The Varieties of Religious Experience  

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1. Ineffability. — The handiest of the marks by which I classify a state of mind as mystical is negative. The subject of it immediately says that it defies expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words. It follows from this that its quality must be directly experienced; it cannot be imparted or transferred to others. In this peculiarity mystical states are more like states of feeling than like states of intellect. No one can make clear to another who has never had a certain feeling, in what the quality or worth of it consists. One must have musical ears to know the value of a symphony; one must have been in love one's self to understand a lover's state of mind. Lacking the heart or ear, we cannot interpret the musician or the lover justly, and are even likely to consider him weak-minded or absurd. The mystic finds that most of us accord to his experiences an equally incompetent treatment.

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature is a book by the Harvard University psychologist and philosopher William James that comprises his edited Gifford Lectures on "Natural Theology" delivered at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland between 1901 and 1902.

These lectures concerned the nature of religion and the neglect of science, in James' view, in the academic study of religion. Soon after its publication, the book entered the canon of psychology and philosophy, and has remained in print for over a century. James went on to develop his philosophy of pragmatism; there are many overlapping ideas in Varieties and his 1907 book, Pragmatism.



Proposition of value versus existential judgment

James believed that the study of the origin of an object or an idea does not play a role in the study of its value. He asserted that existential judgment, or the scientific examination of an object's origin, is a separate matter from that object's value. As an example, he alluded to the Quaker religion and its founder, George Fox. Many of the scientists in James' audience immediately reject all aspects of the Quaker religion because evidence suggests that Fox was schizophrenic. Calling this rejection medical materialism, James insisted that the origin of Fox's notions about religion should not come into account when propositioning the value of the Quaker religion. As an aside, many believe El Greco to have suffered from astigmatism, yet no one would dismiss his art based on this medical detail. James proposed, somewhat sarcastically, that his audience's atheism was perhaps a dysfunction of the liver. Some believe science to be superior to religion because of religion's seemingly 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.

Reality versus symbols of reality

The lectures discussed 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. He criticized his audience for the scientific tendency to ignore the unseen aspects of life and the universe. As an example, he discussed the way 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.


The August 1902 New York Times review of the first edition ends with the following:

Everywhere there is a frolic welcome to the eccentricities and extravagances of the religious life. Many will question whether its more sober exhibitions would not have been more fruitful of results, but the interest and fascination of the treatment are beyond dispute, and so, too, is the sympathy to which nothing human is indifferent.

A July 1963 Time review of an expanded edition published that year, ends with quotes about the book from Peirce and Santayana:

In making little allowance for the fact that people can also be converted to vicious creeds, he acquired admirers he would have deplored. Mussolini, for instance, hailed James as a preceptor who had showed him that "an action should be judged by its result rather than by its doctrinary basis." James...had no intention of giving comfort to latter-day totalitarians. He was simply impatient with his fellow academicians and their endless hairsplitting over matters that had no relation to life. A vibrant, generous person, he hoped to show that religious emotions, even those of the deranged, were crucial to human life. The great virtue of The Varieties, noted pragmatist philosopher Charles Peirce, is its "penetration into the hearts of people." Its great weakness, retorted George Santayana, is its "tendency to disintegrate the idea of truth, to recommend belief without reason and to encourage superstition."

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