13 Replies to “Analysis of William James”

  1. First, thank you for volunteering to be one of the first to summarize and offer an analysis of our readings. I appreciate your succinct overview of James’ work and think that you’ve drawn out some key aspects of his presentation of religious experience. In particular, you’ve emphasized a couple of areas that stood out to me as well, and about which I would like to ask further questions.

    You’ve quoted James as defining religion in this way: “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine” (p.36) and, in so doing, have draw out prominent theme in his work – that of the individual as the primary subject of his inquiry. I’m curious, as a question for you and perhaps also the class, to what extent this focus on the individual limits James’ work as a comprehensive description of religious experience? Kleinman’s article, in contrast, places its emphasis on the social aspects of suffering and meaning making.

    The second point that you’ve highlighted is James’ definition of the expert in religious experience, not as those who study religions, but as those who are themselves religious. I would add that James, practically speaking, narrows this definition further by studying those religious persons who exhibit “radical expressions” of religious experience (p. 436). My question here relates to the validity of this methodological decision. In other words, are James’ conclusions about the nature of religious experience skewed, given that he has excluded from his study the majority of religious persons, whose experience may not be so radical in form?

    Again, thank you for your work and looking forward to discussing further in class – Chelsea

    1. Chelsea, thank you for your comments. As I mentioned above in an earlier reply, I do not think his methodology is sufficient do to the extreme disciple of mysticism and other a few mystics to be observed. I am curious for the class to discuss about the strengths and weaknesses about a methodology that is based on observing letters written hundred of years before the researchers life.

  2. Greg, your precis of James highlights some interesting conversation points. James’ reflections on the limits of philosophical proof for religious experience are still useful today. His solution, consisting in part of the maxim that “the truth is what works well,” raises a host of other questions. What does it mean to work well? Working well for whom? Is it possible for a thing to be defined as “working well” without first defining “work” and “work well,” definitions that would themselves be truth claims, rendering the whole maxim a circular mess?

    I think this gets into the two important observations you highlight at the end of your precis. If the “true specialists” are practitioners, and “knowledge about a thing is not the thing itself,” then of what use, precisely, is James’ project? I think he would likely give a very articulate answer about the role of understanding religious experience, perhaps from the perspective of desiring an authentic understanding of the world, so as one can live pragmatically in a fully understood reality.

    But this is a difficulty with even the most sympathetic classificatory projects, like James’. Things are classified toward an end. Treating both the experiences as equal and individually divorced from their traditions can rob them of particularity, and bend their nuance toward categories. Ironically, despite his language about the “true experts,” the approach may then purport to understand what these experiences are *really* about, as understood from a view that is not from within so much as above everything.

    1. Jackson, I really appreciate your insight and observations. I have a question for you since you have already studied James in other classes. As I reread my notes today, do you think James’ lectures are really more about the “Mind-cure” approach to religious experiences rather than on religious experiences themselves? Finally, I agree with your ‘circular mess’ comment.

  3. Thank you Greg. Your precis greatly summarizes the points of James’ argument. You clearly point to his methodology and definition of religion. You offer a great discussion of the sick soul and mysticism. You also point to his critique of philosophy and why it is inadequate to explain religious experiences.
    In your discussion of his methodology you state that James’ foundational method with which he analyzes and interprets these experiences is psychology. Later in the paper, you also clearly explain James’ frustration with philosophy and his view of its limitations when approaching religion. As you point out, to James, the inadequacy of philosophy lies in that “in and of itself faith is too private and individualistic…” I am curious as to whether or not, you and the class, think that his methodology was in fact adequate enough to address these religious experiences?
    Furthermore, you highlight his understanding of prayer as the “essence of religion”. You state that prayer helps the individual encounter the divine and guide their sick soul, by stating, “[Prayer] is where the divine meets an individual on her/his journey to overcome the sick soul or the divided self.” But I wonder if there is more to James’ understanding of prayer than only an individualistic gain? James points to the limitations of privatizing the relationship with the divine in prayer. He points to George Muller as an example for privatized and narrow sense of prayer, which is far too individualistic (161), which leads me to think that James wants to point to a larger collective consciousness with which one must view prayer. But I am curious as to How he thinks or we think it can be done?

    1. Tala, you ask some very profound questions that I cannot answer. Every time I read James, I walk away understanding it a little differently. You ask if his methodology was adequate. My answer would be no. He is observing people’s religious experiences that have occurred hundred of years before James birth. Therefore his observation is intellectual only. He could not observe and participate in person to help bring a greater depth to his methodology.

  4. Greg, thank you for the work put into your precis. I found Jame’s work to be interesting. Especially in how he approached the work. You referenced how he defined religious experiences as, “The feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine” (p.36). While James does state early on that he wasn’t very concerned with focusing on religious institutions, but I feel like the aforementioned definition needs to include some aspect of religious experience in the context of community. What are your thoughts on this?

    Also, in chapter 16 and 17 James roots religious experience in mysticism. This made me feel a little uneasy. Coming from a conservative Protestant background my religious experiences have been less mystical and based more in intellectual decisions. Would you agree or disagree with James that religious experiences are rooted in mysticism.

    1. William, you raise some great observations. As I read Kleinman article, I too realized that James does not interact with the community dimension of a religious experience. I believe that James limited his focus only to those religious experiences that occurred in “solitude.” As for about your question about are “religious experiences rooted in mysticism”, my answer would be based on one’s definition of mysticism. If by mysticism, one means a direct encounter with the divine, my answer would be yes. However, if one means mysticism by having these intense encounters as James uses in his lectures, my answer would be no.

  5. Thank you, Greg, for your precis on Varieties of Religious Experience. I find James to be quite an expansive writer and far more descriptive in his analysis of experience than many religious writers. I must admit that I was a bit nervous that his work would read like that of a systematic theologian. However, his insights are engaging and insightful. I suppose that his profession as a psychologist allows for what I interpret as vulnerability. “The sentimentality of many of my documents is a consequence of the fact that I sought them among the extravagances of the subject.” (p. 368)

    I appreciate most (and disagree with)James’ distinction of the science of religion and living religion. He suggests that these operate independently of each other. “…we see that a point comes when she must drop the purely theoretic attitude, and either let her knots remain uncut, or have them cut by active faith.” (p. 370) I believe that it is faith that allows, even drives, one to delve into the science of religion. The living and the science go hand in hand, but not to the same degree. What separates one from focusing on one or the other is one’s level of interest. In other words, I imagine that the interest of science or living of religion is on a spectrum. And if one’s faith is active, growing and changing, one will engage that spectrum at different points throughout one’s life.

    1. Lahronda, thank you for your comments and insights. I agree that science of religions and living religions can and should bring clarity to the other. My take away with James is that science in and of itself cannot empirically observe “all” of a religious experience.

  6. Thank you Greg for your precise that nicely summarizes the James’ book. You have mentioned the “fruit,” when talking about the fruit of happiness after a religious event and behavioral changes. His emphasis on one’s transformation can be also found when he discusses conversion. By referring to Starbuck, he argues that conversion brings “a changed attitude towards life.” (237) For James, transformation/changed attitude is critical in evaluating and identifying religious people. However, my question is what about the people who claims that they are affiliated with certain religious traditions but have not experienced behavioral changes. What I mean is that not everyone in the world spend much time to choose their religious tradition. Many have follows their parents’ or family’s religious tradition without noticeable religious conversion. In this case, how should we understand them and their religiosity? Can the idea of behavioral change after a religious event include everyone from every religious tradition?

    1. Younghwa, thank you for the kind words. As for your question about followers not experiencing behavior change, your question is valid. Unfortunately, James doesn’t really foucs on that lack of “experience.” I found the foucs of his lectures to be really narrow only focusing on a few people from a particular discipline within Christianity.

  7. Dear Chelsea, thanks for getting us off to a good start! You raised some valuable questions here. One thing I wanted to ask you to clarify in class is what you mean by: [James] aruges that natural theology is limited in observing religious experiences.” I also wanted to call your attention to the typo here and to point out that the writing of this précis could use a little work. What did you think about Kleinman’s intervention in the conversations James began? I look forward to following up on all this in class.

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