James’ decidedly Existentialist leanings may have resulted from his own existential crisis. Soon after completing his medical degree from Harvard, while in a psychiatric ward, James noticed a severely mentally ill patient and was suddenly struck by the fact that he had no idea how thin the line was that separated him from that man. A slight chemical or electrical shift in the workings of his brain could leave him as incapacitated as this unfortunate soul. Fear and uncertainty plunged him into overwhelming anxiety and doubt. A year later James began on what would be a rather long road to recovery. He was reading the definition of human freewill offered by the French philosopher Charles Renouvier when he famously exclaimed, “My first act of freewill will be to believe in freewill.” With this statement James took a stand that liberated him from existential doubt and confusion and gave him a profound insight into the role that belief and faith played in human life.
As he saw it, whatever we choose to believe in, or choose not to believe in, will affect the way we act and live and so how we exercise our “will to believe” is of the utmost importance. Belief and non-belief carry equal risk because human life and human activity rests on a foundation of belief. We stand on our beliefs and from there we push off into an uncertain future where the results of our actions will either strengthen our confidence in our beliefs or force us to reconsider them. James came to see the human ability to freely choose what we believe in as the key to life and this conviction lies behind his conception of Pragmatism, his Radical Empiricism and his unwavering defense of the right to believe religiously.
William James delivered an address to students at Yale and Brown University that he called “The Will to Believe” and described as an essay in justification of faith, a defense of our right to adopt a believing attitude in religious matters, in spite of the fact that our merely logical intellect may not have been coerced. This statement reflects James’ existential leanings especially in his use of the modifier “merely” in reference to our logical intellect. To the mind of the Western Enlightenment the logical intellect was the ultimate arbitrator of truth. James’ essay is a defense of the individual’s right to believe in things that are not strictly speaking logically defensible. This somewhat anti-intellectual stance was something shared with his friend the French Philosopher Henri Bergson and it became characteristic of the Existential philosophers of the European continent.
In “The Will to Believe” James explains that some beliefs cannot possibly be proven conclusively through evidence and at the same time we have to either believe or not believe in these ideas. These force beliefs must be decided upon, one way or another, on faith.
Some people James claims take a stance of skepticism refusing to believe what is not proven for fear of believing in a lie. For disciplines like science this stand makes sense. Yet there are issues like morality and human relations which defy which cannot be concluded upon definitively and yet we must take a stand in them. In opposition to the skeptical attitude James describes the stand of what he calls the Radical Empiricist stance in relationship to the uncertainty of human existence. Rather than holding back and waiting for proof James prefers to lean forward into life, accepting the reality that many of our decisions must be made on faith, and doing our best to consciously choose what to believe and then acting whole-heartedly as if their truth was assured. The process of human life is then a relentless affair of jumping consciously yet somewhat blindly into the future and then continually adjusting and readjusting our beliefs. James believes that for social creatures this attitude must be adopted by individuals in order for social order to survive.