What strikes us in reading William James now is at once how distant and yet how close to us he is. Some of his most famous essays, particularly on determinism and freedom of the will, were written almost a century ago. Their philosophic idiom is not our current one, and they speak out of a different historical and human ambience from ours. In point of actual chronology he can be squeezed into our century only in its first decade, though in those years he did produce some of his most decisive philosophical statements. Yet he belongs to our time, he is our contemporary in the 20th century, for deeper reasons than this narrow and literal-minded appeal to chronology can show. He speaks to us now, I believe, more forcefully than at any time since his death in 1910.
Even the great differences in the intellectual and spiritual milieu from which he wrote, and which at this distance we can discern more clearly, have a more immediate meaning and use for us now. By contrast they help to reveal what our own very different situation is. In America in the latter part of the 19th century, and certainly in New England, God was very far from dead. The new tremors of agnosticism were stirring, of course, like the advance waves of an earthquake. Scientific materialism seemed by this time to be incorporated into the body of physics itself; and the shock of the theory of evolution altered not only our picture of the origin of mankind but also our perspective on its possible destiny. But these matters disturbed the intellectuals mostly. The faithful, if troubled at all, were quick and ingenious with the responses of their will to believe. New England and Boston particularly buzzed with their varied circles of spirituality and spiritualism.
We get some sense of part of this background against which William James philosophized from his brother Henry’s novel, The Bostonians. We get here too a lively sense of the difference between the two brothers. Henry is the adopted European, the artist, and the aristocrat; and he takes consequently a very negative view of the spiritual seething’ in and around Boston. He finds the people engaged in it mostly shabby and seedy—“The great irregular army of nostrum-mongers, domiciled in humanitary Bohemia.” It was The Bostonians which gave Henry James the most trouble with his audience; and, significantly, for readers today it is one of the novels most favored in the whole Jamesian canon. It seems to us one of the most prophetic and “modernist” in spirit. It gave Henry James trouble in other ways, too, besides its public reception, so that he did not rewrite it to be incorporated in the later New York edition. For us that is also one of its attractions; it seems to us more pungent in the earlier style, and therefore more modern too in its spirit of dissent.
William was inclined to be more democratically tolerant of all these odd manifestations of the human spirit. Where there was moral earnestness abroad one should appreciate it no matter what peculiar expression it might take. Besides, all these dealings in the occult aroused his curiosity as a psychologist. Nor was the time spent in such study wasted to him, for he carried away from it his lifelong sensitivity to the hidden and subliminal sources of the human mind that gives him a breadth and profundity that more cerebral philosophers lack. But most of all there was in the atmosphere a general will to believe, and this he could appeal to and mobilize. Liberal religion was then at the height of its vogue. Confident in itself and its virtues, it enjoyed the best of both worlds. It had assimilated the Enlightenment, banished superstition, yet still seemed to preserve the religious values that were worthwhile. By contrast, how different our own period emerges. Faith or the lack of faith seems hardly a live option anymore—at least among intellectuals. To raise the religious question in certain circles would be an embarrassing gaucherie. And so far as the public at large is concerned, there prevails alternately a flaccidity or frenzy of the will; apathy or violence; cynicism or a ranting fanaticism over the momentary ideology. Nihilism has become the matter-of-fact state of mind of our period. And as happens when a state of mind becomes so pervading, it becomes for the most part unconscious of itself.
Yet James speaks to us over all these differences of time and circumstance, and it is a mark of both his genius and his unique intellectual power that he is able to do so. It is important for us now, in the midst of what might be called a James revival, that we be under no misunderstandings as heretofore on the quality of mind that makes up this power.
Part of his genius, which even his detractors have admitted, was his remarkable sensitivity to the actualities of life. It took quite an unusual eye to pick up from the newspapers of his day the kind of odd and sensational cases that he sometimes used to press home his point. He was able too to comb through some of the most bathetic literature of religious conversion to come up with some unforgettable if rough-cut gems of the human soul speaking in extremis. “That adorable genius, William James,” Whitehead says of him, having in mind this captivating and lively sense of the actual, and particularly James’s grasp of feeling as the central fact for any human life. And it was from him that Whitehead borrowed the phrase “concreteness and adequacy” as the goal toward which philosophic thinking should strive. But once this gift for the actual—this capacity for concreteness and adequacy—is acknowledged, disparagement is likely to set in among some critics, though Whitehead is emphatically not of their number. James is considered to be woolly-minded, intellectually impressionistic, too subjective and emotional in his approach to qualify as a really rigorous thinker.
This was a prevalent attitude during the decades when Bertrand Russell and Russellian logic dominated philosophy. Russell himself, as one of the sharpest critics of pragmatism, has helped propagate a general disdain for what appeared to be its sloppy thinking generally. In retrospect, there is one very large irony in Russell’s being associated with this disparagement, since at one point in his career, when he sought desperately to get beyond the Cartesian impasse with its split between mind and matter, he had to turn back to some suggestion about the nature of consciousness that James had advanced twenty years earlier. The supposedly impressionistic thinker was here supplying the logician with his intellectual capital.
Two changes in the philosophical climate during recent decades combine to alter this disparaging judgment of James. The first is the widespread influence of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s later thought, which considerably undermines the imperial claims of Russellian logic. Wittgenstein in fact pursues a fundamentally pragmatic analysis of language to far more drastic lengths than any of the pragmatists. Logic is no longer the pre-existing and Procrustean framework into which the activities of discourse have to be fit. The forms of logic are eventual; they come out of our use of language and the decisions that we have to make in the course of that use. The logician and mathematician must perpetually stand open to the possibility that he will come to a point where he will have to ask: Now what decision must I make so that such and such an undesirable situation will not arise in the way I use my symbols? Where a language has interesting things to say, precision is never perfect. The second change in intellectual climate has been the advent of existentialism as the major movement of contemporary thought. In the wake of the existentialist thinkers we are much less disposed to find fault with James for philosophizing in a personal and emotional mode. If philosophy is to say something that matters to us, it will have to touch upon that personal core of experience which after all is the center of being for all of us. And whatever else existentialism may have contributed by this time, I think it has at least succeeded in establishing some major revaluations in our judgments of past reputations: Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, for example, who philosophized in a most personal and passionate mode, now loom as two of the most powerful minds of the 19th century. We are less likely therefore to condemn William James out of hand for his personal style.
The fact is that he is at the very farthest remove from being woolly-minded. He is not a raconteur of cases, not an artist or novelist manqué, but a thinker of very great force. He wrote in a vivid and often colloquial style, and in trying to communicate to a wide audience sometimes affected a popular jauntiness of expression. Only a pedant or prig would be put off by these qualities. What matters is the intellectual power that lies behind or within this direct and vigorous appropriation of the vernacular. James has the great power of going for the gut issue in any question. Rarely if ever does he get lost in the aimless byways that often capture other philosophers. Half of the business of thinking is to know what one is after in the first place. A question may fascinate us as an intellectual puzzle that we can play with for our own amusement; but when it becomes a real problem it presses us toward some decision. And what we ask of a thinker is that he sift through the great mass of incidental and obscuring details in order to lay bare the main structure within which the decision has to be made.
Nowhere does James show this power more effectively than in his treatment of the problem of freedom.
I remember my disappointment as a young student years ago when I first read the classic essay, “The Dilemma of Determinism.” The title led me to expect some objective and logical refutation that would once and for all impale the determinist on its prongs and leave him squirming there forever. I expected, I think, some new and surprising facts or some new logical relation of the facts that would finally settle the question in favor of freedom. Instead, James seemed to hurry past the objective question in order to get to the moral issues involved, and I was disappointed to find the bulk of the essay, as it seemed to me then, a moral appeal to the reader. For the dilemma of the determinist, as James presents it, is essentially a moral and not a metaphysical one. The objective question between freedom and determinism was thus left open and inconclusive as it had always been, and my young mind still felt dreadfully unsettled.
But of course this is where the question has to be left, and James is entirely right to hew to the line that he does. In this matter he is following the position of Kant a century before him. The firebreathers of determinism, like B.F. Skinner, who enter the dialectical fray convinced that they have seen the proof of determinism in their laboratory results last week, are greatly mistaken. The case for or against free will still stands where Kant left it. We have introduced all kinds of changes and refinements in terminology, but the objective merits of the case remain unaltered. Anything like a decisive proof for free will or determinism is unavailable. And where the matter is thus logically inconclusive, practical concerns enter. It makes a great deal of difference, practically speaking, if we do believe in freedom. We are more likely to improve our character if we believe that the power to do so lies in the exertion of our will. Determinism, if really followed in practice, would tend to close off the will toward such striving. Thus it is to our practical advantage to believe that we are free beings, and our subjective decision in the matter does have objective consequences in our life. Faith in freedom produces future facts that confirm it—at least in its practical efficacy if not its ultimate metaphysical truth.
Freedom on such terms would seem to be a bald practical transaction, a cool quid pro quo. But what we have in the above summation is half, and less than half, of the Jamesian position. For if the belief in freedom is a moral choice on our part, it is ultimately for James also a religious act. Our moral life in the end makes sense only as an affirmation of some religious attitude toward the universe. Many of his pragmatist followers have sought to dilute this position; but it is nonetheless James’s, persistently though sometimes waveringly held throughout the body of his writings. To disengage this view, and present it more sharply, is the main burden of what we have to say in this essay.
Still, there may be some rumblings of the old controversy over determinism that have to be dealt with. The reader may wonder whether there are new facts that enter the picture which would cause us to reassess the objective merits of the case for or against determinism. Has science, which changes so rapidly in our time, not brought forth new discoveries which would bring us some conclusive decision one way or the other? The trouble is that the voices of the scientists, when they speak apart from their special fields, are likely to be part of the disunified clamor of our period. The public pronouncements of some of our physicists sound at times like dithyrambs for a universe of such indeterminacy and utter chaos that often after reading them we wonder how the ordinary world can possibly go about its way even as uniformly as it does. The psychologists, on the other hand, fresh from some new conditioning experiment, are eager to tell us how they have the techniques to engraft an iron-bound necessity upon our behavior. Clearly, we get no unanimity of illumination from science. In view of the perennial and shifting area of debate between philosophy and science, it may be worthwhile to ask why on this particular question matters must stand inconclusive; and for this purpose we may pause to take a brief look at the logical structure of the old controversy.
What is it that the determinist really claims? However he may put it, his claim must be a total one. The British philosopher CD. Broad gives us a succinct and accurate formulation as follows:
What determinism asserts is that given the totality of all antecedent conditions in the universe that lead to the present occasion (in which we are to choose or act), one and only one future can follow.
The distinction between soft and hard determinism, already familiar to James, does not mitigate the totality of these claims. The soft determinist seems to sugar-coat the bitter pill of fatalism by telling us that our own desires and choices are among the conditions of our act, and that we therefore play a part in shaping our fate. There need not then be any strict antithesis between freedom and determinism. That we may be autonomous and free individuals is perfectly consistent with a strict causal determinism.
But this promise of respite is only an illusion. The soft determinist might be more aptly called the lucky determinist. If we are lucky, our desires and choices fit fluently and smoothly into the web of our life, and we act with all the harmonious appurtenances of freedom. We do what we want, and we are satisfied with the kinds of things we want. But for the unlucky man cursed with odious and self-destructive desires, there is not the least bit of solace here. Tell him that his own will is part of the conditions of his act and you leave him still groaning in travail. His own desires may be the most monstrous obstacle in his path against which he struggles to no avail. What formed these desires? Previous conditions in the chain of events. We are led backward to the youth that ruined manhood, to the childhood that blighted youth; to the role of parents, society, the historical situation into which he was born. The total claims of determinism begin to reassert themselves. If a man’s will has been blighted from the start, and confirmed by circumstances bit by bit into its monstrous obsessions, you have not given him one bit of freedom by naming that will among the conditions that spin out his fate. Unless there is a break somewhere in the deterministic chain, you have not made him master of his own destiny but simply labeled him as the helpless instrument of his own doom. From the strictly logical point of view, there is only one determinism, and that is the position of hard determinism.
We come back thus to the simple and sweeping thesis that the determinist must strictly insist upon: given the totality of all conditions that make up the present state of the world, one and only one future can issue therefrom.
This is, admittedly, an extraordinary proposition, and we would do well to pause for a moment to contemplate it. Is it an analytic statement, like the propositions of logic, or an empirical hypothesis about matters of fact?
Clearly, it is not analytic. One can imagine that the route of the universe could be just what it is up to the present, and two or indeed many more different futures could follow from that past. There is at least no logical contradiction involved in conceiving alternative futures. And in the case of a truly analytic proposition, its denial leads us forthwith to a self-contradiction.
The thesis of determinism must then be an empirical proposition. And indeed it does appear to talk about events, human acts, and the condition of the world generally. But if it is an empirical statement about matters of fact, it has to be accounted a very strange one. No scientific hypothesis is ever put so sweepingly. A legitimate hypothesis for science is a restricted form that enables us to specify the conditions or the definite observations under which it could be proved false. But the determinist thesis—and this, I think, is its most significant peculiarity—is not a proposition which is ever falsifiable. Whatever cases one may try to present against it, the determinist can always respond that we do not know the antecedent circumstances in their totality. I say to the determinist, “Look, I choose to raise my arm and now I shall proceed to do it.” I then raise my arm and ask, “Why isn’t that a free act?” I only elicit a tolerant smile from him, for I have been silly: if I really knew all the conditions—absolutely all—that led to my words and my act, then it would be clear that at just that particular moment in the evolution of the cosmos I was fated to say and do just what I did.
Of course, neither he nor I can ever know all these conditions. The determinist has secured an unassailable position for himself at the expense of making it empty. I say that I believe in freedom, and that this belief makes a difference in my experience; for I then have greater faith that I can make an effort, and I therefore struggle harder than I would were I without this belief. The determinist smiles again, and remarks that it was fated in the course of things that I should believe in freedom. Whatever we try to point out in the foreground of experience, the determinist can always evade by taking recourse to what lies—or must lie—behind the scenes.
And so the dialectical game can be played back and forth as endless as it is inconclusive.
Yet surely there is more substance than this to the dispute between free will and determinism. A controversy that has drawn the energies and anguish of so many great intellects over the centuries cannot be reduced to a mere idle dialectical joust. Nor is it simply to be assigned to the past, for it is vigorously alive and troubling today. It lies behind the latest and boldest programs of behaviorists for reshaping human nature. And the same old question of freedom and necessity, though it remains unanswered, is lived through in the tortuous transactions day by day between psychoanalysts and their patients. Surely the question here is not merely academic but touches real life. And it is precisely when we have seen the point at which it touches life itself that we are given the true sense of the problem, as well as the indication of its solution.
To begin with, we should recognize a peculiar kind of unreality that infects the way in which the problem of free will is presented in our philosophic classrooms. We present it as a puzzle to tease the student into thinking. It serves this purpose somewhat like the antinomies of logic, and like the latter is indeterminate of solution unless further specifications are added. In the interest of being logical and objective we present the problem with a certain detachment. And here is the source of unreality to the problem: we are really talking about an agent who is in fact a spectator at his own life.
The medieval schoolmen, partly out of their own sense of amused detachment, invented the famous illustration of Buridan’s ass. Imagine a poor donkey who is equally hungry and thirsty and is placed equidistant from hay and water. What will the poor beast do? Will he not remain equally and indifferently suspended between the two desires and so perish of hunger and thirst simultaneously?
No contemporary philosopher would appear to take Buridan’s ass seriously. The case is a caricature at best. We have created a thoroughly artificial and unreal donkey—a beast who is suspended and hovers indifferently above his own poor animal existence. But do not philosophers create an equally unreal human agent in their own discussion of freedom? And I do not mean only those objective philosophers who go on endlessly chewing the logical cud until the juice has run out of it. I cannot read Sartre on freedom without sensing the ghost of Buridan’s donkey hovering in the wings. On the surface everything looks different, of course: the Sartrian agent is possessed by a complex consciousness, too complex perhaps, and a freedom so absolute that Descartes—as Sartre himself notes—reserved it only for God. But this “total” freedom of which Sartre talks—does it not project before us a human being in suspension above his own existence? From there he can leap into any indifferent and absurd path that takes him out of the normal and prosaic rut. True, this freedom is dizzying, and we are haunted by anguish in being exposed to it. The angoisse gives an existentialist coloring to the whole account, but in fact the Sartrian agent is as detached from actual existence as Buridan’s imaginary ass.
Freedom becomes a reality to us in much more mundane and humiliating situations. We know it in its harshness as a lack and a struggle rather than a superfluity of powers. The alcoholic struggling against his body shivering for that next drink knows what freedom means. Freedom becomes fully real to us in those situations when it is literally a matter of life and death. We are in extremis; we have fallen into a black pit and we are gasping for breath as we struggle to crawl forward. Freedom is no longer an academic debate or the dizzying luxury of an indifferent choice between alternatives. The question of freedom has turned into a cry for help.
James knew this need in the only way in which it can be known—by direct personal experience. In 1870, when he was twenty-eight, he had a severe crisis that left him in a state of acute and paralyzed melancholy. We do not know exactly what circumstances may have precipitated this crisis. James’s personality, despite his open and expansive manner, is shrouded in considerably more mystery than is commonly thought. He has left us an anonymous case in The Varieties of Religious Experience that is now taken to be largely a desscription of his own experience. Why this refuge in anonymity? Would it have seemed too mawkish and unmanly, too unashamedly personal, to make public confession of something so intimate? In any case, the passage describes the kind of experience around which much of his philosophizing turns; long as it is, we need to give it in full:
Whilst in this state of philosophic pessimism and general depression of spirits about my prospects, I went one evening into a dressing-room in the twilight to procure some article that was there; when suddenly there fell upon me without warning, just as if it came out of darkness, a horrible fear of my own existence. Simultaneously there arose in my mind the image of an epileptic patient whom I had seen in the asylum, a black-haired youth with greenish skin, entirely idiotic, who used to sit all day on one of the benches, or rather shelves, against the wall, with his knees drawn up against his chin, and the coarse grey undershirt, which was his only garment, drawn over him, enclosing his entire figure. He sat there like a sort of sculptured Egyptian cat or Peruvian mummy, moving nothing but his black eyes and looking absolutely non-human. This image and my fear entered into a species of combination with each other. That shape am I, I felt, potentially. Nothing that I possess can defend me against that fate, if the hour for it should strike for me as it struck for him. There was such a horror of him, that it was as if something solid within my breast gave way entirely, and I became a mass of quivering fear. After this the universe was changed for me altogether. I awoke morning after morning with a horrible dread at the pit of my stomach, and with a sense of insecurity the like of which I never knew before, and that I have never felt since. It was like a revelation; and although the immediate feelings passed away, the experience has made me sympathetic with the morbid feelings of others ever since. It gradually faded, but for months I was unable to go out in the dark alone.
We witness here such a convulsion and seizure by the unconscious that consciousness and its ideas would seem by comparison to exert only a feeble and peripheral force. Yet, on closer look, ideas play more of a role in this crisis than might first appear. It is hard for us today to recapture in imagination the stark and frightening power that the determinism embedded in physics had for the 19th-century imagination. “The molecules blindly run,” the poet sang in his distress; and those molecules blindly moving would spin out our fate as they would, whatever we appeared to will in the matter. That idiot will be me, and there is nothing I can do, if the particles are already irreversibly spinning in that direction. The imagination cowered before this prospect like a Calvinist shivering at the conviction of eternal damnation. And if this philosophical idea does not of itself beget the attack of acute depression, it nevertheless intensifies that depression because any way out seems to be barred beforehand. Ideas, as we see here, can have a most potent connection with the will, in this case a negative and frustrating one.
James was to find a more positive idea to help his will out of the impasse. In the spring of 1870 a turning point seems to come and he records in his diary:
I think that yesterday was a crisis in my life. I finished the first part of Renouvier’s second Essais and see no reason why his definition of free will—“the sustaining of a thought because I choose to when I might have other thoughts”—need be the definition of an illusion. At any rate, I will assume for the present—until next year—that it is no illusion. My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.
In comparison with the murky and subterranean atmosphere of the previous excerpt, we are here in the daylight world of the mind and its ideas. Perhaps too daylight; perhaps the note here is too selectively intellectual, and there were other subliminal and more obscure forces at work floating James past his blockage. We have, however, to follow him to the letter: it is an idea—in this case the idea of free will—that opens the door out of his darkness. Yet James knows—though he had not yet written his great chapters on habit in the Psychology—that the idea by itself is not enough; that the links between idea and will, and between will and action, must be quickly and firmly established. He proceeds therefore to put the idea immediately into action:
For the remainder of the year, I will abstain from the mere speculation and contemplative Grublei in which my nature takes most delight, and voluntarily cultivate the feeling of moral freedom, by reading books favorable to it, as well as by acting. After the first of January, my callow skin being somewhat fledged, I may perhaps return to metaphysical study and skepticism without danger to my powers of action. For the present then remember: care little for speculation; much for the form of my action; recollect that only when habits of order are formed can we advance to really interesting fields of action—and consequently accumulate grain on grain of willful choice like a very miser; never forgetting how one link dropped undoes an indefinite number. . . .
Hitherto, when I have felt like taking a free initiative like daring to act originally, without waiting for contemplation of the external world to determine all for me, suicide seemed the most manly form to put my daring into; now, I will go a step further with my will, not only act with it, but believe as well; believe in my individual reality and creative power. My belief, to be sure, can’t be optimistic—but I will posit life (the real, the good) in the self-governing resistance of the ego to the world. Life shall be built in doing and suffering and creating.
We have dwelt on this crisis of 1870 because it gives us the human and philosophic center around which James’s life was to turn. In view of the extraordinarily productive and vigorous career that was to follow this breakdown, we could rate his as one of the prime cases of a victory over neurosis. Yet we do not conquer a neurosis unless we have learned from it and in some measure preserve within us the message it had to impart in the first place. For the rest of his days James remained sensitive to the desperation that lurks always at the core of even the best regulated lives. He could understand the “sick soul” and its morbid temperament because he himself was one of the morbid. He who has once had a terrifying vision will never doubt the existence of evil in this universe of ours. The torments of the sick soul, James tells us, if viewed objectively would be less than an adequate response to the abominable and loathsome things that take place in the world. Consequently James thereafter could never accept any idealistic philosophy that would make evil disappear through some ingenious feat of dialectic. All of which gives James a sense of actuality which makes him seem close to us.
More than this. The brief entries quoted from the journal for 1870 give us in compact outline the whole of the Jamesian philosophy that was to follow. The philosophy of The Will to Believe, twenty-seven years later, is already summed up in a single paragraph from the diary. Everything he was to write comes in some way out of the datum he had grasped in the crossing of this valley of the shadow. He was to become a moral philosopher essentially; but a moralist preoccupied with the scope, power, and above all the source of our moral will. Even a major work like his Psychology fits into this large design. For what James, coming from his studies in physiology, saw in the neural impulses was that consciousness is primarily connected with the discharge of energy, with action; and that motivation must therefore be a prime factor in human conduct. Happy the thinker who knows his direction so early.
“My first act of freedom will be to believe in freedom.” How cheerful and courageous this note sounds after the discord and stress of his crisis. This simple utterance of the moment is the gist of the position later taken in The Will to Believe. Since freedom of the will is not ruled out on strictly logical grounds, one is therefore free to believe in it. But this belief, which is not itself a strict consequence of logic, nevertheless has distinct consequences in action. To believe in one’s freedom has the advantages that it liberates the will and fosters action. Faith in freedom creates its own future facts, and thus confirms itself in action.
The argument is exactly the same, but in this later context James introduced an example from an altogether more extrovert and heroic domain of human effort than the one he had known in his crisis. Let us imagine, he tells us, a mountain climber who is caught in an impasse where he has to leap across an abyss to save himself. His way is barred behind; he must go forward or perish where he is. The jump is not too long that he cannot possibly make it; yet it is long enough that there is a chance he could fall short. Which then shall he believe? That he can make the leap or that it lies beyond his powers? If he believes he can do it, James argues, then his energies will be bolstered by that very faith, and he is much more likely to succeed in his leap. And afterward, when he stands safe on the other peak, his belief will have yielded confirmation of its truth.
This example, drawn from the daredevil and adventurous life of the out-of-doors, seems a far cry from the situation of James a quarter-century earlier sitting paralyzed and despondent in his father’s house in Cambridge. But perhaps the two situations are not so different as they appear at first glance. The melancholic, to get past his despondency, has to make a leap as heroic and total in its own way as the mountaineer’s jump from precipice to precipice. Only it is not done all at once, but day by day. That makes it more difficult, and should we not therefore say more heroic? There must be the slow and dragging accumulation of what James here calls “willful choice” until the sufferer emerges at last into the open air. And in both cases the choice is forced upon us: it is a matter of life and death, of individual salvation.
Ironically enough, the question of free will, in becoming real to us, has altogether changed its nature. It is no longer a question of alternative courses of action. We are no longer spectators at our own life dizzied by the gratuitous possibilities it affords. We are stuck in it up to our necks, and the question is whether we can go on at all. The question is no longer between the choice of A and B. A is life, and B death, or its moral equivalent. Everything in us cries out desperately for the choice of A, but do we have the will to make it? The problem of free will thus becomes, more fundamentally, the problem of the will itself. We need not go to the extreme situations of life—whether of the heroic mountain-climber or of the desperate melancholic—to see that this is so. We need only turn to the routines of ordinary life and the heavy load we must carry everyday. The voice of Samuel Beckett intones: “You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” That is the world in which each of us lives from day to day. The problem of the will thus becomes the problem of nihilism itself. And we are present here at what, underneath all the formal trappings of philosophy, must remain for most of us its fundamental question: Why live? Why go on? What meaning does it all have? James died before the virus of nihilism had passed from a few intellectuals into the democratic mass at large and become the epidemic of our time; and the one powerful statement of the question available to him, that of Nietzsche, he found distasteful and shied away from. Yet his sensitivity was such that the question is always there in the background for him; and that is one reason why he speaks to us at the present time.
The question of nihilism immediately places us on the terrain of the religious, whether or not we decide for or against religion. As soon as we give any utilitarian and naturalistic answers, they seem pallid beside the experience that provoked our question. Answer and question seem to pass each other by. Our will clamors for some deeper answer when its longing for freedom is in fact a cry for help. The longing for freedom is in fact a prayer—whether we actually voice that prayer or not. The question of morality becomes a religious one. And James, deciding at this early age to turn his intellectual energy henceforth to what he calls “the moral impulse,” was in fact committing himself to becoming a religious thinker.