Here is a set of notes I created in the past as an overview of the Varieties. Hope they are helpful!
Summary Notes on William James
Mary Ellen Shaw - for Religion & Psychology, 2007
First chapter: Religion and Neurology -- especially important as a contrast to Freud. Why study religion academically? As a psychologist, James says, "the religious propensities of man (sic) must be at last as interesting as any other of the facts pertaining to his (sic) mental constitution." In other words, "because it is there." Of course, we know that there is also a more personal interest that James has.
James's focus in the Varieties: "If the inquiry be psychological, not religious institutions, but rather religious feelings and religious impulses must be its subject, and I must confine myself to those more developed subjective phenomena recorded in literature produced by articulate and fully self-conscious men (sic), in works of piety and autobiography." He argues that some individuals are more "accomplished in the religious life" than others and that their accounts of their experience will give us the clearest understanding of what religion is about -- what it is good for in life. He also suggests that religious founders are particularly good subjects for study because they had the "original experiences which were the pattern-setters to all this mass of suggested feeling and imitated conduct."
In reflecting on "holy books" (such as the Bible), James argues that the way to evaluate them is not on their historical accuracy, but using what he calls a "spiritual judgment," or value judgment -- evaluating it to see if it is a "true record of the inner experiences of great-souled persons wrestling with the crises of their fate."
James criticizes an approach he calls "medical materialism" which dismisses religious experience as 'nothing but' physiological or psychological disturbance or wishful thinking (very much the approach in Freud's book). His response is to argue that a psychological origin of religious experience does not explain it away or negate the value of religious ideas. In contrast, he suggests that the discussing the source of certain states of mind is not the way to evaluate them; in common life, we prefer certain states of mind "either because we take an immediate delight in them; or else it is because we believe them to bring us good consequential fruits for life." This is a good capsule summary of his pragmatic approach to truth claims in general.
He goes on to elaborate on useful criteria to evaluate religious experiences or opinions: "Their value can only be ascertained by spiritual judgments directly passed upon them, judgments based on our own immediate feeling primarily; and secondarily on what we can ascertain of their experiential relations to our moral needs and to the rest of what we hold as true. Immediate luminousness, in short, philosophical reasonableness, and moral helpfulness are the only available criteria."
This parallels the traditional Catholic practice in determining the validity of religious experience, which James quotes: "The good dispositions which a vision or voice, or other apparent heavenly favor leave behind them are the only marks by which we may be sure they are not possible deceptions of the tempter."
In the second chapter, "Circumscription of the Topic," James goes on to defend his decision to limit the topic to individual religion. This is the key definition:
"Religion, therefore, as I now ask you arbitrarily to take it, shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men (sic) in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine. "
(I find this language curiously close to that of the A.A. Twelve Steps, by the way, and I understand that James's work was influential with the founders of A.A. See the "Twelve Steps" document later posted on this site.)
James purposefully does not limit the "divine" to a traditional view of God, because Emersonian philosophy and Buddhism both allow for religious experience without reference to a transcendent Deity. Rather, what he focuses on is the states of mind, the attitudes, that are generated in the individual believer .
"There must be something solemn, serious, and tender about any attitude which we denominate religious. . . The divine shall mean for us only such a primal reality as the individual feels impelled to respond to solemnly and gravely, and neither by a curse nor a jest."
What follows is a lengthy discussion of religious states of mind, which brings in the topics covered in more detail of human psychological types, or the progression of religion in the individual, with the culmination of a state where the "will to assert ourselves and hold our own" (that is, the ego-focused state, in Jungian terms) has been "displaced by a willingness to close our mouths and be as nothing in the floods and waterspouts of God." (Similar to the displacement of the ego by the Self, in Jungian thinking.)
For James, religion does not, at its best, offer equanimity or passive acceptance of fate (which seems to me the best that Freud can offer), but "(religion) ought to mean nothing short of this new reach of freedom for us, with the struggle over, the keynote of the universe sounding in our ears, and everlasting possession spread before our eyes." He is characterizing a kind of happiness which includes an element of depth:
"The more commonplace happiness which we get are 'reliefs,' occasioned by our momentary escapes from evils either experienced or threatened. But in its most characteristic embodiments, religious happiness is no mere feeling of escape. It cares no longer to escape. It consents to the evil outwardly as a form of sacrifice--inwardly it knows it to be permanently overcome."
This attitude includes an element of self-surrender: "For when all is said and done, we are in the end absolutely dependent on the universe; and into sacrifices and surrenders of some sort, deliberately looked at and accepted, we are drawn and pressed as into our only permanent positions of repose. . . . Religion thus makes easy and felicitous what in any case is necessary. . . ." (James's emphasis.)
An important argument in "The Reality of the Unseen" is that "reality" as we experience it includes our reactions to "things of thought" (e.g. mental objects, which include beliefs, memories, images) as well as "sensible presences" (that is, objects which our senses can see, hear, feel, taste, etc.) He refutes Kant's argument that all concepts must have "a sense-content to work with" (that is, be derived from sensory data); in contrast, James points out that people experience non-sensory ideas in meaningful ways: "Yet strangely enough (such concepts) have a definite meaning for our practice. We can act as if there were a God; feel as if we were free; consider Nature as if she were full of special designs; lay plans as if we were to be immortal; and we find then that these words do make a genuine difference in our moral life.
James also suggests that there are indeed other ways of knowing than the sensory ways: "it is as if there were in the human consciousness a sense of reality, a feeling of objective presence, a perception of what we may call 'something there,' more deep and more general than any of the special and particular 'senses" by which the current psychology supposes existent realities to be originally revealed." (Note the similarity to the "More" argument in the final chapter.) This argument figures strongly in later chapters. The key here is that these perceptions, which come from some other source in the human psychology than sensory input, create beliefs and attitudes which actually make a difference in human life, which is what counts, for James.
In the discussions of "The Religion of Healthy-Mindedness", James begins his argument that different people may experience life and religion very differently. This is similar to Jung's belief that there are very different types of personalities (detailed in other parts of his writing). A rather amusing characterization of a "healthy-minded" sort of religious person follows:
"It is to be hoped that we all have some friend, perhaps more often feminine than masculine and young than old, whose soul is of this sky-blue tint, whose affinities are rather with flowers and birds and all enchanting innocencies than with dark human passions, who can think no ill of man or God, and in whom religious gladness, being in possession from the outset, needs no deliverance from any antecedent burden."
(This passage feels somewhat dismissive or even sexist to me. Clearly, James does not feel himself to be this type of person, and, while he enjoys them, he may not feel that theirs is as mature and deep a nature as the darker souls describes later.) In other words, the "healthy-minded" is "once-born" -- optimistic, in possession of a faith in the goodness of the Divine, able to transcend difficulties or experiences of evil either through rising above them or denying their essential existence (which is the direction Christian Science has gone). Using this framework, our exploration of the 19th-century religion of Spiritualism shows it to be very "healthy-minded", with an optimistic picture of human potentialities. For the "healthy-minded" or "once-born" individual, sin and evil can be transcended by the effort of the will, by simply understanding that they are errors (Buddhism has some of this sense as well.) We can call this approach a "high" view of human nature.
This "healthy-minded" or "high" view of human nature is also very much characteristic of many of the new religions (a good example is Eckankar), and also very much characteristic of humanistic psychologies (Freud, though, has a darker picture of the innate troublesomeness of the Id and instinctual pull toward death of the psyche).
In "The Sick Soul," in contrast, James describes a psychological type closer to his own, one which has a consciousness of evil, or of darkness, of dividedness, of human limitations, which no amount of will-power or self-talk can overcome. For such individuals, life is a problem. They may experience life as innate suffering (as the Buddha proclaimed). For periods of time, they may experience life as having no meaning. The way out of this experience can be an experience of "conversion" -- a transformation which dramatically alters the sense of reality and of the self.
This description of meaninglessness, dullness, grayness, darkness is similar to definitions of neuroses, by the way, so the same thing is going on in psychology. (Note James's own account of a youthful depression in the account of the "French sufferer".)
James goes on to discuss the problem of the sick soul in the chapter "The Divided Self, and the Process of Its Unification." When an individual becomes aware of the problem of life, which involves a division between what one knows one ought to be able to do (or feel) and what one can in fact do (or feel), there comes an experience of stuckness, of self-division. This state is, by the way, very well described by Jung in some of his work, and he also describes a process by which the psyche "grows" its way out of this dilemma, very similar to the dynamic suggested by James.
Another place this self-dividedness is very well characterized is in the writings of St. Paul, especially Romans.
The chapter on "Conversion" details the "way out" for the divided self. As in the first chapter, it is imperative for the person to give up the ego and let the Divine act to solve the crisis of dividedness (similar to the "third thing" Jung describes coming out of an inner conflict honestly confronted in all its intransigence). The feeling the individual has is that something totally new and powerful enters into the dynamic. The individual is now a "twice-born" person. James seems to feel that this kind of religious attitude is deeper and more interesting than the serene, "sky-blue" faith of the "healthy-minded" individual.
In "Saintliness," James shows the "fruits" of religion for the "twice-born" person. He includes the virtues of "charity, devotion, trust, patience, and bravery". He is careful to show that differing kinds of people will have differing kinds of virtues or strengths. Some find that earlier temptations (we today might say 'addictions') are not longer compelling: sexual temptations, alcoholism, a nasty temper.
Here is a summary of the "saintly character," which James says is universal across religions (note the similarity in tone to the Twelve Steps):
1. A feeling of being in a wider life than that of this world's selfish little interests; and a conviction, not merely intellectual, but as it were sensible, of the existence of an Ideal Power. . . .
2. A sense of the friendly continuity of the ideal power with our own life, and a willing self-surrender to its control.
3. An immense elation and freedom, as the outlines of the confining selfhood melt down.
4. A shifting of the emotional centre towards loving and harmonious affections, towards 'yes,'es,' and away from 'no,' where the claims of the non-ego are concerned.
These fundamental inner conditions have characteristic practical consequences, as follows: --
a. Asceticism.-- The self-surrender may become so passionate a to turn into self-immolation. It may then so overrule the ordinary inhibitions of the flesh that the saint finds positive pleasure in sacrifice and asceticism, measuring and expressing as they do the degree of his loyalty to the higher power.
By the way, I take issue to James's emphasis on asceticism, preferring the "middle way" of the Buddha.
b. Strength of Soul.--The sense of enlargement of life may be so uplifting that personal motives and inhibitions, commonly omnipotent, become too insignificant for notice, and new reaches of patience and fortitude open out. Fears and anxieties go, and blissful equanimity takes their place.
c. Purity.--The shifting of the emotional centre brings with it, first, increase of purity. The sensitiveness to spiritual discords is enhanced, and cleansing of existence from brutal and sensual elements becomes imperative. Occasions of contact with such elements are avoided; the saintly life must deepen its spiritual consistency and keep unspotted from the world. In some temperaments this need of purity of spirit takes an ascetic turn, and weaknesses of the flesh are treated with relentless severity.
(Again, I'm not comfortable with this emphasis, and I'm not sure it is as universal as James finds it to be, though it is certainly true of much of historical Christian mysticism.)
d. Charity.--The shifting of the emotional centre brings, secondly, increase of charity, tenderness for fellow-creatures. The ordinary motives to antipathy, which usually set such close bounds to tenderness among human beings, are inhibited. The saint loves his enemies, and treats loathsome beggars as his brothers.
James goes on in "The Value of Saintliness" to further evaluate the usefulness of religion in human life. He traces religious practice historically, adopting as do Freud and Jung a fairly dismissive view of "primitive" religion. However in contrast to Freud, he credits the experience of divinity throughout history as being a psychological reality for believers, whose value was usefulness:
"In any case, they chose (their deity) for the value of the fruits he seemed to them to yield."
And this standard is still the measure James would use. He rejects the suggestion that all people should have the same sort of religion, in light of his view that human personalities can be very different.
In this historical scan of religion, James very strongly argues that the historical atrocities done in the name of religion did not stem from religious impulses as he understands them.
"Piety is the mask, the inner force is tribal instinct. You believe as little as I do, in spite of the Christian unction with which the German emperor addressed his troops upon their way to China, that the conduct he suggested, and in which other Christian armies went beyond them, had anything whatever to do with the interior religious life of those concerned in the performance."
This passage reminded me of the story of the boy scout-turned-Marine in the film "A Still Small Voice". In the name of religion, many terrible acts have been perpetrated.
James also suggests that it is possible to go too far in some of the virtues of saintliness: "The fruits of religion, in other words, are, like all human products, liable to corruption by excess. Common sense must judge them." He then goes on to show the "too far" state of the virtues, but suggests that we not reject some unpopular virtues without further reflection, especially that of asceticism.
"For in its spiritual meaning, asceticism stands for nothing less than for the essence of the twice-born philosophy. It symbolizes, lamely enough no doubt, but sincerely, the belief that there is an element of real wrongness in this world, which is neither to be ignored nor evaded, but which must be squarely met and overcome by an appeal to the soul's heroic resources, and neutralized and cleansed away by suffering." He contrasts this view to the "ultra-optimistic form of the once-born philosophy" which "thinks we may treat evil by the method of ignoring." (c.f. Christian Science.)
In terms very similar to the work of Robert Bly, James suggests that something of this older "heroic" approach and understanding might be a useful corrective to the modern malaise:
"Does not, for example, the worship of material luxury and wealth, which constitutes so large a portion of the 'spirit' of our age, make somewhat for effeminacy and unmanliness? Is not the exclusively sympathetic and facetious way in which most children are brought up today--so different from the education of a hundred years ago, especially in evangelical circles--in danger, in spite of its many advantages, of developing a certain trashiness of fibre? Are there not hereabouts some points of application for a renovated and revised ascetic discipline?"
He goes on to discuss our "ancestral evolution" as warriors, the virtues of heroism and strenuous life involved in war, then suggests:
"What we now need to discover in the social realm is the moral equivalent of war; something heroic that will speak to men (sic) as universally as war does, and yet will be as compatible with their spiritual selves as war has proved itself to be incompatible. . . . May not voluntarily accepted poverty be 'the strenuous life," without the need of crushing weaker peoples? Poverty indeed is the strenuous life,--without brass bands or uniforms or historic popular applause or lies or circumlocutions; and when one sees the way in which wealth-getting enters as an ideal into the very bone and marrow of our generation, one wonders whether a revival the belief that poverty is a worthy religious vocation may not be 'the transformation of military courage,' and the spiritual reform which our time stands most in need of. . . ."
James goes on to talk about how the fear of poverty keeps people from engaging themselves in social causes, especially for unpopular causes: "Our stocks might fall, our hopes of promotion vanish, our salaries stop, our club doors close in our faces; yet, while we lived, we would imperturbably bear witness to the spirit, and our example would help to set free our generation."
The chapter on "Mysticism" expands James's earlier suggestions that there are ways of knowing other than those of the senses. He describes the felt characteristics of mystical states: ineffability, noetic quality, transiency, and passivity. These states feel to the person to happen outside of any willed effort.
A very important quality is one of deep meaningfulness. James discusses the possibility that certain drug use can invoke these states, but that such drug-induced states are less enduring than those of religious discipline. In both cases, whether disciplined or drug-induced, the states point to the possibility that our common understanding of reality may be limited and incomplete. First of all, a "spiritual judgment" will evaluate these states for their "fruits for life," James's key test for truth. He qualifies this truth in this summary:
(1) Mystical states, when well developed, usually are, and have the right to be, absolutely authoritative over the individuals to whom they come.
(2) No authority emanates from them which should make it a duty for those who stand outside of them to accept their revelations uncritically.
(3) They break down the authority of the non-mystical or rationalistic consciousness, based upon the understanding and the senses alone. They show it to be only one kind of consciousness. They open out the possibility of other orders of truth, in which, so far as anything in us vitally responds to them, we may freely continue to have faith.
He calls these truths, or these possibilities, which mystical states point to, hypotheses which can then be tested out in life.
(We skipped "Philosophy" in our reading, and I will skip it in these notes.) In the "Other Characteristics" chapter, James discusses the role of aesthetics play in religion (aesthetics is the appreciation of beauty, roughly put). The Catholics have a much greater appreciation of this dimension than the Protestants, in his view. He discusses prayer as something actually being done, actual work:
"The conviction that something is genuinely transacted in this consciousness is the very core of living religion. . . . Through prayer, religion insists, things which cannot be realized in any other manner come about: energy which but for prayer would be bound is by prayer set free and operates in some part, be it objective or subjective, of the world of facts."
His language here suggests that there is no way to really measure the "objective" or "subjective" dimensions involved, but current research (which some class members have mentioned) has tried to do scientific experiments measuring the effects of prayer on healing or on the health of plants, or the like.
James characterizes religious experience of prayer and of contact with divine powers in psychological terms as incursions upon consciousness (or the ego) from "beyond the transmarginal region" (important discussion). This is very close to the way that Jung characterizes religious experience as being the felt interaction between the ego and the larger archetypal powers resident in the Collective Unconscious and connected personal unconscious. James descriptions here of inspiration would mirror the description of hearing a voice recounted by the author of the Book of Miracles, or of the experience of Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, in his description of the writing of the Book of Mormon.
In the "Conclusions" James summarizes the following beliefs and psychological characteristics as common to religion in general:
1. That the visible world is part of a more spiritual universe from which it draws its chief significance;
2. That union or harmonious relation with that higher universe is our true end;
3. That prayer or inner communion with the spirit thereof--be that spirit 'God' or 'law'--is a process wherein work is really done, and spiritual energy flows in and produces effects, psychological or material, within the phenomenal world.
Religion includes also the following psychological characteristics:--
4. A new zest which adds itself like a gift to life, and takes the form either of lyrical enchantment or of appeal to earnestness and heroism.
5. An assurance of safety and a temper of peace, and, in relation to others, a preponderance of loving affections.
James also strongly asserts that religion will be different for people with different temperaments, so that we will never have a situation where there can be "one true religion" for everyone.
He discusses what might be involved in a "science of religion," but states that this understanding (rational, descriptive, comparative, etc.) will never yield the same understanding as a "living religion". This is especially true for people in the modern era, because of the anti-spiritual bias of science.
Given this bias, there would be an assumption that "religion is probably only an anachronism, a case of 'survival,' an atavistic relapse into a mode of thought which humanity in its more enlightened examples has outgrown.� (This is very much the view that Freud takes, as a "scientist.") Science, in its present form, rejects the "merely personal" perspective and seeks to be universal in application. However, James has shown in his discussion that religion has to be personal at the base level, and can't be known in some absolute and universal manner. However, he brings in his main point here:
In spite of the appeal which this impersonality of the scientific attitude makes to a certain magnanimity of temper, I believe it to be shallow, and I can now state my reason in comparatively few words. That reason is that, so long as we deal with the cosmic and the general, we deal only with symbols of reality, but as soon as we deal with private and personal phenomena as such, we deal with realities in the completest sense of the term.
James goes on to explain that reality is only known to each of us through our inner "states", where our perceptions of the outer world join with our inner experiences in creating experience.
. . . the inner state is our very experience itself; its reality and that of our experience are one. A conscious field plus its object as felt or thought of plus an attitude towards the object plus the sense of a self to whom the attitude belongs--such a concrete bit of personal experience may be a small bit, but it is a solid bit as long as it lasts; not hollow, not a mere abstract element of experience, such as the 'object' is when taken all alone. It is a full act, even though it be an insignificant fact; it is of the kind to which all realities whatsoever must belong; the motor currents of the world run through the like of it; it is on the line connecting real events with real events. . . .
It is at this point that he compares this small kind of real experience to a raison in contrast to a printed menu of a larger reality not in experience. By recognizing this personal dimension of reality and taking responsibility within this dimension, one begins to live religiously (the religious attitude of seriousness), at the level of the personal predicament and personal destiny. It is in this discussion, I believe, that James is particularly close to Jung.
At this point, James brings in what he understands to be a common set of understandings of religion:
1. The uneasiness, reduced to its simplest terms, is a sense that there is something wrong about us as w naturally stand.
2. The solution is a sense that we are saved from the wrongness by making proper connection with the higher powers.
(Note a similarity to the understanding of the Twelve Steps. Notice also here that the "once-born" or "healthy-minded" understanding is not represented in James's summary of religious belief.)
James goes on to characterize what is really his own "doctrine" -- the core of his own belief as to what is going on in the religious life (or as much as he can really state):
"The individual, so far as he suffers from his wrongness and criticizes it, is to that extent consciously beyond it, and in at least possible touch with something higher, if anything higher exists."
(Note the importance here of awareness--a key notion of psychoanalysis.)
"Along with the wrong part there is thus a better part of him, even though it may be but a most helpless germ. With which part he should identify his real being is by no means obvious at this stage; but when stage 2 (the stage of solution or salvation) arrives, the man identifies his real being with the germinal higher part of himself . . . "
(Note the similarity to the process indicated by Jung)
"and does so in the following way. He becomes conscious that this higher part is conterminous and continuous with a MORE of the same quality, which is operative in the universe outside of him, and which he can keep in working touch with, and in a fashion get on board of and save himself when all his lower being has gone to pieces in the wreck. "
James feels that it doesn't matter if the MORE is psychological or "objective", as he has already shown that there is no useful way of making distinctions in those realms. He goes on to discuss the location of the MORE as being likely experienced as within the "subconscious self", which is exactly the position taken by Jung. James's language here is to propose a hypothesis: "whatever it may be on its farther side, the 'more' with which in religious experience we feel ourselves connected is on its hither (nearer) side the subconscious continuation of our conscious life."
Stating this hypothesis, he describes a starting point for "science", which, again, is the position taken by Jung, that these are empirical matters, even though experienced subjectively. However, even if we were in a position to examine this subconscious dimension of religious experience scientifically, it would not be enough; there is still a need for a personal belief (an "over-belief) and for religious discipline to take place. Given this understanding, James is finally (though very tentatively, it seems to me) in a position of offering his own "over-belief":
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.