William James: “Is Life Worth Living?”

William James (1842 – 1910) was trained as a medical doctor, was one of the most important figures in the history of American philosophy, and was a pioneering psychologist. He is the brother of the novelist Henry James, and friend of numerous intellectuals including: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Sanders Peirce, Bertrand Russell, Josiah Royce, Ernst Mach, John Dewey, Mark Twain, Henri Bergson and Sigmund Freud.  He spent his entire academic career at Harvard. The following is a summary of an address James gave to the Harvard YMCA in 1895 entitled: “Is Life Worth Living?”

James began by noting that some answer this question with a temperamental optimism that denies the existence of evil—for example the poet Walt Whitman and philosopher Rousseau. For both of them to breathe, to walk, or to sleep is joy or felicity itself. According to James, the problem with this approach is that such moods are impermanent, and the personalities that experience them are not universal; if they were, the question of whether life is worth living would not arise. Instead most of us oscillate between joy and sadness, between ecstasy and despair, and therefore for most of us the thought that life is not worth living occasionally arises. Almost anyone in the midst of some merriment and suddenly confronted with death, disease, and suffering, would find that their unabated exuberance about life quickly dispelled.

Suicide is evidence that not all individuals are temperamentally optimistic, and many more experience despondency after philosophical reflection. If such reflection about the ultimate nature of things breeds despair, how can reflection combat that gloom? James provides a preview to his answer: “Let me say, immediately, that my final appeal is to nothing more recondite than religious faith.”[i] The reason for this is that pessimism results from a religious demand that has not been satisfied. The chief source of this pessimism is our reflective grasp of the contradiction between the facts of nature and our desire to believe there is something good behind those facts. For the credulous such reflective pessimism does not surface, but for more scientific minded there are only two possible solutions to the apparent discord: 1) forgo a religious or poetic reading of reality and accept the bare facts of nature; or 2) adopt new beliefs or discover new facts to reconcile a religious reading of reality with the hard facts of science.

But what new religious beliefs might hasten this reconciliation? James claims that the essence of religious supernaturalism is the view that the natural order is part of a larger reality which in turn gives significance to our mundane existence and explains the world’s riddles. These are the kinds of belief that might aid us in our search for meaning. James now presents a preview of his conclusion: “that we have a right to believe the physical order to be only a partial order; that we have a right to supplement it by an unseen spiritual order which we assume on trust …”[ii]

To those who claim that his approach is mystical or unscientific, James responds that science and the scientifically minded should not be arrogant. Science gives us a glimpse of what is real, but its knowledge is miniscule compared to the vastness of our ignorance. Agnostics admit as much but will not use their ignorance to say anything positive about the unknown, counseling us to withhold assent in matters where the evidence is inconclusive. James accepts such a view in the abstract, but neutrality cannot be maintained practically. If I refrain from believing in the supernatural, I express my refrain by acting as if the supernatural is not real; by not acting as if religion were true, one effectively acts as if it were not true. But science has no authority to deny the existence of an invisible world that gives us what the visible world does not. Science can only say what is, it cannot speak of what is not; and the agnostic prescription to proportion assent to evidence is merely a matter of taste.

The benefits of believing in an unseen spiritual world are practical and if we remove this comfort from human beings, suicidal despair may result. As for the claim that such belief is just wishful thinking, James reminds us how little we know of reality relative to omniscience. While such belief is based on the possibility of something rather than its confirmed reality, human lives and actions are always undertaken with uncertainty. If the only way off a mountain is to leap, then you must trust yourself and leap—if you hesitate too long the outcome is certain death. Although we cannot be sure of much, it is best to believe in the practical, in that which helps us live.

For James the issue of whether life is worth living is similar. You can accept a pessimistic view of life and even commit suicide—you can make something true for yourself by believing it. But suppose instead you cling to the view that there is something good beyond this world? Suppose further that your subjectivity will not yield to gloom, that you find joy in life. Have you not then made life worth living? Yes, we can make our lives worth living with our optimism. So it is our faith in an unseen world, in a religious or spiritual world, that grounds our belief in this world’s worthiness. Courage means risking one’s life on mere possibility, and the faithful believe in that possibility. James concludes with the following exhortation:

These, then, are my last words to you: Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact. The ‘scientific proof’ that you are right may not be clear before the day of judgment … is reached. But the faithful fighters of this hour, or the beings that then and there will represent them, may then turn to the faint-hearted, who here decline to go on, with words like those with which Henry IV greeted the tardy Crillon after a great victory had been gained: “Hang yourself, brave Crillon! We fought at Arques, and you were not there.[iii] 

Summary – We need to be optimistic and have faith in an unseen spiritual world for life to be meaningful.


[i] William James, “Is Life Worth Living? in The Search For Meaning In Life, ed. Robert F. Davidson (New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1962), 240.
[ii] William James, “Is Life Worth Living? 241.
[iii] William James, “Is Life Worth Living? 245.

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