William James on belief: Turning darwinism against empiricistic skepticism

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Few address the extent to which William James regards the neo-Lamarckian account of “direct adaptation” as a biological extension of British empiricism. Consequently few recognize the instrumental role that the Darwinian idea of “indirect adaptation” plays in his lifelong efforts to undermine the empiricist view that sense experience molds the mind. This article examines how James uses Darwinian thinking, first, to argue that mental content can arise independently of sense experience; and, second, to show that empiricists advance a hopelessly skeptical position when they insist that beliefs are legitimate only insofar as they directly correspond to the observable world. Using his attacks on materialism and his defense of spiritualism as examples, I particularly consider how Darwinian thinking enables him to keep his empiricist commitments while simultaneously developing a pragmatic alternative to empiricistic skepticism. I conclude by comparing his theory of beliefs to the remarkably similar theory of “memes” that Richard Dawkins uses to attack spiritualistic belief—an attack that James anticipates and counters with his pragmatic alternative.
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Archival date: 2019-10-28
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