Overview (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
William James was the son of Henry James, an American Swedenborgian, and the brother of Henry James, Jr., the American novelist. James was trained as a physician, but he turned to psychology and later to philosophy. His contribution to psychology, The Principles of Psychology (1890), has become a classic in the field. James early became the most popular spokesman of the American philosophical movement pragmatism. Among his other important philosophical works are: The Will to Believe, and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (1897), Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (1907), The Meaning of Truth: A Sequel to “Pragmatism” (1909), and Essays in Radical Empiricism (1912). The present work was compiled from his Gifford lectures.
James begins his series of lectures by characterizing the kind of study and the subject matter with which he is concerned. His concern is a psychological study of religious experiences, but he is not concerned with the physiological and neurological conditions that may underlie religious experiences. Such conditions, he argues, underlie all mental states, and consequently, are irrelevant in describing and evaluating religious experience. In fact, they are as irrelevant in evaluating religious opinions as they are in evaluating opinions in the natural sciences and in the industrial arts. No one accepts or rejects an opinion in the sciences on the basis of the author’s...
(The entire section is 2249 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Philosopher William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience is based on a series of twenty Gifford lectures he delivered at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, beginning in May, 1901. James was asked to discuss natural religion, which traditionally had been conceived as a discipline on the border between philosophy and theology. As such, natural religion was thought to exclude both the notion of divine revelation and any claim of tangible religious experience. James’s own concept differed in looking not at God as an object of devotion but at human attitudes toward God, including belief, supplication, direct experience, and doubt and disbelief. The word “varieties” in the book’s title indicates James’s intention to catalog and evaluate the range of religious experiences accessible to different human faculties. Indeed, James denies that there is only one “religious sentiment.”
The invitation to lecture in Edinburgh left James both exultant and humbled, as he admitted in his first address: “It is with no small amount of trepidation that I take my place behind this desk, and face this learned audience.” James’s characteristic modesty aside, the magnitude of the subject, even in a twenty-lecture format, was daunting. His initial plan was to devote ten lectures to descriptive, or psychological, examination and the remaining ten lectures to metaphysical considerations based on his philosophical studies. Though a...
(The entire section is 1561 words.)
In the first two lectures, James sets the ground rules or parameters of the topic he will be discussing. He begins with definitions and establishes the fact that his lectures are not based on anthropological evidence or studies but rather on personal documents that relay personal experience. He states that as he is neither a theologian nor a scholar in the history of religion, his talks are based on ‘‘a descriptive survey’’ of religious tendencies that exhibit themselves through the examples he offers.
James also discusses how he defines religious experience through the emotion of excitement, which offers immediate delight and dispenses enough good feeling to affect a good portion of the individual’s life. Unlike the scientific dialogue of his time in regards to religious experience, he does not judge an individual as mentally deranged merely because that person has an unexplainable incident. Rather, he looks at religious experience by its results.
James emphasizes that his lectures are in no way directed at institutionalized religion but rather at individual experience, or what one person might experience in solitude. He then notes there are two different ways of accepting the universe: a passive, stoic stance, in which one agrees to the circumstances whether one likes them or not; or a passionate happy stance, in which one agrees with the circumstances. The emotional mood of the individual makes the...
(The entire section is 1566 words.)