What Is William James Characterization and Defense of Religious Faith Essay

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William James' defense of belief and faith marked the main points of his lecture entitled The Will to Believe. This philosophical treatise is introduced then followed by ten major sections in order to explain his position. Ultimately James' case for belief defends religion and faith as necessary, even though irrational, modes of understanding. The purpose of this essay is to explore James' work to explain his concept of the relationships between such subjective ideas as faith, belief, rationality and reality. I will conduct this exploration by examining each section of James' work and highlighting the arguments that relate to the themes of James' characterization and eventual defense of religion and faithful attitudes.


In the introduction, James relates the importance of his work as it relates to the subjective nature of its audience. The audience is composed of ivy league university students who are members of a philosophy club. The lecture took place some short time before June of 1896 in which the lecture was published. James' sets up his lecture by challenging his audience to open their minds to the less intellectual tendencies of the mind and incorporate irrationality as a positive source of motivation.

Section 1

In order to understand James' arguments, one must understand his basic premises. These basic premises are outlined in this first section where he defines his terms and sets the themes of the lecture. The terms "belief," "choice," "will" and "practicality," all extremely subjective by nature, are given objective form by James in this introduction. This necessary step of providing some sort of boundaries allows for his viewpoint to be contextualize rather than fall into gibberish and meaningless jargon

James declared that in the binary mindsets of good and bad are brought about by hypotheses. These forks in the road, according to James, can be reduced to three basic approaches. These approaches suggested that decision making is either "living or dead," "forced or avoidable," or "momentous or trivial." Examples of each one of these circuits are given to help explain to the reader how to recognize their unique traits. The living or dead argument stated that decisions are made when life is or is not breathed into an argument. The forced or avoidable argument suggested that every decision is unavoidable where compulsion is attributed to the will. The third argument suggested that scope of importance is a true impetus of willful action. All of these arguments compose the premises of his arguments for the understanding and importance of the irrational choice of belief manifested as faith.

Section 2

In this section James' continued to build his argument by setting other conditions as necessary to understand his proposition. This section centers around the idea of belief and its origins and components. James' suggested that belief is not a chosen attribute, rather it stems from an unspeakable force of nature.

James' used Pascal's gamble as a counterpoint to his stance. He explained that Pascal was a proponent of faith and belief although the origins of Pascal's faith came from the individual. James pointed out that his views differed then Pascal's not of the idea of faith itself, but rather its source. James clearly explained in this section that faith is not a voluntary action. He asserted this claim by suggesting that we cannot will to believe what we know to be false. In other words, the truth is not a function of the will but the will is merely a contributing component of the idea.

Section 3

In the third section of this speech, James continued to build towards his main argument by suggesting the nature of relationships' effects on decision making. James argued that all idea and conscious choice are stolen from another's idea. He introduced authority and the emotional effects of its usage as important factors in determining how individuals decide. This emotional and subjective influence that comes from authority figures demonstrated how belief and conviction is non-intellectual by nature. The human need to be appreciated and loved is indeed irrational according to James, thus supporting his claim that intellectual processes and scientific methods fall short of grasping the true complexity of the human decision making process.

Section 4

In this section of James' speech his argument is stated in one paragraph: "Our passional nature not only lawfully may, but must, decide an option between propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds; for to say, under such circumstances, 'Do not decide, but leave the question open,' is itself a passional decision,-just like deciding yes or no, -- and is attended with the same risk of losing the truth. " Or in other words, our passions trump our intellectual processes all the time. This relationship between passion and faith is what James felt as the ultimate expression of humanity.

Section 5

In this part of James' argument, he addressed the ideas of truth and dogmatic thought as contributors to understanding his position. James divided dogmatic thought into two schools: absolute and empiricist. Absolute dogma, according to James, is a mindset that allows the thinker to not only believe he has found the truth, but also that he is consciously aware or the truth and that he can actually know it. Empiricists, on the other hand, understand truth as something that can be attained but its acknowledgement cannot be simultaneously understood. In other words, absolutists know when they are right, while empiricists cannot.

Science and the scientific method are expressed by James as empiricist tendencies that have flooded scholastic and academic thinking throughout the ages. James infused his original premises about live and dead arguments in a discussion of modern intellectual thought's treatment of Christianity. James pointed out that Christianity, according to empiricist attitudes is a dead argument due to the fact that there is no room for the Christ in such an orderly universe.

Section 6

In this section James attempted to reconcile the absolutist and empiricist attitudes that lie within the human psyche. He began this process by proclaiming that all people are born with absolutist ideals and that to balance this tendency it is important to incorporate experimental or empiricist philosophies to achieve a balanced approach to life. Absolutism is treated differently in this section of the presentation. Before, James used this idea to radically define all human interaction, now, it is responsible for the fall of mankind and the bane to our existence. This is where James' attitudes begin to flower and flourish. He hints at the secret of life not being on one side of his premised arguments or another, rather, a balanced approached where identifying and rectifying impulses that straddle both absolute and existential ideas are called for to achieve peace of mind. This to James is pragmatic.

Section 7

In this portion of James speech he announced that this segment is the final building block in attaining an understanding of his argument. It stands as a final preliminary argument before revealing his true concepts of understanding. This section begins to define the practicality of fear of opinion. He denounced that the fear of being wrong contributes to healthy and well conditioned behavior and called for a self-forgiving attitude. James relaxed the tone of the speech during this section to introduce the human quality of failure and its importance on the quest of balance thought. Fear of not achieving the correct opinion is a damaging and negating process that puts the experience of human activity on a negative slope, demeaning the validity and quality of triumph over these fears.

Section 8

At last, James has reached a conclusion of his premises and began to relate these premises to his main thesis. He started by noting the importance of the relationship of belief to justifiable evidence. He clearly explained that in the absence of any motivation for belief, the human mind should default to intellectual capabilities. James placed much emphasis on the idea of motive as the stirring force that stimulates belief and faith. The opportunities for false belief are very widespread, and the discerning person does not dismiss intellectual processes for spite. This balanced approach of sequential or propositional reasoning helped James escape from dogmatic thinking by providing the ideal of motive as a fulcrum in this lever of decision. The will cannot be ignored, but neither can the other impulses be dismissed as well.

Section 9

In this portion of the speech, James introduced the morality of his argument and how morals play a role in the development of decision making. James made this argument by supposing that there are examples of belief that do not require evidence or provability. The infinite amount of variable information that contributes to each independent decision is beyond materialistic proof, and therefore some arguments are to be taken on their word. James used the argument of morals as a guiding force to navigate these uncharted areas where unanimous agreement will always evade the light of true understanding. James asked "…[continue]

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