Guy Axtell (University of Nevada, Reno) 

Tools and Techniques for Teaching
James’s "The Will to Believe"


Many readers have viewed William James’s "The Will to Believe" as his most distinctive and resonating lecture. Yet for all the scholarly attention it has received, the complexities of the ‘pragmatic defence,’ and the issues it raises concerning evidential and pragmatic reasoning are still often misunderstood. In this paper I explicate a neglected "core" argument tied closely to James’s thesis statement, and provide charts and other tools useful in presenting James’ lecture in the philosophy classroom. This argument, based on the Ought-Implies-Can principle, is useful for highlighting differences between James’s pragmatist and Clifford’s evidentialist perspective. I first reconstruct this implicit Ought-Implies-Can argument in modus tollens form, and follow this with a Chart intended to clarify various steps James takes in support of the crucial second premise. My purpose is primarily to explicate this neglected argument in a reconstructed, ‘bare-bones’ fashion for classroom study and evaluation.

Tools and Techniques for Teaching
James’s "The Will to Believe"


In his lecture "The Will to Believe" (1896), William James tells us that his aim is to present "a justification of faith, a defence 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." Many readers have viewed this as his most distinctive and resonating lecture. Yet for all the scholarly attention it has received, the complexities of the ‘pragmatic defence,’ and the issues it raises concerning evidential and pragmatic reasoning are still often misunderstood. In this discussion-oriented paper presentation I develop a number of classroom tools and techniques that I have found effective for presenting James lecture, and the broader debate that has ensued over "the ethics of belief."

            James does not set out, as does Pascal, to convince non-believers. He first sets up his "defence" as a rebuttal of W.K. Clifford’s famous evidentialist principle, the principle that "It is wrong, always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything on insufficient evidence." The universal way in which Clifford stated his principle implies that evidential reasoning provides the only valid standard for assessing the epistemic rationality of agents. The specifically ethical sense of "ought" that Clifford’s principle uses, he tied closely to the willingness of agents to follow the dictates that he thought epistemic rationality laid down for them. So James’s subsequent attempt to develop counter-example cases are intended to show that religious believers do not necessarily commit such an ethical wrong; Clifford’s principle does not have its purported universal domain, because pragmatic reasoning is in some cases a "normal" and "unavoidable" aspect of epistemic rationality. Though James wanted pointedly to refute the idea that Clifford’s principle was normative in the area of a person’s religious beliefs, belief in what he called the religious hypothesis" was just one instance of the counter-example cases brings against Clifford’s principle. The identification of exception-cases to Clifford’s principle revolves around decisions he called "genuine options." After discussing their conditions by which they are to be identified, the thesis of his pragmatic defense is articulated: "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" (20).

            In this paper I want to explicate a neglected "core" argument tied closely to James’s thesis statement. I will assume the audience is familiar with the "live," "momentous," and "forced" conditions on genuine options. This argument, based on the Ought-Implies-Can principle, is useful for highlighting differences between James’s pragmatist and Clifford’s evidentialist perspective, differences that I believe to be of more-than-historical interest. I first reconstruct this implicit Ought-Implies-Can argument in modus tollens form, and follow this with a Chart intended to clarify various steps James takes in support of the crucial second premise. My purpose is primarily to explicate this neglected argument in a reconstructed, ‘bare-bones’ fashion for further study and evaluation. The remainder of the paper is used to clarify the steps of the argument, and I conclude with reasons for thinking that it raises issues still quite pertinent today.


The ‘Ought-Implies-Can’ argument implied by James’s thesis statement of ‘The Will to Believe’ (Section IV) might be re-constructed in modus tollens form as follows:

1. If epistemic rationality is, as Clifford’s Principle assumes, a demand for the negation of passional influence in all cases of deliberation over our cognitive options (the options we face between competing knowledge claims), then it must be possible for human agents to negate passional influence over their deliberations in all such cases.

2. But the negation of passional influence in all cases of deliberation over such options is not possible, as the necessary passional favoring of either the council of courage or the council of caution in the case of "genuine options" shows.

3. Therefore, it is not the case that epistemic rationality is, as Clifford’s Principle assumes, a demand for the negation of passional influence in all cases of deliberation over our cognitive options.

Chart 1: James’s The Will to Believe

                        The Evidentialist as ‘Faith Vetoer’ The Jamesian Believer

A. Goal

Avoid believing what is false!

Believe what is true!

B. Risk of Losing the Truth

Remaining in ignorance; never coming to believe something that is true.

Falling into error; coming to believe something that is false.

C. Guiding Rule or Prescription

Evidential reasoning should always prevail in our deliberations: "The rightness or wrongness of belief in a doctrine (proposition) depends only upon the nature of the evidence for it, and not upon what the doctrine is" (Clifford, EOB 102). Stated negatively, "It is wrong, always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence" (EOB 77).

In specific instances, pragmatic reasoning should be treated as a normal element in making up our minds: "The thesis I defend is, briefly stated, this: 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" (James WB, Sec. IV).

D. Applied to Religious Hypothesis (RH)

Withhold assent until sufficient evidence is present. Agnostic perspective as uniquely rational.

"The lawfulness of voluntarily adopted faith," since the option between the alternatives of accepting or doing without the RH meets the above conditions.

E. Justifying Moral Argument

Public duty to withhold assent, based on harm done by irresponsible and dishonest habits of belief-acquisition.

Private right defended by the desirability of an "inner tolerance," a tolerance for diversity among beliefs (specifically, those James terms "overbeliefs").

F. Primary Intellectual Virtue

Intellectual Caution: Since "we must avoid error," we should maintain the "skeptical balance," and remain uncommitted until sufficient evidence is presented either for or against a belief.

Intellectual Courage: Since "we must know the truth," we may have to dare to be wrong. Under the conditions of the genuine option, we may commit to belief "in advance" of sufficient evidence.

G. Motivat-ing Passion

Fear: "Better risk loss of truth than chance of error,--that is your faith-vetoer’s exact position" (WB Sec. X).

Hope: "If religion be true and the evidence for it still be insufficient, I do not forfeit my sole chance in life of getting upon the winning side" (WB Sec. X).


The Ought-Implies-Can Argument. It is ironic that should James make central use of an Ought-Implies-Can argument in defending belief in the Religious Hypothesis. Most of his opponents, including Clifford, hold a contrary view that James simply termed the Naturalistic Hypothesis, and on one common construal of naturalism, it is a method whereby normative questions about what one "ought" to do (either epistemically or in Clifford’s specifically ethical sense) are based closely upon natural facts about actual human desires, propensities and limitations. So it seems counter-intuitive from the outset that an opponent would need to remind self-described naturalists about such propensities and limitations. Yet if the argument against the evidentialism then proves cogent, it powerfully leads us to question whether a naturalistic approach to epistemology supports evidentialism.

            On one construal of the pragmatic argument, the pragmatist is someone who argues that it may be justified to hold a belief because of its good or bad pragmatic consequences, essentially regardless of standards of evidential support. Pragmatic reasons occasionally trump "epistemic" ones, on this understanding of pragmatism. It seems easy to construe James’ argument in this way, given especially James’s condition of momentousness on the genuine option, his strategy of framing counter-examples to Clifford’s principle, and his concession that aside from these special cases the "dispassionately judicial intellect with no pet hypothesis…ought to be our ideal" (Sec. VIII).

            But another and stronger version of the pragmatic argument has sometimes been raised, associated with a view of pragmatic reasoning as a necessary constituent of epistemic rationality, not as an intruder from outside. James’s lecture contains aspects of both the weaker and stronger pragmatic arguments against evidentialism. Though he never elaborates, the difference is acknowledged in his claim that "There are passional tendencies and volitions which run before belief and others which come after belief, and it is only the latter that are too late for the fair" (Sec. III). The latter kinds of volition, James concedes, "do seem, in the matter of our credences, to be only fifth wheels to the coach," raising the warning flag of the kind of self-deception and intellectual dishonesty that worried Clifford. What is interesting about reconstructing James’s Ought-Implies-Can argument is that throws emphasis on this stronger pragmatic stance vis-à-vis evidentialism, that stance which takes its start from volitions or aspects of our willing nature that "run before" belief.

            If premise (1) of our modus tollens accurately reflects a claim that Clifford would accept, then Premise (2) becomes the crucial ground over which Clifford and James disagree. James "gives(s) the name of logicians to those who would rule out our willing nature" in the acquisition and maintenance of beliefs (IV). The claims that belief ought to based solely on sufficient evidence, and that for passion and sentiment to be a part of the deliberative process serves merely to introduces bias and irrationality, trace back to the roots of philosophic modernism. "Evidentialism," as Jack Meiland put it simply, rests squarely on the notion of ‘purely epistemic warrant.’ He and others have thus argued that we find Descartes’s universal, non-situated thinker imbedded in Clifford’s principle, framed as applying "always, anywhere and for anyone." More straightforwardly, it reflects Hume’s dictum that "A wise man…proportions his belief to the evidence," and John Locke’s "one unerring mark by which a man may know whether he is a lover of truth for truth’s sake: the not entertaining any proposition with greater assurance than the proofs it is built upon will warrant."

            These points direct attention on Premise (2) of our modus tollens. In Premise (2) Clifford’s universally-stated principle is denied because the negation of passional influence on deliberations over our cognitive options is not possible in all cases, "as the necessary passional favoring of either the council of courage or the council of caution in the case of ‘genuine options’ shows." The supplied Chart is intended to re-organize and explicate passages and ideas from "The Will to Believe" that support this premise (2), and we can now turn to explain the order and connection between the steps of his argument as I have reconstructed them there.


The Goal. To be successful, James must convince his readers of a link between the passions of hope and fear, and their favoring of one or another of the prescriptions that we are calling, respectively, the council of courage and the council of caution. On the reconstructed order that our Table provides, the first step is to point out differences between epistemic goals (or if one prefers, between sub-aspects of the epistemic goal): "We must know the truth; and we must avoid error,—these are our first and great commandments as would-be knowers; but they are not two ways of stating an identical commandment, they are two separable laws" (WB, Sec. VII). The evidentialist would likely challenge this initial distinction, but James can acknowledging that the epistemic goal remains unified for agents in normal situations. What he needs to insist upon is only that they come apart under those cases of decision-making-under-conditions-of-uncertainty that James identifies with the "live" character of Genuine Options. This challenge, then, cannot be made a priori but only after considering the purported exception cases directly.

            Associated "Risk of Losing the Truth." According to James, "…When as empiricists we give up the doctrine of objective certitude, we do not thereby give up the quest or hope of truth itself. We still pin our faith on its existence…" (WB Sec. VI). Here James distinguishes certitude, an elusive epistemic state, from truth itself. The distinction is important if he is to argue that the skeptics, too, place themselves at risk through their suspension of belief: they risk the loss of potential truths and whatever effects, potentially "momentous," these might have upon their life. James concedes that the very existence of such truth is a "faith," but not one that must be denied when, as empiricists, we restrict the claims of human certitude and access to things beyond human verification. James was not successful in framing what he terms the "religious hypothesis"; his definition famously involves circularity, and relies on metaphor when its point is precisely to establish a clear, minimally-stated cognitive claim that all religious believers assent to. But if we grant him this contrary of philosophic naturalism could in principle be given cognitive sense, then we have taken another step with him. Everyone presented with the forced option, the option of either "having" or "doing without" this hypothesis, stands a chance of losing the truth by their decision, whether that loss is one of falling into error, or of missed opportunity. By the nature of a forced option, they have become cognitive risk-takers. The person for whom both alternatives are "live" will furthermore acknowledge the cognitive risks involved. In an objective sense these risks exist whether acknowledged or not, so long as there is not "coercive" evidence in favor of the one alternative over the other. But James focuses more on the agent’s own evidence and perspective, that is, upon whether he considers both alternatives as "live." Liveness hence entails a situation of decision-making-under-conditions-of-uncertainty, an uncertainty judged from the subject’s own perspective. If he does not consider both alternatives to be live when objectively-speaking the matter is uncertain, he likely will also fail to recognize the potential loss of truth that his decision to "have" or "do without" entails. In such cases an agent may be blameworthy for having confused the "deadness" of a hypothesis for them personally—often a matter of bias or preconception—with holding coercive evidence for his favored alternative.

            Guiding Rule or Prescription. The second step sets up James’s next inferences, that the evidentialist principle is a prescription for how to manage risk, and that it is in this sense an expression of the passional life. There may be different strategies for managing risk, but the way that we prioritize our goals and manage the inevitable trade-offs between risks and potential rewards are decisions that reflect judgments of value rather than purely of fact or of logic. "We may regard the chase for truth as paramount, and the avoidance of error as secondary; or we may, on the other hand, treat the avoidance of error as more imperative, and let truth take its chance" (Sec. VII). Indeed James says that by prioritizing among the two epistemic goals, "we may end by coloring differently our whole intellectual life." Of course, everyone acknowledges the need to affect a balance between the goals of believing what is true and not believing what is false. An agent interested exclusively in the former would cover his back by simply assenting to all hypotheses presented to him without any proper regard for logical consistency. For instance, if presented with the religious hypothesis and its own contrary, the naturalistic hypothesis, he would give himself a foot-up on truth by assenting to both. By contrast, an agent interested exclusively in avoiding believing falsehoods would simply "do without" beliefs wherever that were possible for him, and identify the threshold for acceptance of a statement with a state of absolute certitude. Both strategies are obviously absurd, and may even present epistemic impossibilities for human beings. For both logical and pragmatic reasons, then, human agents must affect a balance between believing what is true and not believing what is false. Hence there is a strong presumption that an adequate epistemology must explain the ways in which actual human reasoners seek such a balance. The philosophical question here turns upon whether rationality dictates a single standard for establishing such a balance—that is, whether what James not-unfairly calls the evidentialist’s "agnostic rules for truth-seeking" is uniquely indicated. Clifford believes that one is obligated to suspend judgment whenever that agent lacks "sufficient" evidence, and frames this obligation in as an ethical "ought." James suggests counter-examples where he believes we are under no such obligation.

            Applied to the Religious Hypothesis. Clifford’s principle issues directly into the guidance that individuals should not commit themselves to propositions for which there is not for them at present sufficient evidential support. James argues at length that while atheism and agnosticism may be theoretically distinct positions, when seen practically they both prescribe "doing without" the action or belief. And this is what James’s conception of a "forced" option illustrates: that there is no standing outside the choice, and the risk of losing the truth that it entails. "Scepticism, then, is not avoidance of option; it is option of a certain particular kind of risk" (Sec. X).

            Justifying Moral Argument. Clifford’s principle is supported by a practical argument concerning the need for a public ethics of belief. Few if any of our beliefs, he tells us, are so detached from life as to be harmless to others; and because of this our acquired intellectual habits and dispositions carry communal ethical import. The risk as he sees it is the ethical risk of incubating within ourselves standing habits of credulity, wishful thinking, and stifling doubts. James rejects this need for a public ‘ethics of belief,’ and in the closing paragraphs of his lecture counters Clifford’s argument with a plea for "an inner tolerance." He argues that ‘outer’ or political tolerance is "soulless" unless it is founded on a "spirit of inner tolerance," meaning not to "bandy words of abuse" but rather "profoundly to respect another’s mental freedom." The respect owed, one might surmise, is due to a recognition of reasonable disagreement about how best to manage cognitive risk while faced with decision-making-under-conditions-of-uncertainty. Thus James shifts the locus of risk from the ethical into the cognitive realm, and complains that, because they see their principle as a universal law of rationality, evidentialists "act as if we did not know them [these cognitive risks] to be there."

            Primary Intellectual Virtue. The councils of courage and of caution are prescriptions for managing risk. James’s argument involves showing how options that are both live and forced necessarily involve agents in risk-taking, and how in such circumstances the cognitive goal can come apart for agents, leading them to deliberate between two very different strategies or ‘councils’ for managing risk and reward. It is especially in this context the importance of the "momentousness" condition on the Genuine Option comes into play, since for James it makes for a presumption on the side of the reasonableness of weighing courage more highly than caution than in the majority of cases, where our options are generally "trivial," nothing great being at stake in our suspension of judgment. Clifford does speak about caution or not extending beyond what it proven as a hallmark of science. Although the main intellectual virtue he sees himself promoting is intellectual honesty, the contrast James draws between courage and caution appears to be fair to both sides.

            Motivating Passion. James clearly indicates in "The Will to Believe" that sentiments such as hope and fear constitute part of our "willing nature," and play a causal role in an agent’s choice between the councils of courage and of caution. When an option, besides being genuine, is also "intellectually undecidable," then James argues a person’s passional nature must be involved in the determination of the strategy of risk-management that he or she ultimately follows. Keeping the ‘skeptical balance,’ he argues, is "itself a passional decision—just like deciding yes or no,—and is attended with the same risk of losing the truth" (Sec. III).

            This causal role played by the passions does not necessarily compel one to prioritize goals in a certain way or to accept one council over the other when faced with genuine options. Indeed if this were the case, then it would appear that both alternatives would not for them be "live" in the first place, and the elements of cognitive risk would go unrecognized. But the motivating nature of the passions is such that, in the absence of compelling or "coercive" evidence to the contrary, they will incline an individual in one direction or another.

            It is worth pointing out here that our passions or "willing natures" include, according to James, cognitive habits that may be schooled into us, "the circumpressure of our caste and set" (Sec. III). An individual can certainly be schooled to suppress their natural dispositions, and follow the evidentialist or some other philosophical principle in spite of its inconsistency with their own passional needs. This is probably a reason why James accepts the burden of refuting Clifford on the latter’s own oddly-framed ethical ground. Despite the impression of "voluntarism" involved with the notion of a ‘right to believe’ or even a ‘will to believe,’ that the ethics of belief debate leaves us with, James is intent on showing that no such ethical obligation exists, and that it is part of wisdom to allow one’s passional needs to shape one’s choices, where choices are really present. The primary choice in question is associated with genuine options that are intellectually-undecidable, and is restated in our Chart as the choice between strategies of risk-management, rather than as a choice to believe particular statements (a way of framing it that would imply voluntarism).

            But at this crucial juncture, with James’s conclusions in sight, his argument is compromised by his labeling of the implicated passions as those of "hope" and "fear." James’s characterizations of the motivationally-active passions becomes contentious; the positive and negative connotation of these two terms may indicate that he is giving us only persuasive definitions, and that would be a serious problem for the cogency of the Ought-Implies-Can argument. That argument is made, it would appear, if the evidentialist concedes that the balancing or weighing of goals, and of strategies for achieving those goals, are matters of value-judgment--non-rational matters in the sense that they is not determinable by reason and evidence alone. But James still needs to be able to tell us what passions it is that motivate various agents and lie behind their preferred strategies, in order that we may begin to treat these issues more self-consciously.


Conclusions. Teachers who focus class discussion of "The Will to Believe" on explicating James' central thesis in Section IV, and who utilize Chart 1 as a means to that end, will likely be rewarded with a more judicious use of class-room time, and improved interaction with students. Additionally, a focus on reconstructing James’ Ought-Implies-Can argument allows students to better understand why James held that the influence of the passions is unavoidable and that such an influence is apparent even in the evidentialist’s prescribed balance between truth-seeking and error-avoidance. James defends the individual’s "right" or reasonableness in the exception cases to choose a strategy of risk-management that reflects their own pre-reflective psychological disposition or needs. It is a right, of course, that depends on a individual’s "willingness to run the risk" (Sec. X) of falling into error. But as James re-iterated his conclusion in a letter soon after the first publication of his lecture, his argument is that "The individual himself is the only rightful chooser of his risk…." Rationality does not dictate suspension of belief in Genuine Options, and if the individual finds the momentousness of an option to weigh upon the side of hope, then neither rationality nor ethics can demand she act as risk-aversely as the evidentialist with his "agnostic rules for truth-seeking."

            This notion of rights, it is important to emphasize to students, is qualified by a notion of intellectual duties or responsibilities. One might say that while the right is one to assent to the religious hypothesis "ahead of the evidence," or while it is still a "premature theory," the agent is not abstained from obligations to seek further evidence, and to face the any doubts that evidence running counter to his conviction may lead to. James does not differ from Clifford as strongly as some readers have thought, because James’s fallibilistic approach to knowledge (Sec. VI) shows that his ‘right’ was not intended to defend the dogmatic believer or the believer Clifford takes as the paradigm case, one who ‘stifles doubts’ and refuses to pursue evidence potentially damaging to his initial convictions. Readers of James know that he was highly sensitive to the hazardous effects of dogmatism and fanaticism. In his correspondence from 1904, he insists that he had "hedged the license to indulge in private over-beliefs with so many restrictions and signboards of danger that the outlet was narrow enough."

            Without going further into this important topic, we might summarize by saying that Clifford and James differed sharply over belief acquisition, but that they would find much broader ground for agreement on the issue of belief maintenance. Is belief in the religious hypothesis "stolen," as Clifford would surely assert, or ‘borrowed,’ as James might retort? An answer depends upon one’s sense of intellectual duties or responsibilities. Clifford’s ethics of belief is focussed around present evidence and present time or "syncronic" duties, but James, while rejecting many of these, nevertheless has a strong sense of future-oriented or "diachronic" duties or responsibilities. It is in something like this sense that James writes "What should be preached is courage weighted with responsibility…" (Perry, xi).

            As a final note, one should point out that while the issue between Clifford and James revolved specifically around religious belief, the issue between evidentialism and pragmatism can be understood to be considerably broader than this. James attempted, though awkwardly, by the terms "overbelief," "speculative," etc., to identify a range of beliefs where it was permissible "to indulge one’s personal faith at one’s personal risk." My intuition is that it must be permissible for a person to hold philosophical "pet" hypotheses, or "premature" political convictions, and to do so even when, as we all concede, there are others, just as intelligent and well-reasoned, who disagree and stand opposed. But it might well be asked whether Clifford’s principle, taken strictly, would not have the implication of restricting us from such beliefs as well.

Works Cited

Clifford, W.K. "The Ethics of Belief," (original 1877) reprinted in The Ethics of Belief and Other Essays. Amherst, N.y.: Prometheus Books, 1999.

Gale, Richard. The Divided Self of William James. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Richard J. Hall & Charles R. Johnson’s "The Epistemic Duty to Seek More Evidence" (American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 35, No. 2, 129-140)

James, William. The Will to Believe, and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy. Harvard University Press.

Perry, R.B. The Thought and Character of William James, Vol. II (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1935).

Additional Texts

David Hollinger, "James, Clifford and the Scientific Conscience," in The Cambridge Companion to William James, Ruth Anna Putnam (ed.), Cambridge University Press.

Henry Jackman, "Prudential Arguments, Naturalized Epistemology, and the Will to Believe," in Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, 1999.

The Culture of Adolescent Risk-Taking, by Cynthia Lightfoot (Guilford Press, 1997). William James on The Courage to Believe, by Robert J. O’Connell, S.J. (2nd Edition, Fordham University Press, 1997).

Jack Meiland, "What Ought We To Believe?," American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 17 I, 1980: 15-24.

Ellen Suckiel’s Heaven’s Champion: William James’ Philosophy of Religion, University of Notre Dame Press, 1996.