Skip to main content

Individualism in the Study of Religion

Image result for william james books

Here's a simple question: Why did William James take the approach that he did in Varieties of Religious Experience, an approach to that field marked by the individual experiences of believers in some higher power?

There is on one level the 'official' answer: the one that James gives. He told his lectures' audience that he has been invited to give lectures about religion, a wide-open mandate, and that in order to proceed he would have to select "out of the many meanings of the word [religion] ... the one meaning in which I wish to interest you particularly." The selection is presented as an arbitrary one, defining religion only "for the purpose of these lectures" as "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."

But no careful student of William James thinks that this is the whole answer. There are at least three not-at-all arbitrary reasons why James proceeded as he did.

First, because he was his father's son. He learned religion from Henry James Sr., the man who "wrote The Secret of Swedenborg and kept it." To a James, depth of religious experience would naturally have seemed coextensive with personal idiosyncrasies. More broadly, he was a product of the America that was also producing or had recently produced Joseph Smith, Dwight Moody, Mary Baker Eddy ... it was a time and place where highly individualized religious experience, pressing against the envelope of Protestant Christianity, was itself collectively valued.

Second, James wrote this way because James saw himself as a student of history, and the notions that (a) individuals matter in history, and (b) that individual action was in his day in danger of being lost in scholarly talk of aggregates and impersonal forces, was at or very near the heart of what all his scholarly endeavors were about. So when he had an opportunity to lecture about religion, it naturally became a exhibit in that broader case. Religion in its ecclesiastical form can of course be treated historically too, and when it does it can lend itself to interpretations that don't really need human names. Clericalism and Sectarianism and 'The Protestant Ethic' are all the sort of aggregating concepts of which James firmly disapproved. So he made the point that if you go beyond the forms to the human heart, forces and aggregates drop away in favor of "him who had it" where "it" is first-hand experience of the divine. Those who had "it" were accordingly often driven "into the wilderness ... where the Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, St. Francis, George Fox, and so many others had to go."

Third, James looks to individual experiences for the essence of religion because he is a pragmatist. His pragmatism is of a sort that makes of truth itself a very individual product, a report on some one person's wrestling with the world, and of what has so far worked in that struggle, as the turn to a higher power works for those who have found sobriety through AA (a movement in part inspired by James).

For James, at base, everything in the present and future as well as in the past, is about individuals "in their solitude."

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

England as a Raft?

In a lecture delivered in 1880, William James asked rhetorically, "Would England ... be the drifting raft she is now in European affairs if a Frederic the Great had inherited her throne instead of a Victoria, and if Messrs Bentham, Mill, Cobden, and Bright had all been born in Prussia?"

Beneath that, in a collection of such lectures later published under James' direction, was placed the footnote, "The reader will remember when this was written."

The suggestion of the bit about Bentham, Mill, etc. is that the utilitarians as a school helped render England ineffective as a European power, a drifting raft.

The footnote was added in 1897. So either James is suggesting that the baleful influence of Bentham, Mill etc wore off in the meantime or that he had over-estimated it.

Let's unpack this a bit.  What was happening in the period before 1880 that made England seem a drifting raft in European affairs, to a friendly though foreign observer (to the older brother…

Cancer Breakthrough

Hopeful news in recent days about an old and dear desideratum: a cure for cancer. Or at least for a cancer, and a nasty one at that.

The news comes about because investors in GlaxoSmithKline are greedy for profits, and has already inspired a bit of deregulation to boot. 

The FDA has paved the road for a speedy review of a new BCMA drug for multiple myeloma, essentially cancer of the bone marrow. This means that the US govt has removed some of the hurdles that would otherwise (by decision of the same govt) face a company trying to proceed with these trials expeditiously. 

This has been done because the Phase I clinical trial results have been very promising. The report I've seen indicates that details of these results will be shared with the world on Dec. 11 at the annual meeting of the American Society of Hematology. 

The European Medicines Agency has also given priority treatment to the drug in question. 

GSK's website identifies the drug at issue as "GSK2857916," althou…

Francesco Orsi

I thought briefly that I had found a contemporary philosopher whose views on ethics and meta-ethics checked all four key boxes. An ally all down the line.

The four, as regular readers of this blog may remember, are: cognitivism, intuitionism, consequentialism, pluralism. These represent the views that, respectively: some ethical judgments constitute knowledge; one important source for this knowledge consists of quasi-sensory non-inferential primary recognitions ("intuitions"); the right is logically dependent upon the good; and there exists an irreducible plurality of good.

Francesco Orsi seemed to believe all of these propositions. Here's his website and a link to one relevant paper:

https://sites.google.com/site/francescoorsi1/

https://jhaponline.org/jhap/article/view/3

What was better: Orsi is a young man. Born in 1980. A damned child! Has no memories of the age of disco!

So I emailed him asking if I was right that he believed all of those things. His answer: three out of …