William James and his Darwinian Defense of Freewill

In M. Wheeler (ed.), 150 Years of Evolution: Darwin’s Impact on Contemporary Thought & Culture. SDSU Press. pp. 68-89 (2011)
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Abstract If asked about the Darwinian influence on William James, some might mention his pragmatic position that ideas are “mental modes of adaptation,” and that our stock of ideas evolves to meet our changing needs. However, while this is not obviously wrong, it fails to capture what James deems most important about Darwinian theory: the notion that there are independent cycles of causation in nature. Versions of this idea undergird everything from his campaign against empiricist psychologies to his theories of mind and knowledge to his pluralistic worldview; and all of this together undergirds his attempts to challenge determinism and defend freewill. I begin this paper by arguing that James uses Darwinian thinking to bridge empiricism and rationalism, and that this merger undermines environmental determinism. I then discuss how Darwinism informs his concept of pluralism; how his concept challenges visions of a causally welded “block universe”; and how it also casts doubt on the project of reducing all reality to physical reality, and therewith the wisdom of dismissing consciousness as an inert by-product of physiology. I conclude by considering how Darwinism helps him justify the pragmatic grounds upon which he defends freewill

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Matthew Crippen
Grand Valley State University


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