A Reading of ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience’

Although William James introduces the book as a humble psychology, it might be more accurate to characterise The Varieties of Religious Experience as a proto-phenomenology with a broad sweep of philosophical consequence. Motivated by an aversion for a perceived shallowness of the scientific attitude taken in isolation and a sense that, ‘as soon as we deal with private and personal phenomena as such, we deal with realities in the completest sense of the term.’ (p.424). His is a method that deploys a basic epoché (ἐποχή), an ‘attitude[…] of impartial onlookers’ (p.138) with respect to facts, ‘spiritual judgement‘ (p.5), the sciences—’we wish that all this medical materialism could be made to hold its tongue’ (P.11)—and, ‘the institutional branch’ (p.25) of religion to focus exclusively on, ‘the purely existential point of view from which[…] the phenomena of religious experience must be considered.’ (p.6). James thereby commits to a holistic first person, perhaps historically sedimented, religious subject, which he peruses by confining himself, ‘to those more developed subjective phenomena recorded in literature produced by articulate and fully conscious men [and they are predominantly male], in works of piety or autobiography.’ (p.4). It is a process informed by the pragmatist criterion of truth; judging by results over origin, permitting a dispassionate account of origin; and here we begin to see how James humility is profitably misleading in the wider implications that so offended analytic contemporaries like Russell.

Of greater interest is a fault not rooted in the more debated issues of epistemology; James’ undervaluing of group experience. Indeed, he reserves Kierkegaardian and distinctly Protestant bile for institutionally mediated religion, ‘made for him by others, communicated to him by tradition, determined by fixed forms of imitation, and retained by habit.’ (pp.6-7). His individualism and its concomitant romantic preoccupation for the turmoil of isolated genius do a sustained injustice to the influence of religion on solidarity—not so casually disregarded by James’ geniuses. It’s a partiality evident throughout, but especially when James enters a judgemental frame, ‘it is difficult even imaginatively to comprehend how men possessed of an inner life[…]have come to think the subjection of its will to that of other finite creatures recommendable.’ (p.266). It has malign consequences for James view of human nature, as when he claims ‘the instinct of ownership is fundamental’ (p.270). Most crucially he fails to see that universalism is the benevolent twin of the tribalism for which he faults, ‘religion’s wicked practical partner, the spirit of corporate dominion.’ (p.289). Even at the phenomenal level, dismissing ritual neglects the Pascalian-Husserlian insight into habit’s constitutive role; the primordial lifeworld faith as substrate from which a committed faith must act on and spring forth hermeneutically and corporeally; a more convincing account than that subjective, ‘personal religion should still seem the primordial thing,’ (p.26). James even peripherally recognises habit’s importance, in the conversion psycho-concept, ‘habitual centre of his personal energy.’ (p.168). Moreover James attitude is inconsistent with a positive reading of his account of much religious experience qua recognition of something greater than self, ‘a willingness to close our mouths and be a nothing in the floods and waterspouts of God.’ (p.40). Or, more widely, the thinner Godlike (p.29) that encompasses atheistic (scientific, humanistic, Buddhist) devotion. Pascal says, ‘Small minds are concerned with the extraordinary, great minds with the ordinary.’ James proves small minded in his reluctance to apply his clear descriptions to ordinary devotees; it is to his credit that in some sections—’Mystical Experiences: Examples’ (pp.56-9)—he cannot stay within the confines of his self-imposed limits.

Subtlety of thought is more evident in the distinctions James makes between the healthy and sick souled, which he openly appropriates from Francis W. Newman’s scheme of once and twice-born Christians (p.69). Here James posits a categorisation reminiscent in analysis to Nietzsche (or at least a side of Nietzsche, one quite contradictory from that more familiar presented in Varieties on pp.315-7), ‘Wherever progress is to ensue, deviating natures are of greatest importance.’ (Human, All Too Human, §224) For Newman and James there are those whose dispositions predispose them to a boundless optimism, an aggressive refusal to encompass evil per se. And these ‘once-born’ are complemented by those who are of, ‘the persuasion that the evil aspects of our life are of its very essence, and that the world’s meaning most comes home to us when we lay them most to heart.’ (p.112) A process that, in being twice-born, involves a maturing unification of a divided self in a hard won spirituality through a volitional or, more commonly, and similar to Proust’s memory distinction, self-surrendering (p.176) conversion experience—one that leads to saintliness. This key contribution can be faulted—e.g. with a condescending gender essentialism that closely identifies the once-born with the feminine and vice versa—but it nonetheless has convincing applicability; as in the examinations of the respectively paradigmatic Walt Whitman and Leo Tolstoy. Moreover, as is seen when James quotes a healthy minded example from Luther’s writings while still reading the reformation and Luther as second-born, he does not allow a neat system (clear cut reductive divides) to overcome the complexities and nuances of his material, ‘in many instances it is quite arbitrary whether we class the individual as a once-born or a twice-born subject.’ (p.415).

While the first half of the book is mostly devoted to setting up abstract tools, aided by numerous in-depth illustrations, the latter moves towards a concern for results and their bases, ‘We must, therefore, first describe the fruits of the religious life, and then we must judge them.’ (p.221). These ‘fruits’ are achieved via mystic experiences that have four qualities, such lists characterising much of the rest of the book: ineffability, noesis (insight), transiency and passivity (p.322). As these cohere generally to a character they are dubbed ‘saintliness’, identifiable again by four facets: submission of the self to an Unseen ideal (God, utopia, science, humanity…); a notion of the ideals continuousness qua benevolence; free jubilation in the loss of self and a new affirmative love, which have the (yet another) four practical results of asceticism, strength of soul, purity and charity (pp.231-3). Unfortunately, when analysing the desirability of all these qualities, facets and results, James merely takes a vulgar Aristotelian ethical perspective, ‘much that is legitimate to admire in this field need nevertheless not be imitated, and that religious phenomena, like all other human phenomena, are subject to the law of the golden mean.’ (p.290). He therefore cautions away from excess (radicalism) in all cases and towards a piecemeal reformism of character more aligned to his empirical-pragmatist episteme, which increasingly cannot fully include the ideas and experiences of the people he studies. And so while it is favourable that James does not content himself, ‘with superficial medical talk,’ (p.352) his actual focus, coloured by his own preoccupations, proves no less distorting.

However, as much as James attempts to avoid writing traditional theology, he cannot accomplish his circumnavigations completely and thereby often hits on his best ideas. What emerges is an engaged preoccupation with negative (apophatic) theology that sits well with his pragmatism, although marking a departure from his customary prose style as when he accounts for the way in which a seemingly negative attitude is affirmative in its true character, ‘So we deny the ‘this’, negating the negation which it seems to us to imply, in the interests in the higher affirmative attitude by which we are possessed.’ (p.355). This dialectic mode is openly informed by Hegel’s philosophy, who makes a pronounced appearance, ‘Like Hegel in his logic, mystics journey to the positive pole of truth only by the Methode der Absoluten Negativität.’ (ibid). However, the biggest acknowledged influence here is Charles Sanders Peirce’s pragmatist prescription stated by James as, ‘practical consequences is for us the whole of our conception of the object, so far as that conception has positive significance at all.’ (p.378). A straightforward reiteration of Pierce’s maxim to, ‘Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object.’ The role philosophy has to play in religion is to restrain any tendency to exceed practicality and, ‘eliminate the local and the accidental’ (p.386), to counteract parochialisms. This is the ground for James’ unique and influential fideism (joining the ranks of Pascal, Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein) and his negative theology, one that is disinterested in the scholastic attempts to prove the divine or logically deduce God’s attributes as not, ‘of the smallest consequence to us religiously[…]’ (p.378). Except maybe as a purely aesthetic (framed as a patronising take on Catholicism contra Protestantism) ‘hymn of praise and service of glory’ (p.389) manifested in the ecclesiastic dimensions of sacrifice, confession and prayer (p.392)—only the last of which is of much interest for James, for which he constructs a final substantive list, one of ‘degrees’: beggarly (pp.397-400), led (pp.401-4) and revelatory (pp.404-6).

It would be a mistake to concentrate on the content so as to pass over the quality of James presentation, which is arguably his chief talent—rivalled only by a philosophic flair for uniting ideas systematically while eschewing too much of a system. James does not immediately strike the reader with his unpretentious prose and what can come across as a rambling tone, especially a reader acquainted with the whimsical appeals of the majority of surviving twentieth century philosophy, but as with that characteristic humility that cleverly undersells his ideas, here is a style that undersells its own forcefulness, clarity and a capacity to join the thoughts of an audience and to carry them along the processes of the author—he therefore builds up a terminology (first-born, divided self, saintliness, theopathic) that aids comprehension against obscurantist temptations and that gives his work a direct relevance. It is a style that is neither dry nor ego driven. And, with his inexhaustible, erudite quotes, a style supplemented by an aptitude for seamlessly threading his examples into this mix; the voices of his religious writers permeates and textures the book, which is almost an anthology of their spiritual accounts. Without the pretence of deliberate profundity or a need to stamp his own perspective on all of his work—and for all his shortcomings—James is a revelatory delight today and his original lectures must have been powerfully persuasive when first delivered at the University of Edinburgh.

Note: page numbers refer to Folio Society edition.

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2 Responses to A Reading of ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience’

  1. eyelean5280 says:

    This was very interesting to read; thank you!
    I was a little surprised by your conclusion, though, because throughout, I had the impression you were building a case for James being much too derivative.

    • incomingpast says:

      Yes and no; most of the substantive content is unoriginal, but the presentation, development and the way it’s brought together is often novel and has proved influential. And while some of the ideas he was developing were perhaps better thought by contemporaries like Husserl, he may not have been aware, at least fully, of these projects. Although admittedly I did not make these points so clearly.

      I am glad you liked it, you’re welcome 🙂

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