A Brief Introduction to The Varieties of Religious Experience


[The following is the text of a lecture delivered in LBST 402 at Malaspina University-College (now Vancouver Island University) by Ian Johnston. This text is in the public domain, released June 1999. For comments or questions, please contact Ian Johnston


William James is, as most of you know, one of the two famous James brothers. The other one was not the famous gangster Jesse James but the novelist Henry James, who tried to cope with the moral complexities of his time by moving to England and becoming an English citizen (the same “solution” T. S. Eliot would adopt a generation later). William James was an eminent scientist, trained as a doctor and very well known as a foremost authority in the developing science of psychology and in the launching of America’s most original contributions to the development of philosophy, Pragmatism, of which this book is a particularly famous example..


The basis for this book as we have it was an invitation to William James to deliver the Gifford Lectures in Great Britain. This lecture series had been founded by Adam Gifford (1820-1887), “for promoting, advancing, teaching, and diffusing the study of natural theology, in the widest sense of that term, in other words, the knowledge of God” and “of the foundations of ethics.” James was not the first American to be invited, but his lecture series turned out to be far and away the most popular. In the ten years following the publication of his lectures in 1902, twenty-one impressions were required and fifteen more during the next twenty years. As a response to this text and to other works of James, Pragmatic Clubs were founded in the European capitals and for the first time American philosophical ideas exerted a wide influence on European thought.


By now in Liberal Studies you should be familiar with a useful approach to any text such as this: first, examine carefully the initial assumptions, then move to the methodology, and finally assess the conclusions. In doing this, we have stressed again and again, the importance of not leaping directly to an evaluation of the conclusions, on the ground that in many (perhaps even most) cases, the real importance of the book lies not in the persuasiveness of its conclusions but in the nature of the method, particularly the shaping of the initial questions which themselves as often as not shape immediately the method necessary to explore the questions. In keeping with this approach, then, let me begin by focusing on how James sets up his argument


The Opening of James’s Argument


James begins by setting aside very firmly the often used argument that by explaining the origins of something we have somehow satisfactorily explained its value. He is calling attention to what came to be known later in the century as the Genetic Fallacy. Yes, of course we can explain human actions or belief systems in terms of how they have come to be, but that tells us nothing about their value, which must be something divorced from origins. Hence, history does not necessarily resolve all questions of truth and value.


Let me cite a common example: students are often heard to complain that the mark they receive for an assignment is not commensurate with the amount of work they put into it. “But I worked so hard on that essay,” they say, “I should get a higher mark.” This is a particularly common version of the Genetic Fallacy that James is attacking. For it is clear that hard work is no criterion of quality, frustrating as it may be for many students that their work receives lower marks than the assignments of someone else who just happens to dash off the work apparently very casually.


At any rate, this opening argument enables James to set aside those who think they have explained religion adequately by pointing to this or that physical cause (a school of thought that James calls Medical Materialism). And in the course of this discussion James introduces the single most important principle that is the major theme, not only of James’s discussion of religion, but also of his entire philosophy--that the value of something is to be judged by its effects, not by its origin, or, in James’s phrase, by their fruits you shall know them, not by their roots.


It quickly becomes apparent here that James is a radical empiricist, perhaps the most extreme example we have met. For him all questions of value have to meet the text of experience. And by experience he does not mean something with a capital E--some universal norm. No, he means experiences, the active consequences which occur in the lives of particular individuals.


At any rate you must all be ready now to judge the religious life by its results exclusively, and I shall assume that the bugaboo of morbid origin will scandalize our piety no more. (38)

As an empiricist, James furthermore denies to the word “religion” any single principle or essence. The name is a collective word, a classification label, for a huge number of different experiences, and the proper job of investigating religion must be to consider very specific examples of all the different manifestations of human experiences which fit into this rubric. His approach is thus at the opposite end of the philosophical spectrum from anyone who seeks a priori to define “religion” and then to deduce its characteristics in some logically systematic manner which will then enable him to judge what is religion and what is not.. James’s method is clearly similar to Aristotle’s but far more ruthlessly applied.


Much of the opening is then taken up with explaining the criteria for inclusion in the category of religious experiences. Obviously, James has to establish some of these, and he does so on the basis of numerous, often very lengthy examples (as a good empiricist should). This, it should be clear, is not an attempt to arrive at a single clear definition of religion but simply to impose some limits on what will count as a religious experience. The discussion leads to his famous and in some quarters controversial definition of the sorts of experiences he is going to include:

Religion, therefore, as I now ask you arbitrarily to take it, shall mean for us 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. (46)

And he goes on to narrow the definition of the divine a few pages further on:

So I propose--arbitrarily again, if you please--to narrow our definition once more by saying that the word “divine,” as employed therein, shall mean for us not merely the primal and enveloping and real, for that meaning if taken without restriction might prove too broad. The divine shall mean for us only such a primal reality as the individual feels impelled to respond to solemnly and gravely, and neither by a curse nor a jest. (51)

This definition and many of James’s examples have been criticized for their very Protestant emphasis, but that criticism does not hurt the heart of James’s argument. Since, for him, all experience is radically individualistic--our life is made up of our experiences as individuals--the emphasis on the privacy of religious experience naturally follows. So much of his book necessarily consists of a catalogue of personal accounts of private religious experiences. His methodology commits him to such a survey, and the classifications he produces (for example, the famous one between the healthy-minded and the sick souls) provide an interesting way of organizing his data. He admits that his criteria for determining a religious experience are arbitrary but he appeals to his audience for their agreement. And, as we see, any disagreement with this or that criterion (like, say, seriousness) does no harm to James’s position, although it might make the book much longer, since it would require him to include more examples.


What does emerge as interesting--and something I will return to because it is worth debating--is the fact that James displays a distinct preference for certain forms of religious experience over others. On the face of it, these statements of preference would seem to be unjustified. After all, if we judge the value of something by its results, as he announces at the start, and all lives are a collection of personal experiences lived individually, then who is to claim that one set of consequences is preferable to another? We shall return to this problem at the end of the lecture.


The Value of the Religious Life: Pragmatism


This question brings me to the most important and intriguing part of this lecture, namely, James’s notions of truth and value. For James, as an empiricist, is determined to rescue our understanding of religion from dogmatic systems asserting logical truths about religion, and yet at the same time he is clearly ready to proclaim that some forms of experience are worth a lot more than others. This question James faces squarely in the final lectures of the series, starting with the section on “The Values of Saintliness” (278).


Any discussion of this topic immediately involves the name of the philosophical system most closely associated with James--Pragmatism, which he is widely credited with launching in August 1898 in lecture at the University of California at Berkeley (although the origin of Pragmatism is a matter of dispute).


For James, Pragmatism is not primarily a philosophical method. It is, by contrast, a system of judging whether our ideas and beliefs are true and valuable. As a psychologist James believes that what he calls Pragmatism is indeed the way almost everyone really does think, so the term is as much descriptive as anything else. In brief the main elements of the theory are as follows:


Human beings lead purposeful individual lives. We make decisions for ourselves on the basis of who we are, driven by the unique make up of our experiences, our desires, our unconscious motives, our culture, and our particular circumstances. James is no determinist--we do have the freedom to make decisions and moral choices. But his view of human beings is firmly rooted in biology--our decisions and choices arise out of the organic natures we possess, and these are radically individual.


The life that confronts us is, in James’s famous phrase a “buzzing, blooming confusion.” When we seek what is the right thing to do we bring to bear all the equipment of our individual minds in a “pragmatic” search, looking for what is going to succeed in these particular circumstances. We do not consult some ideal blueprint or some universal rule (like, say, the categorical imperative)--instead we focus on the consequences of various actions. And we test our decisions, not in accordance with any rational formula, but on the basis of their success for us. If particular ideas work for us, then they are true and we will bring them to bear on further experiences. “Beliefs, in short,” James claims, “are rules for action; and the whole function of thinking is but one step in the production of active habits.” (369)


The basis for this view of human action was firmly biological. James claims that is, in fact, the way we actually do think. As he puts the matter in “Reflex Action and Theism”:

the structural unit of the nervous system is in fact a triad, neither of whose elements has any independent existence. The sensory impression exists only for the sake of awaking the central process of reflection, and the central process of reflection exists only for the sake of calling forth the final act. All action is thus re-action upon the outer world; and the middle stage of consideration or contemplation or thinking is only a place of transit, the bottom of a loop, both whose ends have their point of application in the outer world. If it should ever have no roots in the outer world, if it should ever happen that it led to no active measures, it would fail of its essential function, and would have to be considered either pathological or abortive. The current of life which runs in at our eyes or ears is meant to run out at our hands, feet, or lips. The only use of thoughts it occasions while inside is to determine its direction to whichever of these organs shall, on the whole, under the circumstances actually present, act in the way most propitious to our welfare.” (qu. Barzun 21).

We judge our ideas, therefore, in action: “To develop a thought’s meaning we need therefore only determine what conduct it is fitted to produce; that conduct is for us its sole significance; and the tangible fact at the root of all our thought-distinctions is that there is no one of them so fine as to consist in anything but a possible difference of practice” (369).


How does one know that the idea has met the test of experience, that our belief, judged by its results, is rationally true? James replies (in “The Sentiment of Rationality”): “The only answer can be that he will recognize rationality as he recognizes everything else, by certain subjective marks. What, then, are the marks? A strong feeling of ease, peace, rest, is one of them. The transition from a state of puzzle and perplexity to rational comprehension is full of lively relief and pleasure.”


James, Barzun notes, liked to use an example he borrowed from the Italian pragmatist Papuan, who likened Pragmatism to a corridor running down a hotel floor, leading to different rooms (Suckiel 6). In each room, a different belief system may be offered, but in each room, if the philosophy is to be practised, it should meet the pragmatic test. If the experience is successful, if the belief system is useful to you, then it is true.


Anything which has no connection with the practical experiences of our actions is irrelevant. This was the basic method proposed by the American Charles Sanders Pierce in 1878 in an essay called “How to Make Our Ideas Clear,” in which he suggested that if particular changes in an idea had no practical consequences for our actions then there was no difference between the original and the changed idea and the truth or falsity of the issue was therefore irrelevant. To this rule, Pierce gave the name Pragmatism (after the Greek word pragma, meaning “a thing done”).


James reiterates this stance with great emphasis in the section “Philosophy,” stressing that the various “proofs” for many of the attributes of God are in this sense irrelevant, since their truth or falsity has no practical consequences for us. And he strives to link this approach to the truth with the greatest philosophical traditions of the country in which he is a guest:

What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder. The Continental schools of philosophy have too often overlooked the fact that man’s thinking is organically connected with his conduct. It seems to me to be the chief glory of English and Scottish thinkers to have kept the organic connection in view. The guiding principle of British philosophy has in fact been that every difference must make a difference, every theoretical difference somewhere issue in a practical difference, and that the best method of discussing points of theory is to begin by ascertaining what practical difference would result from one alternative or the other being true. What is the particular truth in question known as? In what facts does it result? What is its cash value in terms of particular experience? This is the characteristic English way of taking up a question. In this way, you remember, Locke takes up the question of personal identity. What you mean by it is just your chain of particular memories, says he. That is the only concretely verifiable part of its significance. All further ideas about it, such as the oneness or manyness of the spiritual substance on which it is based, are therefore void of intelligible meaning; and propositions touching such ideas may be indifferently affirmed or denied. So Berkeley with his “matter.” The cash-value of matter is our physical sensations. That is what it is known as, all that we concretely verify of its conception. That, therefore, is the whole meaning of the term “matter”--any other pretended meaning is mere wind of words. Hume does the same thing with causation. It is known as habitual antecedence, and as tendency on our part to look for something definite to come. Apart from this practical meaning, it has no significance whatsoever, and books about it may be committed to the flames, says Hume. . . . When all is said and done, it was English and Scotch writers, and not Kant, who introduced “the critical method” into philosophy, the one method fitted to make philosophy a study worthy of serious men. For what seriousness can possible remain in debating philosophic propositions that will never make an appreciable difference to us in action? (367-8)

Thus, questions about religious beliefs which make no difference to our practice, to our understanding and our actions, which have, in James’s very unfortunate choice of phrase, no “cash value” for us, are totally irrelevant.


This view of religion enables James strongly to endorse religious experience as an essential, perhaps the most essential, part of life, for it provides us with practical benefits in a way that no other form of experience, least of all science, can. His justification of religious truth is therefore practical, pluralistic, always approximate, fluid, tolerant, individualistic, and undogmatic--in a word, very much in keeping with the spirit of liberal individualism of the society of which he was a part.


Thus, we must value religious experience as a magnificent contribution to human life; its truth manifests itself in the wonderful ways in which it enriches human conduct and feeling. Yet we must never deceive ourselves that we will ever be able conclusively to demonstrate by rational argument the objective presence of God. To this point James returns again and again, giving at one point something of the last word on the favorite nineteenth century “proof” for the existence of God, the Design Argument. The quotation is long, but I cannot resist such a fine example of James’s prose, even in a footnote:

It must not be forgotten that any form of disorder in the world might, by the design argument, suggest a God for just that kind of disorder. The truth is that any state of things whatever that can be named is logically susceptible of teleological interpretation. The ruins of the earthquake at Lisbon, for example: the whole of past history had to be planned exactly as it was to bring about in the fullness of time just that particular arrangement of debris of masonry, furniture, and once living bodies. No other train of causes would have been sufficient. And so of any other arrangement, bad or good, which might as a matter of fact be found resulting anywhere from previous conditions. To avoid such pessimistic consequences and save its beneficent designer, the design argument accordingly invokes two other principles, restrictive in their operation. The first is physical: Nature’s forces tend of their own accord only to disorder and destruction, to heaps of ruins, not to architecture. This principle, though plausible at first sight, seems, in the light of recent biology, to be more and more improbable. The second principle is one of anthropomorphic interpretation. No arrangement that for us is “disorderly” can possible have been an object of design at all. This principle is of course a mere assumption in the interests of anthropomorphic Theism.

When one views the world with no definite theological bias one way or the other, one sees that order and disorder, as we now recognize them, are purely human inventions. We are interested in certain types of arrangement, useful, aesthetic, or morel--so interested that whenever we find them realized, the fact emphatically rivets our attention. The result is that we work over the contents of the world selectively. It is overflowing with disorderly arrangements from our point of view, but order is the only thing we care for and look at, and by choosing, one can always find some sort of orderly arrangement in the midst of any chaos. If I should throw down a thousand beans at random upon a table, I could doubtless, by eliminating a sufficient number of them, leave the rest in almost any geometrical pattern you might propose to me, and you might then say that the pattern was the thing prefigured beforehand, and that the other beans were mere irrelevance and packing material. Our dealings with Nature are just like this. She is a vast plenum in which our attention draws capricious lines in innumerable directions. We count and name whatever lies upon the special lines we trace, whilst the other things and the untraced lines are neither named nor counted. There are in reality infinitely more things “unadapted” to each other in this world than there are things “adapted”; infinitely more things with irregular relations than with regular relations between them. But we look for the regular kind of thing exclusively, and ingeniously discover and preserve it in our memory. It accumulates with other regular kinds, until the collective of them fills our encyclopedias. Yet all the while between and around them lies an infinite anonymous chaos of objects that no one ever thought of together, of relations that never yet attracted our attention.

The facts of order from which the physico-theological argument starts are thus easily susceptible of interpretation as arbitrary human products. So long as this is the case, although of course no argument against God follows, it follows that the argument for him still fails to constitute a knockdown proof of his existence. It will be convincing only to those who on other grounds believe in him already. (365)

Furthermore, only a belief in God, James maintains, can give us sufficient justification for our natural desires for a morally strenuous life marked by concern for others. James clearly values this form of life more than others, and he believes that human beings will devote themselves to the heroic, the charitable, and the morally demanding if religious ideas are available to them. Whether this is true or not is open to debate, but no one can deny, I think, that religion can be and has been inspiring to individuals in their conduct towards others. Thus, those who miss the point by accusing James of encouraging hedonism--if it feels all right to me then it must be true--miss the point. Without religious ideas (whatever their origin) we will lack any proper justification for a morally strenuous life, and we will even fail to understand those for whom the morally strenuous life is more important than commodious living. Without religious ideas, therefore, the quality of human life for James will suffer enormously.


On this point James differs pointedly with Nietzsche (to whom he is in many other respects quite similar). Nietzsche, you recall, saw the religious life as encouraging a slave mentality, forcing passionate spirits into obedience in a way that severely limits their potential. James’s view is quite different here. For him the varieties of religious life are an encouragement to the finest potentialities of the human spirit; without such encouragement many worthy human actions would never take place.


Does this pragmatic view commit us to a certain relativism? Well, yes and no. Religious truths are a matter of consequences to particular individuals, yet human beings belong to particular historical periods from which they cannot entirely divorce themselves. So individuals are not free to be whatever they want. Nor, as we shall see, are all choices equally valuable, equally true. On the other hand individuals are the final determiners of the adequacy of their ideas: “The most salient criterion of cognitive value is the fulfillment of subjective preference” (Suckiel 29).


And James’s pragmatism would seem to involve one of the oldest views hostile to mainstream philosophy--that the end justifies the means. Since there is nothing inherently true in a belief system, we adopt it as we would a tool and judge its efficacy by the result--our faith is justified if the end is appropriate, if its “cash value” works for us.


What happens then to communal or shared values? Those, James argues, are the product of our accidentally determined historical circumstances--the things we happen to agree upon because given the events of our history we find their consequences useful to us. There is no question here of “progress” towards some universal fulfillment (as in Kant or Marx)--the values we share in our communities, like the ideas we have in our personal lives, we adopt and follow because they are useful, they work for us.


Thus, things which we value a great deal in our shared life just happen to be ideas which we have found useful. As Barzun points out, for example, “It follows that the idea of human equality is a social assumption made for its desirable consequences. . . . Modern egalitarian theory is thus a pragmatic moral assumption, which has largely created what it hoped for. It replaces by fiat the separate equalities of birth, fighting ability, religion, or whatever.” What led us to adopt this idea? Well that is a matter of our historical circumstances, determined by the accidents of history.


Thus, the subjective view of an action’s value does not rule out judgments about competing systems of belief. This becomes explicit at the opening of Lecture 19, “Other Characteristics,” where James makes the following claim:

the uses of religion, its uses to the individual who has it, and the uses of the individual himself to the world, are the best arguments that truth is in it. We return to the empirical philosophy: the true is what works well, even though the qualification “on the whole” may always have to be added. (380, italics added)

The italicized phrase calls attention to how we are to adjudicate “the uses of the individual to the world.” Without some overarching view of justice, how are we to judge? James’s views of this point are consistent with his pragmatic view of truth. We judge according to the standards of our time, according to the rules we have, for practical reasons, adopted. In considering the value of saintliness, for example, James is scathing about those whose religious views are of no practical benefit to others:

But when the intellect, as in this Louis, is originally no larger than a pin’s head, and cherishes ideas of God of corresponding smallness, the result, notwithstanding the heroism put forth, is on the whole repulsive. Purity, we see in the object-lesson, is not the one thing needful; and it is better than a life should contract many a dirt-mark, than forfeit usefulness in its efforts to remain unspotted. (299)

James makes clear, however, that this is a modern judgment, based upon a much stronger modern sense among human beings of the importance of human interaction:

Today, rightly or wrongly, helpfulness in general human affairs is, in consequence of one of those secular mutations in moral sentiment of which I spoke, deemed an essential element of worth in character; and to be of some public or private use is also reckoned as a species of divine service. (299)

There is no sense here or elsewhere that James thinks that we are more progressive or better than the age which worshipped and canonized Louis--there is no right and wrong in the processes of history. Our culture has mutated (the biological metaphor is deliberate) and we have determined for our better survival that conduct like St Louis’ is a lower form of religious life than something more immediately useful to others.


Such a view obviously calls for a new philosophical mission of the sort which John Dewey refers to in his essay on Darwin. And, like Dewey, James calls upon philosophers to be less dogmatic and more helpful, more useful, or in the phrase of a modern pragmatist Richard Rorty, to turn from trying to edifying us all about the Truth (with a capital T) toward trying to provide intellectual therapy which will assist our discussions. They must foster the process of clarifying our conceptions and promoting the discussions which will permit people to become more aware of how and why they act and of reaching agreement on useful truths, but they cannot rule with dogmatic power and certainty.


This raises a final question concerning the social and political consequences of such a view. To what extent is a commitment to immediate experiences and the shared values produced by the community’s sense of usefulness simply an endorsement of a particular status quo (in James’s case a pluralistic liberal society). What happens to ideals of justice, when all we have is a contingent historical stage of agreement? What if what we agree upon is unjust? James would presumably state that dogmatic standards of just and unjust are irrelevant, unless they become an integral part of our successful actions. For those standards to become true, they would have to become socially effective, they would have to, that is, become useful tools in people’s individual and collective lives. And for that to happen, the historical circumstances and the cultural efforts of human beings in their interrelationships will have to persuade whoever needs to be persuaded of the efficacy of the new ideal. But change will never come about, cannot ever come about, simply because someone has claimed to “prove” the truth of the ideal.


The consequences of this position I leave for you to consider, and I urge you to bring to the seminar discussions this afternoon your reflections on that subject.




Barzun, Jacques. A Stroll With William James (New York: Harper and Row, 1983)

James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Mentor, 1958)

Suckiel, Ellen Kappy. The Pragmatic Philosophy of William James (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982)