Saturday, August 4, 2012

William James on the Will to Believe

[ Originally posted on MySpace on  July 30, 2007  ]
A couple of days ago, I read again "The Will to Believe," probably the best-known essay by William James, which he first presented as a lecture in 1896 and reprinted in his book The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (1897).   The argument of "The Will to Believe" is developed in ten sections, the tenth section being focused on religion.  Before getting to religion, though, James offers (in the last paragraph of the ninth section) the following interesting observation on the act of faith that animates and makes possible the civic sense:
"A social organism of any sort whatever, large or small, is what it is because each member proceeds to his own duty with a trust that the other members will simultaneously do theirs.  Wherever a desired result is achieved by the co-operation of many independent persons, its existence as a fact is a pure consequence of the precursive faith in one another of those immediately concerned.  A government, an army, a commercial system, a ship, a college, an athletic team, all exist on this condition, without which not only is nothing achieved, but nothing is even attempted.  A whole train of passengers (individually brave enough) will be looted by a few highwaymen, simply because the latter can count on one another, while each passenger fears that if he makes a movement of resistance, he will be shot before any one else backs him up.  If we believed that the whole car-full would rise at once with us, we should each severally rise, and train-robbing would never even be attempted.  There are, then, cases where a fact cannot come at all unless a preliminary faith exists in its coming.  And where faith in a fact can help create the fact, that would be an insane logic which should say that faith running ahead of scientific evidence is the 'lowest kind of immorality' into which a thinking being can fall.  Yet such is the logic by which our scientific absolutists pretend to regulate our lives!"
Reading this paragraph again reminded me of Robert D. Putnam's book Bowling Alone:  The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000).  Putnam, a professor of political science at Harvard, documents in great detail the ongoing decline, during the past several decades, of American civic culture.  Voluntary participation of every sort, even in churches and bowling leagues, has been in a steady decline.  The resulting collapse of the sense of community presents a real threat to the stability of democracy and, I believe, of our civilization itself.
It has been bad enough, in the decades following World War II, that America's employees have been forced into a type of high-level vagrancy, drifting from place to place in search of better employment (or sometimes any employment),  never achieving a sense of rootedness and belonging, but now American society is being assaulted by the double forces of globalization (the export of jobs) and mass immigration (the import of workers).  The great mass of working Americans caught in the middle of this process are those who suffer.   Is the decline of civic culture anything to be wondered at when one considers the powerful societal forces which erode it, which, indeed, threaten to render it all but impossible?

No comments:

Post a Comment