Topics Worth Investigating

  1. Compare James' momentous option theory as applied to eternal matters with Pascal's Wager concerning the existence of God. Notice also James quotes Pascal's phrase, "The heart has its reasons which reason does not know." How do these two accounts differ? Is James' genuine option theory just a modern restatement of Pascal's Wager? Is Pascal's Wager just one instantiation of James' momentous option theory?

  2. How would Bertrand Russell respond to James' conclusion: "I, therefore, for one, cannot see my way to accepting the agnostic rules for truth-seeking, or wilfully agree to keep my willing nature out of the game. I cannot do so for this plain reason that a rule of thinking which would absolutely prevent me from acknowledging certain kinds of truth if those kinds of truth were really there, would be an irrational rule." James, unlike Russell, seems unwilling to conclude we should have a disinterested view on topics of ultimate concern. Would Russell concede that, in some matters at least, faith does not prevent the "liberating" effects of doubt? Russell writes in an essay printed earlier in this text about the values of keeping an open mind and avoiding a pragmatic dogmatism:

    The value of philosophy is, in fact, to be sought largely in its very uncertainty. The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason. To such a man the world tends to become definite, finite, obvious; common objects rouse no questions, and unfamiliar possibilities are contemptuously rejected.[1]

  3. Discuss whether James' genuine option theory can or should be applied to the question of how I find a meaning in life. Discuss in some detail whether he agrees with Camus that I must impose a meaning on my life or whether he agrees with Tolstoy that I seek faith in order to find a meaning to my life.

  4. Carefully compare the use of the reductio ad absurdum proofs in philosophy and science with the application of James' genuine option theory to matters of morals, personal relations, and religion. Is his theory just that we must assume something is true in order to ascertain whether it really is so? Is the theory a "leap of faith" without any rational restrictions? On James' view, how could one rule out any of the beliefs of religious extremists?

  5. Can you think of two or three different kinds of examples where "faith in a fact can help create the fact"? How would this kind of faith differ from Nietzsche's notion of truth as "irrefutable error"?[2]

  6. In accordance with his option theory, James wrote, "The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitides." Even so, a theory of the origin of attitudes independently discovered by William James and Carl Georg Lange, known as the James-Lange theory, is the view that attitudes result from physiological changes. In other words, it is our reaction to a stimulus, not the stimulus itself that is the cause of our emotions. Fear does not result in our running from the bear; running from the bear results in our fear. James also held that sensations, emotions, and ideas are all part of the "stream of consciousness", whereas, formerly, ideas were presumed to be independent of emotions. Try to reconcile James' option theory with the James-Lange theory.



Bertrand Russell. The Problems of Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1912, 156-157.


See Friedrich Nietzsche's "Beyond Good and Evil" in this section of readings.