Chapter 20. "The Will to Believe" by William James

Table of Contents
Ideas of Interest from The Will to Believe
The Reading Selection from The Will to Believe
Related Ideas
Topics Worth Investigating

William James, Thoemmes

About the author…

William James (1842-1909), both a philosopher and a psychologist, was an early advocate of pragmatism. He thought that a belief is true insofar as it "works," is useful, or satisfies a function. On this theory, truth is thought to be found in experience, not in judgments about the world. James had a most profound "arrest of life"— one quite similar to Tolstoy's as described in the first section of these readings. While Tolstoy's solution to his personal crisis was spiritual, James advocated the development of the power of the individual self. In this effort, James exerted a greater influence on twentieth century existential European thought than he did on twentieth century American philosophy.

About the work…

In his Will to Believe and Other Essays,[1] James argues that it is not unreasonable to believe hypotheses that cannot be known or established to be true by scientific investigation. When some hypotheses of ultimate concern arise, he argues that our faith can pragmatically shape future outcomes. Much as in Pascal's Wager, by not choosing, he thinks, we lose possibility for meaningful encounters.

Ideas of Interest from The Will to Believe

  1. Carefully explain James' genuine option theory. In his characterization of three types of options, does James commit the fallacy of false dichotomy?

  2. How can one be sure an option is momentous? Is is possible some momentous options are not evident to us at the time they occur in our lives? Is is possible for us to obtain a second chance to decide a momentous option? Can you construct necessary and sufficient conditions[2] for an option to be a momentous one?

  3. James applies his theory to morals, social relations, and religion. Are there any other dimensions of living which should be included? Why cannot the genuine option theory be applied to the scientific method? How is option theory applied to the problem of free will?

  4. Discuss whether or not acceptance of the genuine option theory and James' thesis, itself, is a momentous option in a person's life. Could such a decision be related to the philosophy of existentialism?

  5. Can you construct an example where James' thesis is false? I.e., is it possible for our passional nature to decide an option which cannot be decided on intellectual grounds and have a disastrous result?



William James. The Will to Believe and Other Essays. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1897.


A necessary condition is a factor in the absence of which a specific event cannot take place. A necessary condition is indispensable or is essential for some other event to occur. For example, the presence of oxygen is a necessary condition for a fire to occur. A condition x is necessary for condition y, if whenever x does not occur, then y does not occur. A sufficient condition is that factor in the presence of which an event always occurs. A sufficient condition is always enough for some other event to occur. For example, in the U.S., having ten dimes is sufficient for having a dollar, but having ten dimes is not necessary to have a dollar because one could also have a dollar by having four quarters. Subjunctively, a sufficient condition can be expressed in the formula, "If factor p should occur, then factor q would also occur." This subjunctive conditional statement also expresses q as a dispositional property of p.