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Reading Discussion - James's "The Will to Believe"

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Hi Philosophy Meetup Group members,

Our next meeting will be a discussion of William James’s “The Will to Believe.” In this classic 19th Century paper, James defends “our right to adopt a believing attitude in religious matters” against the view that one should only believe that which is demonstrated by evidence. Though our discussion will center on James’s argument, you may find it useful to understand the piece as a response to William Clifford’s “The Ethics of Belief.” The following statements summarize these competing views:

Clifford: “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”

James: “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.”

Both papers are in the public domain and available for free online. If you don’t have time to read both in their entirety, I suggest reading only the first (of three sections) of the Clifford piece, and as much as you can of the James (though it’s a bit trickier to understand James’s position without reading the entire article).

Part I of Clifford:

James: (

(James - alternative URL):

Note that these papers engage directly with questions in the philosophy of religion. However, that does not mean that this meeting will be an open forum for religious proselytizing or bashing. This will be a polite and respectful discussion of Clifford and James’s arguments only, and not of the general merits and faults of organized religion. I’ll be moderating accordingly.

I hope to see you at the meeting!



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