"Scientific theories are organically conditioned just as much as religious emotions are; and if we only knew the facts intimately enough, we should doubtless see 'the liver' determining the dicta of the sturdy atheist as decisively as it does those of the Methodist under conviction anxious about his soul. When it alters in one way the blood that percolates it, we get the Methodist, when in another way, we get the atheist form of mind."

-William James' brave sarcasm to a packed house of Scottish scientists

In 1901 and 1902, William James, a father of psychology in America, gave a series of lectures to colleague scientists at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. At the time, of course, intellectual influence flowed mainly westward, as James quickly and humorously points out. "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." This dry wit persists through his lectures, which perhaps act as a bit of comic relief for what would extend into twenty arduous, tightly worded, and of course extraordinarily brilliant lectures.

These lectures concerned the nature of religion and the shortfall of science, in James' view, in the academic study of religion. Soon after James' time in Edinburgh, a published version of these lectures The Varieties of Religious Experience found its way into the canon of psychology and philosophy, where it has remained for the last one hundred years.  James would go on to conceive his philosophy of Pragmatism, and while you will find many overlapping ideas in Varieties and Pragmatism, this summary should not be used as a primer for the latter.  I will attempt to offer a short summary of James' major ideas put forth in these lectures.

Proposition of Value vs. Existential Judgment

If you only remember one thing about James' lectures on religion let it be that James believes that the study of an object or idea's origin does not play a role in the study of its value. James asserts that existential judgment, or the scientific examination of an object's origin is a separate matter from that object's value.  One must not consider an object's physical derivation when making a proposition of value.  For example, James alludes to the Quaker religion and its inventor, George Fox.  Many of the scientists in James audience, and many today, immediately dismiss all aspects of the Quaker religion because evidence suggests Fox was schizophrenic.  James derisively calls this rejection "medical materialism" and insists the origin of Fox's notions about religion should not come into account when propositioning the value of the Quaker religion.  After all, many believe El Greco to have suffered from a stigmatism, yet no one would dismiss his art based on this medical detail.  Sarcastically, James proposes that his audience's atheism is perhaps a dysfunction of the liver. Science, in James' time as well as today, viewed religion as obsolete because of its vain, unfounded, or perhaps insane origin.  In his lectures, James asserted that these claims, while perhaps historically or epistemologically interesting, play no role in the separate question of religion's value.

Healthy Mindedness vs. the Sick Soul

Ignoring the more scientific topic of medical health, James described two types of spiritual health. The healthy minded, according to James, naturally have a positive outlook on life.  Perhaps influenced by the popularity of the Mind-Cure Movement, a social pressure group of the day that promoted positive thinking as a cure for disease and depression, James assumed some people simply are happy. In the lectures, Walt Whitman is James favorite example of healthy mindedness. Alternatively, James discusses the sick soul occupying someone who is depressed and sees the evil in all things.  James focused on this "divided soul" personality as the candidate for the benefits of conversion.  He believed that the only way for a sick soul to cure itself is to undergo a powerful mystical experience, or religious conversion. James argues these so-called "twice born" souls turn out to be the most healthy in the end, since they have seen life from both perspectives.

Reality vs. Symbols of Reality

James lectured of the distinction between symbolism and reality. Symbols, such as the word "steak" on a menu, do not embody the actuality of the objects they represent. The word "steak" on a menu merely points to some slab of meat in the back of the restaurant.  In a similar way, James posits that all of science is fundamentally detached from reality since the tools of science are merely pointers to some actual objective realm. James criticized his audience for the tendency of science to ignore the unseen aspects of life and the universe.  As an example, he discussed the say the notion of a lemon causes salivation in the mouth of an individual; while there is no lemon, there is clearly a process occurring worthy of academic inquiry.

Classical Criticism

  1. In these lectures, James neglects the experience of ordinary religious people. He tends to tap the religious experiences of exceptional people, or exceptional experiences of religious people.
  2. James does not attempt to explain the phenomenon of institutional religion, or the psychology of religion in groups. Some critics believe the social aspects of religion cannot be ignored; a dynamic between society and the individual play a role in an individual's religious persuasion.
  3. Critics claim James overestimates the role of emotion in an individual's religious beliefs while ignoring the intellectual and vocational aspects of spirituality.
  4. Although others believe this might represents a sarcastic overtone, some say James gorges on pathology as a precursor for genuine religious experience.  Even as he dismisses "medical materialism," James might have brought up more arguments for the pathology of religion rather than against.

Personal Criticism

I feel sorry for James, as he was born in a time when physics and psychology were so separate on the horizon that few believed the two would ever join. In an effort to compensate for the difficulties of explaining the religious mannerisms of Homo Sapiens in terms of the science available to him then, James developed, or rather underdeveloped, a metaphysics of value. Today, with discoveries in physics (vis-a-vis biochemistry) leading toward advancements in neural networks, psychologists now see on the horizon a day when physics and psychology meet as one.

All twenty lectures of The Varieties of Religious Experience are available here: www.psywww.com/psyrelig/james/toc.htm

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