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The Varieties of Religious Experience

William James
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The Varieties of Religious Experience

William James

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1902

Plot Summary
The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) by William James, a psychologist and philosopher who taught at Harvard, contains, in edited form, a series of natural theology lectures called the Gifford Lectures which he delivered at the University of Edinburgh in the two years leading up to its publication. The lectures argue about the nature of religion and the tendency of modern religious studies to ignore the importance of science in their research. The lectures, immediately acclaimed, are considered part of the Western canon. The lectures also contain hints of James’s developing notion of pragmatism, which he later synthesized in his 1907 book, Pragmatism.

James’s first lecture consists of an analysis of the religious experience. Most curious about the experiences received directly by individuals, he positions the idea of the empirical revelation above the more regulated ones of theological studies and organized religion. James argues that religious experiences are just particularly insightful human experiences, asserting that there is no inherent difference between religious happiness and happiness in general, or human trance and trance in general.

James claims that revelations can originate in brain activity that is “morbid,” indicating some anticipation of death. He also admits that the religious experience can be very irrational. Still, he states that it is a mainly positive phenomenon. While a person suffering from a fever might have bad ideas that quickly fade when the fever subsides, someone who receives a religious experience is likely to remember its imagery and insights, returning to them later in life. James’s pragmatic view on religious experience is that its effectiveness evinces its essential truth, regardless of the mechanisms through which it is obtained (such as drugs, illness, or prayer).



James explicates distinct views on value propositions, which judge ontological significance, and existential judgment, which judge the inner constitution and origin. He argues mainly that scientific existential claims are rooted in the emotions just as religious ones are, and it is, therefore, useless to rank them along those lines. Value propositions are unassailable, since they acknowledge their own subjectivity, and are, therefore, more useful and valid. He criticizes scientists for relying too much on empirical evidence, ignoring elements of the universe which are unseen, but whose truth-value can be obtained through other systems. He argues that consciousness is a highly regulated instrument, burdened by the entrenched assumptions it is forced to learn in order to fit in with its society. It logically follows that the conscious definition of rationalism is flawed, failing to admit the validity of forms of rationality that obtain insights from unseen parts of reality.

James celebrates American writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman who contributed to American philosophy what he calls “healthy-mindedness.” The healthy-minded, to him, view the worst of moral vices, such as “evil,” as illusions. However, he exhorts an even better state of being, which is that of “morbid-mindedness.” This state arises in those who have seen utter despair before rejecting it. The morbid-minded, aware of a wider range of possible experience, are closer to having a complete philosophical sensibility.

Analyzing the concept of saintliness, James casts the saint as one for whom the spiritual emotions form one’s life of habits, thereby directing one’s flow of energy. Moreover, the saint feels part of a larger life than the one delimited by his or her physical form and ego, and can conceive of an “Ideal Power.” The saint, understanding that this power and his or her life are continuous and interrelated, is willing to submit to its direction. This submission fills the saint’s life with intense joy and gives rise to the traits of asceticism, resilience, charity, and purity.



James’s last lecture concerns mysticism. He acknowledges two main aspects of a mystical experience: ineffability and noetic quality. Ineffability refers to the impossibility of translating the experience into language. In order to understand the ineffable, one must experience it for oneself. Unlike intellectual epiphanies, mystical states are more about feeling. Therefore, they cannot be directly compared. Noetic quality is the aspect of an experience being or becoming a state of knowledge. These mystical states are also transient and passive, happening in suppressed states of the human will.

In his lectures, James presents an argument for the further evolution of rationalism that has compelled religious and scientific thinkers alike. He breaks down certain assumptions that the early nineteenth century made without realizing, holding them to a higher standard without exhorting a return to the dogmatic thinking of religious tradition. Therefore, he is considered both a mainstream philosopher and a scientist of the mind.

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