"Scientific theories are organically conditioned just as much as religious
emotions are; and if we only knew the facts intimately enough, we should
doubtless see 'the liver' determining the dicta of the sturdy atheist as
decisively as it does those of the Methodist under conviction anxious about his
soul. When it alters in one way the blood that percolates it, we get the
Methodist, when in another way, we get the atheist form of mind."
-William James' brave sarcasm to a packed house of Scottish scientists
In 1901 and 1902, William James, a father of psychology in
America, gave a series of lectures to colleague scientists at the University of
Edinburgh in Scotland. At the time, of course, intellectual influence flowed
mainly westward, as James quickly and humorously points out. "It seems the
natural thing for us to listen whilst the Europeans talk. The contrary habit, of
talking whilst the Europeans listen, we have not yet acquired; and in him who
first makes the adventure it begets a certain sense of apology being due for so
presumptuous an act." This dry wit persists through his lectures, which perhaps
act as a bit of comic relief for what would extend into twenty arduous, tightly
worded, and of course extraordinarily brilliant lectures.
These lectures concerned the nature of religion and the shortfall of science,
in James' view, in the academic study of religion. Soon after James' time in
Edinburgh, a published version of these lectures The Varieties of Religious
Experience found its way into the canon of psychology and philosophy, where it
has remained for the last one hundred years. James would go on to conceive
his philosophy of Pragmatism, and while you will find many overlapping ideas
in Varieties and Pragmatism, this summary should not be used as a primer for the
latter. I will attempt to offer a short summary of James' major ideas put
forth in these lectures.
Proposition of Value vs. Existential Judgment
If you only
remember one thing about James' lectures on religion let it be that James
believes that the study of an object or idea's origin does not play a role in
the study of its value. James asserts that existential
judgment, or the scientific examination of an object's origin is a separate
matter from that object's value. One must not consider an object's
physical derivation when making a proposition of value. For example, James
alludes to the Quaker religion and its inventor, George Fox. Many of
the scientists in James audience, and many today, immediately dismiss all
aspects of the Quaker religion because evidence suggests Fox was schizophrenic.
James derisively calls this rejection "medical materialism" and insists the
origin of Fox's notions about religion should not come into account when
propositioning the value of the Quaker religion. After all, many believe
El Greco to have suffered from a stigmatism, yet no one would dismiss his art
based on this medical detail. Sarcastically, James proposes that his
audience's atheism is perhaps a dysfunction of the liver. Science, in James' time as well as today,
viewed religion as obsolete because of its vain, unfounded, or perhaps insane
origin. In his lectures, James asserted that these claims, while perhaps
historically or epistemologically interesting, play no role in
the separate question of religion's value.
Healthy Mindedness vs. the Sick Soul
Ignoring the more scientific topic of medical health, James
described two types of spiritual health. The healthy minded, according to James,
naturally have a positive outlook on life. Perhaps influenced by the
popularity of the Mind-Cure Movement, a social pressure group of the day that
promoted positive thinking as a cure for disease and depression, James assumed
some people simply are happy. In the lectures, Walt Whitman is James
favorite example of healthy mindedness. Alternatively, James discusses the sick
soul occupying someone who is depressed and sees the evil in all things.
James focused on this "divided soul" personality as the candidate for the
benefits of conversion. He believed that the only way for a sick soul to
cure itself is to undergo a powerful mystical experience, or religious
conversion. James argues these so-called "twice born" souls turn out to be the
most healthy in the end, since they have seen life from both perspectives.
Reality vs. Symbols of Reality
James lectured of the distinction between symbolism and reality.
Symbols, such as the word "steak" on a menu, do not embody the actuality of the
objects they represent. The word "steak" on a menu merely points to some slab of
meat in the back of the restaurant. In a similar way, James posits that
all of science is fundamentally detached from reality since the tools of science
are merely pointers to some actual objective realm. James criticized
his audience for the tendency of science to ignore the unseen aspects of life
and the universe. As an example, he discussed the say the notion of a
lemon causes salivation in the mouth of an individual; while there is no lemon,
there is clearly a process occurring worthy of academic inquiry.
- In these lectures, James neglects the experience of ordinary religious
people. He tends to tap the religious experiences of exceptional people, or
exceptional experiences of religious people.
- James does not attempt to explain the phenomenon of institutional
religion, or the psychology of religion in groups. Some critics believe the
social aspects of religion cannot be ignored; a dynamic between society and
the individual play a role in an individual's religious persuasion.
- Critics claim James overestimates the role of emotion in an individual's
religious beliefs while ignoring the intellectual and vocational aspects of
- Although others believe this might represents a sarcastic overtone, some
say James gorges on pathology as a precursor for genuine religious experience.
Even as he dismisses "medical materialism," James might have brought up more
arguments for the pathology of religion rather than against.
I feel sorry for James, as he was born in a time when physics and
psychology were so separate on the horizon that few believed the two would
ever join. In an effort to compensate for the difficulties of explaining the
religious mannerisms of Homo Sapiens in terms of the science available to
him then, James developed, or rather underdeveloped, a metaphysics of value.
Today, with discoveries in physics (vis-a-vis biochemistry) leading toward
advancements in neural networks, psychologists now see on the horizon a day
when physics and psychology meet as one.
All twenty lectures of The Varieties of Religious Experience are available here: www.psywww.com/psyrelig/james/toc.htm