1 February 2019: Faith and the Will to Believe – A Comparative Workshop in Pragmatism and Medieval Philosophy

Faculty of Theology
Vuorikatu 3, 2nd floor’s library (209)
For more information: nicolas.faucher@helsinki.fi

10 am Introduction by Risto Saarinen
10.15 am Ritva Palmén: “Free Movement of the Mind: Wonder in Twelfth-Century Philosophical Psychology”
11.15 am Mark Boespflug: “Faith, the Akrasia Objection and the Possibility of Believing Voluntarily in Peter of Ailly”
12.15 Lunch break
1.45 pm Nicolas Faucher: “Conscience and Authority: James and Peirce on the Medieval Views on Belief”
2.45 pm Sami Pihlström: “The Will to Believe and Holistic Pragmatism”
4.15 pm Dan-Johan Eklund: “Doxastic Voluntarism and Christian Faith”
5.15 pm Conclusion
6 pm Dinner at Ateljé Finne (for the speakers)

In his famous essay on “The Will to Believe”, William James has this to say on scholastic thought: 

“Scholastic orthodoxy, to which one must always go when one wishes to find perfectly clear statement, has beautifully elaborated this absolutist conviction in a doctrine which it calls that of ‘objective evidence.’ If, for example, I am unable to doubt that I now exist before you, that two is less than three, or that if all men are mortal then I am mortal too, it is because these things illumine my intellect irresistibly. The final ground of this objective evidence possessed by certain propositions is the adequatio intellectus nostri cum re[the agreement of our intellect with the thing known]. The certitude it brings involves an aptitudinem ad extorquendam certum assensum[an aptitude for extorting a certain assent from our intellect] on the part of the truth envisaged, and on the side of the subject a quietem in cognitione[ a quiet rest in knowledge], when once the object is mentally received, that leaves no possibility of doubt behind; and in the whole transaction nothing operates but the entitas ipsa[entity itself] of the object and the entitas ipsaof the mind.”


“Scholastic orthodoxy” seems to refer here more to Aquinas and his school than to any other scholastic thinker or trend. But James’ general view nonetheless aptly reflects the medieval scholastic common opinion. It is indeed true that, for virtually all medieval thinkers, there are some propositions that, whether, as James affirms, they “illumine” the human intellect, or they are known through the intellect’s light, can be assented to with perfect and irrefragable certainty, which constrains the intellect, and beyond which no further intellectual examination is required, or indeed possible.

There is, however, another kind of light, afforded by grace, that many medieval thinkers accept. This light, which was described in many different ways all along the 13thcentury, neither constrains the human intellect to assent to the truth of the objects of faith, nor does it put its investigation to rest. Rather it makes it see the objects of faith as things that must be believed.

The vocabulary medieval authors use to describe this apprehension is strikingly similar to James’ vocabulary when he describes what might be called, in his terms, our passional relation to live hypotheses. Where he speaks of “scintillat[ing] with credibility”, where he says that,“for us, not insight, but the prestige of the opinions, is what makes the spark shoot from them and light up our sleeping magazines of faith”, Aquinas speaks of a “simple light” of faith which “non-discursively” shows that we must believe this or that object. More strikingly, Peter John Olivi, a crucial author among 13thcentury scholastics, speaks of the relucentia, the “light-reflection” of objects of faith, as well as, more generally, the scintillatiothat characterizes actions we must perform, as they are presented by our conscience, including acts of faith. Many other authors provide similar descriptions.

Light metaphors are omnipresent in both James and medieval thinkers as regards belief, faith, or credulitas, but does that mean that there is anything in common in their philosophical views? Our working hypothesis is that there is, inasmuch as both James’ view and the medieval family of views describe an experience that is supposed to be universal; not founded on reason but on volition, emotion, and desire; and leading us to propositional belief in a certain set of objects.

Even more crucially, perhaps, that our religious belief be a choice in the most proper sense of the term is an essential feature of both James’ view and the whole medieval Latin tradition’s family of views. The idea that believing is a full-fledged choice for which we may be considered responsible; that our affective relation with what must be believed and the proponent of what must be believed (God, the Church, a certain community, etc.) plays a fundamental role in our coming to believe; that taking into account our interest in believing (whether it be coming to know the truth or reaching salvation) is at the basis of our choice are all features of both pragmatist views of belief and medieval Latin views.

Of course, there are some obvious differences. Whether James defends a kind of direct doxastic voluntarism remains an open question, while medieval authors usually clearly defend either a direct or indirect conception of doxastic voluntarism. It also seems that, while James appears to think our will to believe is triggered even before we adopt any view of our ability to reach the truth, whether empiricist or absolutist, to reprise the alternative he presents, the medieval authors seem to think of the light of faith in an absolutist framework: one can know that they ought to believe something, even though they do not immediately apprehend its truth.

 Beyond such differences, it seems possible and of great interest to ask some common questions of these different conceptions. What is the experience of having to believe? What are the warrants of belief that can be constructed on the basis of this experience? What is the precise role of the will in the process leading to belief? What kind of influences determine what we want to believe, what we feel we must believe, what we end up believing? More broadly, what are the common elements of medieval Latin and Pragmatist epistemologies? The proposed workshop is an invitation to examine the answers to these questions provided by the medieval Latin tradition and the Pragmatist tradition, and to see whether, across the centuries, their confrontation might allow us to glimpse some universal feature in philosophical conceptions of belief, especially voluntary belief.