The Varieties of Religious Experience

The Varieties of Religious Experience

by William James


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"The Varieties of Religious Experience" is William James's philosophical and psychological examination of the nature of religion in human civilization. Based on James's own Gifford Lectures given at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland between 1901 and 1902, James argues that "Scientific theories are organically conditioned just as much as religious emotions are; and if we only knew the facts intimately enough, we should doubtless see 'the liver' determining the dicta of the sturdy atheist as decisively as it does those of the Methodist under conviction anxious about his soul. When it alters in one way the blood that percolates it, we get the Methodist, when in another way, we get the atheist form of mind."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9783732693054
Publisher: Outlook Verlag
Publication date: 05/26/2018
Pages: 422
Product dimensions: 5.83(w) x 8.27(h) x 0.94(d)

About the Author

William James (January 11, 1842 - August 26, 1910) was an American philosopher and psychologist, and the first educator to offer a psychology course in the United States.[5] James is considered to be a leading thinker of the late nineteenth century, one of the most influential philosophers of the United States, and the "Father of American psychology.
Along with Charles Sanders Peirce, James established the philosophical school known as pragmatism, and is also cited as one of the founders of functional psychology. A Review of General Psychology analysis, published in 2002, ranked James as the 14th most eminent psychologist of the 20th century.[9] A survey published in American Psychologist in 1991 ranked James's reputation in second place,[10] after Wilhelm Wundt, who is widely regarded as the founder of experimental psychology.[11][12] James also developed the philosophical perspective known as radical empiricism. James's work has influenced philosophers and academics such as Émile Durkheim, W. E. B. Du Bois, Edmund Husserl, Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Hilary Putnam, and Richard Rorty.[13]
Born into a wealthy family, James was the son of the Swedenborgian theologian Henry James Sr. and the brother of both the prominent novelist Henry James and the diarist Alice James. James trained as a physician and taught anatomy at Harvard, but never practiced medicine. Instead he pursued his interests in psychology and then philosophy. James wrote widely on many topics, including epistemology, education, metaphysics, psychology, religion, and mysticism. Among his most influential books are The Principles of Psychology, a groundbreaking text in the field of psychology; Essays in Radical Empiricism, an important text in philosophy; and The Varieties of Religious Experience, an investigation of different forms of religious experience, including theories on mind-cure.[14]
William James was born at the Astor House in New York City on January 11, 1842. He was the son of Henry James Sr., a noted and independently wealthy Swedenborgian theologian well acquainted with the literary and intellectual elites of his day. The intellectual brilliance of the James family milieu and the remarkable epistolary talents of several of its members have made them a subject of continuing interest to historians, biographers, and critics.

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It is with no small amount of trepidation that I take my place behind this desk, and face this learned audience. To us Americans, the experience of receiving instruction from the living voice, as well as from the books, of European scholars, is very familiar. At my own University of Harvard, not a winter passes without its harvest, large or small, of lectures from Scottish, English, French, or German representatives of the science or literature of their respective countries whom we have either induced to cross the ocean to address us, or captured on the wing as they were visiting our land. It seems the natural thing for us to listen whilst the Europeans talk. The contrary habit, of talking whilst the Europeans listen, we have not yet acquired; and in him who first makes the adventure it begets a certain sense of apology being due for so presumptuous an act. Particularly must this be the case on a soil as sacred to the American imagination as that of Edinburgh. The glories of the philosophic chair of this university were deeply impressed on my imagination in boyhood. Professor Fraser's Essays in Philosophy, then just published, was the first philosophic book I ever looked into, and I well remember the awestruck feeling I received from the account of Sir William Hamilton's class-room therein contained. Hamilton's own lectures were the first philosophic writings I ever forced myself to study, and after that I was immersed in Dugald Stewart and Thomas Brown. Such juvenile emotions of reverence never get outgrown; and I confess that to find my humble self promoted from my native wilderness to be actually for the time an official here, and transmuted into a colleague of these illustrious names, carries with it a sense of dreamland quite as much as of reality.

But since I have received the honor of this appointment I have felt that it would never do to decline. The academic career also has its heroic obligations, so I stand here without further deprecatory words. Let me say only this, that now that the current, here and at Aberdeen, has begun to run from west to east, I hope it may continue to do so. As the years go by, I hope that many of my countrymen may be asked to lecture in the Scottish universities, changing places with Scotsmen lecturing in the United States; I hope that our people may become in all these higher matters even as one people; and that the peculiar philosophic temperament, as well as the peculiar political temperament, that goes with our English speech may more and more pervade and influence the world.

As regards the manner in which I shall have to administer this lectureship, I am neither a theologian, nor a scholar learned in the history of religions, nor an anthropologist. Psychology is the only branch of learning in which I am particularly versed. To the psychologist the religious propensities of man must be at least as interesting as any other of the facts pertaining to his mental constitution. It would seem, therefore, that, as a psychologist, the natural thing for me would be to invite you to a descriptive survey of those religious propensities.

If the inquiry be psychological, not religious institutions, but rather religious feelings and religious impulses must be its subject, and I must confine myself to those more developed subjective phenomena recorded in literature produced by articulate and fully self-conscious men, in works of piety and autobiography. Interesting as the origins and early stages of a subject always are, yet when one seeks earnestly for its full significance, one must always look to its more completely evolved and perfect forms. It follows from this that the documents that will most concern us will be those of the men who were most accomplished in the religious life and best able to give an intelligible account of their ideas and motives. These men, of course, are either comparatively modern writers, or else such earlier ones as have become religious classics. The documents humains which we shall find most instructive need not then be sought for in the haunts of special erudition — they lie along the beaten highway; and this circumstance, which flows so naturally from the character of our problem, suits admirably also your lecturer's lack of special theological learning. I may take my citations, my sentences and paragraphs of personal confession, from books that most of you at some time will have had already in your hands, and yet this will he no detriment to the value of my conclusions. It is true that some more adventurous reader and investigator, lecturing here in future, may unearth from the shelves of libraries documents that will make a more delectable and curious entertainment to listen to than mine. Yet I doubt whether he will necessarily, by his control of so much more out-of-the-way material, get much closer to the essence of the matter in hand.

The question, What are the religious propensities? and the question, What is their philosophic significance? are two entirely different orders of question from the logical point of view; and, as a failure to recognize this fact distinctly may breed confusion, I wish to insist upon the point a little before we enter into the documents and materials to which I have referred.

In recent hooks on logic, distinction is made between two orders of inquiry concerning anything. First, what is the nature of it? how did it come about? what is its constitution, origin, and history? And second, What is its importance, meaning, or significance, now that it is once here? The answer to the one question is given in an existential judgment or proposition. The answer to the other is a proposition of value, what the Germans call a Werthurtheil, or what we may, if we like, denominate a spiritual judgment. Neither judgment can be deduced immediately from the other. They proceed from diverse intellectual preoccupations, and the mind combines them only by making them first separately, and then adding them together.

In the matter of religions it is particularly easy to distinguish the two orders of question. Every religious phenomenon has its history and its derivation from natural antecedents. What is nowadays called the higher criticism of the Bible is only a study of the Bible from this existential point of view, neglected too much by the earlier church. Under just what biographic conditions did the sacred writers bring forth their various contributions to the holy volume? And what had they exactly in their several individual minds, when they delivered their utterances? These are manifestly questions of historical fact, and one does not see how the answer to them can decide offhand the still further question: of what use should such a volume, with its manner of coming into existence so defined, be to us as a guide to life and a revelation? To answer this other question we must have already in our mind some sort of a general theory as to what the peculiarities in a thing should be which give it value for purposes of revelation; and this theory itself would be what I just called a spiritual judgment. Combining it with our existential judgment, we might indeed deduce another spiritual judgment as to the Bible's worth. Thus if our theory of revelation-value were to affirm that any book, to possess it, must have been composed automatically or not by the free caprice of the writer, or that it must exhibit no scientific and historic errors and express no local or personal passions, the Bible would probably fare ill at our hands. But if, on the other hand, our theory should allow that a book may well be a revelation in spite of errors and passions and deliberate human composition, if only it be a true record of the inner experiences of great-souled persons wrestling with the crises of their fate, then the verdict would be much more favorable. You see that the existential facts by themselves are insufficient for determining the value; and the best adepts of the higher criticism accordingly never confound the existential with the spiritual problem. With the same conclusions of fact before them, some take one view, and some another, of the Bible's value as a revelation, according as their spiritual judgment as to the foundation of values differs.

I make these general remarks about the two sorts of judgment, because there are many religious persons — some of you now present, possibly, are among them — who do not yet make a working use of the distinction, and who may therefore feel at first a little startled at the purely existential point of view from which in the following lectures the phenomena of religious experience must be considered. When I handle them biologically and psychologically as if they were mere curious facts of individual history, some of you may think it a degradation of so sublime a subject, and may even suspect me, until my purpose gets more fully expressed, of deliberately seeking to discredit the religious side of life.

Such a result is of course absolutely alien to my intention; and since such a prejudice on your part would seriously obstruct the due effect of much of what I have to relate, I will devote a few more words to the point.

There can be no doubt that as a matter of fact a religious life, exclusively pursued, does tend to make the person exceptional and eccentric. I speak not now of your ordinary religious believer, who follows the conventional observances of his country, whether it be Buddhist, Christian, or Mohammedan. His religion has been made for him by others, communicated to him by tradition, determined to fixed forms by imitation, and retained by habit. It would profit us little to study this second-hand religious life. We must make search rather for the original experiences which were the pattern-setters to all this mass of suggested feeling and imitated conduct. These experiences we can only find in individuals for whom religion exists not as a dull habit, but as an acute fever rather. But such individuals are 'geniuses' in the religious line; and like many other geniuses who have brought forth fruits effective enough for commemoration in the pages of biography, such religious geniuses have often shown symptoms of nervous instability. Even more perhaps than other kinds of genius, religious leaders have been subject to abnormal psychical visitations. Invariably they have been creatures of exalted emotional sensibility. Often they have led a discordant inner life, and had melancholy during a part of their career. They have known no measure, been liable to obsessions and fixed ideas; and frequently they have fallen into trances, heard voices, seen visions, and presented all sorts of peculiarities which are ordinarily classed as pathological. Often, moreover, these pathological features in their career have helped to give them their religious authority and influence.

If you ask for a concrete example, there can be no better one than is furnished by the person of George Fox. The Quaker religion which he founded is something which it is impossible to overpraise. In a day of shams, it was a religion of veracity rooted in spiritual inwardness, and a return to something more like the original gospel truth than men had ever known in England. So far as our Christian sects to-day are evolving into liberality, they are simply reverting in essence to the position which Fox and the early Quakers so long ago assumed. No one can pretend for a moment that in point of spiritual sagacity and capacity, Fox's mind was unsound. Every one who confronted him personally, from Oliver Cromwell down to county magistrates and jailers, seems to have acknowledged his superior power. Yet from the point of view of his nervous constitution, Fox was a psychopath or détraqué of the deepest dye. His Journal abounds in entries of this sort: —

"As I was walking with several friends, I lifted up my head, and saw three steeple-house spires, and they struck at my life. I asked them what place that was? They said, Lichfield. Immediately the word of the Lord came to me, that I must go thither. Being come to the house we were going to, I wished the friends to walk into the house, saying nothing to them of whither I was to go. As soon as they were gone I stept away, and went by my eye over hedge and ditch till I came within a mile of Lichfield; where, in a great field, shepherds were keeping their sheep. Then was I commanded by the Lord to pull off my shoes. I stood still, for it was winter: but the word of the Lord was like a fire in me. So I put off my shoes, and left them with the shepherds; and the poor shepherds trembled, and were astonished. Then I walked on about a mile, and as soon as I was got within the city, the word of the Lord came to me again, saying: Cry, 'Wo to the bloody city of Lichfield!' So I went up and down the streets, crying with a loud voice, Wo to the bloody city of Lichfield! It being market day, I went into the market-place, and to and fro in the several parts of it, and made stands, crying as before, Wo to the bloody city of Lichfield! And no one laid hands on me. As I went thus crying through the streets, there seemed to me to be a channel of blood running down the streets, and the market-place appeared like a pool of blood. When I had declared what was upon me, and felt myself clear, I went out of the town in peace; and returning to the shepherds gave them some money, and took my shoes of them again. But the fire of the Lord was so on my feet, and all over me, that I did not matter to put on my shoes again, and was at a stand whether I should or no, till I felt freedom from the Lord so to do: then, after I had washed my feet, I put on my shoes again. After this a deep consideration came upon me, for what reason I should be sent to cry against that city, and call it The bloody city! For though the parliament had the minister one while, and the king another, and much blood had been shed in the town during the wars between them, yet there was no more than had befallen many other places. But afterwards I came to understand, that in the Emperor Diocletian's time a thousand Christians were martyr'd in Lichfield. So I was to go, without my shoes, through the channel of their blood, and into the pool of their blood in the market-place, that I might raise up the memorial of the blood of those martyrs, which had been shed above a thousand years before, and lay cold in their streets. So the sense of this blood was upon me, and I obeyed the word of the Lord."

Bent as we are on studying religion's existential conditions, we cannot possibly ignore these pathological aspects of the subject. We must describe and name them just as if they occurred in non-religious men. It is true that we instinctively recoil from seeing an object to which our emotions and affections are committed handled by the intellect as any other object is handled. The first thing the intellect does with an object is to class it along with something else. But any object that is infinitely important to us and awakens our devotion feels to us also as if it must be sui generis and unique. Probably a crab would be filled with a sense of personal outrage if it could hear us class it without ado or apology as a crustacean, and thus dispose of it. "I am no such thing," it would say; "I am myself, myself alone."

The next thing the intellect does is to lay bare the causes in which the thing originates. Spinoza says: "I will analyze the actions and appetites of men as if it were a question of lines, of planes, and of solids." And elsewhere he remarks that he will consider our passions and their properties with the same eye with which he looks on all other natural things, since the consequences of our affections flow from their nature with the same necessity as it results from the nature of a triangle that its three angles should be equal to two right angles. Similarly M. Taine, in the introduction to his history of English literature, has written: "Whether facts be moral or physical, it makes no matter. They always have their causes. There are causes for ambition, courage, veracity, just as there are for digestion, muscular movement, animal heat. Vice and virtue are products like vitriol and sugar." When we read such proclamations of the intellect bent on showing the existential conditions of absolutely everything, we feel — quite apart from our legitimate impatience at the somewhat ridiculous swagger of the program, in view of what the authors are actually able to perform — menaced and negated in the springs of our innermost life. Such cold-blooded assimilations threaten, we think, to undo our soul's vital secrets, as if the same breath which should succeed in explaining their origin would simultaneously explain away their significance, and make them appear of no more preciousness, either, than the useful groceries of which M. Taine speaks.


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Table of Contents



Author's Preface

1 Religion and Neurology

Introduction: the course is not anthropological, but deals with personal documents — Questions of fact and questions of value — In point of fact, the religious are often neurotic — Criticism of medical materialism, which condemns religion on that account — Theory that religion has a sexual origin refuted — All states of mind are neurally conditioned — Their significance must be tested not by their origin but by the value of their fruits — Three criteria of value; origin useless as a criterion — Advantages of the psychopathic temperament when a superior intellect goes with it — especially for the religious life.

2 Circumscription of the Topic

Futility of simple definitions of religion — No one specific "religious sentiment" — Institutional and personal religion — We confine ourselves to the personal branch — Definition of religion for the purpose of these lectures — Meaning of the term "divine" — The divine is what prompts solemn reactions — Impossible to make our definitions sharp — We must study the more extreme cases — Two ways of accepting the universe — Religion is more enthusiastic than philosophy — Its characteristic is enthusiasm in solemn emotion — Its ability to overcome unhappiness — Need of such a faculty from the biological point of view.

3 The Reality of the Unseen

Percepts versus abstract concepts — Influence of the latter on belief — Kant's theological Ideas — We have a sense of reality other than that given by the special senses — Examples of "sense of presence" — The feeling of unreality — Sense of a divine presence: examples — Mystical experiences: examples — Other cases of sense of God's presence — Convincingness of unreasoned experience — Inferiority of rationalism in establishing belief — Either enthusiasm or solemnity may preponderate in the religious attitude of individuals.

4 and 5 The Religion of Healthy-Mindedness

Happiness is man's chief concern — "Once-born" and "twice-born" characters — Walt Whitman — Mixed nature of Greek feeling — Systematic healthy-mindedness — Its reasonableness — Liberal Christianity shows it — Optimism as encouraged by Popular Science — The "Mind-cure" movement — Its creed — Cases — Its doctrine of evil — Its analogy to Lutheran theology — Salvation by relaxation — Its methods: suggestion — meditation — "recollection" — verification — Diversity of possible schemes of adaptation to the universe — Appendix: Two mind-cure cases.

6 and 7 The Sick Soul

Healthy-mindedness and repentance — Essential pluralism of the healthy-minded philosophy — Morbid-mindedness: its two degrees — The pain-threshold varies in individuals — Insecurity of natural goods — Failure, or vain success of every life — Pessimism of all pure naturalism — Hopelessness of Greek and Roman view — Pathological unhappiness — "Anhedonia" — Querulous melancholy — Vital zest is a pure gift — Loss of it makes physical world look different — Tolstoy — Bunyan — Alline — Morbid fear — Such cases need a supernatural religion for relief — Antagonism of healthy-mindedness and morbidness — The problem of evil cannot be escaped.

8 The Divided Self, and the Process of Its Unification

Heterogeneous personality — Character gradually attains unity — Examples of divided self — The unity attained need not be religious — "Counter conversion" cases — Other cases — Gradual and sudden unification — Tolstoy's recovery — Bunyan's.

9 Conversion

Case of Stephen Bradley — The psychology of character-changes — Emotional excitements make new centres of personal energy — Schematic ways of representing this — Starbuck likens conversion to normal moral ripening — Leuba's ideas — Seemingly unconvertible persons — Two types of conversion — Subconscious incubation of motives — Self-surrender — Its importance in religious history — Cases.

10 Conversion — Concluded

Cases of sudden conversion — Is suddenness essential? — No, it depends on psychological idiosyncrasy — Proved existence of transmarginal, or subliminal, consciousness — "Automatisms" — Instantaneous conversions seem due to the possession of an active subconscious self by the subject — The value of conversion depends not on the process, but on the fruits — These are not superior in sudden conversion — Professor Coe's views — Sanctification as a result — Our psychological account does not exclude direct presence of the Deity — Sense of higher control — Relations of the emotional "faith-state" to intellectual beliefs — Leuba quoted — Characteristics of the faith-state: sense of truth; the world appears new — Sensory and motor automatisms — Permanency of conversions.

11, 12, and 13 Saintliness

Sainte-Beuve on the State of Grace — Types of character as due to the balance of impulses and inhibitions — Sovereign excitements — Irascibility — Effects of higher excitement in general — The saintly life is ruled by spiritual excitement — This may annul sensual impulses permanently — Probable subconscious influences involved — Mechanical scheme for representing permanent alteration in character — Characteristics of saintliness — Sense of reality of a higher power — Peace of mind, charity — Equanimity, fortitude, etc. — Connection of this with relaxation — Purity of life — Asceticism — Obedience — Poverty — The sentiments of democracy and of humanity — General effects of higher excitements.

14 and 15 The Value of Saintliness

It must be tested by the human value of its fruits — The reality of the God must, however, also be judged — "Unfit" religions get eliminated by "experience" — Empiricism is not skepticism — Individual and tribal religion — Loneliness of religious originators — Corruption follows success — Extravagances — Excessive devoutness, as fanaticism — As theopathic absorption — Excessive purity — Excessive charity — The perfect man is adapted only to the perfect environment — Saints are leavens — Excesses of asceticism — Asceticism symbolically stands for the heroic life — Militarism and voluntary poverty as possible equivalents — Pros and cons of the saintly character — Saints versus "strong" men — Their social function must be considered — Abstractly the saint is the highest type, but in the present environment it may fail, so we make ourselves saints at our peril — The question of theological truth.

16 and 17 Mysticism

Mysticism defined — Four marks of mystic states — They form a distinct region of consciousness — Examples of their lower grades — Mysticism and alcohol — "The anæsthetic revelation" — Religious mysticism — Aspects of Nature — Consciousness of God — "Cosmic consciousness" — Yoga — Buddhistic mysticism — Sufism — Christian mystics — Their sense of revelation — Tonic effects of mystic states — They describe by negatives — Sense of union with the Absolute — Mysticism and music — Three conclusions — (1) Mystical states carry authority for him who has them — (2) But for no one else — (3) Nevertheless, they break down the exclusive authority of rationalistic states — They strengthen monistic and optimistic hypotheses.

18 Philosophy

Primacy of feeling in religion, philosophy being a secondary function — Intellectualism professes to escape subjective standards in her theological constructions — "Dogmatic theology" — Criticism of its account of God's attributes — "Pragmatism" as a test of the value of conceptions — God's metaphysical attributes have no practical significance — His moral attributes are proved by bad arguments; collapse of systematic theology — Does transcendental idealism fare better? Its principles — Quotations from John Caird — They are good as restatements of religious experience, but uncoercive as reasoned proof — What philosophy can do for religion by transforming herself into "science of religions."

19 Other Characteristics

Aesthetic elements in religion — Contrast of Catholicism and Protestantism — Sacrifice and Confession — Prayer — Religion holds that spiritual work is really effected in prayer — Three degrees of opinion as to what is effected — First degree — Second degree — Third degree — Automatisms, their frequency among religious leaders — Jewish cases — Mohammed — Joseph Smith — Religion and the subconscious region in general.

20 Conclusions

Summary of religious characteristics — Men's religions need not be identical — "The science of religions" can only suggest, not proclaim, a religious creed — Is religion a "survival" of primitive thought? — Modern science rules out the concept of personality — Anthropomorphism and belief in the personal characterized pre-scientific thought — Personal forces are real, in spite of this — Scientific objects are abstractions, only individualized experiences are concrete — Religion holds by the concrete — Primarily religion is a biological reaction — Its simplest terms are an uneasiness and a deliverance; description of the deliverance — Question of the reality of the higher power — The author's hypotheses: 1. The subconscious self as intermediating between nature and the higher region — 2. The higher region, or "God" — 3. He produces real effects in nature.


Philosophic position of the present work defined as piece-meal supernaturalism — Criticism of universalistic supernaturalism — Different principles must occasion differences in fact — What differences in fact can God's existence occasion? — The question of immortality — Question of God's uniqueness and infinity: religious experience does not settle this question in the affirmative — The pluralistic hypothesis is more conformed to common sense.


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