William James and David Stove: Paralytic Epistemologies

David Stove may not be one of the great philosophers of the twentieth century, but he was a very good one, well worth reading (despite some quirks, such as a completely irrational detestation for Platonism).  William James too is certainly always worth reading, and is, if not a great philosopher, a very very good one.

I want to juxtapose the two in a discussion of what Stove calls “Paralytic Epistemology.”

There are certain positions, that, once adopt them, paralyze you, either in word or deed or both, in thought or action or both. Stove is, for the most part, talking about positions that result in complete paralysis. My interest in comparing the two is not only to note, with Stove, that some positions result in such a complete paralysis, but that others result in a partial paralysis of the reason.  One of these is the absurd and impossible idea that one should base all one’s beliefs on “sufficient evidence,” best expressed by William Clifford,


an idea that was, in its own day, thoroughly discredited by James,


but which hangs on with surprising tenacity, mostly because no one bothers to think through what it would actually mean to human cognition (it would destroy it).  It is a particular favorite among atheists, who selectively deploy it against ideas they don’t like, e.g. God, while (as James points out below), cheerfully ignoring it in ideas they do like, viz. the uniformity of nature required by science.

Here is an excerpt from James’ “The Sentiment of Rationality”, followed by David Stove’s essay “Paralytic Epistemology”.  Both are well worth reading, and I hope you enjoy them.


William James


The Sentiment of Rationality

In the average man, on the contrary, the power to trust, to risk a little beyond the literal evidence, is an essential function. Any mode of conceiving the universe which makes an appeal to this generous power, and makes the man seem as if he were individually helping to create the actuality of the truth whose metaphysical reality he is willing to assume, will be sure to be responded to by large numbers.

The necessity of faith as an ingredient in our mental attitude is strongly insisted on by the scientific philosophers of the present day; but by a singularly arbitrary caprice they say that it is only legitimate when used in the interests of one particular proposition—the proposition, namely, that the course of nature is uniform. That nature will follow tomorrow the same laws that she follows today is, they all admit, a truth which no man can know; but in the interests of cognition as well as of action we must postulate or assume it. As Helmholtz says: “Hier gilt nur der eine Rath: vertraue und handle!” And Professor Bain urges: “Our only error is in proposing to give any reason or justification of the postulate, or to treat it as otherwise than begged at the very outset.”

With regard to all other possible truths, however, a number of our most influential contemporaries think that an attitude of faith is not only illogical but shameful. Faith in a religious dogma for which there is no outward proof, but which we are tempted to postulate for our emotional interests, just as we postulate the uniformity of nature for our intellectual interests, is branded by Professor Huxley as “the lowest depth of immorality.” Citations of this kind from leaders of the modern Aufklärung might be multiplied almost indefinitely.

Take Professor Clifford’s article on the ‘Ethics of Belief.’ He calls it ‘guilt’ and ‘sin’ to believe even the truth without ‘scientific evidence.’ But what is the use of being a genius, unless with the same scientific evidence as other men, one can reach more truth than they? Why does Clifford fearlessly proclaim his belief in the conscious-automaton theory, although the ‘proofs’ before him are the same which make Mr. Lewes reject it? Why does he believe in primordial units of ‘mind-stuff’ on evidence which would seem quite worthless to Professor Bain? Simply because, like every human being of the slightest mental originality, he is peculiarly sensitive to evidence that bears in some one direction. It is utterly hopeless to try to exorcise such sensitiveness by calling it the disturbing subjective factor, and branding it as the root of all evil. ‘Subjective’ be it called! and ‘disturbing’ to those whom it foils! But if it helps those who, as Cicero says, “vim naturæ magis sentiunt,” it is good and not evil.

Pretend what we may, the whole man within us is at work when we form our philosophical opinions. Intellect, will, taste, and passion co-operate just as they do in practical affairs; and lucky it is if the passion be not something as petty as a love of personal conquest over the philosopher across the way. The absurd abstraction of an intellect verbally formulating all its evidence and carefully estimating the probability thereof by a vulgar fraction by the size of whose denominator and numerator alone it is swayed, is ideally as inept as it is actually impossible.

It is almost incredible that men who are themselves working philosophers should pretend that any philosophy can be, or ever has been, constructed without the help of personal preference, belief, or divination. How have they succeeded in so stultifying their sense for the living facts of human nature as not to perceive that every philosopher, or man of science either, whose initiative counts for anything in the evolution of thought, has taken his stand on a sort of dumb conviction that the truth must lie in one direction rather than another, and a sort of preliminary assurance that his notion can be made to work; and has borne his best fruit in trying to make it work? These mental instincts in different men are the spontaneous variations upon which the intellectual struggle for existence is based. The fittest conceptions survive, and with them the names of their champions shining to all futurity.

The coil is about us, struggle as we may. The only escape from faith is mental nullity. What we enjoy most in a Huxley or a Clifford is not the professor with his learning, but the human personality ready to go in for what it feels to be right, in spite of all appearances. The concrete man has but one interest,—to be right. That for him is the art of all arts, and all means are fair which help him to it. Naked he is flung into the world, and between him and nature there are no rules of civilized warfare. The rules of the scientific game, burdens of proof, presumptions, experimenta crucis, complete inductions, and the like, are only binding on those who enter that game. As a matter of fact we all more or less do enter it, because it helps us to our end. But if the means presume to frustrate the end and call us cheats for being right in advance of their slow aid, by guesswork or by hook or crook, what shall we say of them? Were all of Clifford’s works, except the Ethics of Belief, forgotten, he might well figure in future treatises on psychology in place of the somewhat threadbare instance of the miser who has been led by the association of ideas to prefer his gold to all the goods he might buy therewith.

In short, if I am born with such a superior general reaction to evidence that I can guess right and act accordingly, and gain all that comes of right action, while my less gifted neighbor (paralyzed by his scruples and waiting for more evidence which he dares not anticipate, much as he longs to) still stands shivering on the brink, by what law shall I be forbidden to reap the advantages of my superior native sensitiveness? Of course I yield to my belief in such a case as this or distrust it, alike at my peril, just as I do in any of the great practical decisions of life. If my inborn faculties are good, I am a prophet; if poor, I am a failure: nature spews me out of her mouth, and there is an end of me. In the total game of life we stake our persons all the while; and if in its theoretic part our persons will help us to a conclusion, surely we should also stake them there, however inarticulate they may be.


David Stove


WASPS NEVER LIVE to see their offspring, but this has not prevented some of them from hitting on an ingenious way of providing for the future welfare of their young. They build clay cells, deposit their eggs in them, stock the cells with spiders, and seal them up. The spiders have been paralyzed by the parent wasp, by chemical means. This chemical not only does not kill the spider, but leaves him quite unharmed; it just immobilizes him. So the baby wasp, when he emerges from the egg, finds himself surrounded by food: first-class protein at that, and fresh as a daisy.

For the spiders, if they are conscious of being paralyzed, the thing must be horrible almost beyond our ability to imagine. Not quite beyond it, however; because we have all known something like this paralysis in our dreams. We dream that we are in some fearful danger, and we try to flee or fight; but our limbs respond only faintly, or not at all, to our will. We try to call for help, or we simply scream; but, most horribly, no sound comes out of our mouth. Our mental energies are all intact, but our physical energies have somehow vanished. This paralysis, all will agree, is the crowning horror of a nightmare.

But nightmares are not the only parallel which our experience furnishes to the spiders’ plight. Citizens of the open societies of the West have experienced, during the last forty years, a waking parallel to it: a political one. In these societies, the communist power comes steadily on, not only without the citizens wishing it, but in direct opposition to their wills. Hardly one in a hundred of them does not regard communism with fear and loathing, and they try to give effect to these mental energies. They write, or talk, or at least vote, against the communists: yet it is all as though they did not. Somehow, no one can tell how, their resistance is paralyzed, just as in a nightmare.

No one will suppose that the causes of this political paralysis are purely intellectual. But to an important extent its cause is intellectual, and even (odd as this may sound) purely logical. The fact is, we painted ourselves into a logical corner. We set ourselves to achieve a society which would be maximally-tolerant. But that resolve not only gives maximum scope to the activities of those who have set themselves to achieve the maximally-intolerant society. It also, and more importantly, paralyses our powers of resistance to them, and evidently must do so. It is this logical problem, as much as anything, which has nullified internal resistance in the West to communist power.

This is obvious enough, of course, or rather, it is a commonplace of liberal political theory. This problem for liberalism is so far from being new, in fact, that a more special version of it plagued liberals like Locke in the seventeenth century: the problem of extending religious toleration to intolerant religions, such as Roman Catholicism. But there are also versions of the same logical problem which are more general than the political version; and some of these are even general enough to be of philosophical interest.

The political problem just referred to arises from the paralyzing nature of liberalism, or of what might be called “the universal permission” in politics:

(1) Politically, everything is permissible.

A similar proposition, but of intermediate generality, somewhere between politics and philosophy, is the universal permission in the field of morals.

(2) Morally, everything is permissible.

There are some questions about (2) which we can properly discuss. (For example, whether it is a logical consequence, as many have thought, of atheism.) But the question whether (2) is true is not among these questions. On the contrary, if you so much as hear others discussing whether (2) is true — and they are not just “doing philosophy”, but are in earnest — then if you are intelligent, prudent, and not yourself a danger to the public, you will simply contact the police.

Accordingly, I do not intend to discuss, here or anywhere else, whether (2) is true. I only wish to point out that, just as (1) is a principle paralytic of all political energy, so (2) is a principle paralytic of all moral energy. Once adopt (2), and you cannot thereafter consistently express moral opposition to anything whatever; and still less can you consistently put such opposition into practice. The wasp has given you the treatment. You can try to put forth moral energy; but, just like the dreamer’s physical energy in a nightmare, it has gone.

This paralytic character of (2) is obvious enough. No doubt this is because (2) comprehends (1) as a special case while the paralytic character of (1) is familiar to us, not only from theory but, even more, from experience. It does not take a philosopher to work out that if (2) is true, then denial of (2) is morally permissible too; so is any practical implementation of such a denial; and so on. In fact many people, without being philosophers, but just by being permissive parents, have had expensive practical experience of the paralytic character of (2).

But (2) is not all that big a generalization of (1), and not big enough to be of much philosophical interest. A universal permission which is, by contrast with (2) and (1), genuinely big and philosophical, as well as comparatively unfamiliar, is Professor Feyerabend’s “Anything goes.” For it is clear from his present article, as well as from his voluminous other writings, that he means by this not only, what might have satisfied a less hardy sceptic, that:

(3) Scientifically, everything is permissible.

He means also that:

(4) Methodologically, everything is permissible.

That is, denial is permissible not only of the conclusions of science which might be current at any given time; denial is also permissible of the principles of logic or rational inference, deductive or non-deductive, which might be current at any time, or at all times, and which are employed to reach those conclusions from given evidence. What he means would, perhaps, be best summed up by saying:

(5) Cognitively, everything is permissible.

This thesis, though comparatively unfamiliar, is of course far from being new. We had the same thing from Pyrrho over two thousand years ago. That nothing is known; that no proposition is even more probable than any other; that “not one, any more than the other,” as that silly old bore Sextus Empiricus says over and over again. [And if (5) was silly, old, and boring around AD 200, what is it now?]

No one will enter into discussion of (2), I said, if he is intelligent, prudent, not a public danger, and believes the other parties to the discussion to be in earnest. Likewise, no one not mentally disordered will enter into a discussion of (5), if he believes the other parties to be in earnest; while if he believes them not to be so, again he will not enter into discussion of (5). Accordingly I have no intention of discussing, here or anywhere else, whether (5) is true. Discussion of Feyerabend’s philosophy of science is unprofitable in practice in any case, as many philosophers have learnt by experiences nombreuses et funestes. But it is also, for reasons I have given elsewhere, futile even in principle. All I wish to do here is to point out that, just as (1) is a paralytic principle in politics, and (2) is in morals, so (5) is a paralytic principle in epistemology. Once you adopt it, there is nothing whatever in science, in logic or in any cognitive field, to which you can consistently object. The wasp has got you.

Of course you can object to things inconsistently; and this is a possibility of which Feyerabend freely avails himself. He tells us that anything goes, yet his critics soon find to their cost that mis-representation of his views does not go, that illogical inference from his views does not go, that ignorance of the history of science does not go, and so on. Some of these critics wonder at the ineffectiveness of their criticisms, and chide Feyerabend for his inconsistencies. Still, they should have known in the first place that if anything goes, inconsistency certainly goes too.

But if his critics are puzzled by the ineffectiveness of their blows, that is nothing to the bewilderment which Feyerabend evidently feels at the nightmare-like ineffectuality of his own. He is so baffled, indeed, that all he can do is call for the dismissal of his critics from their jobs. Yet there is really nothing baffling in the matter. “Anything goes,” or (5), is a paralytic principle; and just as the dreamer finds all his physical energy gone in nightmares, so Feyerabend should not be surprised if, having adopted (5), he finds in epistemology that all his screams are soundless.

How, indeed, could one rationally respond to someone who said (5) and meant it? To some one, that is, who really believed that no principle even of logic or rational inference is rationally preferable to its denial. To someone, for example, who really thought it permissible to hold that “Socrates is not mortal” is inconsistent with “The sun rises in the east,” or consistent with “Socrates is a man and all men are mortal.” Of course I do not know the answer to this question: no one does.

It is fortunate, therefore, that this question does not arise in practice. At least, it does not arise in Feyerabend’s case. For he is certainly not in earnest. This fact is obvious, and anyway he tells us so himself. It is true, he is a sort of wild man in philosophy, calls himself an anarchist and all that, but at the same time he is nervous lest he make us nervous, and therefore feels a need to assure us that he “would not hurt a fly.” More reassuring still, he enjoins the reader of Against Method, indeed he pleads with him, not to take what is written in that book too seriously. This was undeniably handsome, in fact irresistible, and for my part I willingly close with the offer, at once and for good. All other readers of Feyerabend should do the same. (A fly, though, might still be well-advised to give him a wide berth: who does not know what bloodthirsty passions often lurk under pacifistic interiors?)

Feyerabend took his slogan “Anything goes” from one popular entertainer, Cole Porter, and his philosophy, with trifling amendments, from another, Sir Karl Popper. Another Cole Porter song title, “What is this thing called Love?,” slightly amended, furnished another neo-Popperian philosopher with a title for his book.[ 8] And these conjunctures are (as the Marxists say) no accident: here, as always, deep calls to deep. For Popper (as I have pointed out elsewhere[ 9]) is nothing less, though he is also nothing more, than the inaugurator of the Jazz Age in the philosophy of science. If things had been a little different, this glorious place in the history of philosophy might have been filled by Feyerabend instead. Yet such speculations are hardly profitable. For as Bertie Wooster once said: “If things had been different … but then, they never are.”

New Ideas in Psychology 2, 1984

Stove, David. Cricket versus Republicanism (Kindle Locations 1305-1407). . Kindle Edition.

6 comments on “William James and David Stove: Paralytic Epistemologies

  1. Jason says:

    Eve, this is slightly off topic, but I’m curious if you’ve read the Christian philosopher Rene Girard and if you have what you think of his ideas.


    • Eve Keneinan says:

      I have not. Is he worth it?


      • Jason says:

        I find him very interesting, but I am not a philosopher like you are and with my minor coursework close to 20 yrs ago a lot of it goes over my head. I’ve read Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World with some success in understanding what he is getting at, and I tried Battling To the End but couldn’t really make it through.

        From my recollection, he makes some mistakes in anthropology (which I’m much more up to speed on than philosophy) but I think that has more to do with when he was studying/writing about anthropology than anything else. He has the same kind of respect for Nietzsche that you do while still being a believing Christian as you are, so I thought you might find him interesting.

        I’m reading Roger Scruton’s The Soul of the World right now and for what it’s worth, Scruton finds him important enough to devote a few pages to his ideas. Scruton’s criticisms of him also made sense to me.

        I’ll link here to a video where he explains the fundamentals of his philosophy for the layman in an interview –


        If you ever do dive in and have thoughts, I really would love to hear them.


  2. Good to see some attention to David Stove. ‘Paralytic epistemology’ is one of his best pieces. That’s true that his objection to Platonism was missing something.
    James Franklin (Literary executor to David Stove)


  3. […] Another amazing fact is that our society went through something precisely like this only a generation ago. And our paralysis in the face of mortal threat was noted then, as well, by the iconoclastic and insightful Australian philosopher David Stove (reproduced here): […]


  4. Christian Apologist says:

    Great work Eve!


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