William James is considered as being one of the American pioneers in the field of philosophy and psychology. His works covered a wide range of areas including educational psychology, mysticism and psychology of religion. Two of his writings which gave him a great recognition are the Principles of Psychology and Psychology: The Briefer Course. He was part of the proponents of pragmatism philosophy and functionalism in psychology. This paper aims at analyzing the contribution of William James in epistemology. Many prominent views in the modern epistemology and pragmatist approaches to epistemology are reflected in most of the writings of James, (William, 2010, pp. 23-27).
James was an earlier supporter of epistemic conservatism and epistemic contextualism. According to the contextualists, whether a belief matters as knowledge, or justified depends on the context of the individual who is assessing the belief or the context of the believer. Contextualists habitually call upon the incident of “pragmatic encroachment”; justification standards that are employed in a particular context depends on how the belief under investigation is to be applied as well as how destructive it might be if the belief is discovered to be false, (Christopher 2009, pp. 34-38). Evident that James favored epistemic contextualism can be found in “The will to believe”. James argued that it is rightful to believe suggestions which cannot be established by intellectual means when the options are within explicit contextual circumstances.
Epistemic conservatism is another epistemological position that is reflected in James’s writings. James’ conservatism is evident from his argument that individuals conserve older stock of truths with less modification extending them to make them acknowledge the novelty, but visualizing that in “ways as familiar as the case leaves possible”. According to him, this conservatism is very crucial. Taking this seriously was necessary if we are to be aware of what is with most of pragmatism’s criticism, (Christopher 2009, pp. 34-38). Epistemic conservatism relates to “The will to believe” in various ways. James notes that unless there is an affirmative reason of suspicion, beliefs are innocent.
Based on the above arguments it can be said that James’ explanation for the authenticity of belief is conservative and contextualist. All these attributes throw in to his defense of the “will to believe” principle. It is not clear whether they are whole of his argument but his firmness, for instance, belief in molecules is based in the standing of those who tell us about them and the claim that the basis on which we believe existing unsound scientific outcomes are the same as the ones employed in the argument of James for the will to believe supports the idea that the reasons for James to believe in God represent same kind of consideration, (Christopher 2009, pp. 34-38).
Finally, it can be argued that the major contributions that were made by William James in epistemology are a reflection or rather application of epistemic conservatism and contextualization. Based on the contextualists argument, James argues that whether a belief matters as knowledge, or reasonable depends on the context of the individual who is assessing the belief or the context of the believer. Additionally, epistemic conservatism is another epistemological position that is reflected in James’s writings. Hence, James played a significant role in the development of epistemology.
Christopher, H. “James’ Epistemology and the will to believe”, European Journal of
Pragmatism and American Philosophy, 2009, pp. 34-38.
William, J. Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (Mobi Classics). New
York: MobileReference, 2010.