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The Varieties of Religious Experience – William James

The following is a transcript of this video.

The 20th century mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once wrote: “in Western literature there are four great thinkers, whose services to civilized thought rest largely on their achievements in philosophical assemblage. . . These men are Plato, Aristotle, Leibniz, and William James.” In this lecture we are going to examine some of the ideas of one of these individuals, namely the American philosopher William James. During the years 1901 and 1902 James delivered a series of lectures titled The Varieties of Religious Experience in which he presented a fascinating contrast between those he called healthy minded and those referred to as sick souls – and it is this topic which will be the concern of our lecture.

However, before we begin it will be useful to briefly discuss James’s views on religion. Today religion is a very polarizing subject. Most people automatically associate religion with the major organized religions, and hence their attitudes towards the organized religions will often determine their views on the subject of religion as a whole. In fact even at the turn of the 20th century, when James was delivering his lectures, this seemed to be the case, for as James said:

“when we hear the word “religion” nowadays, we think inevitably of some “church” or other; and to some persons the word “church” suggests so much hypocrisy and tyranny and meanness and tenacity of superstition that in a wholesale undiscerning way they glory in saying that they are “down” on religion altogether.” (William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience)

The purpose of James’s lectures was not to examine the structure, rituals, and dogma of organized religions, but rather he was interested in examining the more personal and experiential aspect of religion: that being the religious or spiritual experiences which arise within individuals.
As James put it:

“Religion. . .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. . .it is evident that out of religion in the sense in which we take it, theologies, philosophies, and ecclesiastical organizations may secondarily grow.” (William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience)

Now it should be noted that James leaves it open as to what one considers divine, and he by no means is implying that the divine must mean some form of monotheistic God or Supreme Being. Leaving it up to the individual to decide what they considered divine allowed him to say: “a man’s religion might thus be identified with his attitude, whatever it might be, toward what he felt to be the primal truth.”

But given this conception of religion, a further question arises: What was the value of religion, according to James? To answer this question, it is helpful to understand that James believed there were two fundamental teachings to be gained from religion; and as Robert Richardson writes in his biography of James these were: “first, that something is wrong, and second, that it can be set right.” In other words James believed that religious experiences could help humans deal with the inevitable struggles associated with life.

These religious experiences, while differing from person to person according to James, share some features in common which help people through their trials and tribulations. A few of these common features of religious experiences which James identified were:

“A new zest which adds itself like a gift to life. . .An assurance of safety and a temper of peace, and, in relation to others, a preponderance of loving affections.”(William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience)

Having cleared up what James meant by religion and religious experience, we will now move on to examine his views on the healthy-minded and the sick souls. To James these represented alternative ways of viewing the world, which keeping in mind his definition of religion, resulted in different religious temperaments. The ‘healthy minded’, were individuals who James associated with what he called the ‘mind-cure movement’:

“The leaders in this faith”, James said “have had an intuitive belief in the all-saving power of healthy-minded attitudes . . . in the conquering efficacy of courage, hope, and trust, and a correlative contempt for doubt, fear, worry, and all nervously precautionary states of mind.” (William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience)

Based on this description it is evident that this movement, in one form or another, has continued to be influential up to the present day. For example, many of the self-help books published these days espouse some form of healthy-mindedness, or what is now more commonly called positive thinking.

That digression aside, James believed there were definite benefits to adopting the healthy-minded view of life. James, who struggled with depression and pessimism, understood the detrimental effects associated with negative thinking and the rejuvenating effect positive thinking can have on one’s life. However, James also recognized that for some individuals the healthy-minded view was not appropriate. As he said:

“There are men who seem to have started in life with a bottle or two of champagne inscribed to their credit; whilst others seem to have been born close to the pain-threshold, which the slightest irritants fatally send them over. . .Does it not appear as if one who lived more habitually on one side of the pain-threshold might need a different sort of religion from one who habitually lived on the other?” (William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience)

In other words, James did not believe that a single religious temperament, or more broadly speaking, a single perspective on life, was appropriate for all individuals. Those individuals who are incapable of living on the positive side of the ‘pain threshold’, according to James, would probably not find healthy-mindedness a realistic, beneficial, or even a possible, perspective to adopt. Rather, such people cannot help but see the world in a much different light. For them the suffering and evil of the world is too real to be ignored. James called this view of life, which was the focus of his lecture titled “The Sick Soul”, morbid-mindedness.

It is likely that most will agree that the morbid-minded view of life is unavoidable for some people due to the circumstances of their lives or their attitudinal disposition. However, many will also suggest that such a view is not desirable and hence should be avoided at all costs. However, this was not James’s view, as he said:

“It seems to me that we are bound to say that morbid-mindedness ranges over the wider scale of experience. . .The method of averting one’s attention from evil, and living simply in the light of good is splendid as long as it will work. . . But it breaks down impotently as soon as melancholy comes; and even though one be quite free from melancholy one’s self, there is no doubt that healthy-mindedness is inadequate as a philosophical doctrine, because the evil facts which it refuses positively to account for are a genuine portion of reality; and they may after all be the best key to life’s significance, and possibly the only openers of our eyes to the deepest levels of truth.” (William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience)

Furthermore, individuals who are stricken with morbid-mindedness should not be seen as weak or cowardly according to James, instead, some of the greatest individuals in history have struggled with morbid mindedness. Utilizing one such man as an example, James asks: “When such a conquering optimist as Goethe can express himself in this wise, how must it be with less successful men?” What James was referring to was a statement made by the Goethe in 1824, which strongly suggests that he was likely someone who would identify himself with the morbid-minded.

“I will say nothing”, Goethe wrote “against the course of my existence. But at bottom it has been nothing but pain and burden, and I can affirm that during the whole of my 75 years, I have not had four weeks of genuine well-being. It is but the perpetual rolling of a rock that must be raised up again forever.”

However, while these states of pessimism and despair seem to be an inevitable and necessary part of life, James did not believe they had to be permanent. Rather, James had a great belief in the individual’s ability to change their views and eventually escape from the pessimism which often seems so overwhelming. James referred to those who escaped the morbid view of life as the twice born. And interestingly, James thought there was a connection between the depth of one’s despair and the level of appreciation for life that one could eventually achieve. It is, in other words, out of the deepest depths of despair that the most joyous experiences are born. But James was well aware, and this was likely due to his personal struggles, that such a process of being “twice born” was not easy. And we will finish this lecture with a quotation by James which reveals his own personal attitude towards life which assisted him in his struggle, or fight, with the darkness of despair:

“If this life be not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a game of private theatricals from which one may withdraw at will. But it feels like a real fight – as if there were something really wild in the universe which we, with all our idealities and faithfulnesses, are needed to redeem.” (William James, Is Life Worth Living?)

Further Readings