Between Anarchism and Suicide: On William James's Religious Therapy

Philosophers' Imprint 19 (32) (2019)

Authors
Alexander Klein
McMaster University
Abstract
William James’s religious writing displays a therapeutic concern for two key social problems: an epidemic of suicide among educated Victorians who worried that a scientific worldview left no room for God; and material poverty and bleak employment prospects for others. James sought a conception of God that would therapeutically comfort his melancholic peers while also girding them to fight for better social conditions—a fight he associated with political anarchism. What is perhaps most unique about James’s approach to religion emerges when we consider the relationship of his therapeutic project to his treatment of religious epistemology. For James took his suicidal peers to need more than tea and sympathy. They needed to be convinced, through rational argument, that religious faith is epistemically permissible in light of their methodological naturalism. That is to say that theoretic success in James’s treatment of religion is to be measured by therapeutic success. His argument for epistemic permissibility began by treating religious faith as a “hypothesis.” He took naturalism to permit entertaining a hypothesis just in case it is testable, and not contravened by available evidence. So he developed a distinctive conception of God—what he called the “pluralistic hypothesis”—that proposed a plurality of independent entities in the universe, only one of which is God. In contrast to the monistic hypothesis, pluralism is empirically testable in principle. But crucially, the hypothesis is underdetermined by any evidence available now. This purported, in-principle testability would make religious pluralism epistemically permissible to entertain. And since salvation is possible on this view without being guaranteed, the pluralistic hypothesis stands to discourage social and political quietism.
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