Posted by: Xhyra Graf | 20 January 2007

William James

5. The Varieties of Religious Experience

Like The Principles of Psychology, Varieties is “A Study in Human Nature,” as its subtitle says. But at some five hundred pages it is only half the length of The Principles of Psychology, befitting its more restricted, if still large, scope. For James studies that part of human nature that is, or is related to, religious experience. His interest is not in religious institutions, ritual, or, even for the most part, religious ideas, but in “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” (V, 31).

James sets out a central distinction of the book in early chapters on “The Religion of Healthy-Mindedness” and “The Sick Soul.” The healthy-minded religious person — Walt Whitman is one of James’s main examples — has a deep sense of “the goodness of life,” (79) and a soul of “sky-blue tint” (80). Healthy-mindedness can be involuntary, just natural to someone, but often comes in more willful forms. Liberal Christianity, for example, represents the triumph of a resolute devotion to healthy-mindedness over a morbid “old hell-fire theology” (91). James also cites the “mind-cure movement” of Mary Baker Eddy, for whom “evil is simply a lie, and any one who mentions it is a liar” (107). For “The Sick Soul,” in contrast, “radical evil gets its innings” (163). No matter how secure one may feel, the sick soul finds that “[u]nsuspectedly from the bottom of every fountain of pleasure, as the old poet said, something bitter rises up: a touch of nausea, a falling dead of the delight, a whiff of melancholy….” These states are not simply unpleasant sensations, for they bring “a feeling of coming from a deeper region and often have an appalling convincingness” (136). James’s main examples are Leo Tolstoy’s “My Confession,” John Bunyan’s autobiography, and a report of terrifying “dread” — allegedly from a French correspondent but actually from James himself. Some sick souls never get well, while others recover or even triumph: these are the “twice-born.” In chapters on “The Divided Self, and the Process of Its Unification” and on “Conversion,” James discusses St. Augustine, Henry Alline, Bunyan, Tolstoy, and a range of popular evangelists, focusing on what he calls “the state of assurance” (241) they achieve. Central to this state is “the loss of all the worry, the sense that all is ultimately well with one, the peace, the harmony, the willingness to be, even though the outer conditions should remain the same” (248).

Varieties’ classic chapter on “Mysticism” offers “four marks which, when an experience has them, may justify us in calling it mystical…” (380). The first is ineffability: “it defies expression…its quality must be directly experienced; it cannot be imparted or transferred to others.” Second is a “noetic quality”: mystical states present themselves as states of knowledge. Thirdly, mystical states are transient; and, fourth, subjects are passive with respect to them: they cannot control their coming and going. Are these states, James ends the chapter by asking, “windows through which the mind looks out upon a more extensive and inclusive world[?]” (428).

In chapters entitled “Philosophy” — devoted in large part to pragmatism — and “Conclusions,” James finds that religious experience is on the whole useful, even “amongst the most important biological functions of mankind,” but he concedes that this does not make it true. Nevertheless, James articulates his own belief — which he does not claim to prove — that religious experiences connect us with a greater, or further, reality not accessible in our normal cognitive relations to the world: “The further limits of our being plunge, it seems to me, into an altogether other dimension of existence from the sensible and merely ‘understandable’ world” (515).

Essays in Radical Empiricism (1912)

This posthumous collection includes James’s groundbreaking essays on “pure experience,” originally published in 1904-5. James’s fundamental idea is that mind and matter are both aspects of, or structures formed from, a more fundamental stuff — pure experience — that (despite being called “experience”) is neither mental nor physical. Pure experience, James explains, is “the immediate flux of life which furnishes the material to our later reflection with its conceptual categories… a that which is not yet any definite what, tho’ ready to be all sorts of whats…” (ERE, 46). That “whats” pure experience may be are minds and bodies, people and material objects, but this depends not on a fundamental ontological difference among these “pure experiences,” but on the relations into which they enter. Certain sequences of pure experiences constitute physical objects, and others constitute persons; but one pure experience (say the perception of a chair) may be part both of the sequence constituting the chair and of the sequence constituting a person. Indeed, one pure experience might be part of two distinct minds, as James explains in a chapter entitled “How Two Minds Can Know One Thing.”

James’s “radical empiricism” is distinct from his “pure experience” metaphysics. It is never precisely defined in the Essays, and is best explicated by a passage from The Meaning of Truth where James states that radical empiricism consists of a postulate, a statement of fact, and a conclusion. The postulate is that “the only things that shall be debatable among philosophers shall be things definable in terms drawn from experience,” the fact is that relations are just as directly experienced as the things they relate, and the conclusion is that “the parts of experience hold together from next to next by relations that are themselves parts of experience” (MT, 6-7).

James was still working on objections to his “pure experience” doctrine, replying to critics of Pragmatism, and writing an introduction to philosophical problems when he died in 1910. His legacy extends into psychology and the study of religion, and in philosophy not only throughout the pragmatist tradition that he founded (along with Charles Peirce), but into phenomenology and analytic philosophy. Bertrand Russell’s The Analysis of Mind is indebted to James’s doctrine of “pure experience,” Ludwig Wittgenstein learned about “the absence of the will act” from James’s Psychology (Goodman, Wittgenstein and William James, p. 81)), and the versions of “neopragmatism” set out by Nelson Goodman, Richard Rorty and Hilary Putnam are saturated with James’s ideas. James is one of the most attractive and endearing of philosophers: for his vision of a “wild,” “open” universe that is nevertheless shaped by our human powers and that answers to some of our deepest needs, but also, as Russell observed in his obituary, because of the “large tolerance and … humanity” with which he sets that vision out. (The Nation (3 September 1910: 793-4).


Goodman, Russell, “William James”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2006 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =



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