Bob Corbett

Class lecture. Summer 2000

This essay is of special interest to our course since a significant part of it is concerned with critical thinking. James doesn't call it that, he talks about it as the scientific methods of seeking truth, or in other places as empiricism. I think such methods and seeking are exactly what I mean by critical thinking.

Thus I want us to devote a bit of time to the CONTENT of James' essay and not only to use it as a TOOL for critical analysis. There is an important sense in which almost any article which made a claim would be a useful tool for studying the skills of critical thinking since we could analyze the argument and criticize it. We wouldn't need to care much about the content of the article itself. However, with all three essays I have chosen for this course, I personally find them fascinating and thus have allowed a "unit" on each where we talk about the content.

First, a bit of background on the THEME (topic) [not the thesis] of James' paper. William James was a philosopher/theologian/scientist/professor at Harvard University at the end of the last century. In the 19th century science had made phenomenal gains in understanding the world and the people of the world had developed a significant degree of respect for the scientific method, even though most had only the vaguest idea what this method was. It was a common place that there were some serious conflicts between science and religion. One of the questions that often arose, and it is James' question, is: Can the reasonable scientist really believe in religion or is it some terrible failure of good sense on the part of a scientist (critical thinker) to believe in religion. Put simply: Is religious faith a reasoned option?

James also tells us in the first few lines, that while this paper was read to the student philosophy club of Yale and Brown Universities -- undergrads -- that it is not a technical paper and not a paper for philosophers or specialists. I think this is true of the time he did it, 1896, but things aren't today what they were then. You may well find the paper difficult and technical. I won't apologize for that. It is well written and carefully argued. It's a useful exercise in critical thinking.

The thesis is James' answer to this question in 15 words or less. The reasons for the thesis are the major considerations or reasons he advances for why we should believe that particular thesis.

It is important to note that section I introduces the theme as I did above. Sections II to VII are really "preliminaries," or background information, or, perhaps a short but excellent course in critical thinking.

Then comes the thesis and defense of thesis in the remaining parts, VII (it has a dual purpose) X.


In the sections that don't deal as directly with the "theme" nor thesis nor arguments for the thesis, there are some brilliant insights into critical thinking. (Sections I to VII)

James makes his famous distinctions concerning options. He claims that we have options for belief which may be described as:

  1. Live or dead. This concerns whether or not the option (any proposed belief), makes any serious and honest psychological appeal to us. If an option is "dead," just makes no appeal at all, then reasons, truth, critical thinking, science and all the rest are likely not to matter at all. It is only with live options that we might come to belief a hypothesis (an argument).
  2. Forced or avoidable. Fairly clear. Can we postpone a decision or not? Will the stock market go up? I have no idea. Yes and no are both live options. But, since I am not an investor, I don't have to decide at all. I can just wait and see. On the other hand, the option: Will you come with me to Boston on the train in two minutes? is a forced option. You will or you won't. You can't not decide, at least not longer than for 2 minutes.
  3. Trivial or momentous. How big a deal is the risk or error? A trivial option is one where making a wrong decision isn't so terrible. A momentous option in one in which a wrong decision carries severe consequences. To use this toothpaste or that, is, for most of us, a trivial decision. If you don't give me your wallet I will shoot you, is a rather momentous decision for most of us.

I will give away one of the MINOR theses of this paper. James does hold, and develops a very powerful argument to support his thesis, that we do not have the psychological power to WILL an option (a belief) to be live or dead. That is, in the end, we can't really "choose" our beliefs just as we wish. Lots of things, and many of them are not rational, determine whether or not we will believe something.

In a section where James attacks skepticism [the notion that we cannot really know anything] James says this "As a rule we disbelieve all facts and theories for which we have not uses…" [Corbett interjects: I find this a strange claim. I think I tend not to have much a belief or awareness at all for many things for which I have no use. Is bridge an exciting game? I haven't any idea at all, and have no use for bridge. However, the question as to whether it is, in fact, an exciting game, is not something I disbelieve. I just don't have any belief. I don't really know what James has in mind here.]

James continues: "Evidently, then, our non-intellectual nature does influence our convictions. There are passional tendencies which run before and others which comes after belief, and it is only the latter than are too late for the fair… (for critical thinking)."

James agrees with the skeptics that we can't know things for absolute sure. But, he still thinks that for all serious purposes we can divide beliefs into two categories;

  1. Those which reason does in fact decide. (That 2 + 2 is 4 or that the sun rises in the east.)
  2. Those which it can't. (Virtually every claim for which serious minded people have serious minded disagreements.)

James claims that the there are two very different claims to ask about skepticism: which do you mean:

  1. There are no beliefs about which reason can decide.
  2. There are no beliefs about which we can know that we know.

James says that modern empirical philosophers (like himself) agree with the skeptics about the second, but not about the first.

On the other hand, James points out that the empiricists like himself and the most skeptical skeptic do agree on ONE claim: "I am conscious of what I am conscious of at this moment."

This does not mean that this consciousness in my mind refers to an external world, but if I am conscious of pink elephants on the wall, then I am conscious of them (whether or not they exist outside my mind). At least, says James, we have a common starting point: the objects of consciousness.


Later on in the course I have a time set aside when we talk about:

  1. the context of discovery


  2. the context of proof.

James had this distinction in mind (he didn't call it this) in this essay when he says:

"It matters not to an empiricist from what quarter an hypothesis may come to him; he may have acquired it by fair means or by foul; passion may have whispered it or accident suggested it; but if the total drift of thinking continues to confirm it, that is what he means by its being true."

We will come back to this later.


In the transition between the "preliminary" section and the thesis argument proper, James has a principle that fits in both:

There is an important difference between:

  1. Knowing the truth
  2. Avoiding error

The first embraces the principle: Better risk the loss of belief than suffer the chance of error.

The second embraces the principle: Better risk error than suffer the loss of the belief.

James believes [sub-thesis, not his main thesis] that this itself is a non-rational choice in any case where knowledge is not "forced." He gives reasons for that belief throughout the introduction.

Don't hesitate to write me with questions about the James paper or this brief set of comments.

Bob Corbett

My Philosophy Page Webster U. Philosophy Department

Philosophy for Children Critical Thinking Current Semester Education Existentialism
Miscellaneous Topics Moral Philosophy Peace Issues Voluntary Economic Simplicity


Bob Corbett