The Varieties of Religious Experience

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First-rate study of spirituality documents and discusses a variety of religious states of consciousness, covering the meaning of the term "divine," reality of the unseen, religion of healthy-mindedness, sick soul, divided self and process of its unification, conversion, saintliness, and mysticism. Studded with richly concrete examples; a classic of its genre.

Explores "the very inner citadel of human life" by focusing on intensley religious individuals from different cultures and eras.

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Editorial Reviews

Jaroslav Pelikan
The old cliche that Henry James wrote novels as though they were philosophical treatises whereas William James wrote philosophic treatises as thogh they were novels, while unfair to Henry, describes...the William James of The Varieties of Religious Experience very well. Believers and unbelievers (and semibelievers) will continue to find it both a resource and a challenge.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780486421643
  • Publisher: Dover Publications
  • Publication date: 8/14/2002
  • Series: Dover Value Editions Series
  • Edition description: UNABRIDGED
  • Pages: 544
  • Sales rank: 305,863
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.26 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

American psychologist and philosopher William James (1842–1910), was a groundbreaking researcher at Harvard University and the author of Principles of Psychology and Human Immortality.

John Pruden is a professional voice actor who records audiobooks, corporate and online training narrations, animation and video game characters, and radio and TV commercials. His audiobooks include The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt, which was chosen by the Washington Post as the best audiobook of 2011.

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Read an Excerpt

The Varieties of Religious Experience

A Study in Human Nature
By James, William

Touchstone Books

Copyright © 2004 James, William
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0743257871


A popular edition of William James' justly renowned Varieties of Religious Experience is very useful because the attitude and method of the study, which made it a milestone in religious thought when James first delivered the substance of the volume as the famous "Gifford Lectures" at the University of Edinburgh at the turn of the century, represent as rare a combination in our day as sixty years ago. The combination is not only rare but creative. For James combines a positive approach to religion with a non-dogmatic and thoroughly empirical approach to the religious life and various types of religious experience.

James inherited his life-long interest in religion from his Swedenborgian father. In terms of basic conviction his affirmative attitude rests upon a thoroughly empirical but very valid approach to religious faith. He defines faith as "the sense of life by virtue of which man does not destroy himself, but lives on. It is the force by which he lives." This definition of faith as an affirmation of the meaning of existence is drawn from and not negated by his anti-metaphysical philosophy, his empirical bent. He did not believe that it would be possible to give rational coherence to the many systems of structures which are manifested in life. But it would be possible to assert their ultimate meaning, despite incongruities, by religious faith.

James was a rigorous opponent of the impressive and pretentious rational idealistic system of the German philosopher Hegel. In his volume "A Pluralistic Universe" he inveighed against a "Bloc Universe" and against any philosophy which identified the real with the actual. His anti-Hegelian bias establishes his affinity with such diverse anti-Hegelians as Karl Marx on the one hand, and Søren Kierkegaard, the Christian existentialist, on the other hand.

His empirical attitude and his aversion to metaphysical systems, erected on the foundation of logic, whose abstractions have little relation to the life we live and the world we experience, place him in a stream of thought which began in the modern era, with David Hume, and which expresses itself in contemporary philosophy with the school of "philosophical analysis." The school consistently examines philosophical and religious statements with the criterion of the question, whether they have meaning. James was probably more ready to ascribe meaning and significance to religious statements than contemporary empiricists.

James' empirical bent and scientific interest are partly explained by his rather unique academic career. He took a degree in physiology at Harvard, then turned to psychology and wrote a textbook on the subject before transferring to philosophy, to become America's most influential philosopher of his day. The largeness of his heart, transcending all philosophical polemics, may be revealed by the fact that his colleague and life-long friend at Harvard was Josiah Royce, the American exponent of the school of absolute idealism, or Hegelianism, which James so resolutely opposed. Royce, incidentally, was the second American to be invited to give the Gifford Lectures as James was the first. Royce's lectures were published under the title "The World and the Individual." The debate between these two giants in philosophy made the philosophy department of Harvard the most exciting center of philosophical learning in the nation.

James' 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 and religious viewpoints.

He draws on the thought of Voltaire, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson and James Russell Lowell when these serve to illumine a point. Among the specifically religious writers and thinkers he skips over the centuries and over the theological fences to draw some illumination from such diverse religious leaders as Cardinal Newman, Martin Luther, John Bunyan, Jonathan Edwards, the Spanish Jesuit Molina, his Jesuit master Ignatius Loyala, François de Sales, and of course George Fox and Leo Tolstoi. He brings order out of the wide variety of religious experiences by categories suggested by his interests and empirical standards rather than by the traditional historical categories.

He probably shocked his Edinburgh audience by delivering the first lecture on the subject of "Religion and Neurology" and under the topic examining the psychopathic aspects of many religious experiences. While he disavows sympathy for some of the varieties he examines because he thinks them to be significant, he has an obvious sympathy for those in one of his categories, "The Religion of Healthy-mindedness." Here his sympathies betray the understandable reaction to all forms of religious morbidity, particularly those of Calvinist and Evangelical sects, and the characteristic optimism of the late nineteenth century, which knew nothing of, and did not anticipate, the anxieties of two world wars and of a nuclear dilemma.

When an example does not quite fit his categories he cheerfully admits the fact. Thus Luther's deep sense of sin obviously does not fit into the category of religious "healthy-mindedness." But James glories in the affirmative attitude of Luther's "Commentary on Galatians" because the sense of forgiveness and release from the burden of guilt is essentially affirmative and healthy-minded.

Sometimes his categories are too non-historical to illumine the sweep of thought on a particular issue of the religious life. Thus he has a sympathetic chapter on "Saintliness" in which he does full justice to the quest for perfection in both the medieval ascetic movement and modern sectarian Protestantism. But he does not come to terms with the charge of Reformation thought, that the quest for perfection is bound to be abortive, since even the most rigorous human virtue cannot escape the ambiguity of good and evil, with which all human striving is infected. His chapter on mysticism reveals in what way mystic disciplines release from anxieties and contribute to a joyful nonchalance of life. But he does not come to terms with one defect in the mystic tradition: its tendency to flee the responsibilities of history and engage in premature adventures into eternity.

An appreciation of any classic of philosophical, scientific or religious thought (and James' volume is a classic in all three categories) cannot obscure the dated quality of the thought. No degree of genius can lift even the profoundest mind completely above the characteristic mood of his age. Thus James' optimism is an obvious reflection of the mood of the late nineteenth century, a mood which he expressed succinctly in a little essay, now little known but given wide publicity by the peace societies. The title of the essay was "A Moral Equivalent for War." One need not examine the thesis of the essay carefully in this context, but merely observe that he found a rather too simple road to a warless world.

Perhaps the chief effect of examining religious life in an untroubled era, and reexamining it in a more troubled era, is to reveal that even a rigorous analysis of the relation of religion to life neglects to survey the problems of man's collective and historical destiny. Living after two world wars and in the midst of a nuclear dilemma, we are bound to take the problem of the meaning of history more seriously than James did. It is perhaps a tautology to suggest that James' lack of interest in the problem of meaning and meaninglessness in the human drama is akin to his lack of interest in the collective experiences of men. For history is always collective destiny. James surveys the effect of religious faith upon the health and wholesomeness of the individual, upon the capacity or incapacity to withstand the strains of life; upon the ability to give up old ways for new, and upon the ability to accept the perplexities of life not with sullen patience but with a certain amount of cheerfulness.

All these criteria of religious vitality and relevance have been surrounded by collective problems and perplexities. Our generation is bound to be anxious, not so much about the brevity of our individual life (though that anxiety can never be suppressed) but about the chance of the whole world escaping a nuclear catastrophe. We must worry not only about establishing wholesome relations in the intimate communities of family and friends. We must be concerned about establishing just relations in the increasing intricacies of a technical civilization.

Even a genius like James, bound by the limits of his age, cannot help us with these problems of community and the meaning of human history. But the fact that his analysis of religious life is defective in these realms of current interest must not obscure the virtue of his creative approach to both life and religion on the level of personal existence.

Reinhold Niebuhr
March 1961

Copyright © 1997 by Simon & Schuster, Inc.


Excerpted from The Varieties of Religious Experience by James, William Copyright © 2004 by James, William. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

  "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 but by the value of their 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
  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
  Precepts 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
  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
  Its doctrine of evil
  Its analogy to Lutheran theology
  Salvation by relaxation
  Its methods : suggestion
  Diversity of possible schemes of adaptation to the universe
  APPENDIX: Two mind-cure cases
  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
  Querulous melancholy
  Vital zest is a pure gift
  Loss of it makes physical world look different
  Morbid fear
  Such cases need a supernatural religion for relief
  Antagonism of healthy-mindedness and morbidness
  The problem of evil cannot be escaped
  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
  Case of Stephen Bradley
  The psychology of characterchanges
  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
  Its importance in religious history
  Cases of sudden conversion
  Is suddenness essential?
  "No, it depends on psychological idiosyncrasy"
  "Proved existence of transmarginal, or subliminal, consciousness"
  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
  Sainte-Beuve on the State of Grace
  Types of character as due to the balance of impulses and inhibitions
  Sovereigh excitements
  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
  The sentiments of democracy and of humanity
  General effects of higher excitements
  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
  "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
  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'
  Buddhistic mysticism
  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
  "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'
  Æsthetic elements in religion
  Contrast of Catholicism and Protestantism
  Sacrifice and Confession
  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
  Joseph Smith
  Religion and the subconscious region in general
  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 piecemeal supernaturalism
  Criticism of universalistic supernaturalism
  Different principles must occasion differences in fact
  What differences in fact can God's existence occasion?
  The question of immorality
  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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