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James, Clifford, and the Scientific Conscience

James, Clifford, and the Scientific Conscience

(p.103) Chapter 5 James, Clifford, and the Scientific Conscience
After Cloven Tongues of Fire
David A. Hollinger
Princeton University Press

This chapter presents a comparative reading of W. K. Clifford's 1877 treatise, “The Ethics of Belief,” and William James' 1897 essay, “The Will to Believe.” It provides an interpretation of each in the distinctive contexts of England in the 1870s and New England in the 1890s. It argues that Clifford displayed more sensitivity than James did to the consequences of belief. This is an ironic reversal of roles in the story of a great pragmatist who insisted that “the whole defense of religious faith hinges upon” the action that faith requires or inspires. James' “The Will to Believe” should be understood not only as an artifact of its author's agony about the fate of Christianity in the age of science, but also as a product of his political complacency. Clifford had a much more modern understanding than James did of the function of belief systems in society and politics.

Keywords:   W. K. Clifford, The Ethics of Belief, William James, The Will to Believe, faith, science, belief, Christianity

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