Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Best Hits of William James: Varieties of Religious Experience, pt. I

For my anxious readers out there who desire more than this blog seems to be offering these days I will be posting a few "best hits" of the opening chapters to William James' seminal text, Varieties of Religious Experience. Enjoy!


“It seems a natural thing for us to listen whilst the Europeans talk. The contrary habit, of talking whilst the Europeans listen, we have not yet acquired; and in him who first makes the adventure it begets a certain sense of apology being due for so presumptuous an act.” (p. 3)

“If the inquiry be psychological, not religious institutions, but rather religious feelings and religious impulses must be its subject, and I must confine myself to those more developed subjective phenomena recorded in literature produced by articulate and fully conscious men, in works of piety and autobiography.” (p. 4)

“We must make search rather for the original experiences which were the pattern-setters to all this mass of suggested feeling and imitated conduct. These experiences we can only find in individuals for whom religion exists not as dull habit, but as an acute fever [madness] rather.” (p. 8)

“But any object that is infinitely important to us and awakens our devotion feels to us also as if it must be sui generis and unique. Probably a crab would be filled with a sense of personal outrage if it could hear us class it without ado or apology as a crustacean, and thus dispose of it. ‘ I am no such thing,’ it would say; I am MYSELF, MYSELF alone.” (p. 10)

“Modern psychology, finding definite psycho-physical connections to hold good, assumes as a convenient hypothesis that the dependence of mental states upon bodily conditions must be thoroughgoing and complete… But now, I ask you, how can such an existential account of facts of mental history decide in one way or another upon their spiritual significance?... Scientific theories are organically conditioned just as much as religious emotions are; and if we only knew the facts intimately enough, we should doubtless see ‘the liver’ determining the dicta of the sturdy atheist as decisively as it does those of the Methodist under conviction anxious about his soul.” (p. 15)

“To plead the organic causation of a religious state of mind, then, in refutation of its claim to possess superior spiritual value, is quite illogical and arbitrary, unless one has already worked out in advance some psycho-physical theory connecting spiritual values in general with determinate sorts of psychological change. Otherwise none of our thoughts and feelings, not even out scientific doctrines, not even our dis-beliefs, could retain any value as revelations of truth, for every one of them without exception flows from the state of its possessor’s body at the time.” (pp. 15-16)

“By their fruits ye shall know them, not by their roots.” (p. 20)

“To understand a thing rightly we need to see it both out of its environment and in it, and to have acquaintance with the whole range of its variations.” (p. 23)

“Few of us are not in any way infirm, or even diseased; and our very infirmities help us unexpectedly. In the psychopathic temperament we have the emotionality which is the sine qua non of moral perception; we have the intensity and tendency to emphasis which are the essence of practical moral vigor; and we have the love of metaphysics and mysticism which carry one’s interests beyond the surface of the sensible world.” (p. 26)

“What, then, is more natural than that this temperament should introduce one to regions of religious truth, to corners of the universe, which your robust Philistine type of nervous system, forever offering its biceps to be felt, thumping its breast, and thanking Heaven that it hasn’t a single morbid fiber in its composition, would be sure to hide forever from its self-satisfied possessors?” (p. 26)

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