Immortality in graphic form

The Varieties of Religious Experience

May 14, 2004

While William James' primary endeavours seemingly lay in the sphere of religion, the scope of his writing spanned other areas - notably, psychology and philosophy - which may account even more for the sustained interest in him and his work.

The years 2001-02 marked the centenary of the Gifford lectures delivered by James in Edinburgh. The book of these lectures, The Varieties of Religious Experience , published in 1902, has remained one of the most cherished analyses of religion ever written. The centenary sparked a renewed interest in James' work. Routledge is publishing the proceedings of a conference on James held in 2002 at Edinburgh University; a centenary edition of The Varieties was published by Routledge in 2002; and Harvard University Press has been publishing a uniform edition of James' voluminous works.

The contemporary revival of pragmatism in American philosophical circles, led by Richard Rorty and Hilary Putnam, has also revived interest in James.

This collection of essays first appeared in the Journal of Consciousness Studies . The eight contributors hail from the fields of psychology, cognitive science and religious studies - although not from philosophy. The range of disciplines testifies to the scope of James' endeavours. Despite the title, The Varieties of Religious Experience is about far more than religion.

Certainly, the topic of religion itself no longer obsesses intellectuals the way it did in James' day. Indeed, he was writing to make religiosity respectable for his contemporary sophisticates. The educated, he argued, have the "right" to believe. Whether or not finally true, religious belief is worthy of serious intellectual consideration. It is doubtful that today James would find so obsessed a constituency, a point made by Martin Marty in his brief concluding essay.

Indefatigable James scholar Eugene Taylor, a contributor to the centenary edition of The Varieties , expertly surveys James' work on mystical consciousness and shows how much James was the conduit of new ideas from Europe to the US. Taylor also shows how Varieties at once presupposes James' research into depth psychology and shapes his subsequent philosophy of radical empiricism. James the philosopher is inseparable from James the student of religion and from James the psychologist.

Taylor laments the failure of neuroscientists to broaden their conception of the mind to encompass the depth psychology pioneered by James. While Taylor notes the influence of James on a few eminent thinkers of various stripes, he notes even more the dismissal of James' concerns by the mainstream.

In her essay on James and psychology, Eleanor Rosch similarly bemoans the ever-wider divide between James' brand of psychology and that of academic psychologists. She incisively charts the ways in which attention to James by present-day psychologists enriched their conceptions of the mind and of the self. For her, the closest parallels to James are to be found in Buddhism - evidence again of how James in one area is tied to James in another.

G. William Barnard demonstrates that James on mysticism espouses neither relativism - mystical experience as wholly determined by the beliefs of one's culture - nor universalism - mystical experience as being at heart the same worldwide. Rather, James maintains both that there may be a reality independent of cultural constructions and that those constructions shape mystical experience. Because relativism and universalism are considered mutually exclusive, indeed warring, options in the study of mysticism today, Barnard enlists James to mediate the dispute. Barnard draws on his own excellent book, Exploring Unseen Worlds: William James and the Philosophy of Mysticism , to make his arguments.

Taking a more extreme position than Barnard, Jens Brockmeier argues, in contemporary fashion, that mystical experience is culturally constructed and faults James for seeking a precultural, prelinguistic universalism. In so arguing, Brockmeier not merely denies but spurns the influence of James on his chosen topic. Rather than prophetic, as many of the contributors tout him as being, James here is deemed out of date.

In their essay on James and emotion, Keith Oatley and Maja Djikic also argue that James, while prescient in rooting identity in emotion, sees emotion as coming from within the individual. In fact, they argue, emotion is now seen as often coming from the outside - from the impact of events, especially social upheavals, on individuals. And the kinds of emotions instilled by those events are often concerned with others rather than, as for James, with oneself. They even suggest that the instilment of a sense of community constitutes a third birth beyond James' famous second one.

In his essay, editor Michel Ferrari, whose introduction provides a wonderfully precise summary of the essays that follow, shows how typical James' desire to prove the existence of immortality was for his day, and then shows how much the would-be proofs have developed since, for example, in recording near-death experiences. But Ferrari does not show that the continuing interest in immortality stems from Varieties , where he acknowledges it to be a marginal topic. He rightly cites Ernest Becker's bestselling Denial of Death (1973) but neglects Becker's own indebtedness to the post-Freudian Otto Rank rather than to James.

Overall, the essays - lucid and lively - evince the extraordinary range of fundamental issues broached by James. Whatever the topic, James' willingness to investigate it and to hypothesise about it - always with caution - shines through. As often as not, however, the essays conclude not that James' work has been influential but that it should be. The legacy of James, who died in 1910, thus remains mixed.

Robert Segal is professor of theories of religion, Lancaster University.

The Varieties of Religious Experience: Centenary Essays

Editor - Michel Ferrari
Publisher - Imprint Academic
Pages - 149
Price - £14.95
ISBN - 0 907845 26 6

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