Origins of William James / Jamesian Thinking
William James, born 1842, was a trained physician who subsequently dabbled in works of philosophy and psychology (in which he officiated as a formal study through lectures) (Goodman, 2009). As did many philosophers, Jamesian thinking seeded many discussions on various philosophical topics such as metaphysics, morality, free will-determinism, religion and the afterlife; however, what truly made his ideas notable was his uncanny ability to borrow and integrate knowledge from branches of physiology, psychology and philosophy to weave new insights and dimensions onto traditional philosophical arguments (Goodman). His influential piece called The Principles of Psychology took these ideas together and encouraged a trend of pragmatism and phenomenology in philosophy amongst a generation of American and European thinkers such as the likes of Bertrand Russell, John Dewey and Edmund Husserl (Goodman, 2009). James’ ideas were widely discussed and sparked new approaches to thinking due to his tendencies to adapt the strength of differing knowledge from his branches of study that sat somewhat comfortably in the spectrum between two dichotomies (i.e. he argued for the existence of indeterminism in free will versus determinism argument) (Goodman). His ideas were as much philosophical as they were scientific hence allowing room for many to embrace such forms of thinking (Goodman). The general idea behind most of William James’ philosophy rests on its arguments that philosophical concepts needed not to be always present in an ‘either/or’ condition, but a logical resolution can be reasoned between two opposing concepts, at least in part of the philosopher himself. Most would regard Jamesian philosophy as adopting a compatibilist view of the notions (Doyle, 2010) as was highly apparent in his take on the argument on free will versus determinism.
Free Will versus Determinism: William James and Indeterminism
Prior to James during the seventeenth century, a dualistic view of free will was the predominant idea held by a majority of philosophers who were mostly grounded in theological roots (Doyle, 2010). Freedom was argued to be a gift from God and that its works was in the mind separate from the physical universe (Doyle). This idea supposed that even something as free as freedom itself originated from a destined source and will travel along a particular trajectory. Subsequent philosophers such as David Hume and Thomas Hobbes believed freedom to be divorced from external forces of influence in that voluntary actions are compatible with complete staunch determinism; they stated that although the idea of freedom they identified denoted a freedom of actions more than a freedom of the will, and though the will is determined, as long as the exercise of this will through actions has an effect on the overall causal chain this would be enough freedom for them (Doyle).
William James was considered the first to denounce the traditional two-dichotomy argument of free will (Doyle, 2010). Instead of looking at free will through the lens of it being determined or random, he gave it elements of both by firstly acknowledging freedom out rightly but upholding responsibilities (Doyle). As a scientist, James elaborated a two-stage model of chance and choice that came to be known as Jamesian free will (Doyle).
To fully grasp the concepts of chance and choice in James’ model as he had explained in great detail (and much specificity) in the lecture The Dilemma of Determinism presented in 1884 to students of Harvard Divinity School, some part of this writing should be used to explain his idea of indeterminism, which subsequently led to the development of the model. James felt that the soft determinists’ arguments of the freedom of actions were merely “…a quagmire of evasions…no matter what the soft determinist means by it whether he means by acting without external constraint, whether he means the acting rightly or...
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