Code: TP-34

Our Passional Nature and Our Intellectual Obligations:

Toward an Expressivist Reading of William James


We suggest that, in "The Will to Believe," William James engages two different perspectives that have not yet adequately been disitinguished or understood: 1) that of a theorist attempting to explain the practice of making judgments of obligation, and 2) that of a participant in the language game of making judgments of obligation.  As a theorist, James espouses an expressivist view that anticipates many developments of 20th-century non-cognitivism.  Judgments of intellectual obligation are expressions of our passional nature, as opposed to expressions of cognitive states such as belief.  As a participant in the game of making such judgments, James favors a view that he contrasts with evidentialism, which he claims is driven by a neurotic fear of error. He takes his normative view to be driven by a more healthy state of mind, namely a desire for knowledge.  The reason that considerations of psychological health play such a large role in James normative view is that, if the ought judgments of obligation are expressions of desires and therefore are not attempts to represent external facts, then there are no external facts that can command the truth of one or another normative view.  That is, because these normative judgments are expressions of desire, and therefore not truth apt, they are not answerable to external facts. But then what is left?  James thinks that the sole basis upon which we can decide upon our intellectual obligations is the health of the mind that they express or are conducive to promoting.  Of course, judgments of mental health or healthy desires are themselves normative judgments, and are therefore themselves expressions of desire.  As such, the normative judgments that James makes will only move people who have a similar set to that of James.  This was a point that James was not only very aware of, but insisted on.

First, a word about what is meant by expressivism.  An expressivist about a region of discourse claims that the statements made within that discourse are not expressions of belief, and therefore are not robustly truth-apt.  Rather, the statements serve to express motivational states of some sort, states of mind which are not truth-apt. Statements within these regions of discourse function more like imperatives than assertions. The region of discourse that has seemed most apt for expressivist construal is morality.  However, in recent times philosophers have tried to extend expressivism to cover all normative discourse. [1] The key feature of all the regions of discourse that have been given an expressivist treatment is that the statements made within them seem to have any essential tie to motivation.  For example, it seems that one cannot sincerely utter the statement "Murder is wrong!"  without being disposed not to murder.  The expressivist, at least traditionally, following Hume, has thought that beliefs do not have any essential tie to motivation, and therefore statements that are essentially connected to motivation cannot be the expression of beliefs.  The lesson that the expressivist draws from this is that the statements are themselves expressions of motivational states, such as desire, preference, emotion, etc….

Well, what would it mean to be an expressivist about intellectual obligation?  It would be to treat statements about our intellectual duties as expressions of motivation-laden states.  So, according to the expressivist about intellectual obligation, when an evidentialist claims that we have an obligation to form our beliefs solely on the basis of evidence, she is not making an assertion that could be true or false, but she is rather expressing a motivational state of some sort which favors such a policy of belief formation. Part of our interpretive thesis is that James holds such a metaethical view about statements of intellectual obligation in "The Will to Believe".

            There are, however, considerable obstacles to be overcome before James can be read as an expressivist.  James did not distinguish belief and desire as starkly as do most expressivists.  There is plenty of evidence to suggest that James saw belief as itself motivational in nature.  Nevertheless, James does have room and need for a distinction between states of mind that directly respond to evidence or external facts, and states that do not.  Without such a distinction, James could not draw the contrast between our "willing" or "passional" nature, on the one hand, and our theoretical nature on the other.  So in calling James an expressivist about intellectual obligation, we are claiming that he saw statements about our intellectual duties as expressions of mental states that are themselves not responsive to evidence.

James as an Expressivist

            The pivotal passage in support of the interpretation of James as an expressivist comes in Section VII of "The Will to Believe," when he says "We must remember that these feelings of our duty about either truth or error are in any case only expressions of our passion life."  James had started this crucial section of the paper by claiming that there are two ways of looking at our intellectual duties: "We must know the truth; and we must avoid error," and that by choosing which one to give precedence, "we may end by coloring differently our whole intellectual life."  The choices are to "regard the chase for truth is paramount, and the avoidance of error as secondary," or "treat the avoidance of error as more imperative, and let truth take its chance." Notice that James is using the language of obligation in presenting his view about intellectual norms, language that has its most familiar home in the realm of ethical discourse.  He talks of "our duty in the manner of opinion" and uses the language of necessity in his first formulation of these duties; "We must know the truth; and we must avoid error."  His later formulation of these duties is formulated in terms of imperatives, "Believe truth!  Shun error!"  These are all familiar ways of capturing the special normativity associated with ethical discourse, and here James is using these forms of language to present the normativity of a part of epistemic discourse.

            James says nothing about why our duties are restricted to the two that he proclaims.  He seems to assume that this is a fixed starting point, and that the real question is which duty to give priority to, given that we in fact have both duties.  After describing the different ways one might decide this question, James cites Clifford as an example of someone who has chosen the route of making the avoidance of error paramount, in effect expressing the attitude that avoiding error is more important than finding truth .  But this is only one possible position to take, and to James, an unhealthy one.  Instead, one may go along with James own normative position and "…think that the risk of being in error is a very small matter when compared with the blessings of real knowledge." At this point in Section VII, James has outlined two possible positions one could take towards one’s intellectual duties, and has expressed his own preference. But he has yet to give reasons for choosing one or the other position. What James says next helps to answer both these questions and provides the crucial evidence for interpreting him as an expressivist.  He writes,

We must remember that these feelings of our duty about either truth or error are in any case only expressions of our passional life.  Biologically considered, our minds are as ready to grind out falsehood as veracity, and he who says, "Better go without belief forever than believe a lie!"  merely shows his own preponderant private horror of becoming a dupe.  He may be critical of many of his desires and fears, but this fear he slavishly obeys. He cannot imagine anyone questioning its binding force.

The first sentence of this quote is the key.  James says that these feelings of our duty are expressions of passions. The contrast that James is making is between states of mind that are responsive to evidence, such as perceptual appearances, and mental states that are expressions of desire or attitude, which are by their nature unresponsive to evidence. So the point that James is making is that our feelings of duty, given that they are expressions of passion, cannot be held answerable to evidence or external facts.  To look for evidence to support our intuitions about our intellectual duties would therefore be a mistake, since these intuitions are not themselves the kind of states for which one could get evidence. The final lines of the quote are James explanation of what state of mind an evidentialist is expressing when he gives the imperative " Better go without belief forever than believe a lie!".  The evidentialist is expressing his horror or fear of becoming a dupe; of being led astray.  Furthermore, the evidentialist is expressing a fear that has overwhelming or overriding authority or sheer psychological power over him, leading him slavishly to obey it. Because of this overriding authority, it is a fear that goes unquestioned by him, and has binding force for him, unlike all of his other passions.

One might interpret this passage as itself involving a criticism of evidentialism.  The idea would be that James is claiming that because feelings of our duty are based on passions rather than evidence, evidentialism itself is based on a passion, specifically the fear of being duped. Since evidentialism is the view that its is wrong to form beliefs on the basis of anything other than evidence, and it is based on passion rather than evidence, evidentialism entails that it would be wrong to believe in evidentialism.  Thus, according to this interpretation, James is claiming that evidentialism is self-undermining. But James is not in a position to make such a criticism.  James does claim that evidentialism is based on the fear of being duped, but he does not claim that this makes it self-undermining.  Rather, as we shall see, James makes a more substantive, normative criticism of evidentialism as based on a neurotic fear.

The reason that James is not in a position to make the criticism that evidentialism is self-undermining, is that he thinks that expressions of our intellectual duty are not responsive to evidence.  Evidentialism is most plausibly thought of as the claim that only states that are themselves responsive to evidence, such as belief, ought to be formed on the basis of evidence.  But the mental state that is expressed by the evidentialist is not such a state of mind.  Therefore, evidentialism does not apply to the mental state of which it is an expression .  Since James commits himself in this passage to the view that expressions of duty are passions, as opposed to beliefs in the evidentialist’s sense, and therefore are not responsive to evidence, he cannot criticize Clifford as holding a self-undermining view. [2]   James, in this passage, is not yet criticizing evidentialism, but is rather explaining the type of state of mind that underlies the speech act that an evidentialist makes when he espouses his view.

The Critique of Evidentialism

It is only after giving this explanation of the type of speech act an evidentialist is performing, and the specific passion which the evidentialist is expressing in that speech act, that James goes on to criticize evidentialism. James now, as we read him, takes off the theorist’s hat, and becomes engaged as a participant in the language game that he's just described. And the criticism he aims at Clifford is not (at least not primarily) one of inconsistency, but is rather the substantive normative criticism that evidentialism expresses an unhealthy state of mind, one that blocks one from maximizing desire-satisfaction.

Since passions are not directly responsive to evidence, theoretical deliberation is not applicable to them. But then how are we to deliberate about our passions?  Here's one thing that we can do.  Given a set of passions with various strengths, we can determine what course of action will best satisfy as many of our strongest passions as possible.  So while we might not be able to deliberate about what desires or passions to have, we can deliberate about what policies to undertake to satisfy the desires that we do have. [3]   James, as we understand him, is arguing that evidentialism only make sense, that is as a policy for maximizing desire-satisfaction, for someone with a rather single-minded obsessive fear of being mistaken.  For the rest of us, who James thinks share his own sensibility, a different intellectual policy will yield the most desire-satisfaction.

Still in Section VII, James writes:

For my own part, I have also a horror of being duped; but I can believe that worse things than being duped may happen to a man in this world: so Clifford's exhortation has to my ears a thoroughly fantastic sound.  It is like a general informing his soldiers that it is better to keep out of battle forever than to risk a single wound.  Not so are victories either over enemies or over nature gained.  Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things.  In a world where we are so certain to incur them in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than this excessive nervousness on their behalf.  At any rate, it seems the fittest thing for the empiricist philosopher.

James, of course, is not denying that being duped would be bad.  But unlike Clifford, he does not think that the injunction to avoid error provides an overriding, categorical imperative.  It could do so only for someone who valued nothing as highly as avoiding error. The famous examples in the rest of the essay are used by James in the service of showing that evidentialism blocks one from realizing very important values.

            The reason that following evidentialism would block the satisfaction of important desires is given by the metaphor of the general who informs his soldiers to stay out of battle rather than risk being wounded.  If one’s only care was not to be harmed, this might be sensible.  The military has purposes other than health, and it won't be able to serve any these purposes, such as winning battles, unless its soldiers are willing to take a chance of being wounded.  Likewise, most of us have important interests that can only be served by making ourselves vulnerable to dupery.  That is, as James attempts to show with his later examples, in order to satisfy some very important intellectual and nonintellectual desires, we must form risky beliefs that cannot be antecedently supported by evidence.  If we were to follow evidentialism we would not form such risky beliefs, and therefore we would be unable to satisfy those important desires.

            James is making the substantive normative claim that the right epistemic policy to take is relative to the structure of passions or desires that one has, the correct policy being one that will maximize desire satisfaction.  He also thinks that most of his audience has desires much like himself, and that therefore evidentialism will not be normative for them.  It will sound fantastic to their ears, as it expresses an overwhelming passion, one which that they do not have.  They may fear error, but it is only one passion amongst many, not one with overriding significance.  Even if passions are not the kind of mental states for which we can adduce evidence, there are practical considerations that bear on whether or not a passion is worthwhile.  For example, a desire might not be good to have if it is bound to be unfulfilled.  And this is one problem James finds with the fear that drives evidentialism.  According to empiricism, all of our knowledge of the world is inductive and fallible.  Therefore, if the fear of error consumes one, one is bound to be frustrated and in a constant nervous, unhealthy state, since, at least if one is an empiricist, one will have to recognize that one's knowledge might always be undone by further inquiry.  Again, James here is making a substantive normative claim that an all-consuming fear of error is unhealthy since it is bound to be omnipresent and will lead the person who has it into a nervous, obsessive frame of mind.  But his claim is based on a ground that is bound to be shared by his audience, since no one likes to have desires that are bound to go unfulfilled; unfulfilled desires by their nature lead to dissatisfaction and frustration.

            James goes on to compare evidentialism about belief in God with a person who is unwilling to trust others and therefore cuts himself off from the good of social intercourse.  He writes:

…just as a man who in a company of gentlemen made no advances, asked a warrant for every concession, and believed no one's word without proof, would cut himself off by such churlishness from all the social rewards that a more trusting spirit would earn-- sold here, one who should shut himself off in snarling logicality and trying to make the gods extort his recognition willy-nilly, or not get it at all, might cut himself off forever from his only opportunity of making the gods’ acquaintance.

The thought here seems to be that God will not show himself to you unless you already believe in him.  For example, it might be that divine revelation depends on antecedent faith in God's existence.  So the good to be gained from arelationship with God is not possible if one is an evidentialist, because the evidence for God's existence, and the relationship with God which constitutes the good to be gained, can only be achieved after one has already come to believe in God.

Right after this example, James gives what looks like a rule of rationality: "… a rule of thinking which would absolutely prevent me from acknowledging certain kinds of truth if those kinds of truth were really there, would be an irrational rule."   On our interpretation, James is here expressing his own passional nature when he calls the evidentialist rule of thinking an irrational rule. But what passion/s is he expressing?  The reason that he thinks it is irrational is because it prevents one from acknowledging certain kinds of truths, namely truths that it would be important to know given his set of passions.  If James holds the normative view that one ought to maximize desire-satisfaction, then by calling the evidentialist rule irrational, he's making the claim that following it blocks one from satisfying desires.  And the previous examples that he gave are meant to show just this.  They are examples in which some very important desires, ones associated with religion and social intercourse, will be unsatisfied if one sticks to an evidentialist rule of thinking. So James is expressing the passion/s that leads him to adopt the normative desire-satisfaction view, and his judgment of irrationality is made in relation to that normative view. The evidentialist rule of thinking is irrational in the sense that it is not instrumental to the maximization of desire-satisfaction, according to James.

One Difference this Interpretation Makes

In light of the interpretation that arises from Section VII, we can now understand James famous statement of his position in Section IV.  Here it is:

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…

It might be thought that James is criticizing evidentialism here, by claiming that it would be lawful (in the normative sense of law) to allow one's passions to determine one's beliefs. But James is not here taking on the role of a participant in the normative game of putting forth of view about what our intellectual duties are (or are not).  Rather, he's making the theoretical claim that our passions must determine our beliefs under certain conditions.  This is because these decisions are not by their nature determinable by evidence, and therefore must be determined by practical considerations, there being nothing else to determine them.  So even the evidentialist's position, which is to not decide, and therefore to withhold belief, when there is not sufficient evidence, is itself a decision that expresses a passion, namely the fear of falling into error. So James is not here arguing against evidentialism, since he is allowing that the evidentialist is himself making a decision based on passion, something that James not only condones, but says must be done.  James later argues for the normative claim that the passion that rules the evidentialist is an unhealthy one, but his criticism there is not that the evidentialist incoherently thinks that the decisions that James talks about should be made on the basis of evidence, rather than passion. Evidentialism is an unhealthy position not because it is incoherent, but because it blocks the fulfillment of important human needs such as friendship. In this Section IV passage James is making the theoretically prior metaethical claim that all positions about our intellectual duty, by their nature, must be determined by our passions, even the position known as evidentialism. This, we have argued, is because James thinks that feelings of duty are expressions of states that are not themselves responsive to evidence. So James’ position in section 4 is aimed not against the normative position of evidentialism, but rather against the theoretical position that holds that feelings of duty, or the psychological states that underlies expressions of duty, are themselves responsive to evidence rather than practical considerations.

[1] See Gibbard, Wise Choices, Apt Feelings (1990), and Blackburn, Spreading the Word (1984), and Essays in Quasi-Realism (1992), for attempts at such extensions of expressivism.

[2] James could try to stick Clifford with the position that all mental states should be formed only on the basis of evidence, but this seems an unduly uncharitable reading of Clifford.

[3] We do not mean to suggest that James allows no room for efficacious reflection about our desires.  We can come to understand implications of our desires, for instance, and can come to see more clearly which of our desires conflict with others. On our reading, James’ thought about practical reasoning is closer to Hume’s than to Dewey’s.