William James has a way with words. Whatever you think of him as a philosopher, you have to give the guy credit as a master stylist. The words in the title of this post come from “The Will to Believe,” a lecture James delivered to the Yale and Brown philosophy clubs in the mid-1890s.
“They” refers to “objective evidence and certitude.” Here’s the whole sentence:
Objective evidence and certitude are doubtless very fine ideals to play with, but where on this moonlit and dream-visited planet are they found?
James’s answer to the question is, of course: “nowhere” or – truth be told – “almost nowhere.” There is one bit of certitude that he is willing to grant:
There is but one indefectibly certain truth, and that is the truth that pyrrhonistic scepticism itself leaves standing, – the truth that the present phenomenon of consciousness exists.
But we shouldn’t get excited about this, thinks James. Here’s how he continues:
That, however, is the bare starting-point of knowledge, the mere admission of a stuff to be philosophized about. The various philosophies are but so many attempts at expressing what this stuff really is. And if we repair to our libraries what disagreement do we discover! Where is a certainly true answer found? Apart from abstract propositions of comparison (such as two and two are the same as four), propositions which tell us nothing by themselves about concrete reality, we find no proposition ever regarded by any one as evidently certain that has not either been called a false hood, or at least had its truth sincerely questioned by someone else.
Although I deeply disagree with most of what James says in this passage, I’m not going to argue much with him here. I only wish to point out two other certitudes that necessarily follow from the one that “pyrrhonistic scepticism itself leaves standing.” In other words, I think James needs to add to his list.
First: consciousness requires a subject of consciousness, does it not? Must there not be someone who is aware of the present phenomenon of consciousness? Surely to intend and to be intended are not the same thing.
And must there not also be consciousness? I don’t mean a pure or empty consciousness. I mean an act of awareness or intending, which is always a directed awareness or intending, i.e., it’s about something.