are a vexed collection.  Though James’s moral contributions are quite wide in their range, there can be little doubt that most of the attention he has received in these respects has been focused on his work on the ethics of belief, including the infamous essay “The Will to Believe”. (A quick and nonscientific survey of The Philosopher’s Index on April 23, 2010 revealed 91 hits for “Will to Believe” versus 6 hits for “Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life”, even though most commentators would regard as James’s most sustained contribution to philosophical ethics.)  For the most part, the interpretations and criticisms commonly put forward concerning the ethics of beliefs has tended to treat these writings in an isolated fashion that fails to make connections to James’s other contributions to philosophical ethics.

The standard treatment is unfortunate because what is needed is exactly what we lose by failing to take James seriously on these matters.  Faith, thought James, is much-needed in our world today.  But it something that many of us, myself included, know precious little about.  The causes of this would be difficult to discern.  But the story would probably have something to do with the late-nineteenth century culture wars between voluntaristic religious outlooks and evidentialist scientific outlooks.  The history of the twentieth century shows that science won that war.  Perhaps this was for the better.  But religion (or at least morality in a capacious sense, such that religion would be one species of the wider genus) provided something that science can never muster of its own accord, namely faith in uncertifiable possibility.  If there is no longer a place for traditional religion in our scientific culture, then it would behoove us to make a place for something else by which we might find our way to faith.  For faith is needful now more than ever, as James himself well understood over one hundred years ago.  We live, now more than ever, in a world of immense fragility, threadbare possibility, and thoroughgoing chance.  Finding oneself at home in such a world would be greatly assisted by founding faith within oneself.  Hence the importance of James’s contributions to ethics for us today.

So how can we come to recognize the importance of faith in James’s sense?  By putting WJ’s writings on the philosophical ethics of faith in conversation with his writings on the psychology of ethical self-transformation.  This means reading “The Will to Believe” alongside the “Will” chapter of the Principles.  Doing so enables us to see that James’s ethical defense of faith just is a defense of our capacities to make a difference in our own life where making a difference can never be guaranteed in advance of action but can only be acted upon as a mere possibility.

The full justification of this is something I’m not going to spell out here (but I’m working on an article on it).  But if you can buy what I’m saying without the full justification, then the result goes something like this.

James’s faith in freedom is best seen not as a defense of wishful thinking, as critics from Russell to Santayana have worried, it is rather better seen as a defense of hope within a universe of chance.  (And if you don’t believe that we late moderns live in such a universe today, see Ian Hacking’s The Taming of Chance.)  Hope is an eminently appropriate attitude to take for someone who finds themselves living in a reality awash in contingency.  James affirms with the critics of wishful thinking that we cannot fully control the lives in which find ourselves, but he also goes beyond those critics in insisting upon the possibility that we can yet transform our lives and often quite possibly for the better.  This reading of James borrows from a more general interpretation of his ethics in all of its various instantiations under the sign of meliorism (which is an -ism I make alot of heavy weather about in my book Pragmatism as Transition).  My claim is that meliorism has everything to do with both a proper understanding of James’s defense of faith and a solid appreciation of why such faith should be important for us today.

(The above taken for some draft notes for an article provisionally entitled ‘The Ethics of Faith & Self-Transformation in William James.’)


Written by Colin Koopman

April 26, 2010 at 4:33 am

11 Responses

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  1. is there some role here for something like Caputo’s take on a kind of faith-full openness to the coming of a deleuzian “event”, a hope in the promise of the coming/happening of we know not what, we know not when. perhaps a variation on a kind of negative capability, a response-ability, not so much a matter of will-power per say but perhaps a seeing-through?


    April 29, 2010 at 9:39 pm

  2. i’m all for that sort of thing but also not sure how to make much sense of it beyond holding it out there as an empty place. in some ways, though, that seems to me precisely what not to do, at least on James’s view, or probably more accurately, on my version of James’s view.

    colin koopman

    April 30, 2010 at 2:21 am

  3. This is a blanket assertion with no case or argument made for either “what for” or “why”:

    “For faith is needful now more than ever, as James himself well understood over one hundred years ago. We live, now more than ever, in a world of immense fragility, threadbare possibility, and thoroughgoing chance. Finding oneself at home in such a world would be greatly assisted by founding faith within oneself. Hence the importance of James’s contributions to ethics for us today.”


    May 5, 2010 at 5:12 pm

  4. By hinting that faith is inextricably tied up with ethics for James would it benefit us to take another look at Kant’s moral faith as a kind of hoping for continuous moral growth against all odds? It seems to me that James pretty much carries on this legacy of detaching faith from ontotheology and attaching it to ethics (but without the Kantian emphasis on a purely good will). Can one be a pragmatist/meliorist without harboring some kind of faith in the better possibilities of human existence? In another sense, James does seem to be rather focused on the “object” of faith–the Ultimate (not Absolute) God–and has a rather individualistic notion of faith. Dewey seems to offer a more consistently pragmatic and radically empirical account of religious experience.

    Joe Harroff

    June 8, 2010 at 12:18 pm

    • Joe– Couldn’t agree more. I think it pays to look at James in light of Kant but of course not through Kant. I discuss the comparison in the version of this that is now an essay in the drafting. I argue that James adopts something like the Kantian as-if perspective on ethics. One key difference, though, is that Kant looks to chain the will to something that enables control over whilst James looks to deploy the will to achieve something like transformation with. That’s sketchy, but hopefully it puts across the idea.

      colin koopman

      June 8, 2010 at 3:48 pm

      • I like the “with” as this seems to pick up on the tensions in James that Rorty lectured on between pragmatism and radical empiricism. and that no doubt had some part in Rorty coming out as a polytheistic Romantic, too bad Rorty always stayed so literally with texts and writing or he might have seen, as Hubert Dreyfus and others have, that Heidegger’s ideas of polytheism/calling/attunements/moods and all had some potential relations to our new understanding of neuro-phenomenology and post-Wittgenstein takes on conversions/socialization.
        joe what would “meliorism” mean if not making life better, Stanley Fish is possibly the best example I can think of a pragmatist who avoids some generalized/deweyan faith in improving whole communities, and so honors Rorty’s private/public split better than Rorty himself in some ways.


        June 9, 2010 at 1:51 pm

    • Yeah, I should also clarify that in discussing James’s faith I am more interested in his attempt to embolden our faith in our selves. Religious faith can be part of this, but it is something that I know precious little of. That’s not a justification, only an explanation.

      colin koopman

      June 9, 2010 at 8:28 pm

  5. Thank you, I have recently been searching for info approximately this topic for ages and yours is
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    May 30, 2014 at 7:39 am

    • thanks, louvenia. i’m not sure i follow your question, though. what source are you asking about?

      Colin Koopman

      May 30, 2014 at 3:00 pm

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