Acta Cogitata: An Undergraduate Journal in Philosophy


In “The Will to Believe,” William James develops two distinct arguments for the legitimacy of holding a belief on what he calls unintellectual grounds. The first of these arguments (which I call the ‘indeterminacy argument’) attempts to distinguish between intellectual and unintellectual grounds as objective epistemological categories. The second argument (which I call the ‘subjective argument’) abandons that attempt and instead distinguishes between public and private, and subjectively intellectual and unintellectual reasons. Although these arguments differ, and both are present in “The Will to Believe,” the indeterminacy argument has received far more critical attention than the subjective argument. This disparity is unfortunate because the subjective argument presents a greater challenge to James’s opponents than does the indeterminacy argument. In this paper I will draw from “The Will to Believe” and other related works by James to outline both arguments. I will also criticize both to show why the subjective argument is more successful than the indeterminacy argument at proving James’s thesis.

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