There is no neutral generic epistemic state which it makes sense to ascribe to an inquirer in respect of each and every putative truth on which an inquirer relies. The term ‘belief’ does not signify such a state. Rather, such a state is an invention of epistemology itself. ‘Belief’ is a term used within our epistemic practice to mark epistemic positions evaluatively. More specifically, ‘belief’ is used to signal epistemic risk or a lack of demonstrability and is not a sub- category or more fundamental state than knowledge, but rather an alternative characterisation to it.
In this thesis, I argue that this is a deep insight which has been overlooked in the epistemological thought of William James. I contend that it is of profound significance to our contemporary understanding of epistemic practice, which tends to remain beholden to the flawed conception of belief which this insight allows us to reject. It is powerfully expressed in what James describes as his sermon on the justification of faith – 'The Will to Believe'. The lecture has often been dismissed as an irresponsible licensing of wishful thinking. However, I argue that the account of inquiry which James offers provides a radically different and more illuminating picture of the character and extent of the possibility of a rational endorsement of our shared epistemic practice (in the face of our sceptical and dogmatic inclinations) from that which has held currency in traditional epistemology. This thesis examines the significance of James’ arguments in relation to his broader philosophy and his role, alongside Peirce and Dewey, in the birth of pragmatist thinking. I show how James’ approach reflects a commitment to understanding inquiry in terms of an embodied perspective and that the significance of this approach remains unappreciated. I argue that 'The Will to Believe' presents a unique insight into the concept of belief itself which the traditional view of belief in epistemology as a basic and generic epistemic state is incapable of accommodating. I further trace the implications of this insight through the development of pragmatically oriented philosophy of language in C20th, showing how it enhances our understanding of our epistemic language and practice.
'The Will to Believe' has been much maligned in its attempt to provide a defence of religious faith on the basis of the positive practical consequences of believing which may flow therefrom. I suspect that, at least in part, it is this subject matter which has made its deeper criticism of a flawed epistemological picture inaccessible to many readers. I will examine how the lecture represented the culmination of a line of thinking which James had developed for some time, which reflects a working out of his conviction that epistemology must represent the inquirer as an active participant in (and therefore as a part of) the world. In doing so, I will engage with certain misunderstandings and misinformation concerning the relation between James’ arguments there and his debates with other pragmatists and particularly Peirce. This will illuminate both a greater affinity between their positions than is often realised, but also the importance of James’ arguments to the potential for pragmatist thought to be applied outside of the rather narrow scope of application of the scientific method which Peirce emphasises and thereby to be of relevance to our everyday epistemic engagements.
This will lead us to the questions of the extent to which a rational vindication of the bases of inquiry itself is possible and the relevance of that possibility to our understanding of our epistemic practice. I will compare Peirce’s account of inquiry with James’ arguments, understanding both of them as a response to scepticism conceived of in different ways. Where Peirce focuses on repudiating a Cartesian argument from the dubitability of the external world, rejecting the need for a foundational underpinning to our scientific understanding thereof, James perceives the greater threat as residing in Pyrrhonism and the spectre of a lack of rational justification more generally within our epistemic lives. In examining early pragmatist epistemological thought, I will also engage with a more contemporary Kantian inspired reading of the pragmatist understanding of inquiry which emphasises the extent to which the significance of our practices of inquiry is shaped by our responses to the possibilities of scepticism and dogmatism. I show how James’ concern with self-authorising our position in life as meaningful is a significant further development of this insight. Further, I argue that James’ insights have been misunderstood in contemporary literature, which has failed to engage with his discussion of scepticism, and I show that 'The Will to Believe' represents a significant development in thinking about a Pyrrhonist challenge to our epistemic practice. While James likewise recognises two different modes of responsiveness to the world, unlike Pyrrhonists he does not attempt to categorise these into two different levels or spheres of responsiveness and thus avoids positing an unrevisable ‘natural’ basis for action which is insensitive to reason. James provides a distinctive response to the threat of an equipollence of reasons which arises not as an abstract general phenomenon in respect of any attempt to support actions by reasons, but rather in particular practical contexts under the exigencies of needing to act immediately. I show how James’ identification of two different kinds of epistemic relation to a putative truth and the different modes of epistemic assessment associated therewith provides a unique understanding of our epistemic responsibilities which illuminates the relevance of scepticism as a threat to successful practical action in our lives.
I then examine how 'The Will to Believe' relates to James’ broader pragmatism. I engage with the reading of James offered by Hilary Putnam, which I critique as representative of a common misunderstanding of James’ pragmatism. I show how a sensitive understanding of James’ pragmatic theory of truth and its conception of the relationship between meaning (construed both narrowly as linguistic meaning and broadly as the significance of action) and the practical outcomes of our worldly engagements enriches the arguments made in 'The Will to Believe'. I argue that James’ insistence that the normative claim which truths have on us is grounded in practical outcomes illuminates how the questions raised in 'The Will to Believe' reflect the significance of motivated perspectives on the concepts of truth and evidence and their normative hold over us, which James identifies as conflicting tendencies within human nature. In turn, this connection between motivation and truth lays the groundwork for the rejection of what I have described as the traditional conception of belief as a generic state.
I consider and critique this traditional model and its significance through the lens of contemporary pragmatically minded work in the philosophy of language. I emphasise the importance of intersubjectivity in James’ thought and build upon more recent work on the notion of second personal space and normative relations therein. This concludes with an account of the term ‘belief’ which understands it as marking what I call ‘epistemic risk’ and hence playing an evaluative role within our epistemic practice, rather than designating a fundamental or neutral epistemic state which operates as a component or basis for knowledge. Thus, I conclude that James’ rejection of the notion that epistemic states exist on a single continuum of justification constitutes a crucial development in our understanding of epistemic practice by undercutting this false picture and opening the possibility of a rational consideration of the significance of the interested way we deploy these epistemic concepts. Rejecting the traditional epistemological picture allows for a deeper critique of our intersubjective epistemic behaviour by recognising the difficulties involved in the existence and apprehension of limits to rational determination.
I argue that calling something a belief is not ordinarily a neutral epistemic ascription in the way epistemology has imagined. Rather, to call something a belief is in many cases to cast doubt on it implicitly, or to refuse to take full responsibility for it, or otherwise marks a lack of demonstrability. In all cases, this language is used in contrast to the language of knowledge, designating an alternative to knowledge marked by a different kind of evaluation of an epistemic situation. Consequently, belief should not be thought of as a component of knowledge, as it often has been in epistemology. I argue that this problem arises because epistemology attempts to attribute epistemic states neutrally but with full generality, such that an agent’s epistemic outlook can be described in terms of a set of beliefs which can then be evaluated in a disinterested way. Instead, I argue that it only makes sense to attribute epistemic states in terms of the distinction to which James draws our attention, which means that attributing them necessarily both involves and communicates evaluation on our part.
Finally, I compare these insights and James’ arguments to the work of Stanley Cavell, whose understanding of scepticism evinces deep similarities to James’ thought. I examine the role of epistemology’s distorted notions of belief and knowledge in the production of scepticism itself. I thus compare Cavell’s understanding of the implicit constraints which exist upon our linguistic practice to the connection which James highlights between motivation and possibilities of meaning. I examine Cavell’s insights concerning the constraints on the sceptic’s ability to mean things by their non-standard use of the term ‘know’ and show how similar insights apply to the role of the concept of ‘belief’ in scepticism, which I argue also takes on a non- standard role in sceptical language. I suggest that both James' and Cavell’s perspectives can benefit from engagement with one another and illuminate this through a consideration of the role which the idea of a further or higher perspective which undercuts our practice has in external world scepticism. I suggest that the significance of this perspective is recognised by both James and Cavell in different ways, but that a fuller characterisation of it illuminates the significance of scepticism within our lives and is thus essential to understanding our response to it. Here I will suggest that James’ perspective may be more helpful to the treatment of this as a genuinely intersubjective problem to which we can respond collectively, whilst Cavell’s perspective is at times perhaps overly conservative in its view of such possibilities. Here, James’ pluralism reflects a concerted attempt to work out the possibilities for such a collective response and thus lays the groundwork for a social epistemological interrogation of our capacity for rational self-authorisation. I conclude by noting how, in this context, James’ rejection of a single continuum of justification for epistemic states offers a significant contribution to conceptual resources for non-ideal epistemological theory.