Little more than a century ago, philosophers still raised fundamental questions to nonspecialist audiences. Consider the scene at the YMCA in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in April 1895, when an eager group gathered to hear Professor William James of the Harvard philosophy department ask: “Is Life Worth Living?” This scene is of course unimaginable today. For most educated professionals, such profoundly personal yet paradoxically universal matters have become unmentionable in public. But those ultimate questions will not go away.
William James made a brilliant career of asking them. On that April night in Cambridge, he was in top form. His reputation had soared since the publication in 1890 of his two-volume Principles of Psychology, which both established the academic legitimacy of the discipline and revolutionized many of its assumptions. His life was a blur of speaking engagements, occasional pieces for magazines and papers delivered at conferences–along with a full load of Harvard undergraduates. In three years he would be invited to give the Gifford Lectures at Edinburgh University, which would result in The Varieties of Religious Experience. Beyond Varieties lay his philosophical explorations in radical empiricism and pragmatism. But despite the wide range of his curiosity, nearly all his chief concerns were present in that YMCA lecture. Everything, for James, boiled down to the question of how to escape the enveloping fear that life was essentially meaningless–how to get out of bed in the morning and get on with the business of living.
“My words are to deal only with that metaphysical tedium vitae which is peculiar to reflecting men,” James announced. It was especially peculiar to James’s generation. For educated Americans who came of age during or soon after the Civil War, positivistic science blew like a frigid wind across the intellectual landscape, dispelling the comforting warmth of inherited faith, reducing reality to the precisely observable and measurable, challenging familiar ideas of morality and freedom. The specter of determinism threatened to turn the most exalted human strivings into the twitchings of automatons. No wonder “reflecting men”–and women–fell into a tedium vitae from time to time.
James insisted that the positivist case against religious faith was not proven. It was still intellectually permissible to believe in “the existence of an unseen order of some kind in which the riddle of the natural order may be found explained.” What was no longer possible was the old dogmatic certitude–but that was less a loss than a gain, an opening to the enchanting world of “maybe.” It was a world where almost anything was possible, even a heterodox God–a finite, unfinished deity-in-process who needed human beings as much as the other way around. Uncertainty was the key to the ethic of maybe; “not a victory is gained, not a deed of faithfulness or courage is done, except upon a maybe,” James said. Risk was the essence of life.
And the risk of belief in that “unseen order” was the bet with the biggest payoff. James characterized the stakes starkly: “If this life be not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a game of private theatricals from which one may withdraw at will. But it feels like a real fight–as if there were something really wild in the universe which we, with all our idealities and faithfulnesses, are needed to redeem.” Betting on belief brought revitalization in this world rather than salvation in the next. This activist reworking of Pascal’s wager lay at the core of James’s thought. He subjected religious truths to the pragmatic test, evaluating them with respect to their consequences–which, at least in his own case, made life worth living.