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A Study in Human Nature

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On Sale: November 01, 2000
Pages: 0 | ISBN: 978-0-679-64158-2
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JamesÆs masterful treatise on the psychology of individual religious experience was originally composed for the prestigious Gifford Lectures delivered at Edinburgh University in 1901-1902. Emphasizing subjective religious experience in its many guises, as opposed to the distinctions among specific creeds or theologies, this trenchant exploration of the religious imagination is still unsurpassed as an overview of the human belief in a transcendent reality, whether personalized as God or viewed impersonally as some higher spiritual reality. As such JamesÆs study is relevant to any religious context, whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, ôNew Age,ö or any other.
Perhaps no other aspect of culture is so amorphous and difficult to grasp in its totality as religion. It is this very daunting aspect of the subject that makes JamesÆs achievement in these lectures so impressive. His gift for distilling the essential ingredients of the religious experience from the great mass of details is evident in every chapter. Taking the approach that extreme manifestations of the religious temperament give us more insight into the subject than the routine features of worship and ritual, he discusses many intriguing accounts of remarkable religious experiences, grouping these experiences into broad types: healthy-mindedness, the sick soul, the divided self and the process of its unification, conversion, saintliness, and mysticism. He also discusses the distinctions between religious experience and philosophy; psychological theories concerning the origin and nature of religious belief; religionÆs personal, individualistic approach to reality vs. scienceÆs impersonal abstract approach; and the overall value of religion to human well-being.
James concludes that religious experience is real insofar as it produces real effects on peoplesÆ lives and characters, and therefore it can and should be the subject of serious scientific inquiry.


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 classroom 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 be 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 books 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 else 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.
William James

About William James

William James - The Varieties of Religious Experience
William James was born at the Astor House, New York City's most fashionable and luxurious hotel, on January 11, 1842, into a wealthy family of Scottish and Irish ancestry. He was the eldest son of Henry James, Sr., an eccentric dilettante who had studied at Princeton Theological Seminary and went on to produce a sizable body of writings on religious topics. Influenced by the teachings of the mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, Henry senior (who was also a great friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson) fused old-style Calvinism and newer humanistic beliefs into a private blend of theology that suked his own soul. At the center of this vision was a democratization of religious impulses ('Well, I take it, God is in one person quite as much as another') that he passed on to his son.

Young William and his four siblings--who included Henry James, the future expatriate novelist--grew up in this learned atmosphere of tolerance and freethinking. Moreover, the father treated his offspring to a transatlantic, broadly educational childhood: William attended a number of experimental schools and was tutored in England, France, Switzerland, and Germany. At the age of eighteen, he decided to pursue a career in painting and studied for a year with the artist William Morris Hunt at Newport, Rhode Island--long enough to realize that he possessed little real talent.

In 1861, the year the Civil War broke out, William James entered Harvard with the intention of becoming a scientist. After three years as an undergraduate, he enrolled in Harvard Medical School; in March 1865, however, he interrupted his studies to embark on a field trip to Brazil with biologist Louis Agassiz in order to observe the flora and fauna of South America. Returning to Cambridge in March 1866, James at once resumed his medical studies, until a back ailment and depression forced him to take another sabbatical. This time he traveled to Europe, where he 'took the cure' at the baths of Teplitz and studied experimental physiology in Dresden, Berlin, and Heidelberg. Finally, in the spring of 1869 he received his M.D. degree from Harvard. Yet he continued to suffer an emotional and mental crisis that prefigures the existentialist dread described by present-day philosophers: A sense of moral impotence constantly tormented him, as did thoughts of suicide.

Two stabilizing events of the 1870s contributed greatly to his recovery. In 1872 James accepted a teaching position at Harvard; this proved a godsend, and he remained there for the next thirty-five years. His first appointment was to an instructorship in physiology, but from the outset he refused to treat physiology, psychology, and philosophy as distinct and separate disciplines. Instead, his lectures reflected a synthesis of insights from each of the fields and exerted considerable influence over such students as Gertrude Stein and George Santayana. Then, in 1878, James married Alice Howe Gibbens and set up a home that in many ways replicated the one he had grown up in: The couple had four sons and one daughter whom they raised in an environment of total intellectual freedom.

During the weeks following his marriage, James began work on The Principles of Psychology. Published in 1890, the two-volume treatise anticipated most of the major psychological movements of the succeeding seventy years and quickly became a basic text.

In addition, he carried on an extensive exchange of letters with European colleagues; his correspondence, which was later edited by his brother Henry and issued posthumously, stands as a guide to the era. In 1897 James published The Will to Believe; two years later his Talks to Teachers on Psychology, a book that contributed to the rapid development of educational psychology, appeared.

In 1901 and 1902 James accepted an invitation to deliver the prestigious Gifford Lectures on Natural Religion at the University of Edinburgh. (James was also fulfilling a pledge: He had once promised his father that someday he would deal in a sustained way with the issue of religion.) His twenty talks, which became the basis for The Varieties of Religious Experience, were predicated on his observations of religion at home and in the world around him, his vast if eclectic reading, insights gained from his work as a psychologist, and some philosophical assumptions that were compatible with pragmatism, the new school of thought he espoused. Explaining his intentions in a letter to a friend, James wrote: 'The problem I have set myself is a hard one: first, to defend ... 'experience' against 'philosophy' as being the real backbone of the world religious life.., and second, to make the hearer or reader believe, what I myself invincibly do believe, that, although all the special manifestations of religion may have been absurd (I mean its creeds and theories), yet the life of it as a whole is mankind's most important function.'

Published in June 1902, The Varieties of Religious Experience was an immediate best-seller and brought about something of a Copernican revolution by looking at religion not as it appeared in the object (God or the universe or revelation) but as it appeared in the subject (the believing, doubting, praying, and experiencing person). American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr explained the book's perennial appeal: 'James's Varieties of Religious Experience proved exciting reading to his generation, and should prove equally exciting to ours not only because of the virtue of his affirmative, though critical, view of religion, but because of the catholic breadth of his sympathies and the width of his erudition in religious and non-religious literature. The examples of religious thought and life which he subjects to analysis are chosen from the widest variety of theological religious viewpoints.'

During the remainder of his lifetime, James published several more works, including Pragmatism (1907), A Pluralistic Universe (1909), and the now famous essay 'The Moral Equivalent of War' (1910). His collection entitled Essays in Radical Empiricism appeared posthumously in 1912. William James died at his summer home, a ninety-acre farm in Chocorua, New Hampshire, on August 26, 1910, and funeral services were held four days later in Appleton Chapel on the wooded grounds of Harvard Yard. Afterward, James's body was cremated; his ashes were returned to Chocorua and scattered in a mountain stream. William D. Phelan, Jr., of Harvard provided this epitaph: 'It is James's perpetual con- cem with improving the lot of the individual human being that makes him so apt a symbol of American social thought of his era. . . . This paramount aim, this humanistic orientation, determined his thinking in metaphysics as well as in religion, in epistemology as on social problems. James was above all a humanitarian and only secondarily a psychologist, philosopher, and gifted man of letters.'

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