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The Clifford/James Debate

Author(s): Richard Hall

Journal: Analytic Teaching and Philosophical Praxis
ISSN 0890-5118

Volume: 31;
Issue: 1;
Start page: 79;
Date: 2011;
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Evidentialism, a doctrine of epistemic justification stipulating that a belief is warranted if and only if it is supported by evidence, is a central tenet of Anglo-American empiricism particularly in its form as logical empiricism or positivism. Advocated by Locke and Hume, it is found early on in this tradition. Perhaps the most impassioned advocate of evidentialism is the English mathematician and philosopher, William K. Clifford, who in his “The Ethics of Belief” gave this doctrine a moral twist by declaring uncompromisingly that to believe anything on insufficient evidence is not merely imprudent or foolish, but morally wrong no less.Clifford is perhaps remembered today outside of mathematical circles for William James’ riposte to him in the “Will to Believe.” James contended that we are not in the wrong to believe things without sufficient evidence; indeed, we have the right, no less, in certain cases so to believe. James’ contention is based on his exposure of an unacknowledged bias behind Clifford’s stricture against believing on insufficient evidence, namely, the fear of error. However, James appeals to another bias, no less legitimate than the fear of error, which justifies believing on insufficient evidence, namely, the hope of truth.In what follows I hope to show that, though it may not be initially apparent, James is actually closer to Clifford’s views than one might suppose. Both are pragmatists (Clifford in spirit if not in name), and James no less than Clifford is committed to the empiricist principle of verification. James, moreover, concedes that Clifford’s epistemological strictures should be observed in assessing scientific beliefs, but makes a qualified exception for moral and religious beliefs. James, I think, does not so much refute Clifford’s evidentialism—much of which he accepts—as significantly qualify and even expand upon it. I shall begin by explaining why Clifford holds such a strong evidentialist view, and then go on to consider James’ response. This is followed by a consideration of their agreements and differences, and finally by an assessment of the merits of James’s response.
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