Hypothetical Reasoning and “The Will to Believe”

Alexander Klein

Cal State Long Beach

“The Will to Believe” is supposed to have been a flashpoint in a dispute between William James and Charles Sanders Peirce over the epistemic importance of emotion (e.g., Misak 2013, 60). Peirce is supposed to have read that essay as arguing that whatever one finds personally satisfying is ipso facto true (Misak 2013, 63). Peirce allegedly renamed his own position “pragmaticism” in response, choosing a word “ugly enough to be safe from kidnappers”—kidnappers like James, commentators typically assume (Howells 1977, 452, Carus 1911, 36). Peirce did have a negative reaction to “The Will to Believe,” but it has been little noticed that his chief worry had to do with the account of hypotheses on which he thought James’s article relied. In his psychological work and in private, James had defended a broadly Comtean methodology that made a sharp distinction between considerations that go into framing a good scientific hypothesis—these can include subjective factors like emotion and sheer creativity—and those strictly dispassionate factors that go into evaluating a hypothesis in light of evidence. Peirce had devoted years of study to the logic of framing hypotheses, or what he called “abduction.” He had argued that scientific inquiry is self-correcting, and that this is among its most valuable assets. But science is only self-correcting, for Peirce, if inquirers follow a rational plan for replacing hypotheses that prove unworkable. He thought James’s frankly positivistic account of hypothesis formation was incompatible with the notion that careful logical inquiry could uncover a rational procedure for framing and replacing hypotheses (James 1992-2004, 8.244). Attending to this debate helps clarify slow-cooked philosophical tensions between James and Peirce. But it also helps bring a new (or perhaps long-forgotten) reading of “The Will to Believe” into focus. That essay defends a right to believe in a “religious hypothesis” on the basis of one’s passional nature (my emphasis; James 1897/1979, 29). The lynchpin of James’s argument is that since passional considerations legitimately figure into framing scientific hypotheses under special conditions, consistency demands that passional considerations legitimately figure into framing a religious hypothesis under the same conditions. Like Peirce, James endorsed Alexander Bain’s account of belief, according to which a belief in some proposition amounts to a preparedness to act as though the proposition were true. Given that early testing of a hypothesis requires acting as though the hypothesis were true even in the absence of coercive evidence, James argued that in what we now call the context of scientific discovery belief may permissibly be based on one’s passional nature. Peirce seems (rightly) to have read “The Will to Believe” as arguing that a passional belief in the religious hypothesis is permissible on the same grounds. So Peirce did worry that “The Will to Believe” was subjectivistic, but what commentators have missed is that he was specifically worried about James’s account of the role emotional factors play in hypothetical reasoning—in this case, in reasoning about the religious hypothesis.