‘Problem’ vs. ‘Trouble’: James, Kafka, Dostoevsky and “The Will to Believe”

“‘Problem’ Vs. ‘Trouble’: James, Kafka, Dostoevsky and ‘The Will to Believe'”

William J. Gavin

Abstract. John Dewey once said that “it is a familiar and significant saying that a problem well put is half solved.” But what happens when the situation at hand can’t be “put” into a problem, or it can be put into multiple problems, incommensurate in nature? At issue is whether every situation is at least potentially problematic, or whether some remain, “troublesome,” “tragic,” or characterizable in some other “non problematic” manner.

Dostoevsky and Kafka present us with such instances. The underground man is terribly worried about being predictable when he chooses. Kafka’s character Joseph K. is stuck in a situation that is over-determined, i.e., it can be looked at psychologically, politically, and/or religiously.

For James too, there are some situations which are not solved by “thinking the situation through.” These may not be termed “tragic” or “troublesome,” but they are other than “problematic.” I  show this by  comparing “The Will to Believe” and “The Sentiment of Rationality” with Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground and Kafka’s The Trial.

    In “The Pattern of Inquiry” John Dewey is at pains to show how things go wrong in our experience, and what we can do about it. An indeterminate situation becomes a “problematic” one through the process of inquiry. “It is a familiar and significant saying that a problem well put is half-solved.”1 Inquiry for Dewey is the transformation of a uniquely qualified indeterminate situation into a problematic on, i.e. one capable of being solved. To his credit, Dewey does realize what would happen if the situation at hand were not uniquely qualified. He tells us that “unless a situation is uniquely qualified in its very indeterminateness there is a condition of complete panic.”2 And again, “no situation which is completely indeterminate can possibly be converted into a problem having definite constituents.”3 At issue here is whether every situation is at least potentially problematic, or whether there are some that remain troublesome, or even tragic, or characterized in some other, non-problematic fashion.
    In the Introduction to the volume entitled William and Henry James, Selected Letters, John McDermott tells us that “In Irish family parlance, a distinction is made between problem and trouble. The former can be managed by patching, punting or the steadfast waiting it out as time erodes the difficulty in question. Trouble, however, is a very different matter. It is the name given to the century-long-intransigence within the embattled factions of Northern Ireland. The meaning of trouble is that one is at wit’s end. Trying is possible and spiritually helpful but seemingly nothing can be done for alleviation.” 4 But in his Lectures in China, 1919-1920, Dewey himself conflates these two terms “problem” and “trouble.”, or worse, he reduces the later to the former. “When we encounter trouble, we try to identify the problem, and to think about it in order to find a solution to the difficulty.”5 McDermott uses this distinction between “problem” and “trouble” to provide insight into the lives of various members of the James family. Surprisingly, he tells us that William James had only problems in his life. He did not have “trouble” in the way his sister Alice did. “To my mind William and Henry James had problems. Garth Wilkinson James also had problems, big ones, and his premature death at age thirty eight prevents us from knowing whether they were intractable. Robertson James and Alice James, however, had trouble, were in trouble, and caused others in the family to be constantly both distressed and irritated.” 6 This suggests that there was something “inexplicable” in Alice’s life, perhaps something tragic, but not in William’s life. 2
   However, in his book The Divided Self of William James, Richard Gale tells us that there might indeed be something tragic about James’s outlook He says: “The best way to characterize the philosophy of William James is to say that it is deeply rooted in the blues. It is the soulful expression of someone who has ‘paid his dues,’ someone who, like old wagon wheels, has been through it all Whereas its immediate aim is to keep him sane and nonsuicidal—’to help him make it through the night’—its larger one is to help him find his way to physical and spiritual health. In this respect James is very much in the Nietzschean and Wittgensteinian mold . . . . The deep difference between James and Dewey is that Dewey couldn’t sing the blues if his life depended on it.” 7 Gale ends his insightful text with this same reference he used at the beginning. “No one sang the blues with more soul than did William James, with his ‘Divided Self Blues’ [mystical self vs. Promethean self] as his perennial chart-topper.”8 The connection between the tragic and the blues is made explicit by the Nietzsche scholar Kathleen Higgins, who characterizes Zarathustra as a “blues singer,”9 suggesting that “if we love life as a whole we cannot edit out the vulnerability to the tragic that is an inescapable condition of our existence.” 10 Regarding Dewey, McDermott argues in the Introduction to The Philosophy of John Dewey that Dewey’s life did not lack a sense of the tragic— witness the loss of two of his children. “Dewey’s philosophy never strays from his insight into the irreducible presence of the tension between the ‘precarious’ and the ‘stable,’ while, more than most philosophers, he integrates the experience of loss and setback with that of growth.”11 12 But even while highlighting Dewey’s attempt to deal with loss, through integration, McDermott is also careful to distance him from other, more “fragile” and less integrating thinkers. “Despite his cosmopolitan experiences, he [Dewey] maintained a Yankee simplicity to his person, and the experience of the ‘underground’ man or the world of a Kafka . . . would be extremely peripheral to his vision.” 13
    Given the above association between the blues and the tragic, and the demarcation between problems and troubles, I am inclined to say that Dewey dealt primarily with problems-though there are texts where he tells us that “the dark and twilight abound.”14 That is, he did not deal well with tragic situations, if you define tragedy not as good vs. good, but as a situation which does not lend itself to a post-mortem analysis, i.e., which remains “inexplicable'” or in deweyan terms, “non-mediated.” As Higgins put it, “The kind of suffering from which tragedy draws its material is not remedied by thinking the situation through.”15 But leaving aside the important question of whether Dewey could or could not deal with the tragic, I am inclined to say that not every situation was a problem for James. That is, for James, there are some situations which are not solved by “thinking the situation through.” These may or may not be termed “tragic,” but they are other than “problematic.” As I will argue below, “the will to believe” is not a problem, i.e. not an issue in philosophy to be solved in one way or the other. In this respect at least, James is more capable of addressing the issues highlighted by Dostoevsky’s underground man and Kafka’s Joseph K. than Dewey. I shall try to show this by using “The Sentiment of Rationality” and “The Will to Believe” as my focal texts, and by contrasting these with Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground and Kafka’s The Trial. 4
The Sentiment of Rationality
    “The Sentiment of Rationality” commences by noting that all conceptualizations are perspectival in nature. “None of our explanations are complete.” 16 Furthermore, James argues, even if presented with a certain explanation we would reject it. “Our mind is so wedded to the process of seeing an other beside every item of its experience, that when the notion of an absolute datum is presented to it, it goes through its usual procedure and remains pointing at the void beyond.” 17 James terms this “ontological wonder-sickness” and he does not indicate that it has a cure, at least not in this life. The world is “over-determined,” to use Freud’s term. And “there is nothing improbable in the supposition that an analysis of the world may yield a number of formulae, all consistent with the facts.” 18 5
    Given that we can’t “solve” theoretical problems on a completely logical manner, what do we do—for “sentimental reasons?” James suggests that there are two types of theory which we as individuals will not accept. We will not accept a completely pessimistic theory, and we will not accept a theory that doesn’t give us at least a small role to play in life. James argues forcefully for this position, but there is no way that he can “prove” it completely. Indeed, given the title of the essay, calling for or assuming the attainment of such proof would constitute a contradiction in terms. Indeed, the article ends with James presenting the reader with an ultimatum: “The only escape from faith is mental nullity.”19 Faith in this text is defined quite broadly as “belief in something concerning which doubt is still theoretically possible.” 20 Furthermore, it is intergenerational, and the outcome will not be known until the last person has had her say. Finally, there are some cases “where faith creates its own verification,” 21 like leaping over the abyss while climbing in the Alps. Most importantly, this case “is one of an immense class.” 22
    The conservative way to take this article is to divide and conquer, i.e., to separate the tender -minded and the tough-minded domains, to say that it has to do with soft topics like religion, morals, etc, but not, say, with science. Such damage control does keep James from going off the deep end of accepted philosophical discourse. But it does so at a price. It deradicalizes James’s thought; preserves the subject-object dichotomy, and, equally important, it goes against his later attempt to offer a marriage between the tough minded and the tender-minded in Pragmatism. Furthermore, it would ignore the fact that James explicitly uses examples from science to verify his position in this article, e.g. in evolution, saving the present generation and ignoring the next, or helping the future on at the expense of the present. Similar issues arise in James’s later article “The Will To Believe.” 7
The Will to Believe
    In “The Will to Believe” James defends each person’s right to choose that hypothesis which is most appealing in a situation where the options are “living”, “forced” and “momentous.” What is not clear is just how many of these there are, and how one goes about distinguishing such situations from others. As in “The Sentiment of Rationality,” James is careful to assert first that certainty is not a possibility: “Objective evidence and certitude are doubtless very fine ideals to play with, but where on this moonlit and dream-visited planet are they found?”23 And again: “I live, to be sure, by the practical faith that we must go on experiencing and thinking over our experience, for only thus can our opinions grow more true; but to hold any one of them I absolutely do not care which as if it never could be reinterpretable or corrigible, I believe to be a tremendously mistaken attitude”24
    Even granted that there is no certainty, James is still careful to assert that one can’t simply make something true by believing in it. For example, we can’t just believe that we are well and about while lying in bed overpowered by rheumatism; we can’t feel sure that the two dollars in our pocket are one hundred dollars, etc. The reason for this is that the will to believe is only operative in those situations wherein one has two diverse hypotheses, each equally coherent and each capable of corresponding to empirical data to an equal extent. But here a further problem arises, for James himself at times seems to demarcate the area of science from that of religion/morals—in terms of where the will to believe applies. He says: “in our dealings with objective nature we obviously are recorders, not makers, of the truth; and decisions for the mere sake of deciding promptly and getting on to the next business would be wholly out of place. Throughout the breadth of physical nature facts are what they are quite independently of us25 Such a demarcation, while apparently simple and acceptable, represents a preservation of the status-quo, i.e., the subject—object dichotomy. It must be admitted that James himself is responsible for some of the confusion here. On the one hand, James set up the criteria of forced, living and momentous decisions, and seems at least to leave the door open to scientific hypothesis to enter into this domain. From such a perspective, science qua science would not be excluded, but only those sets of hypotheses which were either not forced, or not living, or not momentous. On the other hand, James sometimes speaks as if our scientific hypotheses were, by definition, inaccessible to the will to believe. As he says, “The questions here [in science] are always trivial questions, the hypotheses are hardly living (at any rate not living for us spectators), the choice between believing truth or falsehood is seldom forced.” 26 I want to suggest that James is at his best when he distinguishes forced, living and momentous situations from non forced-living momentous situations, letting the philosophical chips fall where they may. There are no hypotheses which by domain definition are excluded from the will to believe.27 However, this second, methodological view does have metaphysical presuppositions. The text of the will to believe does not stand alone; it only makes sense in an unfinished universe, one where personal preference may sometimes become a constituting aspect of the outcome. As the French philosopher Gabriel Marcel once said: “Being is, as it were, attested.”28 In other words, being is not a problem to be solved, but rather something we are involved with rather than looking at. We must resist the temptation to see being as a problem and then attempt to solve it. We can locate ourselves within the mysterious situation, but we cannot, or should not, turn the mystery into a problem, in Marcel’s terms. Ellen Suckiel has caught some of the flavor of this when she suggests that the last step of James’s faith ladder, a clone of the will to believe, “may be considered not as a descriptive claim about god, but rather as a performative utterance by which the subject takes the leap and both attains and proclaims a religious commitment.” 29 Hilary Putnam has also argued that the will to believe is very akin to that situation faced by Pierre in Sartre’s “Existentialism and Humanism.” This is not, in other words, a mere matter of calculating the consequences and then choosing on this basis. This is not something the scientific method can help you with, even if, as Putnam notes, “your conception of the scientific method is as generous as Dewey’s.”30 We also fail to notice, Putnam argues, “that [the will to believe] is meant to apply to the individual’s choice of a philosophy, including pragmatism itself.”31 Furthermore, the need to believe “in advance of evidence” is, Putnam argues, not domain specific, not policed. “It plays an essential role in science itself.”32 Putnam tells us that James’s claim—which “paradoxically the logical positivists helped to make part of conventional philosophy of science with their distinction between the context of discovery and the context of justification—was that science could not progress if we insisted that scientists never believe or defend theories except on sufficient evidence.”33 9
    In sum, the will to believe is not a “problem” to be solved, in Deweyan terms. It is a stance or posture towards the universe, an admission and affirmation that the universe is “wild, game flavored as a hawk’s wing.” The will to believe is not a matter of preserving freedom in terms of calculating and selecting between two alternative theories. It is a matter of selecting, for passionate, idiosyncratic grounds—not just weighing the odds. It’s a matter of doing something after all the odds have been weighed and there is still something left to do. It’s supposed to allude to situations wherein freedom cannot be defined in terms of probabilities; it’s not utilitarian, but rather extra- or post-utilitarian in nature. It may be unreasonable or irrational, as James argues, not to exercise the will to believe, if doing so cuts off options not otherwise available, but the content selected via use of the will to believe is not based upon calculation or probability but rather passion. Perhaps James has two notions of freedom or free will. One of these is like Mill; but the other is more like Dostoevsky’s underground man. 10
Notes From the Underground
    Dostoevsky’s underground man is very worried about being predictable when he chooses. Dostoevsky wrote the text in opposition to one written by Cherneyshevsky, entitled What Is to Be Done? In this later text, moral choices about, e.g. whether a young woman should marry an older but wealthy man, were made in terms of scientific calculation, i.e., a form of utilitarianism. In opposition, the underground man says sometimes its better to say that 2 plus 2 are 5 rather than 4. Sometimes it’s better not to accept that we’re descended from apes, even though it’s incontrovertible, etc. The only way the underground man can see to maintain his freedom is to be spiteful. He defines a human being as someone who stands on his hind legs and is a spiteful. The underground man is dancing as fast as he can. He is free, but at a terrible price. Spite remains his only way of “communicating” both with Lisa and with you the reader. The underground man or woman is one step away from exhaustion or surrender—surrender to the argument of the Grand Inquisitor. It is he who has made the people happy by taking away their freedom. He has given them “miracle, mystery, and authority,” in short, certainty. The underground man barely manages to maintain his spite, snarling at the reader that she is already “dead” as she “abstractly” reads the last page of the story. 11
    For James, one chooses not for spiteful but for “passionate” or “sentimental” reasons. The challenge to James which parallels the temptation offered by the Grand Inquisitor comes from his colleague Josiah Royce. Like the Grand Inquisitor, Royce initially seems to say that the will to believe asks too much of us. Arguing that “life has its unheroic days,”34 Royce in The Religious Aspect of Philosophy offers certainty in the form of an argument for the existence of God based on the existence of human error. By the time of The Philosophy of Loyalty, Royce’s position has evolved into one of more than “mere postulates,” i.e., it is one of “commitment,” albeit to something eternal and certain. Royce defines “loyalty” as “the Will to Believe in something eternal, and to express that belief in the practical life of a human being.” 35 Earlier in the text, he had argued, in a very Jamesian fashion, on the necessity of choosing among causes, and not playing the role of Hamlet. “Decide, knowingly if you can, ignorantly if you must, but in any case decide, and have no fear.”36 Royce sees his position here as quite analogous to that offered by his colleague James in “The Will to Believe.” Perhaps anticipating a criticism, he hastens to say that this “is no sort of ‘moral holiday’.” 37 Whether or not Royce has shifted paradigms radically in these two texts may be left for another time. But his statement that we all have unheroic days, i.e., ones where we not only will not but rather cannot cope, requires attention. 12
   It would be hard to find a better portrait of a bad day than that provided by Franz Kafka in his novel The Trial. 13
The Trial
    In Franz Kafka’s novel, The Trial, we are presented with a text that allows for, and even demands, multiple interpretations of an incommensurate nature. At the very beginning the hero (or anti-hero) Joseph K. rings a bell and his trail commences. Does he put himself on trial? Or, is he brought to the trial by the Law? He says later on in the text that the “guilt lies with the organization,” but this statement could be merely a diversion, i.e., a form of repression. Is K. a representative of nineteenth century bourgeois capitalism, or does he transcend this sociopolitical situation? But there is also some evidence for a more psychological interpretation of the novel, one suggesting that K. is repressing some more a-contextual truth or necessity- that the alienation is more fundamental to human nature at large. At the very beginning he encounters two warders; one of them is named “Franz,” not coincidentally. As K. brushes by him, that is, as K. “crosses the threshold,” he encounters the second warder, reading a book, who tells him that the two warders “stand closer to him than any other people in the world”; he also says that Franz should have told him to stay in his room. The two warders show up later in the lumber-room of the bank, where they are about to receive a whipping. In “real life” banks do not have lumber rooms, but “rumplekammer” in German carries with it the connotation of dead text and dry ink wells, i.e. perhaps the semi-repressed image of Kafka as a failed writer- one who could not create. 14
    From an existential perspective, K. is guilty of “bad faith,” of not assuming the upright posture, of trying to become “thing-like”, an en soi. Twice in the novel he is treated as an object, and seems to find some satisfaction or at least relief in this. Indeed at the end of the novel he is almost a thing- almost, but not quite, a piece of matter being carried to the quarry by his warders. Yet even here closure is not to be had, as Kafka tells the reader, on the last line of the text, that “the shame of it must outlive him,”38 i.e., that even at the end there is not an end. K. will live on ignominiously, “like a dog,” in the reader/author’s mind. 15
    There is also a religious interpretation of the novel, ending with the famous parable of the doorkeeper, where a man from the country approaches and tries to enter a door being guarded by a doorkeeper. He is told he can not do so- at least not at the present moment, and winds up spending his entire life waiting at the side door and not trying to push through. At the end when he is about to expire he asks the doorkeeper why no one else has ever shown up at the door, and is told that the door was only for him, and that it is now about to be shut. The parable, like the text, is susceptible to multiple interpretations. Did the doorkeeper lie to the man? Or only tell him the truth when asked? Can he really shut the door, etc. Joseph K’s activity, or lack thereof in the text, raises the religious issue of the covenant of grace vis a vis the covenant of works. Can one do anything about one’s “sinful” condition or should one rather merely accept on “blind,” i.e., not “informed,” faith. There is a real question in Kafka’s text as to whether the attempt to investigate the situation is itselfa form of pride, or hubris. Or is it rather the case that K.’s investigation is noteworthy and commendable, but that his refusal to act without certainty, i.e. to engage in the “will to believe,” is grounds for criticism. Kafka might reply that Joseph K. was incapable of acting otherwise than he did- that he was not quite up to being human. It was not, in short, that K. has existentially or religiously lapsed from a previous state, or if so that he could do anything about it. He was more “like a dog,” i.e. pre-human, or post-human. We are left then with the metaphor of the mountain pass confronting the parable of the doorkeeper. James says that you can’t do nothing, i.e., wait by the door, not try to get down the mountain in the snowstorm. Kafka says don’t move until you have a clear view, not just a glimpse. When does an obstructed view become a glimpse? This, we should note, is a “vague” question, for it admits of no precise answer—like the Sorites question: “After the addition of which particular grain of sand does a pile become a heap”? 16
    While Hilary Putnam is right to compare Sartre to James, the issue of BOTH Sartre and James confronting Kafka’s Joseph K remains, and this too cannot be solved by logical argument. Joseph K. could be interpreted as some one in “bad faith” i.e. as some one who refuses to exercise the will to believe. He wants certainty, a.k.a. definite acquittal, and refuses to do anything until it is attained. Since it never arrives K. does nothing throughout the duration of the novel. But on another level K is unable, not unwilling, to exercise the will to believe. The intimation of the novel is that K did nothing, but also that, if he did try he would have failed in his attempt. K was not unwilling to take the knife at the end and commit suicide, he was unable to do so. The picture provided us in The Trial is precisely akin to that presented by James in “The Sentiment of Rationality,” and it is one James says that we, as humans, will not accept. It is totally pessimistic, and it gives us no role to play. The argument between James and Kafka is not one that can be solved. There are no crucial experiments to be set up to prove that one is right and the other wrong. Both can, to a degree, appeal to experience. Kafka may be too pessimistic, James too romantic. James might be able to claim that Joseph K is not the rule, i.e., is not everyman or everywoman. Kafka might respond by saying that James’s Promethean self is overly romantic, i.e., the exception to the rule, rather than the rule itself, perhaps representative of the grand inquisitor, but not of humankind in general. James, I think, is clear that the Clifford-like character named Joseph K. can’t be proven wrong, or inadequate in character development. James can only point, point to the ambiguity or vagueness of the situation-and to suggest to us, the readers, that at a meta-level the situation ITSELF is forced, living and momentous, thereby requiring us to chose, which, of course, is precisely what Joseph K either will not or cannot do. Once again, the will to believe is not a problem to be solved. It is a stance, a position which, perhaps, has to be continually reaffirmed. It is not a matter of believing THAT, but rather a matter of believing IN, as Hester and Talisse have noted in their little volume On James.39 Or, in James’s own terms, it is “life exceeding logic.” 17
    James did not seem to feel that he had to go as far as Dostoevsky, i.e., to affirm “spitefulness” in order to preserve freedom. But he did seem to feel that he had to go further than Dewey, who seemed, at least sometimes, to believe that every event was at least potentially problematic, i.e., capable of being solved, even if the solution was not of a permanent, i.e. certain nature. The Jamesian self is both sentimental and strenuous, but also frail and fallible; the Dostoevsky self is a spiteful one, with two worries: first, that true freedom will be undermined by a degenerate form of a variation of itself, viz., probability or calculation. Second, the strong case that Dostoevsky himself made for the position of the Grand Inquisitor has led many to believe that Dostoevsky himself agreed—that most people just can’t bear freedom. The self portrayed for us by Kafka is a “shameful” self. Joseph K is manipulative, very ad hoc in dealing with people in specific situations. He wants certainty, i.e. definite acquittal, but fails to find it because, in the tortured logic of Kafka’s world, the very asking of the question takes away salvation. 18
    It is instructive to note that the three texts, “The Will to Believe,” Notes from the Underground, and The Trial, all end with the subject of death, and the attitude we have or should have towards it. Joseph K dies like a dog, i.e. at a subhuman but sentient level. . He is either unwilling, or more probably unable to take the knife passed back and forth over him by his warders. The underground man suggests that his readers are already half-dead “cripples” i.e. abstract ideas who cannot stand real life. “We are still born.[and] are developing a taste for it.” 40 For James “we stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist, through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive,” etc, etc. “What must we do? ‘Be strong and of good courage.” Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes . . .. If death ends all, we cannot meet death better.”41 Certainty is something Joseph K. wants; he just doesn’t get it. The underground man is resisting with all his might; but he might not make it. As Robert Lord has noted, Notes From the Underground “anticipates Kafka.”42 James’s “promethean self” is perhaps better off: but we should remember James’s own vulnerability to melancholia and depression—witness his temptation to suicide and his veiled reference to the epileptic figure who was, in fact, himself in The Varieties. It is McDermott himself who admonishes us to keep this in mind. “If it can be said that James assented to ‘The Will to Believe’ until the end, we must caution that it was a belief always shot through with irresolution and doubt. Behind the constant cadences of a rich and future oriented prose, there lurked a well-controlled but omnipresent sense of despair.”43 Or, as Phil Oliver has noted in Springs of Delight, James’s “bootstrapping” approach to depression and suicide indicates that this was not a “problem” for him to solve, once and for all.44 19
    I can put this differently by saying that, while martial metaphors may be necessary for James, they are not sufficient. That is, it is not a matter of deciding, on a one time basis, to take life aggressively and, hence, solve the issue by exercising the will to believe � for some times we will fail to do so. While James might urge us to inculcate the “habit” of exercising the will to believe, we must recognize that we are, as in Nietzsche might say, “human all to human,” and therefore will sometimes fail to do so. But we will not necessarily fail all the time, Kafka to the contrary. Nor must we necessarily pay the dreadfully high price for it � as portrayed by Dostoevsky. 20
    The will to believe is a cardinal element in the Jamesian corpus. It appears, in one version or another, at least four times. It describes for us, in deweyan terms, a uniquely qualified indeterminate situation, but one that is not “problematic” in nature. The major difference between tragedy and the will to believe is that one is prospective or forward looking and the other retrospective in nature. This difference, while very important, should not be allowed to efface what they have in common: both are modes of being that are other than “problematic” in nature. As Cushing Strout has pointed out, “We too often forget that in his mature work, the Pragmatism of 1907, he [James] cried out with a tragic sense that John Dewey never had: ‘Is the last word sweet? Is all “yes, yes” in the universe? Doesn’t the fact of “no” stand at the very core of life? Doesn’t the very “seriousness” that we attribute to life mean that ineluctable noes and losses form a part of it, that there are genuine sacrifices somewhere, and that something permanently drastic and bitter always remains at the bottom of its cup’?”45 21
    Even if we don’t want to go as far as Strout in highlighting the “tragic” in James, we should at the very least realize, and affirm, that there are situations in James that are more than “problematic”—and these, ultimately, are the most important ones. Perhaps, in the last analysis, this is another way of remembering James’s desire to “reinstate the vague to its proper place in our experience.” 46 22
    In conclusion, there is something non-problematic, if not tragic, present in James that is not present, or at least not as present in Dewey. The world of Dostoevsky, or of Kafka would indeed be very peripheral to Dewey’s vision-profound as it was. But the worlds of Kafka and Dostoevsky would be closer to that of James—at least insofar as all three had a “problem with problems.” Kafka would indeed like his character Joseph K. to be able to solve the problem of salvation—but he posed the problem in such a fashion as to perpetuate its continual existence. It is the very asking of the question “What must I do to be saved?” that constituted the problem and that simultaneously prevents it from being solved. If Dostoevsky does indeed anticipate Kafka we may view the realm of the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov as that of a problem solved, once and for all, i.e. certainty attained, except for the few hundred thousand who know the awful truth. Joseph K. wants certainty, a.k.a. definite acquittal and not merely ostensive acquittal (read probability), but does not get it. The underground man is only one step away from “heaven on earth” i.e., certainty, and the discovery that there is a “genetic explanation” for his spite, as a form of recombinant DNA. 23
James’s self is neither the shameful self left at the end of The Trial nor the spiteful self flailing away at the end of Notes From the Underground. But neither is he exclusively the promethean self for whom everything might be viewed as a problem to be solved—a sort of nietzschean camel. The jamesian sentimental or passionate self would reject the paradigm offered by Kafka as inaccurate or at least incomplete—i.e. not everything goes wrong with one’s life all at once all the time. Most of the time we “solve” matters, via a marriage function, i.e., by trying for a minimum of jolt and a maximum of continuity, as he says in Pragmatism.47 But sometimes things do go wrong in a cataclysmic fashion; the options are forced, exclusionary in nature. Perhaps the paradigms become incompatible and not just incommensurate in nature. The jamesian self would also reject the picture offered by Dostoevsky, the one offering spite as the only or the most important emotion—though agreeing on the importance of emotion. You do need to be idiosyncratic for James, to select among forced options for non-predictable reasons, but you do not have to be spiteful to do so. You can admit that your errors are not such serious things, as he does in the will to believe. On the other hand, all is not play; you have the right to believe, i.e. to risk your own life, in some particular goal, option, cause, etc. 24
Is this enough? Has it gotten harder to exercise the will to believe since James wrote the article? I’m not sure. Perhaps it just gets harder for each individual as they age. James himself kept trying to exercise the will to believe through one crisis after another throughout his life—and it did get harder to keep on dancing. But he did dance, i.e., write, his own form of exercising the will to believe, up until the very end. Perhaps this is his answer to Kafka and Dostoevsky-if “answer” is the correct term. If so, it may have been a very “pragmatic” one. For truly, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, or, in this case, in the writing. 25
McDermott once said: “I now believe, shakily, insecurely, and barely, that life is worth living.”48 Perhaps this is the only way to exercise “the will to believe”—shakily, insecurely, and barely. If so, it may be easier to see that for James, not everything is a problem. If James reminds us of how important it is to highlight the importance of the uncertain, or the vague, Dostoevsky and Kafka remind us of how difficult it oftentimes is to do so. 26
James’s answer to Dostoevsky and Kafka is twofold: the will to believe, and pluralism, i.e., a fat and multifarious context. True, there are spiteful moments and also kafkasque situations. But there are also prospective will-to-believe moments, as well as deweyan problematic moments subject to inquiry. Pluralism allows us to accept the tragic as a subset of reality, while offering alternatives. “The providence of tragedy,” Kathleen Higgins reminds us, “is related to an extreme subset of the actual—the part of actual human experience that is painful and not susceptible to relief through analysis.”49 But while tragic situations cannot be “solved,” they can perhaps be countered by offering alternative options. The tragic experience should not be explained away, but neither should it be taken as indicative of experience in general. The same can, and should, be said concerning the attribution of the term “problematic” to experience. That is, some moments are not just potential problems or puzzles waiting to be solved. One of these concerns the tragic. But another concerns the “will to believe.” 27
Department of Philosophy
University of Southern Maine


1 John Dewey, “The Pattern of Inquiry,” in The Philosophy of John Dewey, two volumes in one, edited, with an introduction by John McDermott (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973), vol. 1, p. 229.

2 Ibid, p. 227

3 Ibid, p. 227

4 William and Henry James, Selected Letters, edited by Ignas Skrupskelis and Elizabeth Berkeley, with an Introduction by John J. McDermott (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997) p. xxii.

5 John Dewey, Lectures in China, 1919-1920 On Logic, Ethics, Education and Democracy, translated from the Chinese by Robert W. Clopton and Tsuin-Chen Ou, with the assistance of Henry C. Lu (Yangmingshan, Taiwan: Chinese Culture University Press, N.D.) p. 3.

6 William and Henry James, Selected Letters, Introduction, p. xxii.

7 Richard M. Gale, The Divided Self of William James (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p.1.

8 Ibid, p. 332.

9 Kathleen Marie Higgins, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987) p. 198.

10 Ibid, p. 199

11 The Philosophy of John Dewey, Introduction, p. xvi.

12 McDermott in this Introduction also argues very briefly for a sense of the tragic in James’s life. “William James, who lost an infant son by whooping cough, suffered all his life from severe psychoneurosis and major family crises and was plagued in the last decade of his life by increasing heart failure.” (p. xv)

13 Ibid, xxviii.

14 John Dewey, Experience and Nature, ( New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1958), p. 21.

15 Higgins, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, p. 19.

16 William James, “The Sentiment of Rationality,” in The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy, (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1897) p.67.

17 Ibid, p. 71.

18 Ibid, p. 76.

19 Ibid. p. 93.

20 Ibid, p. 90.

21 Ibid, p. 97.

22 Ibid. p. 97

23 William James, “The Will to Believe,” in The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy, p. 14.

24 Ibid, p. 14.

25 Ibid, p. 20.

26 Ibid, p. 20.

27 Cf Richard Rorty, “Religious Faith, Intellectual Responsibility and Romance,” in The Cambridge Companion to William James, edited by Ruth Anna Putnam (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp. 84-102.

28 Gabriel Marcel, Being and Having, An Existentialist Diary (New York: Harper Torchbooks, Harper and Row, 1965), p .96.

29 Ellen Kappy Suckiel, Heaven’s Champion: William James’s Philosophy of Religion, (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1996), p. 103.

30 Hilary Putnam, Renewing Philosophy, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), p. 191.

31 Ibid, p. 192.

32 Ibid, p. 192.

33 Ibid, p. 193.

34 Josiah Royce, “The Possibility of Error,” in The Philosophy of Josiah Royce, edited and with an Introduction by John Roth, (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1971) p. 44.

35 Josiah Royce, “Loyalty and Religion,” in The Philosophy of Josiah Royce, p. 329.

36 Ibid, p. 312.

37 Ibid, p. 343.

38 Franz Kafka, The Trial, (New York: Schocken Books, 1968) p. 229

39 See Robert B. Talisse and D. Micah Hester, On James, (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth-Thompson Learning, 2004), p. 90.

40 Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes From the Underground and The Grand Inquisitor, selection, translation and introduction by Ralph Matlaw, (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co. Inc, 1960), p. 115.

41 William James, “The Will to Believe,” in The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy, p.31, quoting Fitz James Stephen.

42 Robert Lord, “Descent From Reality,” in Dostoevsky, Essays and Perspectives (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970), p. 35

43 The Writings of William James, Introduction, p. xxi.

44 See Phil Oliver, William James’s “Springs of Delight”: The Return to Life(Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2001), p. 15, pp 46-49

45 Cushing Strout, “William James and the Twice-Born Sick Soul,” Daedalus, 97 (Summer 1968), p. 1079.

46 William James, The Principles of Psychology, 2 vols. (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1950), vol. 1, p. 254.

47 See William James, Pragmatism, (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1907), p. 61

48 John McDermott, “Why Bother: Is Life Worth Living? Journal of Philosophy, vol. 88, # 11 Nov. 1991), p. 683

49 Kathleen Marie Higgins, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, p. 19

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