Possibility and Permission? Intellectual Character, Inquiry, and the Ethics of Belief

In Pihlstrom S. & Rydenfelt H. (eds.), William James on Religion. (Palgrave McMillan “Philosophers in Depth” Series (2014)
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This chapter examines the modifications William James made to his account of the ethics of belief from his early ‘subjective method’ to his later heightened concerns with personal doxastic responsibility and with an empirically-driven comparative research program he termed a ‘science of religions’. There are clearly tensions in James’ writings on the ethics of belief both across his career and even within Varieties itself, tensions which some critics think spoil his defense of what he calls religious ‘faith ventures’ or ‘overbeliefs’. But our study of James in the first half of the chapter reveals a significant degree of unnoticed unity: The two distinct defenses of faith ventures he develops post-1900 are actually both versions of the Dialogue Model of the relationship between individual religiosity and scientific reasoning. One shared theme in the diverging approaches to doxastic responsibility suggested by the two versions is what some interpreters have called ‘the character issue’ in James’ writings. The second half of the chapter develops these connections and argues that a neo-Jamesian approach tying the ethics of belief with Rawlsian reasonable pluralism and with contemporary character epistemology results in a stronger yet more clearly delimited defense of responsible faith ventures.

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Guy Axtell
Radford University


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