Home > Philosophy > When existentialism meets pragmatism

When existentialism meets pragmatism

I find myself falling in love with the existentialist idea that life is a story and that everyone is the leading or main character in their life. And that the plot does not move forward–or at least nothing of much importance happens–without the main character making choices. The story we are in is what we make it. It’s such a beautiful and hopeful idea (although perhaps a false one) to think that we don’t have an essence, that we create ourselves. That there is no one thing for us to be and that we are waiting to be defined by those choices. It gives hope that we can change who we are on the moment we start making one set of choices as opposed to another set of choices. Rather than despairing because our nature is fixed and unchangeable, our life becomes a pool of infinite possibilities. I don’t know how much I believe all that. But for the sake of my life I may have to take the advice of William James to “will to believe.” That, in itself, is quite a remarkable idea. To will belief: an idea so often dismissed by intellectuals and yet the more I learn, the more I experience, the more I come to find that James was on to something powerful, something wholly plausible. I cannot even begin to fathom the irony that Augustine–anticipating James by centuries–may have been right all along: “Unless you believe, you shall not understand.” In the spirit of existentialism, perhaps we need not interpret Augustine to be talking about any sort of rational or cognitive understanding but as a way to go about living. Sometimes, it turns out, willing beliefs may be required to becoming the sort of person one thinks is best. One person considers the act of willing beliefs a matter of self-delusion. The next person considers it a way to go about changing oneself from a person who makes one set of choices to a person who makes a different set of choices. In other words, a way to go about changing who one is. Existentialism says that we can make choices, that the future is open, and that in so choosing we become who we are. Pragmatism gives us a way of believing this in the face of our doubts.

As academic as I may sound here, this is actually something I wrote precisely because it relates to my life, my despair, my anguish (to use the words of the existentialists) right now. I am not merely spouting off random, perhaps intriguing, ideas. I am very much concerned with the possibility of becoming one sort of person as opposed to another. As such, it is not academic but personal. And at this point I actually have no idea how understandable and coherent this post even is.

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  1. 05/23/2009 at 10:32 pm

    I don't know how I missed this post. I really like it. Why do you think there are "false" aspects to existentialism (existence precedes essence)? On the Will to Belief, was James specifically talking about religious belief, or was he talking about broad belief, as in there is a certain level of belief required to accept any proposition? So in the most rational of systems, there is still a will to belief? I don't know. Just guessing here. I've never read James' stuff. If this is so, then I think James' will to belief coincides with Nietzsche's will to power. If Nietzsche's WoP is essentially one's will to life and the attempt to master one's self, one must have a WoB that enables one to actually act to live (How should I live? Well, I believe…) and to master one's self. So in essence, Nietzsche's WoP is useless if one doesn't have James' WoB. I suppose there is a level of belief that even skepticism cannot destroy. Interesting…

  2. 05/26/2009 at 2:26 am

    Why do you think there are "false" aspects to existentialism (existence precedes essence)?Because I think (and in some ways fear) that biological determinism may be true. To a certain extent, I don't even know how it could be false. Biological determinism would be the antithesis of someone like Sartre who bases much of his philosophy on the notion that we are completely free, that our nature is not fixed, that we don't have an essence. But it seems that the entire scientific enterprise has made it difficult to believe that existence precedes essence. We do seem to have a (biological) nature that defines who we are, that defines the sort of choices we do and can make, and that, more or less, cannot be changed.On the Will to Belief, was James specifically talking about religious
    belief, or was he talking about broad belief, as in there is a certain
    level of belief required to accept any proposition? So in the most
    rational of systems, there is still a will to belief? I don't know.
    Just guessing here. I've never read James' stuff. Yeah, his will to believe was originally a proposal concerning religious beliefs but he applies it more broadly as well to other beliefs. He thought that even in the face of doubt–even with a lack of evidence–one could will to believe a certain proposition (e.g. that God exists). He later said he should have called it "the right to believe." One not only wills belief but has a right to believe when evidence is lacking. He was, at least in part, responding to W.K. Clifford and his famous essay entitled "The Ethics of Belief" where Clifford proposed the famous maxim, "It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence." And James wasn't really concerned with mundane beliefs like that belief that the chair in the corner is red. Maybe we can't will to believe that it is not red but that's insignificant. He was concerned with the bigger issues. He thought one could will to believe (and have the right to believe) certain propositions without sufficient evidence if they were (1) live (2) forced and (3) momentous. In other words, one could will to believe a propositions without evidence if it was a proposition one could seriously entertain (live), if one either had to believe it or not (forced), and it had a major impact on one's life (momentous). One could essentially put on the belief or try it out (adopt the belief as an hypothesis). James applied this to belief in God as well as the belief in free will (which is sort of what I am concerned with in this blog post). And yes, I would say that belief is required to accept any proposition. But that's only because to accept a proposition is, I think, just to say that one believes that it is true.

  3. 05/26/2009 at 6:54 am

    But
    it seems that the entire scientific enterprise has made it difficult to
    believe that existence precedes essence. We do seem to have a
    (biological) nature that defines who we are, that defines the sort of
    choices we do and can make, and that, more or less, cannot be changed.But can't that nature be molded and changed via culture, skepticism, will power, knowledge, various experiences, what have you? What does one's biological nature entail? For some reason it is hard for me to think that so much of who I am is already determined, mainly because who I am changes with new experiences and thought. Nietzsche has this motto "become who you are." I think this is goes along with determinism, but, again, I'm not sure how true it is, nor how appealing it is (Can I change who I am?)

  4. 05/27/2009 at 2:10 am

    But can't that nature be molded and changed via culture, skepticism,
    will power, knowledge, various experiences, what have you? What does
    one's biological nature entail?Sure, to a certain extent. I'm not saying that culture, experiences, and will power cannot or does not change us. But think about one's sexuality, for instance. I can't choose to be gay in the same way a gay person can't choose to be heterosexual. We our bound by our natures in this regard. But expand this same notion beyond sexuality. Perhaps all of one's psychological traits–beliefs, attitudes, desires–are all physically/biologically determined and, more or less, beyond one's control. Studies in such subjects as genetics and evolutionary psychology do suggest that many of our traits are genetically determined: everything from the sorts of food one likes to, I suppose, one's temperamental disposition to be hot or cool headed. In other words, while there may be no God to determine our essence, nature itself, through the evolutionary process, has molded us in a certain way and given us a certain nature, a certain essence, and many of our choices many be highly influenced or determined (and highly limited) by that essence. Even if we simply look at determinism as a philosophical position apart from biology, the notion that we are determined in all our actions is a powerful one. Free will, if true, is a complete mystery. It is one of those things where I don't know how it could be true and yet I find myself believing it. Like James, I find myself having to will belief in free will. "My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will," James once said. Of course, we don't really know if that act to believe was free for James or for anyone, but perhaps it is and was necessary to get on in the world. It may simply be the case that we cannot live without believing in free will. Free will is one of our coping mechanisms, perhaps. And similarly, so (perhaps) is the notion that we are not bound by any sort of biological determinism that fixes the sort of person that we are but, rather, are free to become who we choose to be (free to choose our essence).

  5. 05/27/2009 at 6:52 am

    Studies in such subjects as genetics and evolutionary psychology do
    suggest that many of our traits are genetically determined: everything
    from the sorts of food one likes to, I suppose, one's temperamental
    disposition to be hot or cool headed.This is perhaps true, but I fail to see to what extent this influences existential matters, the way in which one chooses to live one's life. Does one's biological makeup determine what one is passionate about, what one's virtues are, what one's ultimate character will be? Our biological nature is something I see separate from our existential nature. To me, there just seems to be many things that our biological nature does not decide for us. The same goes for our psychological nature. Even though one's psychological nature may determine one's desires, beliefs, and attitudes, it is still definitely possible to identify one's psychological nature and decide to change it. We both know about the notion of overcoming one's natural foibles. There is a sense in which we can change and control our nature, though to do so isn't easy. For me, essence deals with meaning–something that I don't think our biological nature really deals with–not necessarily one's nature. Certain aspects of our nature do determine what type of person we are, yet this almost "weak" type of person that our nature creates can and should be overcome.Perhaps it is more practical to believe in free will rather than this sort of determinism. If one believed in this determinism, would one still take a proactive approach to life? I'm not sure. It's like one's power is completely drained, thus one would just be in a constant state of existential melancholy.

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