Enter your mobile number or email address below and we'll send you a link to download the free Kindle App. Then you can start reading Kindle books on your smartphone, tablet, or computer - no Kindle device required.
To get the free app, enter your mobile phone number.
Throughout his writings as a psychologist and philosopher, William James was preoccupied with questions of religion. Put simply, James wrestled with questions about whether Darwin's theory of evolution and mechanistic, physiologically -based psychology (which he himself had done much to develop in his "Principles of Psychology) were inconsistent with a spiritual view of life. These questions came to the fore for James in the mid-1890s. In 1896, James wrote to a friend: "I am more interested in religion than in anything else, but with a strange shyness of closing my hand on any definite symbols that might be too restrictive. So, I cannot call myself a Christian, and indeed go with my father in not being able to tolerate the notion of a selective personal relation between God's creatures and God himself as something ultimate." (Quoted in Robert Richardson's "William James in the Maelstrom of American Modernism" at 364-365)
The book under review is a reasonably-priced edition of two works that James edited or wrote contemporaneously with the letter quoted above. In these works, James delved into religious questions and considered the consistency of a spiritual approach to life with a scientific outlook. The first "The Will to Believe and other Essays in Popular Philosophy" is a collection of nine essays written over a course of seventeen years -- from 1879 -- 1896 together with a Preface. The last of the essays is the controversial essay for which the collection is named, "The Will to Believe" which, James admitted, might better have been called "The Right to Believe." The second book, "Human Immortality: Two Supposed Objections to the Doctrine" consists of the text James delivered as the Ingersoll Lecture on Human Immortality at Harvard in 1897. James subsequently published this lecture as a short book in 1898. Both "The Will to Believe" and "Human Immortality" predate James's masterpiece in the study of religion, "The Varieties of Religious Experience" (1902).
The essays in "The Will to Believe" originated as lectures which James delivered to philosophical or theological clubs at various universities. The book is dedicated to James's friend, the philosopher Charles Peirce, to whom James says he owes "more incitement and help than I can express or repay." I was struck by how many of James's lasting themes had been developed in this relatively early book -- including his pluralism and what he calls in the Preface to the book his radical empiricism. The book illustrates James's efforts to weave together insights from psychology, philosophy, and religion without great regard for narrow lines of professional specialization.
The book tries to make a place for and show the importance to life of a belief in transcendent reality. James is far from endorsing any specific creed. In the Preface, James points out that his lectures had been addressed to sophisticated college audiences whose members would be troubled by the possibility of religious faith in an age of science and skepticism. James pointed out that if he had been addressing a different kind of audience -- his example is adherents of the Salvation Army -- the focus of his remarks would have been different, as James would have felt himself required to critique a too easy and too full belief as opposed to a skepticism about the possiblity of any belief. The thrust of the essays is thus to defend a right to believe, and it is important to remember that James is directing his remarks to the perceived needs of his hearers.
In making his argument, James discusses the nature and limitations of rationality and of what many people today term scientism -- the belief that only the physical sciences allow us to know what is true. The essays rely on James's psychology in showing the selective character of human awareness and perception. We see and focus upon reality in accordance with the questions we bring to it. James objects to the "monistic" view of reality which sees everything as part of a single interconnected fact or "block". He argues for pluralism and for attention to specific facts and detailed. Reality is not, for James, either an absolute block or a mere sand-heap of unconnected particulars. Rather, it exhibits loose interconnections and a spirit of, in words he would use again in his final essay of 1916, "ever not quite". Arguing against a mechanically deterministic universe, James argues for the possibility of chance using specific and homely examples. It is possible, James argues, that I could walk home down one street rather than another. It is possible, he claims, that a man who had brutally murdered his wife might have done something else, and that some other result would have been morally better than the killing. In understanding reality, James argues, we need to look forward rather than back, and use the energy and activity that may make our lives purposeful. If a person is caught on a cliff and needs to jump to safety, he will be more likely to do so if he believes he is able to do so. If he approaches the moment with trepidation, doubt and fear, fail he will. Thus, based upon a variety of considerations, James argues in these essays that it is rational for to adopt a believing attitude towards a transcendent source in reality and to take the ethical and metaphysical risks attendant upon such a belief. James does not always help himself in his choice of language, and his teaching has been subject to misunderstanding and ridicule. It is a difficult, challenging teaching which takes time to unpack and consider.
As its title suggests, the lecture on "Human Immortality" is more narrowly focused than "The Will to Believe", but its approach is much the same. James does not try to prove the existence or define the nature of an afterlife. He claims instead that his goal is simply to remove to alleged obstacles to a belief in immortality.
The larger part of the essay is devoted to the first obstacle which is based upon physiology and the functional nature of the mind. If the mind is simply a function of electrical-chemical reactions in the "gray matter" of the brain, what reason is there, James asks, for thinking that the mind survives the body. James's answer is based in part upon his reading of the German scientist and philosopher Gustav Fechner, whose work would also play an important role in James's later book, "A Pluralistic Universe." James distinguishes considering mind as a productive function of the brain from considering mind as a transmissive function. In both cases, thoughts in our everyday world are dependent upon neurology. But in the latter case, the universe may be viewed as itself spiritual in character, and that this character of the universe is transmitted through the brain to the individual person during life, and the character of the individual returns as part of this spirit upon death. I found this position intriguing because it seems to me to show that James' thought was greatly influenced by the pantheism or absolute idealism that he generally criticized severely in his writing. James is aware of this objection and tries to distinguish his thought from pantheism or idealism. I am not sure how well he succeeds. "Human Immortality" is a provocative essay, and it shows to me the seams of James' thinking between his commitment to pluralism and science on the one hand and spirituality on the other hand.
The other supposed objection to immortality that James considers is likewise based upon science. James argues that evolution has shown that human beings have developed from earlier forms of life, including earlier forms of humans. He also points to an expanded knowledge of the variety of human life and culture that, he claims, was unknown in biblical or medieval times. According to James, some critics might object to the teaching of human immortality because it would necessarily apply to too large a group. James replies to this alleged objection: "God, we can then say, has so inexhaustible a capacity for love that his call and need is for a literally endless accumulation of created lives. he can never faint or grow weary, as we should, under the increasing supply. His scale is infinite in all things. His sympathy can never know satiety or glut." James thus democraticizes and individualizes the possibility of heaven. His approach here is similar to the approach he takes in his famous essay "On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings".
The two works in this book tie together James's work in psychology with his ongoing interests in religion and philosophy. The beauty of James's prose should not blind the reader to the complexity of James's thought. These works require careful reading. This is an excellent work with which to begin a reading of William James.
How could I possibly be the first person to review a book written in the first decade of the last century! Anything I might have to say about this book is so unlikely to cast new light on such a classic it could only be described as hubris of the worst order to even make the attempt.
2.0 out of 5 starsI'd like to think that while I'm not a dummy
8 December 2016 - Published on Amazon.com
I saw the "Human Immortality" essay referenced by another book so I wanted to give this a shot. I'd like to think that while I'm not a dummy, I just couldn't get though the language barrier. It just seems like either the author is leagues ahead of me in terms of intelligence or it's just a jumble of words that actually don't have a point.Here's the first line: "It is a matter unfortunately too often seen in history to call for much remark, that when a living want of mankind has got itself officially protected and organized in an institution, one of the things which the institution most surely tends to do is to stand in the way of the natural gratification of the want itself." If that appeals to you, go for it! Maybe the author has an important message to say. This is one of the few books I discarded.
5.0 out of 5 starsGood introduction for understanding Mr. James
8 January 2018 - Published on Amazon.com
This book is a collection of essays he presented live to his students, therefore, the book gives no deeply mechanical demonstrations in both psychology or philosophy, notwithstanding, Mr. James is the father of psychology and one of my Heros! This then, would serve as a great starting point for anyone interested in his greater works.