Reflecting on William James
This week I have been thinking about the American philosopher and psychologist William James, in particular his most famous book, which was one of my birthday presents, ‘The Variety of Religious Experience’ (published in 1902). William James was born in 1842 in New York city. His father, Henry James Sr., was a theologian who became an ardent Swedenborgian, an interesting religious movement. As the ideas of Swedenborgianism make up the backdrop upon William James life, being his father’s preoccupation, I’ll begin by saying a bit about the movement. It was a new religious movement which formed here in England at the end of the 18th Century, and the denomination still exists in a small way today. There are two Swedenborgian churches in England, and a few house churches. There are about 30,000 Swedenborgians worldwide, so if you think we’re a small denomination…! They formed in response to the writings of a Swedish scientist, mystic, and theologian, Emanuel Swedenborg, who claimed to have had various visions concerning Jesus over a 25-year period (again in the mid-18th Century). It’s a universalistic religion; they believe that salvation is attained not through ascribing to a particular set of doctrines, but rather, it’s an inner experience of opening ourselves to love and understanding. They affirm then that pluralistic idea that all can come unto the sacred through our respective religious traditions. As to whether they’re Unitarian or Trinitarian, they sit somewhere in the middle, rejecting an orthodox Trinitarian theology, but affirming the divinity of Jesus. And all coalesce around their mutual appreciation of Swedenborg’s writings, which are mystical and esoteric in tone. Here is an example:
‘I have often talked with angels on this subject, and they have invariably declared that in heaven they are unable to divide the Divine into three, because they know and perceive that the Divine is One and this One is in the Lord.’
It shouldn’t come as a surprise, given all I’ve said, that Unitarians too were drawn in by his ideas. By way of mutual appreciation for Swedenborg, Henry James Sr. (Williams’ father) befriended Ralph Waldo Emerson. Henry was also associated with the New England transcendentalist crowd more broadly, alongside figures such as Thoreau. It was into this general intellectual milieu that William James was born, his godfather being Emerson himself. Henry, the kindly eccentric that he was, was not a fan of mainstream American schooling, and so William received an eclectic education, for a time being put in boarding schools in Europe (in England, in Germany, in France), for a time being under the tutelage of private teachers, and for a time being taught by his father. A very broad set of educational experiences.
They were a family always reading and discussing books. William’s brother, Henry James Jr., would go on to become one of America’s leading 20th Century novelists, winning the Nobel Prize in literature. Theirs was a dinner table with ongoing, often ferocious, intellectual debate. All this variety though made deciding what to focus his life on difficult for James. For a time he considered becoming an artist, before finally deciding to go to Harvard University and study medicine. Though he never practiced medicine, as soon as he graduated he had a call to adventure, to exploration, and accepted an offer to go on an expedition to Brazil with an academic friend of his, who was going to collect specimens. Brazil at that time was an unknown entity. No sooner though had he arrived, and being amongst the bugs, the snakes, and the tropical diseases, he longed once more to be back amongst his books. Adventure wasn’t for him after all. So, he returned to the United States, and Harvard University offered him a researcher’s post. He’s in the medical research department, and his attention turns to psychology. Over the next ten years, he works on his seminal book, ‘The Principles of Psychology’, published in 1890. Up until then, psychology as a distinct discipline within medicine didn’t really exist; the book defined the field. He went on to become the first American professor to teach psychology, and he’s regarded today as the father of American psychology.
If I use the term ‘Stream of consciousness’, you all know what that means - the flow of thoughts in the conscious mind. It was during this period that William James coined that metaphor. He also observed something that we now all take for granted, that our emotional state modulates our experience of any given stimuli. For example, the depressed person feels pain more acutely. The thoughts of each person then exist solely within the personal domain; each thought in each moment is unique to that individual and to that moment, it cannot be repeated. I can try and explain an idea to you for instance, but I can’t know you’re having the thought in the same way that I’m having it. You’re almost all certainly not. This point is profoundly important for religion. If you have a supernatural (out of time) conception of God, your inner mind, your inner self, though it cannot be known by another person, it at least can be known by God. If that conception of God falls away, then in this most profound sense you cannot be known.
James spent almost his entire academic career at Harvard, from his initial appointment in 1873 to his retirement in 1907. Over this period, he oscillated between his two overlapping fields, psychology and philosophy, all the while being deeply engaged in the sorts of religious questions his father and godfather planted within him. This all ultimately culminated in his most famous book, ‘The Variety of Religious Experience’, published in the wake of the speaking tour he embarked upon in retirement. The book, ‘The Variety of Religious Experience’, is not really a book, rather it’s a series of twenty lectures strung together, lectures he gave as part of ‘The Gifford Lectures’ on natural theology at Edinburgh University. These lectures were set up by Lord Gifford. Lord Gifford, the Scottish judge, who in his 20s had the fortune of hearing William’s godfather, Ralph Waldo Emerson, speak on religion. Gifford found Emerson’s ideas so inspiring and uplifting, in contrast with the stuffy Scottish Presbyterianism he grew up on, he wanted to fund lectures of that ilk in perpetuity. In short then, during these lectures, William is reflecting on one question: what is truth? The scientist, the empiricist, may say there is no evidence for God, and therefore there is no God. But given that, what does one do with all these people throughout the world, throughout history, claiming to have had spiritual experiences? Though William never directly references the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg in these talks, he is a case in point, clearly at play in the back of William’s mind. Swedenborg, that 18th Century scientist, who at the age of 50, suddenly and quite inexplicably starts having these profound mystical visions, which are extraordinarily insightful. That must count for something?
William makes the case, and I’m not sure I would entirely go along with this, but he makes the case that a true belief is such because it proves useful to the believer. Which is going back to that previous point regarding the wholly personal nature of our interior world; we are each worlds unto ourselves, and if in our world we experience a divine presence for example, then that divine presence is true and there’s nothing more that can be said to negate that. Whether that inner truth corresponds with an outer truth is an irrelevant question to William, which is frustrating. We don’t just want our beliefs to be true in a solipsistic internal world of our making, we want them to be true in a broader sense, to correspond with ‘reality’ in some way. But this belies the extent to which we as human beings are constantly putting things and ideas into thought categories, and believing that in doing so, we are describing reality. But really, we’re just creating worlds of meaning which are satisfactory to our narrow frame upon reality, but not to reality itself. William then is making the claim that we cannot access capital ‘T’ Truth, but only our interior worlds of truth, interior worlds we should and must develop and shape to be as useful to us as possible, because the more useful to us they are, the truer to us they are. As I intimated, I would go along with William most of the way. I certainly do believe our access to reality is compromised in a way seldom acknowledged. Though I don’t believe truth categories are wholly confined to the individualistic sphere, I think William undervalues the extent to which truth can be carried by a community of people collectively, and furthermore I wouldn’t rule out the presence of a mythological substrata, a primordial collective unconscious, comprising truths therein. But in saying that, you need only disagree with me, and William’s point would triumph. That’s the irony of William’s position. He is making a truth claim himself by saying that truth operates in this individualistic manner, and by disagreeing with him you are bolstering his point.
‘The Variety of Religious Experience’ then, is a survey of the types of religious experiences people have the world over. He skirts between two positions in the book. On one hand William wants to assert that there is value in such religious experiences, that they can provide the contours of meaning for our lives, while at the same time, William wants to maintain the integrity of the scientific perspective. He does so by affirming that there is no conflict, and that the appearance of conflict only arises when you ask bad questions. On the other hand though, contradicting himself a little, he really wants to go slightly further than that. He wants to assert that there are truths one can access through religion which are unattainable to those with a wholly science originated worldview, a naturalistic worldview. I share this conflict with William. I too believe there is something in religion inaccessible to those without religion, but also, like William, it’s not clear to me what that ‘something’ is. I would speculate it has something to do with an awareness of our collective unconscious, the primordial mythological substrata. Despite the fact that William is writing before Carl Jung, he nevertheless does anticipate many of Jung’s ideas. As an aside, it seems far more natural to see Carl Jung as not so much the successor to Sigmund Freud (as we have been led to believe), but rather, the successor to William James, as both Jung and William believed the unconscious could play a redemptive role in our lives, unlike Freud who believed it was merely a disruptive force. There is an interior, wider self, from which redemption flows.
In closing, I want to return to Henry James Sr, William James’ father. In particular I want to return to his dining table, a dining table around which the James family were ensnared in passionate (often ferocious) debate. Discussing theology, philosophy, literature, and of course the writings of Swedenborg, Henry did in fact move away from Swedenborg’s ideas in later life, as he came to regard Swedenborgianism as too narrow in outlook. Nevertheless, he was always in accord with that kind of universalism, which in turn shaped their homely climate of free inquiry. After all, if you believe that we all can access the sacred, or truth, on our own terms in some sense, then it allows you to release others in their search for meaning. It allows you to welcome disagreement. As William developed his own philosophical views, he certainly disagreed with his father a great deal. But a passion for the cut and thrust of debate, and a passion for ideas, always made such disagreement affable. Because after all, to paraphrase William, although I may disagree with you, although I may strongly disagree with you and try to convince you of my point of view, I cannot make what you believe wrong. Only you can make you wrong. It’s all then a matter of character, a matter of attitude. Intellectual disagreement should be a joyful activity. If you enter into some intellectual sparring after all, if you disagree with someone, that should be taken as sign that you respect the other person’s opinion enough that you want to change it.
And finally, to quote William James directly, “The greatest revolution of our generation is the discovery that human beings, by changing the inner attitudes of their minds, can change the outer aspects of their lives.”