requiem for certainty

Posts Tagged ‘james hope meliorism ethics self-transformation

William James’s Ethics of Faith

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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. Read the rest of this entry »


Written by Colin Koopman

April 26, 2010 at 4:33 am