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SAAP Annual Meeting

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William James’s Ethics of Self-Transformation: The Will, The Will to Believe, & The Value of Freedom

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Colin Koopman
University of Oregon
United States

William James’s ethical defense of the will to believe rests on his psychological conception of the will, but few commentators have read James’s normative moral philosophy alongside his naturalized moral psychology. For instance, many of the most searing criticisms of James’s unjustly-accused will to believe doctrine have neglected the ways in which his naturalistic psychology of will directly informs his doxastic voluntarism. I offer a reading of James’s discussion of the will from The Principles of Psychology that foregrounds his idea of willfulness as functional and non-entitiative self-transformation (§II). I then show how James’s naturalistic psychology should inform a better understanding of his defense of the will to believe as an effort in the transformative improvement of the habitual self (§III). I conclude with a brief exploration of the importance of James’s overarching meliorism for both his descriptive psychology and his normative ethics (§IV).


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