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01:830:101 (214)

William James: Empiricism, Skepticism, & Absolutism

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William James Friday, May 3, 2013 1:43 PM • James distinguishes between skepticism, (which says we don't know anything), empiricism, (which says that we can have knowledge but not be sure we have it), and absolutism, (which says we can have knowledge and know that we have it). He says that we are all absolutists by instinct and only by reflection can we achieve empiricist moderation. • James thinks that although we instinctively wish to be absolutists about our beliefs, and that we feel much more secure with certainty, it is much more rational to be empiricists and give up the quest for certainty. Certitude is hard to find. In fact, the only certainty we will ever have is that we possess minds (consciousness). All our other beliefs are less than certain, so we should constantly reflect on them, in the hope of getting closer to the truth. But there is no concrete test of what is true. In philosophy and the rest of life, James points out, completely contrasting views have been held to be certain. He gives some examples of this (in philosophy, the disagreement between Aristotle's and Hegel's logic). He further points out that in the past, people's certainty in religious belief has led them to persecute and tortures others. He says that this gives us even more reason to be suspicious of absolutism. We should keep with our quest for truth, but give up our need for certain truth. • James expands on this last point. Requiring certainty requires us to shun error, but search for truth does not require us to completely avoid the possibility of being wrong. Once we accept that in searching for truth we can risk error, we see that aiming to believe truth and aiming to shun error can take us into two different directions. If one really wanted to avoid all error, one could just stop believing anything at all. But obviously we would not have any true beliefs then. James thinks someone who was so afraid of error is just showing their own personal emotional character, rather than showing us what is rational for everyone. He uses a military analogy which suggests that he thinks this is being much too timid. • Some will say it is always better to reserve judgment than believe something without objective evidence as to the matter. James agrees that this is generally true in the case of science. In physical nature facts are as they are independently of us. In these areas options are not forced on us. It is not crucial for us that we come to a decision about many of the obscure controversies and unanswered questions in science, and we can just wait until there is enough evidence to decide. • In our own speculative questions, we are not always able to wait for objective evidence to come along. He quotes Pascal who wrote, "The heart has its reasons that Reason doesn't understand." But he does agree with Clifford that at least in cases where the need to come to a decision is not urgent, it would be best to wait until there is enough evidence to decide the issue. • However, there are many parts of life where we cannot wait for there to be enough evidence. One case of this is moral questions. Whether or not to have moral beliefs is, psychologically speaking, decided by our will. James is very doubtful that we will ever be able to come up with a rational proof of what is morally right and wrong. • Furthermore, in many parts of our life we need to go beyond the evidence in order for our lives to go well. For instance, whether you like me or not can depend upon my beliefs about you and whether I believe you like me, and show you trust and expectation. If I stand about you and whether I believe you like me, and show you trust and expectation. If I stand aloof, then it is likely you will never like me. Here the desire for the truth of something can bring it about. There are many cases where we need faith in order to create the fact. • Cooperation is needed between members of a society, and if everyone waited for proof that others were going to reciprocate, nothing would ever get done. Sometimes this happens: ○ A whole train of passengers (individually brave enough) will be looted by a few highwaymen, simply because the latte
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