William James, born 1842, was a trained physician who subsequently dabbled in works of philosophy and psychology (in which he officiated as a formal study through lectures) (Goodman, 2009). As did many philosophers, Jamesian thinking seeded many discussions on various philosophical topics such as metaphysics, morality, free will-determinism, religion and the afterlife; however, what truly made his ideas notable was his uncanny ability to borrow and integrate knowledge from branches of physiology, psychology and philosophy to weave new insights and dimensions onto traditional philosophical arguments (Goodman).

His influential piece called The Principles of Psychology took these ideas together and encouraged a trend of pragmatism and phenomenology in philosophy amongst a generation of American and European thinkers such as the likes of Bertrand Russell, John Dewey and Edmund Husserl (Goodman, 2009).

James’ ideas were widely discussed and sparked new approaches to thinking due to his tendencies to adapt the strength of differing knowledge from his branches of study that sat somewhat comfortably in the spectrum between two dichotomies (i.

e. he argued for the existence of indeterminism in free will versus determinism argument) (Goodman). His ideas were as much philosophical as they were scientific hence allowing room for many to embrace such forms of thinking (Goodman).

The general idea behind most of William James’ philosophy rests on its arguments that philosophical concepts needed not to be always present in an ‘either/or’ condition, but a logical resolution can be reasoned between two opposing concepts, at least in part of the philosopher himself.

Most would regard Jamesian philosophy as adopting a compatibilist view of the notions (Doyle, 2010) as was highly apparent in his take on the argument on free will versus determinism.

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Free Will versus Determinism: William James and Indeterminism Prior to James during the seventeenth century, a dualistic view of free will was the predominant idea held by a majority of philosophers who were mostly grounded in theological roots (Doyle, 2010). Freedom was argued to be a gift from God and that its works was in the mind separate from the physical universe (Doyle).

This idea supposed that even something as free as freedom itself originated from a destined source and will travel along a particular trajectory. Subsequent philosophers such as David Hume and Thomas Hobbes believed freedom to be divorced from external forces of influence in that voluntary actions are compatible with complete staunch determinism; they stated that although the idea of freedom they identified denoted a freedom of actions more than a freedom of the will, and though the will is determined, as long as the exercise of this will through actions has an effect on the overall causal chain this would be enough freedom for them (Doyle).

William James was considered the first to denounce the traditional two-dichotomy argument of free will (Doyle, 2010). Instead of looking at free will through the lens of it being determined or random, he gave it elements of both by firstly acknowledging freedom out rightly but upholding responsibilities (Doyle). As a scientist, James elaborated a two-stage model of chance and choice that came to be known as Jamesian free will (Doyle).

To fully grasp the concepts of chance and choice in James’ model as he had explained in great detail (and much specificity) in the lecture The Dilemma of Determinism presented in 1884 to students of Harvard Divinity School, some part of this writing should be used to explain his idea of indeterminism, which subsequently led to the development of the model.

James felt that the soft determinists’ arguments of the freedom of actions were merely “…a quagmire of evasions…no matter what the soft determinist means by it whether he means by acting without external constraint, whether he means the acting rightly or whether he means the acquiescing in the law of the whole-who cannot answer him that sometimes we are free and sometimes we are not? ” (James, 1884, p. 3).

Such compatibilist definitions, to James, caused an issue of words instead of an issue of facts, and still did not answer what true freedom meant which was the purpose of questioning determinism (James). Indeterminism, as he argued, opposed suppositions of determinism (James, 1884). James did not favor the term freedom as it he called it ‘an eulogistic word’ that enabled emotional associations to be made thus allowing its meaning to be manipulated by its holder; he had preferred the word chance in replacement of freedom (James).

Although James professed no external evidence for indeterminism, he argued that it was the opposite of determinism based on the following grounds: (i) determinism held that elements already present in the universe at a given time decree what the other coming elements must be without the slightest ambiguity (a fundamental cause-and-effect perspective) whereas indeterminism reasoned that elements do have loose influence in themselves, that having one element does not determine what the next element is because possibilities may be more than actualities, and things that have yet to come to our knowledge with certainty remain ambiguities.

In this, indeterminism allows for chances and that the world is not understood by one unit of fact (James). Next, (ii) as indeterminism postulated that actualities exist in a wider sea of possibilities from which they are selected, and this sea exists somewhere while determinists say it exists nowhere, that possibilities that did not materialize are products of illusions or they never were at all (James, 1884). Either way, “the truth must lie with one side or the other, and its lying with one side makes the other false” (James, 1884, p. 4).

James argued that determinists who continued to deny the existence of possibilities provided no room for further philosophical discussions, as a fundamentalist grounds will end any debate there was (James). There was also no need for indeterminism to be proven explicitly as scientific conclusions are made based on matters of fact (things that actually happen). However much the amount of facts surmounted only reveal little about what might happen in place of the fact; facts can only be proven by other facts and with things that are possibilities, facts have no concern whatsoever (James).

Possibilities are generated by way of experience that were initially involuntary and random and through observations and chance occurrences that inexhaustible lists of possibilities form in our memories (Doyle, 2010). That indeterminism is as close to the truth and is the opposite of hard determinism remains the basic assumptions held by indeterminists. As mentioned, James’ two-stage model represents a conception of indeterministic free will (Doyle, 2010).

The central idea of possibilities negated the postulations of determinism by putting forward the notion of chances. From a Jamesian point of view, an indeterministic chance is what James called “ambiguous possibilities” and “alternative futures” which are random in the strictest sense (Doyle). Such alternatives, however, do not in any manner restrict the choice to any one of these alternatives (Doyle). Chances (naturally existing and somewhat determined) do not primarily cause actions, as it is the choices (individual volitions) that one has decided which permit an action to occur (Doyle).

All in all, the model assumed that free will is essentially “…chance in a present time of random alternatives, leading to a choice, which grants consent to one possibility and transforms an equivocal ambiguous future into an unalterable and simple past” (Doyle, 2010, p. 7). As a closure to this and in light of how great philosophies leave with prominent questions in mind, James elaborated an example to his lecture attendees of a chance and choice alternative, which until today is considered one of the greatest arguments against libertarian free will (Doyle, 2010);

Imagine that I first walk through Divinity Avenue, and then imagine that the powers governing the universe annihilate ten minutes of time with all that it contained, and set me back at the door of this hall just as I was before the choice was made. Imagine then that, everything else being the same, I now make a different choice and traverse Oxford Street. You, as passive spectators, look on and see the two alternative universes,-one of them with me walking through Divinity Avenue in it, the other with the same me walking through Oxford Street.

Now, if you are determinists you believe one of these universes to have been from eternity impossible: you believe it to have been impossible because of the intrinsic irrationality or accidentality somewhere involved in it. But looking outwardly at these universes, can you say which is the impossible and accidental one, and which the rational and necessary one? I doubt if the most ironclad determinist among you could have the slightest glimmer of light on this point (James, 1884, p.6-7).


  1. Doyle, B. (2010). Jamesian free will, the two-stage model of William James. William JamesStudies, 5, 1-28. Retrieved from williamjamesstudies. org/5. 1/doyle. pdf
  2. Goodman, R. (2009). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: William James. Retrieved fromhttp://plato. stanford. edu/entries/james/
  3. James, W. (1884). The dilemma of determinism. Retrieved from http://www9. georgetown. edu/faculty/blattnew/intro/james_dilemma_of_determinism. pdf.

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William James. (2016, Nov 09). Retrieved from http://studymoose.com/william-james-essay

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