Re-read William James 1.0

So as I indicated below I am re-reading William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience. This was based on a series of lectures he delivered at the University of Edinburgh in 1901-1902. He was arguing mainly for a scientific approach to theology: rather than argue if god exists, study what religion is, because it is an important facet of human experience. Seems like a good idea to me still today. James is another hero like Langer, a seminal thinker maybe less in vogue today but more’s the pity. James gave us the idea of consciousness as ‘the remembered present’ and the notion of ‘the stream of consciousness” among other good ideas in his long and varied career. I read Varieties waaay back in college and am reading it again after being reminded of its astuteness by Michel Pollan in Cooked.


So I remembered the antique prose style, the patient framing and explication of the issues, and the surplus of examples. In his introductory lecture he discussed ‘medical materialism’, a curious term that I did not remember but I like his thinking here. James asserted that many of the most important religious thinkers reported experiences that would be considered pathological by the scientific medical community of his day, including his own profession of psychology. He cites the example of George Fox who in the 17th century founded the Religious Societies of Friends (Quakers) in part out of disenchantment (at best) with the mainstream religions and certain corrupt practices. Fox also evidently had visions of sorts, e.g., blood flowing like a river through a village where, it turns out, a massacre had occurred some centuries earlier.

James refutes the criticism leveled at Fox and other religious persons (like Saul and his ‘epileptic’ fit on the road to Damascus) that denigrated their religious doctrines and schools because of their medical conditions in two ways. First, that how a tradition starts has little to say about the nature of the tradition once developed. Second, and this I find quite lovely, rejecting religious thought because it is based upon and affected by wayward organic processes is illogical because the very rejection of religion is also based upon and affected by the same organic processes. It is all of a piece, and that piece is the biological, psychological status of a mind regardless of its religiosity or scientific bent. Lovely, and please notice this does not address the issue of god’s existence, just the need to be clear about human thinking.   Thanks, William.

More later as I find interesting bits but a comment on his literary style. William James’ brother, Henry, is a novelist of some esteem and I find both have very complex, involved styles that reflect their thinking. (Their sister, Alice, was also an excellent writer). Henry James’ novels often revolve around very subtle and nearly translucent social and emotional interactions and his ability to render these artistically is really quite remarkable (and yes, I have been re-reading some of these, e.g., The Golden Bowl, and reading ones I missed earlier, e.g., The Ambassadors over the past few years). What a family.  Here’s Henry.


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