The Varieties of Religious Experience-01

By Karen Martinez,2014-07-16 11:19
13 views 0
The Varieties of Religious Experience-01

    The Varieties of Religious Experience

by William James

A Study in Human Nature





Lecture I


    It is with no small amount of trepidation that I take my place

    behind this desk, and face this learned audience. To us

    Americans, the experience of receiving instruction from the

    living voice, as well as from the books, of European scholars, is

    very familiar. At my own University of Harvard, not a winter

    passes without its harvest, large or small, of lectures from

    Scottish, English, French, or German representatives of the

    science or literature of their respective countries whom we have

    either induced to cross the ocean to address us, or captured on

    the wing as they were visiting our land. 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.

    Particularly must this be the case on a soil as sacred to the

    American imagination as that of Edinburgh. The glories of the

    philosophic chair of this university were deeply impressed on my

    imagination in boyhood. Professor Fraser's Essays in Philosophy,

    then just published, was the first philosophic book I ever looked

    into, and I well remember the awestruck feeling I received from

    the account of Sir William Hamilton's classroom therein

    contained. Hamilton's own lectures were the first philosophic

    writings I ever forced myself to study, and after that I was

    immersed in Dugald Stewart and Thomas Brown. Such juvenile

    emotions of reverence never get outgrown; and I confess that to

    find my humble self promoted from my native wilderness to be

    actually for the time an official here, and transmuted into a

    colleague of these illustrious names, carries with it a sense of

dreamland quite as much as of reality.

    But since I have received the honor of this appointment I have

    felt that it would never do to decline. The academic career also

    has its heroic obligations, so I stand here without further

    deprecatory words. Let me say only this, that now that the

    current, here and at Aberdeen, has begun to run from west to

    east, I hope it may continue to do so. As the years go by, I

    hope that many of my countrymen may be asked to lecture in the

    Scottish universities, changing places with Scotsmen lecturing in

    the United States; I hope that our people may become in all these

    higher matters even as one people; and that the peculiar

    philosophic temperament, as well as the peculiar political

    temperament, that goes with our English speech may more and more

pervade and influence the world.

    As regards the manner in which I shall have to administer this

    lectureship, I am neither a theologian, nor a scholar learned in

    the history of religions, nor an anthropologist. Psychology is

    the only branch of learning in which I am particularly versed.

    To the psychologist the religious propensities of man must be at

    least as interesting as any other of the facts pertaining to his

    mental constitution. It would seem, therefore, that, as a

    psychologist, the natural thing for me would be to invite you to

    a descriptive survey of those religious propensities.

    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, in works of piety and

    autobiography. Interesting as the origins and early stages of a

    subject always are, yet when one seeks earnestly for its full

    significance, one must always look to its more completely evolved

    and perfect forms. It follows from this that the documents that

    will most concern us will be those of the men who were most

    accomplished in the religious life and best able to give an

    intelligible account of their ideas and motives. These men, of

    course, are either comparatively modern writers, or else such

    earlier ones as have become religious classics. The documents

    humains which we shall find most instructive need not then be

    sought for in the haunts of special erudition--they lie along the

    beaten highway; and this circumstance, which flows so naturally

    from the character of our problem, suits admirably also your

    lecturer's lack of special theological learning. I may take

    my citations, my sentences and paragraphs of personal confession,

    from books that most of you at some time will have had already in

    your hands, and yet this will be no detriment to the value of my

    conclusions. It is true that some more adventurous reader and

    investigator, lecturing here in future, may unearth from the

    shelves of libraries documents that will make a more delectable

    and curious entertainment to listen to than mine. Yet I doubt

    whether he will necessarily, by his control of so much more

    out-of-the-way material, get much closer to the essence of the

matter in hand.

    The question, What are the religious propensities? and the

    question, What is their philosophic significance? are two

    entirely different orders of question from the logical point of

    view; and, as a failure to recognize this fact distinctly may

    breed confusion, I wish to insist upon the point a little before

    we enter into the documents and materials to which I have


    In recent books on logic, distinction is made between two orders

    of inquiry concerning anything. First, what is the nature of it?

    how did it come about? what is its constitution, origin, and

    history? And second, What is its importance, meaning, or

    significance, now that it is once here? The answer to the one

    question is given in an existential judgment or proposition. The

    answer to the other is a proposition of value, what the Germans

    call a Werthurtheil, or what we may, if we like, denominate a

    spiritual judgment. Neither judgment can be deduced immediately

    from the other. They proceed from diverse intellectual

    preoccupations, and the mind combines them only by making them

first separately, and then adding them together.

    In the matter of religions it is particularly easy to distinguish

    the two orders of question. Every religious phenomenon has its

    history and its derivation from natural antecedents. What is

    nowadays called the higher criticism of the Bible is only a study

    of the Bible from this existential point of view, neglected too

    much by the earlier church. Under just what biographic

    conditions did the sacred writers bring forth their various

    contributions to the holy volume? And what had they exactly in

    their several individual minds, when they delivered their

    utterances? These are manifestly questions of historical fact,

    and one does not see how the answer to them can decide offhand

    the still further question: of what use should such a volume,

    with its manner of coming into existence so defined, be to us as

    a guide to life and a revelation? To answer this other question

    we must have already in our mind some sort of a general theory as

    to what the peculiarities in a thing should be which give it

    value for purposes of revelation; and this theory itself would be

    what I just called a spiritual judgment. Combining it with our

    existential judgment, we might indeed deduce another spiritual

    judgment as to the Bible's worth. Thus if our theory of

    revelation-value were to affirm that any book, to possess it,

    must have been composed automatically or not by the free caprice

    of the writer, or that it must exhibit no scientific and historic

    errors and express no local or personal passions, the Bible would

    probably fare ill at our hands. But if, on the other hand, our

    theory should allow that a book may well be a revelation in spite

    of errors and passions and deliberate human composition, if only

    it be a true record of the inner experiences of great-souled

    persons wrestling with the crises of their fate, then the verdict

    would be much more favorable. You see that the existential facts

    by themselves are insufficient for determining the value; and the

    best adepts of the higher criticism accordingly never confound

    the existential with the spiritual problem. With the same

    conclusions of fact before them, some take one view, and some

    another, of the Bible's value as a revelation, according as their

    spiritual judgment as to the foundation of values differs.

    I make these general remarks about the two sorts of judgment,

    because there are many religious persons--some of you now

    present, possibly, are among them--who do not yet make a working

    use of the distinction, and who may therefore feel first a little

    startled at the purely existential point of view from which in

    the following lectures the phenomena of religious experience must

be considered. When I handle them biologically and

    psychologically as if they were mere curious facts of individual

    history, some of you may think it a degradation of so sublime a

    subject, and may even suspect me, until my purpose gets more

    fully expressed, of deliberately seeking to discredit the

religious side of life.

    Such a result is of course absolutely alien to my intention; and

    since such a prejudice on your part would seriously obstruct the

    due effect of much of what I have to relate, I will devote a few

more words to the point.

    There can be no doubt that as a matter of fact a religious life,

    exclusively pursued, does tend to make the person exceptional and

    eccentric. I speak not now of your ordinary religious believer,

    who follows the conventional observances of his country, whether

    it be Buddhist, Christian, or Mohammedan. His religion has been

    made for him by others, communicated to him by tradition,

    determined to fixed forms by imitation, and retained by habit.

    It would profit us little to study this second-hand religious

    life. We must make search rather for the original experiences

    which were the pattern-setters to all this mass of suggested

    feeling and imitated conduct. These experiences we can only find

    in individuals for whom religion exists not as a dull habit, but

    as an acute fever rather. But such individuals are "geniuses" in

    the religious line; and like many other geniuses who have brought

    forth fruits effective enough for commemoration in the pages of

    biography, such religious geniuses have often shown symptoms of

    nervous instability. Even more perhaps than other kinds of

    genius, religious leaders have been subject to abnormal psychical

    visitations. Invariably they have been creatures of exalted

    emotional sensibility. Often they have led a discordant inner

    life, and had melancholy during a part of their career. They

    have known no measure, been liable to obsessions and fixed ideas;

    and frequently they have fallen into trances, heard voices, seen

    visions, and presented all sorts of peculiarities which are

    ordinarily classed as pathological. Often, moreover, these

    pathological features in their career have helped to give them

their religious authority and influence.

    If you ask for a concrete example, there can be no better one

    than is furnished by the person of George Fox. The Quaker

    religion which he founded is something which it is impossible to

    overpraise. In a day of shams, it was a religion of veracity

    rooted in spiritual inwardness, and a return to something more

    like the original gospel truth than men had ever known in

    England. So far as our Christian sects today are evolving into

Report this document

For any questions or suggestions please email