Essay Drawing Lessons From James's Convictions


Paul Jerome Croce


Would William James Doubt?

Streams of William James 3/2 (Fall 2001): 15-16

One of the latest forms of with-it evangelicalism is the craze for the WWJD initials.It stands for "What Would Jesus Do?" and it adorns tee-shirts and hats and especially bright red wrist bands for an ardent band of true believers.It is an unembarrassed reminder that as evangelical Christians, they want to live their lives "with Jesus in the driver's seat," choosing actions that Jesus would do.My favorite rendition of this slogan was on a poster showing a strong, sweaty, and fashionably athletic young man riding a bike and wearing the WWJD wrist band prominently; the headline read: "Saving the World One Wrist at a Time."

Bracketing for now the worth of that religious enterprise and the extent to which evangelicals are also engaged in a range of other activities whose intolerance seems distinctly un-Christlike, this latest religious fashion raises questions about the possibility for finding guidance in the thoughts and actions of particular historical figures.

The initials are just close enough to those of one of my favorite philosophers to tempt me to ask a similar question: Would William James Doubt?After years of study and more years of admiring his bold and edifying response to the solvents of modernity and scientific skepticism, I thought I knew the answer to that question."The Will to Believe" was designed to deal with such hesitancy, and it provided a justification for beliefs beyond empirical evidence.He gamely proclaimed the right to believe in the face of uncertainty, to act with boldness, in short to be as decisive as one of those evangelicals mentioned above.James was a coach for the intellectual and the indecisive, pointing the way to courage and risk-taking, while staring down the doubts generated by scientific scrutiny.

But lately, while in the process of learning a lot about James's thoughts and contexts, I have sometimes doubted the plausibility of his coaching.His philosophy of action urges boldness, but his philosophy of theory formation is full of tentativeness.There is a tension between the James of belief formation and the James who pictures the world, with all his recognition of constant inquiry and with any one theory reflecting the angular truth of one's temperament.

Adhering to all that advice for tolerance and inquiry can lead away from belief formation.It is, frankly, easier to be bold when one knows less--fewer facts to sift through and less awareness of the wholly different worlds that different worldviews portray.James himself even addresses this issue, when he says that average believers, far from needing the will to believe to encourage more believing, actually need more self-scrutiny and critiquing of their unexamined convictions.

Such easy faith is not the place for the will to believe, but for the will to inquire and to gain more knowledge.Those of us who are teachers can certainly relate to this message: our students and so many citizens in general have a lot to learn.The world might be a better place if they would suspend their snap judgments until they gained more knowledge and especially more appreciation of complexity.

But for those of us who are already committed to inquiry, temperamentally and perhaps also in vocations that involve extensive learning and analysis, there is the opposite problem.Full fidelity to the selection and construction of facts and to the vast array of interpretive theories make the formation of convictions extremely difficult.In fact, such recognition, produced by immersion in James's philosophy itself, can generate a paralyzing indecisiveness.The will to believe is a theory about action, yet ironically, it is easy to adopt it in theory without ever taking decisive action.And the lure of indecision is all the more tempting the more one knows.

The more I learn about James, the more I admire his stance because he developed it at the peak of his career when he was learning an immense amount and had become adept at understanding a host of competing philosophies; and he presented it alongside his view that theories are not absolutes, but instead are instruments for constant inquiry.Urging conviction in the face of this outlook was no easy task.

James's philosophy of belief formation must be set alongside his philosophy of theory formation.They go together even though they generate opposite actions.The one leads to convictions; the other to inquiry.These then are the twin poles of James's worldview.Intellectuals are very comfortable with constant learning, yet inquiry is only one mental virtue.Although non-intellectuals are often scorned by intellectuals, they can embody another vital mental trait: conviction.James presents inquiry and conviction as the complementary, often competing yin and yang of our mental life.As different people have different levels of each, they are also the competing engines of our social life.And it would be wise for intellectuals, especially admirers of William James to recognize the virtues of each.

So, Would William James Doubt?He was, of course, no absolutist, so there will not be as many firm answers as with the wearers of the red wrist bands.In so many contexts, where unreflective belief and action are the rule of the day, readers of James with WWJD on their minds would naturally answer, Yes, James would urge doubting.

However, after extensive research, careful thought, and respectful tolerance of different viewpoints, James is asking us to do more than keep the channels of inquiry flowing.After a certain point, the answer is, No, the time for doubting is over.

The point of course is to find a way to raise enough doubts to prevent frivolous belief and to be accurate about the complexity of the world, but not so many that action becomes impossible--and that can happen not only to the scientific agnostics that James discusses in "The Will to Believe," but also among students of James's own work who are persuaded by his urge to steady inquiry and his acknowledgment of the constructedness of the world.James's essay is justly famous for pitting James the bold against the hesitancy of scientific skeptics; but it also reflects an internal tension within James's thought.His theory shows his resolution to put aside his passion for inquiry in favor of the need for convictions.

The insights of constant inquiry, no matter how accurate and fair, will provide slim motivation in themselves.Religious belief is often the source of such motivation, but the will to believe is not just for such beliefs, and its urge for conviction does not require religion.However, it does take a sense of judgment to know when there has been enough new learning and therefore to know when to allow the will to step in.We have probably all experienced this when writing: after much background research, there is a time to start writing--even though there is more to read.Similarly, when taking action--whether it's pushing for social justice, organizing for the next election, or teaching the uninformed about non-polluting living--conviction will be at least as important as inquiry.


Paul Croce is Professor of History and Chair of American Studies at Stetson University, is the recent past president of the William James Society, and the author of Young William James Thinking (forthcoming). E-mail: [email protected]