Monday, September 3, 2007

William James (1842-1910)

Sierra Club


Whatever universe a professor believes in must at any rate be a universe that lends itself to lengthy discourse. A universe definable in two sentences is something for which the professorial intellect has no use. No faith in anything of that cheap kind!


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Lecture: Varieties of Religious Experience
Powerpoint: Varieties of Religious Experience
COPAC UK: William James
Library of Canada: William James
Library of Congress: William James
Other Library Catalogs: William James


American philosopher, son of the Swedenborgian theologian Henry James, and brother of the novelist Henry James, was born on the 11th of January 1842 at New York City. He graduated M.D. at Harvard in 1870. Two years after he was appointed a lecturer at Harvard in anatomy and physiology, and later in psychology and philosophy. Subsequently he became assistant professor of philosophy (1880 - 1885), professor (1885 - 1889), professor of psychology (1889 - 1897) and professor of philosophy (1897 - 1907). In 1899 - 1901 he delivered the Gifford lectures on natural religion at the university of Edinburgh, and in 1908 the Hibbert lectures at Manchester College, Oxford. With the appearance of his Principles of Psychology (2 vols., 1890), James at once stepped into the front rank of psychologists as a leader of the physical school, a position which he maintained not only by the brilliance of his analogies but also by the freshness and unconventionality of his style. In metaphysics he upheld the idealist position from the empirical standpoint. Beside the Principles of Psychology, which appeared in a shorter form in 1892 (Psychology), his chief works are: The Will to Believe (1897); Human Immortality (Boston, 1898); Talks to Teachers (1899); The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York, 1902); Pragmatism - a New Name for some Old Ways of Thinking (1907); A Pluralistic Universe (1909; Hibbert lectures), in which, though he still attacked the hypothesis of absolutism, he admitted it as a legitimate alternative. He received honorary degrees from Padua (1893), Princeton (1896), Edinburgh (1902), Harvard (1905). He died on the 27th of August 1910. [Adapted from Encyclopedia Britannica (1911)]

The Varieties of Religious Experience
Powerpoint Presentation: The Varieties of Religious experience
Russell McNeil, PhD (Copyright 2005)
[Logos Exclusive]

There are two parts to this lecture. I'm looking first at Faith and the Human Condition -- the idea of Faith-State as defined by James and the importance of what James calls the Faith-state - a phenomenon he refers to as a demonstrably real psychological and biological condition; second, given the importance of Faith-State I will examine the potential role of faith as a response to rather old question in Liberal Studies. What is the Good Life? How should live? What is the right way? How can I know? I don't expect to answer all of those questions to your satisfaction, but I would like to suggest that faith based good life models for living do confer considerable political and social benefits and perhaps even a few personal benefits - if only psychological.

1. Faith and the Human Condition. The Religious Response

What fascinates the novice reader most about this reading by William James is his respectful analysis of religious experience within a scientific framework. James concludes in the end that from the perspective of science, religious experiences - as worthy as they might be - must be viewed and understood basically as psychological phenomena arising, in an hypothesis he later develops, from interactions between the conscious and something more which James identifies as a wider subconscious self.

At the core of such interactions, and this is something James claims is common to all religious experience, is a state or condition or attitude or affection arising from "oceanic" feelings engendered at the intersection of conscious and this out-of-bounds and wider, deeper domain. These feelings are symptomatic of a condition James characterizes as faith-state. James notes that the faith-state seems to have little or no intellectual content. What that means is that there is little or no rational accounting for how faith-states arise. Yet the faith-state is for James an extraordinarily important and very real psychological and/or biological condition, one that can become a prime determinant in the lives of many people as individuals and even as entire communities. James is naturally curious about the nature of faith-state and chooses to take a much closer look at the existential (or objective) manifestations of faith-state as a phenomenon, particularly in its extreme mystical experience manifestations that push far beyond mere oceanic feelings.

James is interested primarily in the phenomenon of faith-state and its manifestation as religious experience and does his best to separate out from his observations the influence of religion as such.

As for religion James admits it is hard to define. His best attempt in Lecture II is this:


Religion, therefore, as I now ask you arbitrarily to take it, shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.

These secondary manifestations of religions are also referred to as their creeds. I need to emphasize that for all of James close analysis of religious experience - he finds no objective evidence of the "truths" that faith-states reference. James finds no "sensational evidence" of the supernatural. With reference to mystical experience for example James says that:


No authority emanates from mystical experiences which would make it a duty for those who stand outside of them to accept their revelations uncritically . . .

Nor would any one familiar with natural science expect this. Science deals in the natural. By definition, the supernatural is out of bounds. What James does say about religious experience is that . . .


Disregarding the over beliefs, and confining ourselves to what is common and generic, we have in the fact that the conscious person is continuous with a wider self through which saving experiences come, a positive content of religious experience which, it seems to me, is literally and objectively true as far as it goes . . .

That is as far as James the empiricist will go.

In religious systems this saving claim is associated with the idea of salvation. Of course for James at this stage of development of the idea, salvation has no supernatural meaning. The idea of salvation here arises from James observation that all religious experience - irrespective of creed or context - reflects a genuine human uneasiness that human nature as is, is somehow wrong.

First, is there, under all the discrepancies of the creeds, a common nucleus to which they bear their testimony unanimously?
And second, ought we to consider the testimony true?
I will take up the first question first, and answer it immediately in the affirmative. The warring gods and formulas of the various religions do indeed cancel each other, but there is a certain uniform deliverance in which religions all appear to meet. It consists of two parts: --
1. An uneasiness; and
2. Its solution.
1. The uneasiness, reduced to its simplest terms, is a sense that there is something wrong about us as we naturally stand.
2. The solution is a sense that we are saved from the wrongness by making proper connection with the higher powers.

That is for James an absolutely objective finding: an inescapable conclusion which he derives from careful observation of religious experience as manifested in wildly divergent religious systems across a large expanse of time. Being saved from wrongness by making a proper connection to higher powers is how it all feels. James makes no claim here that there are higher powers or that higher powers actually do save. He notes only that this feeling of dis-ease together with the need for align oneself to higher powers is a common feature of all religious experience.

Interestingly, it seems that a real faith in higher powers as saving forces - whether those powers be or not -- somehow confers a psychological strength that actually does save. And this is a power we'd be crazy to ignore. I will talk more about this possibility and the virtue of harnessing it in a moment.

James work as careful observer and cautious empiricist ends here. Where James does get daring I think is in his use of the idea of faith-state AND over-belief:


The resultant outcome of them is in any case what Kant calls a "sthenic" affection, an excitement of the cheerful, expansive, "dynamogenic" order which, like any tonic, freshens our vital powers. In almost every lecture, but especially in the lectures on Conversion and on Saintliness, we have seen how this emotion overcomes temperamental melancholy and imparts endurance to the Subject, or a zest, or a meaning, or an enchantment and glory to the common objects of life. The name of faith-state, by which Professor Leuba designates it, is a good one. It is a biological as well as a psychological condition, and Tolstoy is absolutely accurate in classing faith among the forces by which men live. The total absence of it, anhedonia, means collapse . . .

The faith-state may hold a very minimum of intellectual content. We saw examples of this in those sudden raptures of the divine presence, or in such mystical seizures as Dr. Bucke described. It may be a mere vague enthusiasm, half spiritual, half vital, a courage, and a feeling that great and wondrous things are in the air.

When, however, a positive intellectual content is associated with a faith-state, it gets invincibly stamped in upon belief, and this explains the passionate loyalty of religious persons everywhere to the minutest details of their so widely differing creeds. Taking creeds and faith-state together, as forming "religions," and treating these as purely subjective phenomena, without regard to the question of their "truth," we are obliged, on account of their extraordinary influence upon action and endurance, to class them amongst the most important biological functions of mankind . . . Professor Leuba, in a recent article, goes so far as to say that so long as men can use their God, they care very little who he is, or even whether he is at all. "The truth of the matter can be put," says Leuba, "in this way: God is not known, he is not understood; he is used --

Sometimes as meat-purveyor, sometimes as moral support, sometimes as friend, sometimes as an object of love. If he proves himself useful, the religious consciousness asks for no more than that. Does God really exist? How does he exist? What is he? are so many irrelevant questions. Not God, but life, more life, a larger, richer, more satisfying life, is, in the last analysis, the end of religion. The love of life, at any and every level of development, is the religious impulse.


I believe the pragmatic way of taking religion to be the deeper way. It gives it body as well as soul, it makes it claim, as everything real must claim, some characteristic realm of fact as its very own. What the more characteristically divine facts are, apart from the actual inflow of energy in the faith-state and the prayer-state, I know not. But the over-belief on which I am ready to make my personal venture is that they exist. The whole drift of my education goes to persuade me that the world of our present consciousness is only one out of many worlds of consciousness that exist, and that those other worlds must contain experiences which have a meaning for our life also; and that although in the main their experiences and those of this world keep discrete, yet the two become continuous at certain points, and higher energies filter in. (continued)

By being faithful in my poor measure to this over-belief, I seem to myself to keep more sane and true. I can, of course, put myself into the sectarian scientist's attitude, and imagine vividly that the world of sensations and of scientific laws and objects may be all. But whenever I do this, I hear that inward monitor of which W. K. Clifford once wrote, whispering the word "bosh!" Humbug is humbug, even though it bear the scientific name, and the total expression of human experience, as I view it objectively, invincibly urges me beyond the narrow "scientific" bounds. Assuredly, the real world is of a different temperament -- more intricately built than physical science allows. So my objective and my subjective conscience both hold me to the over-belief which I express.

2. A Model for Living the Good Life

I now would like to offer a perspective on James in which the factually real psychological/biological condition of faith-state becomes actively and positively cultivated for the political and social benefit of political communities. If faith-state is as influential in personal and collective human affairs as James implies, the absence of state interest in how and where faith-state is channeled seems anomalous.

In characterizing the feelings engendered by religious experience as faith-state, James notes on p.416 that these "feelings" seem to empower. They have a pragmatic effect. They propel people out of despair or depression or melancholy. Faith restores or gives meaning, and zest to life. The effect of all this is interesting. When faith-state is operative in this sense the fundamental questions about God are ironically irrelevant. What matters is God's utility. Religion used in this way works. As James comments:

Utility of Religion

At this purely subjective rating, therefore, Religion must be considered vindicated in a certain way from the attacks of her critics. It would seem that she cannot be a mere anachronism and survival, but must exert a permanent function, whether she be with or without intellectual content, and whether, if she have any, it be true or false.

Given religion's demonstrated efficacy in providing meaning and zest, it may be possible to see how the practice of a creed can be vindicated. Put simply, can a religious life or a saintly life is a perfectly valid and demonstrably effective model of what we in Liberal Studies called a Good Life!

The question of course as to what the good life should be is invariably intertwined around the nature of relationships between individual and community.

The question of what kind of moral life I should lead and my place within community in the exercise of my moral life has been around for a while. Aristotle if you recall argues in the Ethics that:

Aristotle on Good Life

. . . the good of man is an activity of soul in conformity with excellence or virtue, and if there are several virtues, in conformity with the best and most complete. . . (1098a)

Aristotle goes on to examine intellectual and moral virtue in the context of a good life. This moral life, the good life, for Aristotle is fixed firmly within a community setting. The Ethics of Aristotle provided a prescriptive framework of rationally determined principles rooted firmly on the idea that the final good for humans was happiness and that the proper function for humans was the active life of the rational element.

One feature of Aristotle's argumentation worth noting is that in his discussion of virtues he notices that there are in many instances around virtue differences between what we aim for (i.e. the good) and what we desire. Right conduct for Aristotle is not of necessity the most desired conduct.

I don't want to force parallels between Aristotle's idea of right and religious orientation. There are clear differences. For one the proper function of humans in a religious context is not an active life of the rational element. In a religious context the proper function of humans must involve an orientation towards and a surrender to the mercy of a higher power.

Yet, there are parallels between a philosophically driven and religiously driven Good Life Models. From a pragmatic perspective since the practical consequences of the experience are the same, there is no reason to favor one view over the other.

It matters little whether God really exists or God really acts in the world. What matters in actuality is that religious systems - any religious systems as Good Life Options can enable communities by provide a nuclei (plural) of right acting selfless actors whose acts are helpful to the community. The actors themselves feel that their selfless acts are nonetheless meaningful and they feel fulfilled.

From a pragmatic perspective if theological ideas prove to have a value for concrete life, they will be true. The real significance of any idea is the conduct it is designed to produce. Theories become instruments, not answers to enigmas. This is an anti-intellectual tendency. It opposes pure rationalism as pretentious. Pragmatism offers no dogma and no doctrine. Truth is based on consequence. Pragmatism is a perspective that opposes equally sense based positivistic empiricism, with its anti-theological bias, and overtly logical rationalism. Pragmatism is willing to take anything, to follow either logic or the senses, and to count the humblest and most personal experiences including mystical experiences if they have practical consequences.


Alcoholics Anonymous and related 12 step addiction recovery programs were established in Jamesean pragmatic principles. In the Big Book - the so-called Bible of AA, the movement's founder Bill W. says this about the movement's enormous success and its establishment - based on its creed-less dependence on both a faith-state, an over-belief, and a God - and always a God of each member's understanding:

The great fact is this, and nothing less: that we have had deep and effective experiences which have revolutionized our whole attitude toward life, toward our fellows and toward God's universe. The central fact of our lives today is the absolute certainty that our Creator has entered into our hearts and lives in a way which is indeed miraculous. He has commenced to accomplish those things for us which we could never do alone.

From a pragmatic perspective AA and their sister recovery strategies work - the empirical evidence is compelling. And they work only when members - many of whom have strong intellectual lives - surrender to over belief and accept these tenets. If you ever want to test this claim you can attend an open meeting and witness pragmatic based recovery using a Jamesean based creed-less reliance on an over-belief devoid of intellectual content - and you can do that yourself any night of the week at thousands of locations around the world.

Books from Alibris: William James

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