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James, William

Category: Philosopher

William James (1842 –1910) was an American philosopher and psychologist who also trained as a physician. He was born in New York, the son of Henry James Sr., a noted and independently wealthy Swedenborgian theologian.  The intellectual brilliance of the James family and the talents of several of its members have made them a subject of continuing interest to historians and biographers. He was the brother of novelist Henry James and of diarist Alice James.

James wrote a number of very influential books on psychology, educational psychology, the psychology of religious experience, and mysticism. He was also the first educator to offer a psychology course in the United States.

But it is his ideas surrounding religious experience that are of great interest here.  William James believed that individual religious experiences, rather than the precepts of organized religions, were the backbone of the world's religious life.

To this end he put together a collection of just such experiences and classified them.  His work - The Varieties of Religious Experience has become a classic.  His discussions of conversion, repentance, mysticism and saintliness, and his observations on actual, personal religious experiences - all support his thesis. Standing at the crossroads of psychology and religion, James applied scientific method to a field abounding in abstract theory.

From a personal point of view, he was no lover of institutionalised religion or on the need for overload and self mortification as he calls it…

The Varieties of Religious Experience – William James
The Roman Catholic Church has, in its incomparable fashion, collected all the motives  towards asceticism together, and so codified them that anyone wishing to pursue ‘Christian perfection’ may find a practical system mapped out for him in any one of a number of ready made manuals. 
The dominant Church notion of perfection is of course the negative one of avoidance of ‘sin’.
Sin proceeds from concupiscence [strong desire or appetite], and concupiscence from our carnal passions and temptations, chief of which are pride, sensuality in all its forms, and the loves of worldly excitement and possession. 
All these sources of sin must be resisted; and discipline and austerities are a most efficacious mode of meeting them.  Hence there are always in these books chapters on self mortification.

But he was not against ‘religion’.  The point is subtle.

The Varieties of Religious Experience – William James
A survey of history shows us that, as a rule, religious geniuses attract disciples, and produce groups of sympathisers. 
When these groups get strong enough to ‘organise’ themselves, they become ecclesiastical institutions with corporate ambitions of their own. 
The spirit of politics and the lust of dogmatic rule are then apt to enter and to contaminate the originally innocent thing; so that when we hear the word ‘religion’ nowadays, we think inevitably of some ‘church’ or other; and to some persons the word ‘church’ suggests so much hypocrisy and tyranny and meanness and tenacity of superstition that in a wholesale undiscerning way they glory in saying that they are down on religion altogether.

So he was not a great lover of religious institutions, but he saw the validity of the religious genius.  In effect, he regards religious institutions as political parties [a view I somewhat sympathise with].

The Varieties of Religious Experience – William James
The baseness so commonly charged to religion’s account are thus, almost all of them, not chargeable at all to religion proper, but rather to religion’s wicked practical partner – the spirit of corporate dominion. 
And the bigotries are most of them in their turn chargeable to religion’s intellectual partner, the spirit of dogmatic dominion, the passion for laying down the law in the form of an absolutely closed in theoretic system.

He uses quite a number of examples to show just how dangerous this then becomes.

St John of the Cross - Life and Works
[from The Varieties of Religious Experience – William James]
The radical remedy lies in the mortification of the four great natural passions, joy, hope, fear and grief.  You must seek to deprive these of every satisfaction and leave them as it were in darkness and the void.  Let your soul therefore turn always:
‘Not to what is most easy, but to what is hardest;
Not to what tastes best, but to what is most distasteful;
Not to what most pleases, but to what disgusts;
Not to matters of consolation, but to matters for desolation rather;
Not to rest, but to labour;
Not to desire the more, but the less;
Not to aspire to what is highest and most precious, but to what is lowest and most contemptible;
Not to will anything, but to will nothing;
Not to seek the best in everything, but to seek the worst……
Despise yourself, and wish that others should despise you.
Speak to your own disadvantage, and desire others to do the same;
Conceive a low opinion of yourself, and find it good when others hold the same;

 

You can see why St John of the Cross doesn’t figure very highly on my website.  An ascetic is not a rational thinker.  They tend to be close to psychopathic in their actions and wholly useless in everyday life…… many of them have never had a spiritual experience, all they have had is a flush of endorphins caused by the abuse of their bodies which they mistake for bliss.  Occasionally they get hallucinations, but then so do drug addicts and alcoholics.  Anyway, enough, back to James.

First published in 1902, The Varieties of Religious Experience initiated the psychological study of religion, paving the way for Freud and Jung as well as for clinical and paranormal branches of psychology. It is not without humour – of a rather dry kind.  It was based on lectures delivered at Edinburgh in 1901-2, but it  is supplemented with a wealth of extracts from religious writings. Although understandably biased toward Western, specifically Christian traditions, it is quite large in its scope.

with brother Henry

The book remains the best introduction to James's thought, demonstrating his characteristic insistence upon the importance of personal experience and his almost devotional respect for the mysteries of the human mind. As it says

Richly illustrated with personal accounts of belief and possession, intoxication and near-death experience, it is of central importance not simply to an understanding of religions, but to modern psychology and psychiatric medicine”.

He may have been a psychologist and a philosopher but his ideas and inspiration were pure mystic insight on many occasions.  What might have been the influences?

It appears that the majority of the impetus came from illness – continuous illness.  In his early adulthood, James suffered from a variety of physical ailments, including those of the eyes, back, stomach, and skin. He was subject to a variety of psychological symptoms which we might classify as stress and he suffered from periods of depression during which he contemplated suicide.

James took a break from his medical studies in the spring of 1865 to join naturalist Louis Agassiz on a scientific expedition up the Amazon River, but aborted his trip after eight months, as he suffered bouts of severe seasickness and mild smallpox. His studies were interrupted once again due to illness in April 1867.

So he was sick and sick most of the time.  A wonderful way – via overload – to be open to whatever his composer sent him.

 

He traveled to Germany in search of a cure and remained until November 1868.   James's time in Germany proved hugely important and helped him realise that his true interests lay not in medicine but in philosophy and psychology. Later, in 1902 he would write:

"I originally studied medicine in order to be a physiologist, but I drifted into psychology and philosophy from a sort of fatality. I never had any philosophic instruction, the first lecture on psychology I ever heard being the first I ever gave".

He finally earned his M.D. degree in June 1869, but never practiced medicine. What he called his "soul-sickness" would only be resolved in 1872, after an extended period of philosophical searching. He married Alice Gibbens in 1878.

It is worth adding that in 1882 he joined the Theosophical Society, which should help to show where his feelings really lay.  James was also the first president of the American branch of the Society for Psychical Research.  He died in 1910 aged just 68.

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