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The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James

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taken as a matter of course by common men. They have
interpolated divine miracles into the field of nature, they have
built a heaven out beyond the grave. It is only
transcendentalist metaphysicians who think that, without adding
any concrete details to Nature, or subtracting any, but by
simply calling it the expression of absolute spirit, you make it
more divine just as it stands. I believe the pragmatic way of
taking religion to be the deeper way. It gives it body as well
as soul, it makes it claim, as everything real must claim, some
characteristic realm of fact as its very own. What the more
characteristically divine facts are, apart from the actual inflow
of energy in the faith-state and the prayer-state, I know not.
But the over-belief on which I am ready to make my personal
venture is that they exist. The whole drift of my education goes
to persuade me that the world of our present consciousness is
only one out of many worlds of consciousness that exist, and that
those other worlds must contain experiences which have a meaning
for our life also; and that although in the main their
experiences and those of this world keep discrete, yet the two
become continuous at certain points, and higher energies filter
in. By being faithful in my poor measure to this over-belief, I
seem to myself to keep more sane and true. I CAN, of course, put
myself into the sectarian scientist's attitude, and imagine
vividly that the world of sensations and of scientific laws and
objects may be all. But whenever I do this, I hear that inward
monitor of which W. K. Clifford once wrote, whispering the word
"bosh!" Humbug is humbug, even though it bear the scientific
name, and the total expression of human experience, as I view it
objectively, invincibly urges me beyond the narrow "scientific"
bounds. Assuredly, the real world is of a different
temperament--more intricately built than physical science allows.

So my objective and my subjective conscience both hold me to the
over-belief which I express. Who knows whether the faithfulness
of individuals here below to their own poor over-beliefs may not
actually help God in turn to be more effectively faithful to his
own greater tasks?


In writing my concluding lecture I had to aim so much at
simplification that I fear that my general philosophic position
received so scant a statement as hardly to be intelligible to
some of my readers. I therefore add this epilogue, which must
also be so brief as possibly to remedy but little the defect. In
a later work I may be enabled to state my position more amply and
consequently more clearly.

Originality cannot be expected in a field like this, where all
the attitudes and tempers that are possible have been exhibited
in literature long ago, and where any new writer can immediately
be classed under a familiar head. If one should make a division
of all thinkers into naturalists and supernaturalists, I should
undoubtedly have to go, along with most philosophers, into the
supernaturalist branch. But there is a crasser and a more
refined supernaturalism, and it is to the refined division that
most philosophers at the present day belong. If not regular
transcendental idealists, they at least obey the Kantian
direction enough to bar out ideal entities from interfering
causally in the course of phenomenal events. Refined
supernaturalism is universalistic supernaturalism; for the
"crasser" variety "piecemeal" supernaturalism would perhaps be
the better name. It went with that older theology which to-day
is supposed to reign only among uneducated people, or to be found
among the few belated professors of the dualisms which Kant is
thought to have displaced. It admits miracles and providential
leadings, and finds no intellectual difficulty in mixing the
ideal and the real worlds together by interpolating influences
from the ideal region among the forces that causally determine
the real world's details. In this the refined supernaturalists
think that it muddles disparate dimensions of existence. For
them the world of the ideal has no efficient causality, and never
bursts into the world of phenomena at particular points. The
ideal world, for them, is not a world of facts, but only of the
meaning of facts; it is a point of view for judging facts. It
appertains to a different "-ology," and inhabits a different
dimension of being altogether from that in which existential
propositions obtain. It cannot get down upon the flat level of
experience and interpolate itself piecemeal between distinct
portions of nature, as those who believe, for example, in divine
aid coming in response to prayer, are bound to think it must.

Notwithstanding my own inability to accept either popular
Christianity or scholastic theism, I suppose that my belief that
in communion with the Ideal new force comes into the world, and
new departures are made here below, subjects me to being classed
among the supernaturalists of the piecemeal or crasser type.
Universalistic supernaturalism surrenders, it seems to me, too
easily to naturalism. It takes the facts of physical science at
their face-value, and leaves the laws of life just as naturalism
finds them, with no hope of remedy, in case their fruits are bad.

It confines itself to sentiments about life as a whole,
sentiments which may be admiring and adoring, but which need not
be so, as the existence of systematic pessimism proves. In this
universalistic way of taking the ideal world, the essence of
practical religion seems to me to evaporate. Both instinctively
and for logical reasons, I find it hard to believe that
principles can exist which make no difference in facts.[362] But
all facts are particular facts, and the whole interest of the
question of God's existence seems to me to lie in the
consequences for particulars which that existence may be expected
to entail. That no concrete particular of experience should alter
its complexion in consequence of a God being there seems to me an
incredible proposition, and yet it is the thesis to which
(implicitly at any rate) refined supernaturalism seems to cling.
It is only with experience en bloc, it says, that the Absolute
maintains relations. It condescends to no transactions of

[362] Transcendental idealism, of course, insists that its ideal
world makes THIS difference, that facts EXIST. We owe it to the
Absolute that we have a world of fact at all. "A world" of
fact!--that exactly is the trouble. An entire world is the
smallest unit with which the Absolute can work, whereas to our
finite minds work for the better ought to be done within this
world, setting in at single points. Our difficulties and our
ideals are all piecemeal affairs, but the Absolute can do no
piecework for us; so that all the interests which our poor souls
compass raise their heads too late. We should have spoken
earlier, prayed for another world absolutely, before this world
was born. It is strange, I have heard a friend say, to see this
blind corner into which Christian thought has worked itself at
last, with its God who can raise no particular weight whatever,
who can help us with no private burden, and who is on the side of
our enemies as much as he is on our own. Odd evolution from the
God of David's psalms!

I am ignorant of Buddhism and speak under correction, and merely
in order the better to describe my general point of view; but as
I apprehend the Buddhistic doctrine of Karma, I agree in
principle with that. All supernaturalists admit that facts are
under the judgment of higher law; but for Buddhism as I interpret
it, and for religion generally so far as it remains unweakened by
transcendentalistic metaphysics, the word "judgment" here means
no such bare academic verdict or platonic appreciation as it
means in Vedantic or modern absolutist systems; it carries, on
the contrary, EXECUTION with it, is in rebus as well as post rem.
and operates "causally" as partial factor in the total fact. The
universe becomes a gnosticism[363] pure and simple on any other
terms. But this view that judgment and execution go together is
that of the crasser supernaturalist way of thinking, so the
present volume must on the whole be classed with the other
expressions of that creed.

[363] See my Will to Believe and other Essays in popular
Philosophy. 1897, p. 165.

I state the matter thus bluntly, because the current of thought
in academic circles runs against me, and I feel like a man who
must set his back against an open door quickly if he does not
wish to see it closed and locked. In spite of its being so
shocking to the reigning intellectual tastes, I believe that a
candid consideration of piecemeal supernaturalism and a complete
discussion of all its metaphysical bearings will show it to be
the hypothesis by which the largest number of legitimate
requirements are met. That of course would be a program for
other books than this; what I now say sufficiently indicates to
the philosophic reader the place where I belong.

If asked just where the differences in fact which are due to
God's existence come in, I should have to say that in general I
have no hypothesis to offer beyond what the phenomenon of
"prayerful communion," especially when certain kinds of incursion
from the subconscious region take part in it, immediately
suggests. The appearance is that in this phenomenon something
ideal, which in one sense is part of ourselves and in another
sense is not ourselves, actually exerts an influence, raises our
centre of personal energy, and produces regenerative effects
unattainable in other ways. If, then, there be a wider world of
being than that of our every-day consciousness, if in it there be
forces whose effects on us are intermittent, if one facilitating
condition of the effects be the openness of the "subliminal"
door, we have the elements of a theory to which the phenomena of
religious life lend plausibility. I am so impressed by the
importance of these phenomena that I adopt the hypothesis which
they so naturally suggest. At these places at least, I say, it
would seem as though transmundane energies, God, if you will,
produced immediate effects within the natural world to which the
rest of our experience belongs.

The difference in natural "fact" which most of us would assign as
the first difference which the existence of a God ought to make
would, I imagine, be personal immortality. Religion, in fact, for
the great majority of our own race MEANS immortality, and nothing
else. God is the producer of immortality; and whoever has doubts
of immortality is written down as an atheist without farther
trial. I have said nothing in my lectures about immortality or
the belief therein, for to me it seems a secondary point. If our
ideals are only cared for in "eternity," I do not see why we
might not be willing to resign their care to other hands than
ours. Yet I sympathize with the urgent impulse to be present
ourselves, and in the conflict of impulses, both of them so vague
yet both of them noble, I know not how to decide. It seems to me
that it is eminently a case for facts to testify. Facts, I
think, are yet lacking to prove "spirit-return," though I have
the highest respect for the patient labors of Messrs. Myers,
Hodgson, and Hyslop, and am somewhat impressed by their favorable
conclusions. I consequently leave the matter open, with this
brief word to save the reader from a possible perplexity as to
why immortality got no mention in the body of this book.

The ideal power with which we feel ourselves in connection, the
"God" of ordinary men, is, both by ordinary men and by
philosophers, endowed with certain of those metaphysical
attributes which in the lecture on philosophy I treated with such
disrespect. He is assumed as a matter of course to be "one and
only" and to be "infinite"; and the notion of many finite gods is
one which hardly any one thinks it worth while to consider, and
still less to uphold. Nevertheless, in the interests of
intellectual clearness, I feel bound to say that religious
experience, as we have studied it, cannot be cited as
unequivocally supporting the infinitist belief. The only thing
that it unequivocally testifies to is that we can experience
union with SOMETHING larger than ourselves and in that union find
our greatest peace. Philosophy, with its passion for unity, and
mysticism with its monoideistic bent, both "pass to the limit"
and identify the something with a unique God who is the
all-inclusive soul of the world. Popular opinion, respectful to
their authority, follows the example which they set.

Meanwhile the practical needs and experiences of religion seem to
me sufficiently met by the belief that beyond each man and in a
fashion continuous with him there exists a larger power which is
friendly to him and to his ideals. All that the facts require is
that the power should be both other and larger than our conscious
selves. Anything larger will do, if only it be large enough to
trust for the next step. It need not be infinite, it need not be
solitary. It might conceivably even be only a larger and more
godlike self, of which the present self would then be but the
mutilated expression, and the universe might conceivably be a
collection of such selves, of different degrees of inclusiveness,
with no absolute unity realized in it at all.[364] Thus would a
sort of polytheism return upon us--a polytheism which I do not on
this occasion defend, for my only aim at present is to keep the
testimony of religious experience clearly within its proper
bounds. [Compare p. 130 above.]

[364] Such a notion is suggested in my Ingersoll Lecture On Human
Immortality, Boston and London, 1899.

Upholders of the monistic view will say to such a polytheism
(which, by the way, has always been the real religion of common
people, and is so still to-day) that unless there be one
all-inclusive God, our guarantee of security is left imperfect.
In the Absolute, and in the Absolute only, ALL is saved. If
there be different gods, each caring for his part, some portion
of some of us might not be covered with divine protection, and
our religious consolation would thus fail to be complete. It
goes back to what was said on pages 129-131, about the
possibility of there being portions of the universe that may
irretrievably be lost. Common sense is less sweeping in its
demands than philosophy or mysticism have been wont to be, and
can suffer the notion of this world being partly saved and partly
lost. The ordinary moralistic state of mind makes the salvation
of the world conditional upon the success with which each unit
does its part. Partial and conditional salvation is in fact a
most familiar notion when taken in the abstract, the only
difficulty being to determine the details. Some men are even
disinterested enough to be willing to be in the unsaved remnant
as far as their persons go, if only they can be persuaded that
their cause will prevail--all of us are willing, whenever our
activity-excitement rises sufficiently high. I think, in fact,
that a final philosophy of religion will have to consider the
pluralistic hypothesis more seriously than it has hitherto been
willing to consider it. For practical life at any rate, the
CHANCE of salvation is enough. No fact in human nature is more
characteristic than its willingness to live on a chance. The
existence of the chance makes the difference, as Edmund Gurney
says, between a life of which the keynote is resignation and a
life of which the keynote is hope.[365] But all these statements
are unsatisfactory from their brevity, and I can only say that I
hope to return to the same questions in another book.

[365] Tertium Quid, 1887, p. 99. See also pp. 148, 149.

WILLIAM JAMES (1842-1910)


The road by which William James arrived at his position of
leadership among American philosophers was, during his childhood,
youth and early maturity, quite as circuitous and unpredictable
as were his father's ideas on the training of his children. That
Swedenborgian theologian foresaw neither the career of novelist
for his son Henry, nor that of pragmatist philosopher for the
older William. The father's migrations between New York, Europe
and Newport meant that William's education had variety if it did
not have fixed direction. From 13 to 18 he studied in Europe and
returned to Newport, Rhode Island, to study painting under the
guidance of John La Farge. After a year, he gave up art for
science and entered Harvard University, where his most
influential teachers were Louis Agassiz and Charles W. Eliot.
In 1863, William James began the study of medicine, and in 1865
he joined an expedition to the Amazon. Before long, he wrote:
"If there is anything I hate, it is collecting." His studies
constantly interrupted by ill health, James returned to Germany
and began hearing lectures and reading voluminously in
philosophy. He won his medical degree at Harvard in 1870. For
four years he was an invalid in Cambridge, but finally, in 1873,
he passed his gravest physical and spiritual crises and began the
career by which he was to influence so profoundly generations of
American students. From 1880 to 1907 he was successively
assistant professor of philosophy, professor of psychology and
professor of philosophy at Harvard. In 1890, the publication of
his Principles of Psycholog brought him the acknowledged
leadership in the field of functional psychology. The selection
of William James to deliver the Gifford lectures in Edinburgh was
at once a tribute to him and a reward for the university that
sponsored the undertaking. These lectures, collected in this
volume, have since become famous as the standard scientific work
on the psychology of the religious impulse. Death ended his
career on August 27th, 1910.

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