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Authors Collection - William James - Religion & Spirituality Collection

William JamesWilliam James


Author of "The Varieties of Religious Experience"


William James was an original thinker in and between the disciplines of physiology, psychology and philosophy. His twelve-hundred page masterwork, The Principles of Psychology (1890), is a rich blend of physiology, psychology, philosophy, and personal reflection that has given us such ideas as "the stream of thought" and the baby's impression of the world "as one great blooming, buzzing confusion" (PP 462). It contains seeds of pragmatism and phenomenology, and influenced generations of thinkers in Europe and America, including Edmund Husserl, Bertrand Russell, John Dewey, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. James studied at Harvard's Lawrence Scientific School and the School of Medicine, but his writings were from the first as much philosophical as scientific. "Some Remarks on Spencer's Notion of Mind as Correspondence" (1878) and "The Sentiment of Rationality" (1879, 1882) presage his future pragmatism and pluralism, and contain the first statements of his view that philosophical theories are reflections of a philosopher's temperament or vision.

James hints at his religious concerns in his earliest essays and in The Principles, but they become more explicit in The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (1897), Human Immortality: Two Supposed Objections to the Doctrine (1898), The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) and A Pluralistic Universe (1909). James oscillated between thinking that a "study in human nature" such as Varieties could contribute to a "Science of Religion" and the belief that religious experience involves an altogether supernatural domain, somehow inaccessible to science but accessible to the individual human subject. James made some of his most important philosophical contributions in the last decade of his life. In a burst of writing in 1904-5 (collected in Essays in Radical Empiricism (1912)) he set out the metaphysical view most commonly known as "neutral monism," according to which there is one fundamental "stuff" which is neither material nor mental.  He also published Pragmatism (1907), the culminating expression of a set of views permeating his writings.

The Varieties of Religious Experience

Like The Principles of Psychology, Varieties is "A Study in Human Nature," as its subtitle says. But at some five hundred pages it is only half the length of The Principles of Psychology, befitting its more restricted, if still immense, scope. For James studies that part of human nature that is, or is related to, religious experience. His interest is not in religious institutions, ritual, or, even for the most part, religious ideas, but in "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" (V, 31).

James sets out a central distinction of the book in early chapters on "The Religion of Healthy-Mindedness" and "The Sick Soul." The healthy-minded religious person -- Walt Whitman is one of James's main examples -- has a deep sense of "the goodness of life," (79) and a soul of "sky-blue tint" (80). Healthy-mindedness can be involuntary, just natural to someone, but often comes in more willful forms. Liberal Christianity, for example, represents the triumph of a resolute devotion to healthy-mindedness over a morbid "old hell-fire theology" (91). James also cites the "mind-cure movement" of Mary Baker Eddy, for whom "evil is simply a lie, and any one who mentions it is a liar" (107). This remark allows us to draw the contrast with the religion of "The Sick Soul," for whom evil cannot be eliminated. From the perspective of the sick soul, "radical evil gets its innings" (163). No matter how secure one may feel, the sick soul finds that "[u]nsuspectedly from the bottom of every fountain of pleasure, as the old poet said, something bitter rises up: a touch of nausea, a falling dead of the delight, a whiff of melancholy...." These states are not simply unpleasant sensations, for they bring "a feeling of coming from a deeper region and often have an appalling convincingness" (136).  James's main examples here are Leo Tolstoy's "My Confession," John Bunyan's autobiography, and a report of terrifying "dread" -- allegedly from a French correspondent but actually from James himself. Some sick souls never get well, while others recover or even triumph: these are "twice-born." In chapters on "The Divided Self, and the Process of Its Unification" and on "Conversion," James discusses St. Augustine, Henry Alline, Bunyan, Tolstoy, and a range of popular evangelists, focusing on what he calls "the state of assurance" (241) they achieve. Central to this state is "the loss of all the worry, the sense that all is ultimately well with one, the peace, the harmony, the willingness to be, even though the outer conditions should remain the same" (248).

Varieties' classic chapter on "Mysticism" offers "four marks which, when an experience has them, may justify us in calling it mystical..." (380). The first is ineffability: "it defies expression...its quality must be directly experienced; it cannot be imparted or transferred to others." Second is a "noetic quality": mystical states present themselves as states of knowledge. Thirdly, mystical states are transient; and, fourth, subjects are passive with respect to them: they cannot control their coming and going. Are these states, James ends the chapter by asking, "windows through which the mind looks out upon a more extensive and inclusive world[?]" (428).

In chapters entitled "Philosophy" -- devoted in large part to pragmatism -- and "Conclusions," James finds that religious experience is on the whole useful, even "amongst the most important biological functions of mankind," but he concedes that this does not make it true. James articulates his own belief -- which he does not claim to prove -- that religious experiences connect us with a greater, or further, reality not accessible in our normal cognitive relations to the world: "The further limits of our being plunge, it seems to me, into an altogether other dimension of existence from the sensible and merely ‘understandable’ world" (515).

Religion & Spirituality Collection

"The Varieties of Religious Experience" by William James - It's an intellectual call for serious religious tolerance--indeed, respect--the vitality of which has not diminished through the subsequent decades!

"Bible Mystery and Bible Meaning" by Thomas Troward - The title is self-explanatory: it sets out to expound many of the mysteries contained in the Bible, and it succeeds! An excellent launching pad to a deeper meaning.

"The Science of Mind" by Ernest Holmes - Includes explanations on how to pray and meditate, heal oneself spiritually, find self confidence, and express love.

"Your Forces and How to Use Them" by Christian Larson - Treatise on the nature of soul and its attributes of Wisdom and Supreme Power.

"The Greatest Thing in the World" by Henry Drummond - Lays out his case that Love is the key ingredient to a successful life with precision, logic and eloquence.

"Within You is the Power" by Henry Thomas Hamblin - The enlightened message of this book moves forward in time with grace and ease, and serves to help bring the inner power of mind and spirit onto harmony with Universal Law.

"The Life of the Spirit" by Henry Thomas Hamblin - It is simply a beautiful book, one that hits straight and deep in the heart. It is full of truth and undoubtedly God inspired.

"The Power of Thought" by Henry Thomas Hamblin - This book  shows that you can , by changing your thoughts and mental attitude, "reverse the lever" and come into harmony with the Divine Idea.

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More William James Works
I have recently discovered the titles of several other books by William James and fortunately for all of us, they are still in print. All of these may be purchased directly from, or ordered through your normal book retailer.


Principles of Psychology (1890)

Essays in Radical Empiricism (1912)

The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)

Some Remarks on Spencer's Notion of Mind as Correspondence (1878) 

Human Immortality: Two Supposed Objections to the Doctrine (1898)

Pragmatism: A New Name for some Old Ways of Thinking (1907)

The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (1897)

The Moral Equivalent of War (1906)

The Sentiment of Rationality (1879, 1882)

A Pluralistic Universe (1909)


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