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The Varieties of Religious Experience

by William James

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Historical Context

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 933

James’s Contemporaries Alfred Adler (1870–1937), an Austrian psychiatrist, began his studies with Sigmund Freud but eventually disagreed with Freud’s emphasis on sexual trauma as the main source of mental disorders and parted ways with him. Adler’s main theory was that people should be studied as a whole, as beings who spend their lives reacting to the environment, rather than as a summation of their drives and emotions. In respect to religion, he contended that human belief in a God was one way of aspiring toward perfection. His theories were expounded in his book Neurotic Constitution (1912).

Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), also an Austrian psychiatrist, is often called the father of psychoanalysis. His research on the unconscious still affects the study of psychology in the twenty-first century. His basic tenet was that people experience conflicts between what they desire and what are the confines of their societal customs. The development of religion, Freud contended, began with a child’s need for a relationship with the father. Later in life, Freud published the book The Future of Illusion (1927), in which he debunked theories of religion on scientific grounds.

Carl Jung (1875–1961) was at one time a pupil of Freud, but like Adler, Jung also disagreed with Freud’s emphasis on sexuality. Jung’s interest was in the connection between the conscious and unconscious minds. One of his main theories stated there were two different properties of the unconscious; one was personal and the other was universal. Jung believed that humans have a natural religious function, and their psychic health depends on expressing it. His religious concepts can be found in his Modern Man in Search of a Soul (1933) and Psychology and Religion (1938).

Wilhelm Wundt (1832–1920) was born in Germany, the son of a Lutheran pastor. Like James, Wundt was interested in both psychology and philosophy. He did research at the University of Leipzig on sensation and perception—similar to what James was doing at the same time at Harvard, with both men being credited with beginning what eventually was referred to as experimental psychology. Later in his life, Wundt focused on cultural psychology by studying the mythologies, cultural practices, literature, and art of various societies. In Elements of Folk Psychology: Outlines of a Psychological History of the Development of Mankind (1916), Wundt develops his concepts of religion.

Political and Social Developments at the Turn of the Century During the early 1900s, turmoil spread around the world. In the United States, great monopolies continued despite the passage in 1890 of the Sherman Antitrust Act. Unsafe working conditions at factories often resulted in death, and there were no protective laws in place to keep children out of the workplace. There were no mandatory laws to provide guaranteed education, and only 10 percent of the population graduated from high school. Civil rights for minorities did not exist, and lynchings were on the rise in the South. A woman’s right to vote was not written into an amendment until 1919. Internationally, World War I was waiting on the horizon.

On the positive side, the Wright brothers were perfecting their flying machines and Henry Ford established the Ford Motor Company, which would produce the first affordable automobiles, greatly influencing the overall wealth of the United States, and dramatically changing American culture. American pop culture, fashion, and fads spread quickly overseas. The first electric typewriter was invented, as was the hamburger, ice cream cone, comic book, jukebox, and telephone Yellow Pages. New York City put its first taxis on the streets, and the first Rose Bowl and first World Series were played.

In 1901 Theodore Roosevelt became the twenty- sixth...

(This entire section contains 933 words.)

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American president. He pursued an aggressive thrust to make the United States one of the world powers in order to protect national security. When he took office, U.S. naval power was only the fifth strongest in the world, but he increased U.S. military strength so that a few years later only Britain exceeded the size and capabilities of the U.S. Navy. The Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, which Roosevelt wrote, began the United States’ role as a so-called peacekeeper or policeman in the world.

Literature and the Arts in the Early 1900s In 1900 Theodore Dreiser’s novel Sister Carrie shocked the American public with its portrayal of a woman who uses her body and sexuality to attain success. In France, Auguste Rodin completed his sculpture The Thinker, while in Britain, Joseph Conrad published his novel Lord Jim. Also in Europe, Anton Checkhov produced his play Uncle Vanya, and Henri Matisse began the fauvist movement in painting, a form that integrated loud colors, primitive elements, and eccentric ideas on the canvas. A year later, another painter, Pablo Picasso, began his so-called blue period. Also in 1901, the first Nobel Prize in literature was awarded.

In 1903 the movie The Great Train Robbery excited audiences, who then demanded more fiction films. In the same year, Jack London wrote The Call of the Wild. Isadora Duncan opened the first school of modern dance in 1905 in Berlin. Audiences initially had a hard time understanding this dance form. In London, Richard Strauss presented his opera Salome, which included the shocking ‘‘Dance of the Seven Veils,’’ a dance that ironically kept people filling the theater despite its so-called lewd expression. Several imitative versions of the opera and dance were performed throughout the United States and Europe in the years to come.

Joel Chandler Harris published Uncle Remus and Br’er Rabbit in 1906. Three years later, in 1909, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite was recorded and packaged, becoming the first commercial ‘‘album’’ produced. That same year, the New York Times published the first-ever movie review.

Literary Style

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Since The Varieties of Religious Experience was originally delivered in the form of spoken lectures, the style of writing is dictated more by the rules of oration than by those of composition. A series of twenty separate lectures were given by James in 1901. In these lectures, James first presents his ideas, then defines their terms and provides examples to demonstrate the significance of his findings.

James talks directly to the audience in the firstperson point of view. His arguments follow a logical path, sometimes using questions to lead his discussion forward and next providing the responses as he interprets them. Since his lectures offer extensive material that must be slowly assimilated, he breaks down his information into easily digestible portions. His use of examples not only adds signifi- cance to his theories but also offers a break in the intellectual discourse. The examples put a face on the concepts James is trying to convey and are like stories within stories, often encompassing extraordinary events.

The structure of James’s lectures follows a pattern that begins with the basic understanding of religion and neurology and then slowly rises from the more practical to the highest elevations of the spiritual, concluding with lectures on saintliness, mysticism, and philosophy. In so doing, James builds a strong foundation of understanding. He provides a language for all who are listening to him, so they will completely understand his meaning. For example, he makes it very clear that in his talks, he is in no way referring to any specific religious practice or belief. His motive is not to discuss specific established religions and their beliefs. His goal is only to expound on the psychological and philosophical role of religious belief in the individual experience. By carefully defining his terms, he relaxes the audience and helps it more carefully focus on his development as he moves away from definition and begins discourse of more abstract concepts.

Compare and Contrast

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1910s: Buddhism becomes popular in the West. Zen Buddhism is spread through the presentations of Japanese Zen leader D. T. Suzuki.

1950s: June 30, 1956, the phrase ‘‘In God We Trust’’ is adopted as the U.S. national motto. In the following year it begins to appear on U.S. paper currency. It was already in use on certain coins since 1864.

Today: Cardinal Francis Arinze, a Nigerian who is on the short list for candidates to succeed Pope John Paul II, travels around the world promoting inter-religious dialogue. He is the president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.

1910s: Sigmund Freud publishes his book The Interpretation of Dreams in English in 1913, and the first journal devoted to psychology, Journal of Applied Psychology, begins publishing in 1917.

1950s: In 1950, Alan M. Turing publishes his article ‘‘Computing Machinery and Intelligence’’ in the quarterly Mind, and the American Association of Psychology publishes the first Code of Ethics of Psychologists in 1953.

Today: The 27th International Congress of Psychology is held in Stockholm, Sweden, in July 2000. A U.S. Labor Department census for the year 2000 reports that there are approximately 200,000 psychologists employed in the United States.

Media Adaptations

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An audiotape of James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, narrated by Flo Gibson and published in 2001, is available from Audio Book Contractors. A 1994 audio version narrated by Erik Bauersfeld is available from Knowledge Tapes.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Ferrari, Michel, Introduction, in Journal of Consciousness Studies, Vol. 9, No. 9–10, 2002, pp. 1–10.

Leib, Erin, ‘‘God’s Pragmatist,’’ in New Republic, June 24, 2002, p. 38.

Menand, Louis, ‘‘The Return of Pragmatism,’’ in American Heritage, Vol. 48, No. 6, October 1997, pp. 48–57.

Taylor, Charles, ‘‘Risking Belief: Why William James Still Matters,’’ in Commonweal, Vol. 129, No. 5, March 8, 2002, p. 14.

Turing, Alan M., ‘‘Computing Machinery and Intelligence,’’ in Mind, Vol. 59, No. 236, October 1950, pp. 433–60.

‘‘William James Dies: Great Psychologist,’’ in the New York Times, August 27, 1910.

Zaleski, Carol, ‘‘A Letter to William James,’’ in Christian Century, Vol. 1, No. 2, January 16, 2002, p. 32.

———, ‘‘William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902),’’ in First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, March 2000, p. 60.

Further Reading Feinstein, Howard M., Becoming William James, Cornell University Press, 1999. This biography of James was originally published in 1982. This edition offers a new introduction.

Grattan, C. Hartley, The Three Jameses; A Family of Minds, Longmans, Green, and Company, 1932. Grattan presents the lives of father Henry and his most famous sons, William and Henry.

James, Alice, Alice James, Her Brothers—Her Journal, edited by Anna Robeson Burr, Milford House, 1972. Originally published in 1934, this book presents the lives of the men in the James family (William, Henry, Garth, and Robertson) through the writings of their sister Alice.

Johnson, Michael G., and Tracy B. Henley, eds., Reflections on ‘‘The Principles of Psychology’’: William James after a Century, L. Erlbaum Associates, 1990. This book is comprehensive study of the history of psychology with a special emphasis on James’s work.

Olin, Doris, ed., William James: ‘‘Pragmatism’’ in Focus, Routledge, 1992. This is a collection of essays by twentieth-century thinkers such as Bertrand Russell, reflecting on James’s concepts of truth, meaning, metaphysics, and pragmatism.

Perry, Ralph Barton, ed., Collected Essays and Reviews, by William James, Longmans, Green, and Company, 1920. James’s essays on psychology, philosophy, and psychical research are presented and reviewed by his contemporaries.

Rowe, Stephen C., ed., The Vision of James, Element Books, 1996. Stephen C. Rowe, a professor of philosophy, offers a focused collection of James’s philosophical views.

Simon, Linda, ed., William James Remembered, University of Nebraska Press, 1996. There are twenty-five different memoirs in this collection, written by faculty and family members, students, and other friends of James, allowing the reader to see many facets of James. At the beginning of each memoir, Simon explains who the writer is, putting his or her writing in context.

Skrupskelis, Ignas K., and Elizabeth M. Berkeley, eds., The Correspondence of William James, University Press of Virginia, 1992. This ten-volume collection of letters offers a more personal glimpse of James. Each volume corresponds to a specific time period in James’s life.


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Sources for Further Study

Carrette, Jeremy, ed. William James and “The Varieties of Religious Experience”: A Centenary Celebration. New York: Routledge, 2005. A collection of more than a dozen scholarly essays examining James and the history of psychology; James, psychology, and religion; and James and mysticism. Illustrated; bibliographical references, index.

James, William. The Meaning of Truth. New York: Longmans, Green, 1909. This is James’s more mature and systematic position on truth, which is quite relevant to his suggestions at the end of the present work and The Will to Believe.

James, William. The Will to Believe, and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy. New York: Dover, 1956. Particularly in the title essay, James virtually takes up where he disappointedly left off in The Varieties of Religious Experience, with an evaluation of the truth of religious beliefs.

Richardson, Robert D. William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. A major biography of James, a comprehensive tome at 622 pages, with plates, illustrations, maps, bibliographical references, and index. Includes several chapters on James’s religious thought, including one on The Varieties of Religious Experience.


Critical Essays


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