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William James and a Science of Religions

William James and a Science of Religions: Reexperiencing The Varieties of Religious Experience

Wayne Proudfoot editor
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  • Book Info
    William James and a Science of Religions
    Book Description:

    The "science of religion" is an important element in the interpretation of William James's work and in the methodology of the study of religion. An authority on pragmatism and the philosophy of religion, Wayne Proudfoot and a stellar group of contributors from a variety of disciplines including religion, philosophy, psychology, and history, bring innovative perspectives to James's work. Each contributor focuses on a specific theme in The Varieties of Religious Experience and suggests how James's treatment of that theme can fruitfully be brought to bear, sometimes with revisions or extensions, on current debate about religious experience.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50694-6
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Contributors
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    A century after its publication, The Varieties of Religious Experience continues to be widely read, but it has not yet received the critical attention it deserves. In recent years philosophers, historians, and scholars of literature and religion have shown renewed interest in American pragmatism and in the writings of William James. He is now read not only for historical reasons but also for insights that might illumine contemporary discussion in each of these disciplines. With few exceptions, however, scholars interested in James’s pragmatism, his work in psychology, or his historical or literary influence have not turned their attention to Varieties,...

  5. 1 “Damned for God’s Glory”: William James and the Scientific Vindication of Protestant Culture
    (pp. 9-30)

    When William James died in 1910, his lifelong friend, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., remarked that when James dealt with religion, he had tried “to turn the lights down low so as to give miracle a chance.”¹ Many items in the James canon feed this suspicion. Yet The Varieties of Religious Experience, James’s most sustained treatment of religion, constitutes a proposal that even the most private, mystical experiences offered as evidence for religious belief be brought out into the open, be made, indeed, the primary subject matter for “a science of religions,” an empirically oriented, publicly warranted inquiry...

  6. 2 Pragmatism and “an Unseen Order” in Varieties
    (pp. 31-47)

    Religious thinkers considering the relation between science and religion often stress the autonomy of the latter. Religion is not in the business of explaining the world; it provides an interpretation of a different sort: meaning, not causal explanation. If complete, this separation would preclude any conflict between the two realms. Claims in one would have nothing to do with those in the other. But it is not easy to keep them apart. The meanings that inform people’s lives can’t be sharply distinguished from the ways in which they make sense of what is happening to them in light of their...

  7. 3 The Fragmentation of Consciousness and The Varieties of Religious Experience: William James’s Contribution to a Theory of Religion
    (pp. 48-72)

    James structured The Varieties of Religious Experience around two large questions about religion: what does it do? (a question of function) and whence does it come? (a question of origins).¹ But, as he made clear in his opening lecture, his central concern was not so much with religion broadly conceived as with the experience of people who could be considered “‘geniuses’ in the religious line,” those whose original experiences set the pattern for others, rather than “ordinary religious believers” whose religion was made by others, communicated through tradition, and maintained by habit.² The deeper question that informed the question of...

  8. 4 James’s Varieties and the “New” Constructivism
    (pp. 73-85)

    It is puzzling, William James’s impact on the human sciences in America, especially his impact on psychology. He is not much read anymore, nor has he been for three-quarters of a century—not, in any case, by psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists. And The Varieties of Religious Experience, whose centenary we are celebrating, is rarely cited. Yet, for all that, William James has, without question, had a pervasive influence. But it has been an oblique and indirect influence—odd, given that psychology in America was virtually created by his magisterial Principles of Psychology. Indeed, it was his own Department of Philosophy...

  9. 5 Some Inconsistencies in James’s Varieties
    (pp. 86-97)

    In The Varieties of Religious Experience William James asks some good questions, but he does not offer a coherent set of answers to them. The book is riddled with inconsistencies. These are not merely incidental. They stem from James’s inability to make up his mind between arguing that supernaturalism might be true because it might be good for you and arguing that it is in fact true because there is ample experiential evidence for it. The most prominent among the inconsistencies I have in mind are the clashing definitions he offers of the term “religious” and the differing meanings of...

  10. 6 A Pragmatist’s Progress: The Varieties of James’s Strategies for Defending Religion
    (pp. 98-138)

    For all its richness of psychological description, William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience can easily engender philosophical disappointment. James’s ostensible purpose is the validation of religious experience, a task that seems to be announced throughout the earlier lectures, although his treatment of it is partial and qualified with “repeated postponements.”¹ At the beginning of Lectures XVI and XVII, devoted to mysticism, James tells us that push has come to shove, and that he intends to convince his reader “of the reality of the states in question [mystical states], and of the paramount importance of their function.”² From the very beginning...