Saturday Ramble: William James – visionary philosopher
It is the centenary of the death of William James, the Harvard professor who wrote deathlessly about the psychology of religious experience. He is something of a luminary to me, but I didn’t expect much fuss on this side of the Atlantic.
Just occasionally the BBC plays out of its socks though. Back in May, Melvyn Bragg featured James and his signature book The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature on his Radio 4 Thursday morning programme, In Our Time. It covered most of the bases.
Martin E. Marty captures James’s literary essence perfectly in his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition: [The book] is a classic that is too psychological to have shaped most religious inquiry and too religious to have influenced much psychological research.”
James was a pioneer of a fusion genre that took in C.G. Jung, D.T. Suzuki, writers such as Colin Wilson and, dare I say, yours truly, who believe that the truth lies in the cracks between the tidy categories invented by pseudo scientific researchers.
William James was a natural-born phenomenologist, taking experience at face value and placing it before torrid theoretical exposition.
Here’s part of a section on James from my book The Eternal Quest for Immortality, which illustrates the point:
The author of The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James had similar moments of revelation:
“I can best describe the condition in which I was by calling it a state of equilibrium. When all at once I experienced a feeling of being raised above myself, I felt the presence of God — I tell of the thing just as I was conscious of it — as if his goodness and his power were penetrating me altogether … I think I may add that in this ecstasy of mine God had neither form, colour, odour, nor taste; moreover, that the feeling of his presence was accompanied by no determinate localization. It was rather as if my personality had been transformed by the presence of a spiritual spirit. But the more I seek words to express this intimate intercourse, the more I feel the impossibility of describing the thing by any of the usual images. At bottom the expression most apt to render what I felt is this: God was present, though invisible; he fell under no one of my senses, yet my consciousness perceived him.”
James was a practised observer of psychological and mystical states, yet when the “thing” happens to him, he is almost rendered speechless. The clunky phrase, “spiritual spirit” typifies how his powers of expression deserted him in the face of transcendent reality. He does grasp the essence of the state, however, in his telling phrase: “… he fell under no one of my senses, yet my consciousness perceived him.”
As a scientist, albeit a 19th-century one, he would have been disconcerted by the fact that he experienced the fullness of the moment while yet deprived of sensory perceptions. The existence of inner senses, distinct from the body-mind senses, was probably unknown to him. Nevertheless, he reported the strange facts just as they came.
William James died on 26 August, 1910. His big book was given as a series of lectures at Edinburgh University. He should be remembered for his agility of mind and pioneering spirit in a field only now coming into its own, one hundred years after his death.
John Evans is the author of The Eternal Quest for Immortality: Is it staring you in the face?
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