In this post, I am going to share the thesis of my former student (thesis supervisee) Ms. Glory Joy Paghasian on William James Existential Pragmatism. Ms. Paghasian graduated BA in Philosophy (Cum Laude) from Silliman University in March 2015. I hope that this post will help philosophy students who are writing their thesis as a final requirement for their degree, as it will serve as a model thesis for them.
William James’s Existential Pragmatism:
On the Role of Religious Experience in Attaining a Meaningful Life
Glory Joy Paghasian
Rationale of the Study
In this research paper, I critically engage William James’s notion of a meaningful life through an understanding of his theory of religious experience. I argue that we can find in James a kind of philosophy of life, which we can rightly call as “existential pragmatism”, that is also similar to the already existing brand of existentialism. This is motivated by the idea that scholars working on William James’s theory of religious experience have overlooked the role of religious experience in attaining a meaningful life, an ideal life situation which has been greatly undermined in the contemporary society.
As we can observe, individuals in the contemporary society now rely mostly on technology in drawing meaning in life as it gives them satisfaction and happiness. In fact, according to the famous marketing professor Michael Saren, it is part of human nature to consume. However, the consuming experience of the individuals, as we can observe, is going beyond the normal. Every now and then, new gadgets are produced not only to satisfy the basic needs of the individuals but also to manipulate their consumption habit in order to make them insatiable. For sure, individuals in the contemporary society are now losing their sense of true meaning in life as their consumption of modern technology grows to an unprecedented degree. As we can see, this is because they now focus on the material aspect of life and draw meaning on it, but this is not possible because they only gain fleeting pleasure in it, not real satisfaction necessary in the realization of a meaningful life.
Another problem that we can observe in the contemporary society which leads to a meaningless life or, to use an existentialist jargon, inauthentic existence, is the manipulation of the minds of the people by the different existing religious institutions that do not emphasize the true sense of religious life. Concrete examples of these are the fundamentalist groups, such as the El Shaddai movement of Mike Velarde and Ang Dating Daan of Eliseo Soriano. Mike Velarde, for one, is known for his preaching with the use of inanimate objects, such as umbrella, handkerchief, and egg as a way of receiving blessings from God. He requires members of El Shaddai to bring such objects which are held aloft during service. Another is Eliseo Soriano’s literal interpretation of the bible which he seemingly imposed on the minds of his followers. Without hesitation, these people follow what their ministers asked them to do. They think that they will have satisfaction and happiness in life if they engage in this kind of religious experience. But for William James, this experience cannot be qualified as true religious experience, one that leads to a fuller and better life, because it is not philosophically reasonable and morally beneficial. As I will show in Chapter 2, a true religious experience for William James is one that is philosophically reasonable and morally beneficial.
If we evaluate the kind of religious experience that I mentioned above based on James’s theory of religious experience, then we can truly say that it is not a true religious experience. The acts and experiences of these seemingly religious people are not reasonable enough because it does not make sense and it does not truly contribute to the moral and spiritual development of the individual as well as the community.
Now, given the above, we can truly say that we cannot rely mainly on material things and false religions in our attempt to find meaning in life. Again, this is why there is a need to appropriate James’s theory of religious experience because it provides us a powerful moral grammar for a fuller and better life, an ideal life situation that is needed in the contemporary society
Several scholars have recently conducted serious studies on William James’s notion of religious experience, such as Michael R. Slater, Charles Taylor, Wayne Proudfoot, Lynn Bridgers, and Ellen Kappy Suckiel to name a few. This clearly suggests not only the relevance, but also the timeliness and necessity of this proposed research project. Michael R. Slater’s work titled “Metaphysical Intimacy and the Moral Life: The Ethical Project of the Varieties of Religious Experience” deals mainly with the metaphysical relationship through religious experience as a way of human flourishing. His work focuses on the religious subjects who have religious experience since he considers religious life as a necessary condition for maximal human flourishing. This leads us to view religious and ethical issues as fundamentally interconnected. According to Slater, being metaphysically intimate or having a soteriological relationship with a divine being is the highest good which is the way to achieving happiness or human flourishing. This is simply analyzed as mere human beings having a relationship with God or something divine which gives them full satisfaction in life. And this so-called phenomenon is only possible through religious and mystical experience. The intimacy or unification will eventually lead a life which improves the natural capacity of human beings for moral agency. Slater believes that without a supernatural reorientation and expansion of our nature, we are incapable of attaining the highest forms of moral agency and human flourishing. Generally, the unseen order for him is the efficient cause of conversion and moral transformation; it is the source and guarantor of highest moral ideals and is the helpmate in the moral life.
Charles Taylor, on the other hand, in his seminal work titled “Varieties of Religion Today: William James Revisited” argues that The Varieties of Religious Experience of James is still relevant to the contemporary religious situations. In his book, Taylor first identified two aspects of religion, namely, individualism and experientialism. Individualism, according to him, is a religion that resides mainly in the individual, not in corporate life. Experientialism, on the other hand, is a religion based on feeling and action, not in doctrinal formulations. According to Taylor, this kind of religion is what James called individualistic experientialism. In other words, religion here is simply understood as a matter of inward personal devotion rather than outward conformity to norms of ritual or orthodoxy. He considered this approach to religion to be more at home or relevant in modern culture, one that is entirely understandable and clear to people. He also discusses the twice born or sick soul found in James’s work The Varieties of Religious Experience. Twice born people are those who sees the pain, the loss, the evil, and the suffering in the world which James considered as more deep and more truly religious. This is followed by his discussion on James’s notion of the will to believe particularly the ethics of belief. Taylor interprets it as an inner debate in which James had to argue against the voices which held that religion as a thing of the past, that man could no longer in conscience believe in this kind of thing in the age of science. He does not argue that one is superior to the other but his main point is that we either reject or hope for the thing in religion as true. But at the end of his book, he argued that there are three points which James had missed as something important about our new religious predicament. First is that there are many people who still find their spiritual homes in the collective connections of churches. Second is that the continuing importance of religious markers of historical identity in societies forced to defend their integrity against external oppression. Third is the search for spiritual disciplines of meditation or prayer as a way of how people respond to religious experience. Thus, for Taylor, these three key phenomena today should also be considered in order to have a wide view of religion in a contemporary society.
Wayne Proudfoot, the editor of the book “William James and a Science of Religions: Re-experiencing the Varieties of Religious Experience” offers a diverse perspective in understanding James’s Varieties which comes from other contributors. It contains six papers coming from two philosophers, a psychologist, a historian, and two theorists of religious studies. Different approaches were used, for instance, Richard Rorty argues that James is inconsistent in his Varieties about whether he is presenting experiential evidence for supernaturalism or arguing that religious experience is good for people and that they have a right to believe on it. That is why he challenges and clarifies William James’s use of the term pragmatism. He thinks that we would be well advised to take pragmatism and leave metaphysics. On the other hand, Ann Taves and Jerome Brunner introduce James’s contributions and involvement in psychology. Taves examines in detail the psychological findings and theories that James drew in Varieties and argues that the use he made of them constitutes an important contribution towards a theory of religion while Bruner offers personal reflections on James’s influence on the cognitive revolution in psychology. Other contributors of the said work also use the disciplinary constraint of philosophy and history to fully understand, develop, and critique The Varieties of Religious Experience.
The book is actually a published version of a colloquium marking the centennial of William James’s Varieties. With the different perspectives which are engaged and challenged by each other, the reader thus benefits from a genuine dialogue that centers on James and his ongoing contribution to a science of religion. According to Proudfoot, in order to develop a science of religion, The Varieties must be taken seriously. The question that an effort to re-experience The Varieties of Religious Experience raises is the extent to which we can bring into our experience the insights from someone or something outside of our experience, because for James, religious experience demonstrates that the human is open to a wider or greater reality. Regarding with its causes, Proudfoot observes that James’s strict distinction between explanations of the causes of religious experience and evaluation of their significance is problematic since an evaluation might be dependent on the practical consequences in the lives of the people. At the end of the day, Proudfoot clearly commits himself to the possibility of a fully natural explanation while James’s position, according to him, remains neutral with respect to ultimate causes.
Lynn Bridgers, in her work “Contemporary Varieties of Religious Experience”, viewed William James notion of religious experience as an inseparable thing with his view on psychology. Her approach to James’s Varieties involves two aspects of modern psychology, the idea of resiliency and the idea of temperaments. According to Bridgers, resiliency is the act wherein people are able to bounce back from life’s difficult experiences rather than be humbled by them. She links resiliency to the response to trauma which leads for some to illness, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and pain. On the other hand, it can also lead to new experiences and transformation in one’s personality that makes one stronger and healthier for others. She sees some of James’s descriptions in Varieties persons who experienced personal trauma, through conversion experiences, as religiously transformative events, to their own benefit and also to others. The other aspect is the idea of temperaments wherein Bridgers connected it to James’s division of religion into two types, the healthy-minded and the sick soul. According to her, James’s key to the religion of the healthy-minded is to put all evils in a minimal aspect and view everything as positive. The emphasized preaching here is based on illusions since it is an escape from reality. Only the sick souls embrace the pain of reality and even if they recover, they can never be healthy-minded. These sick souls or, as also called by James “twice born”, do not refer to the evangelical version where Christ does all the suffering and we reap all the benefits; instead, it refers to the real-world suffering of the traumatized individual who bounces back through transformation by faith. Bridgers find it as the real religion like how James did.
Ellen Kappy Suckiel in her work titled “William James on the Cognitivity of Feelings, Religious Pessimism, and the Meaning of Life” offers an existential point of view in James’s Varieties. She started by emphasizing that life cannot be genuinely meaningful as long as we are susceptible to the destructive contingencies of our natural existence. Even the richest and most satisfying lives or the most exemplary lives are diminished and rendered pointless because of suffering and loss and the inevitability of death. In totality, life is viewed in a pessimistic way or meaningless as what the book of Ecclesiastes says. She used it as an example of a pointless life because it asserts that life under the sun is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. Suckiel believes that this is one of the main problems that William James is trying to address in his work The Varieties of Religious Experience. According to her, James’s view of the pervasive sense of meaninglessness in life is manifested in his analysis of the sick-soul whom he characterizes in contrast with the healthy-minded individual. For James, healthy-mindedness is the tendency to look in all things as good. These are the optimistic individuals who remain metaphysically secure in the face of the appearance of evil. They are contented with pleasures in life and accept the fact of suffering and death as natural since they believe that they are secured of what is beyond life. Deeper meaning in life here on earth is not their main concern. Sick souls, on the other hand, are individuals who consider life as problematic. Suckiel believes that these individuals are those who embrace the reality of life. According to her, the term “sick soul” can be misjudged because of how James called it, but for James, these sick soul individuals have a deeper and more sensitive view of reality than the healthy-minded individuals.
Given the discussion of the works mentioned above, we can truly say that William James’s notion of religious experience, found in his seminal work The Varieties of Religious Experience, remains one of the serious issues that needs mature consideration. However, the works mentioned above did not touch on the notion of a meaningful life which has been greatly undermined in the contemporary society, although Ellen Kappy Suckiel did mention it but in a different aspect. William James notion of religious experience is centered on the personal aspect, one that leads to a fuller and better life. Indeed, there is a need to conduct this study in order to offer a new and different perspective on William James’s notion of religious experience. This will help us clarify some of the misconceptions of a truly religious experience, especially the ones brought by the religious fundamentalists.
Statement of the Problem
This study is a critical analysis of William James’s notion of a meaningful life through an understanding of his theory of religious experience. It will be guided by the following questions:
- What is James’s theory of religious experience?
- What is James’s notion of a meaningful life?
- How does the role of religious experience lead in the attainment of a meaningful life according to James?
Significance of the Study
The study offers a fresh and unique way of looking at William James’s theory of religious experience as a means to attain a meaningful life which we can also rightly call as existential pragmatism, a kind of existentialism anchored on the idea of pragmatism. First, the study will somehow enlighten the minds of the individuals who mostly rely on technology in finding meaning in life. Although technology is very useful in many ways and provides convenience in our living, people cannot mainly rely on technology and draw meaning from it. A meaningful existence, according to James, can be attained through religious experience, one that leads to a fuller and better life.
Second, the study will provide an alternative on the issue of fundamentalism. As we can observe, a lot of individuals believe that they can find true satisfaction and happiness in life by engaging with the kind of religious activities imposed by the fundamentalist groups. Without qualifying the kind of religious experience, individuals tend to follow them. But for James, this experience is not qualified as true religious experience, one that leads to a fuller and better life, because it is not philosophically reasonable and morally beneficial.
Third, the study will also contribute to the already existing scholarship on William James. It will provide a fresh look on James’s notion of religious experience, a kind of experience that leads to a meaningful existence.
Given the above, I’m convinced that we can truly find in James a kind of philosophy of life that talks about a meaningful or authentic existence. In fact, the study will somehow enlighten and provide an alternative to the different existing issues in the contemporary society that cause individuals to live an inauthentic life. And finally, as I have already mentioned, this study, I believe, will contribute to the already wide and famous scholarship on William James.
Scope and Limitation
William James, as we know, is a big figure in the field of philosophy as well as in psychology. Some of his famous works are A Pluralistic Universe, Pragmatism and the Meaning of Truth, The Will to Believe, Essays in Religion and Morality, Essays in Philosophy, Pragmatism, and Principles of Psychology. However, my study will focus only on his theory of religious experience and its relation to existentialism found in his seminal work The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. I will critically engage James’s work The Varieties in order to fully understand his notion of a meaningful life.
I will not touch on his other works because as what I have already explained, my study will only seek to prove that we can really find in James a kind of philosophy of life that talks about a meaningful existence. Although it might be better to include all of his aspect of philosophy, but it is redundant since many scholars are already working on it. Given also the limit of time, it would be better to focus only on James’s theory of religious experience as a means of attaining a meaningful life since it is the core of my study.
My research is focused on William James’s notion of religious experience as a means in attaining a meaningful life. It will seek to prove that we can find in James a kind of philosophy of life which we can also call as existential pragmatism. In doing so, I will critically engage, as best as I could, his famous work The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature from a critical hermeneutics or textual analysis point of view. Here, I will attempt to uncover and understand his notion of a meaningful life through religious experience. I will then proceed to comparing James’s notion of a meaningful life through religious experience with that of the common understanding of a meaningful life from the point of view of existentialism, again, in the hope of proving my point that indeed we can find in James a kind of existential pragmatism that leads to a fuller and better life. Here, I will employ a comparative method of study. For example, James’s notion of a meaningful life through religious experience will be related with that of Albert Camus’s recommendation to embrace the absurd and draw strength from it, as well as Friedrich Nietzsche’s call to affirm life no matter what. I will also connect the key concepts in pragmatism and existentialism with practical living in ways that it becomes in touch with real life situations.
Organization of the Study
I will present my study on William James’s existential pragmatism in the following order:
Chapter one will present the rationale of the study, the review of related literature, the statement of the problem, the significance of the study, the scope and limitation, the research methodology, and the definition of terms.
Chapter two will discuss James’s notion of religious experience and its role in attaining a meaningful life found in his book The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. It centers on James’s criteria for evaluating a true religious experience, one that is philosophically reasonable and morally beneficial.
Chapter three will then discuss the justification of the main argument that indeed we can find in James a kind of philosophy of life which we can also call as “existential pragmatism”.
Chapter four will contain the summary, conclusion, and recommendations of the study.
William James and His Notion of a Meaningful Life
In order to fully appreciate William James’s notion of religious experience, I believe that there is a need to trace back the development of his philosophy. Although these data are not necessary in understanding his theory of religious experience, I argue that knowing James well and the starting point of his career from being a famous psychologist to a renowned philosopher of pragmatism would enable us to fully appreciate his philosophy, specially his theory of religious experience. This is because, as Martin Heidegger, the most famous philosopher of the 20th century, claims, knowing the background, or what Heidegger calls the “world”, is a conditio sine qua non in any attempt to fully understand the nature and dynamics of reality.
Life and Works
William James, as we may already know, is a big figure in the field of philosophy as well in psychology. He is also considered by many to be the most insightful and inspiring among American philosophers as well as one of the greatest three great pragmatists, of which the other two are Charles Sanders Peirce and John Dewey. Although he is not named as the father of pragmatism, since the title was attributed to Peirce, still he’s considered by many to be more appealing than Peirce in terms of his approach to pragmatism.
James was born on January 11, 1842 in New York City. He was the oldest of the five children of Henry James Sr. and Mary Walsh James. According to Matthiessen, James was born in a wealthy family which made him and his other siblings’ education easy and sufficient. In 1863, before James entered into Harvard Medical School, he first studied chemistry and then physiology at Lawrence Scientific School in Harvard University. A couple of years later, he took a year off in school in order to join a scientific expedition to Brazil led by Louis Agassiz but because of bad health, James was forced to quit the expedition and eventually returned to medical school. According to Henry James, William James suffers from insomnia, digestive disorders, eye trouble, weakness of the back, and sometimes deep depression.
Because of James’s condition, he left to Germany in order to find cure for his health and at the same time to study physiology, but he failed with his medical mission. Because of this, he was forced to return to Harvard during 1869 and passed his medical exams and received his medical degree. According to James, it is not truly his plan to practice medicine, that is why he seemed lost as to what to do with the rest of his life after he got his medical degree.
In 1872, James was offered a teaching job in physiology by one of his former professors in chemistry. He accepted it and began his career of more than a third of a century as a faculty member there. The following year, he became an instructor of anatomy and at the same time in physiology. And during the middle of 1870s, he was teaching psychology using what he had learned in Germany. This made him the first person to establish a psychology laboratory in America.
In 1878, he met a school teacher named Alice Howe Gibbens whom he married and had five children. Like his parents, he named his first two children as Henry and William. During this year, James was also able to produce and write a psychology textbook; however, he was already drifting away from psychology to philosophy. According to Pomerlau, his membership of a Metaphysical Club, which included Charles Sanders Peirce, a philosopher of science and at the same time the founder of American pragmatism, may have influenced him to engage in philosophy. That is why in 1879, he began teaching philosophy at Harvard and became an assistant professor of philosophy the following year. During this time, he was able to publish his first important article in his new discipline, “The Sentiment of Rationality”.
After becoming a full professor of philosophy and psychology, James published his Principles of Psychology in 1890 which took him close to 12 years to finish. Although it was a successful work, James was dissatisfied with it and as he got deeper into philosophy, he developed a negative attitude towards psychology. Eventually, he resigned his directorship of Harvard’s psychology laboratory and committed himself to teaching and writing philosophy.
In 1887, James published his first philosophical book The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy which he dedicated to Charles Sanders Peirce. This book is about the right of an individual to believe in something even though it is logically not accepted and has no evidence. He argued that it is better to take risk in believing of something to be true than doing nothing because we might achieve in the end what we want to achieve. The following year, he delivered a lecture titled as Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results at the University of California Berkeley which also helped him to launch pragmatism as a nationwide philosophical movement.
Overworked at Harvard and jeopardizing his fragile health, he suffered a physical breakdown. While recovering his health, he studied a wide range of accounts of religious experience and prepared his Gifford Lectures which he delivered at the University of Edinburgh during 1901. His lectures were eventually published as the The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature and proved to be quite successful.
Because of James’s poor health condition, normal activities became quite difficult for him that is why he just focused on the development of his own philosophy for the remainder of his life. James eventually died on August 26, 1910.
James, as one of the biggest figures in the history of American philosophy, had written and published many works both in the field of philosophy and psychology. He had developed an early form of his writing while he was still hooked up in psychology and his later writings where he had totally become a full time professor of philosophy. Some of his early major early writings is his work titled “Remarks on Spencer’s Definition of Mind as Correspondence” in 1878. In this work, he argued that the knower is not simply a mirror floating with no foot-hold anywhere and passively reflecting an order that he comes upon and finds simply existing. Instead, the knower is an actor whose mental interests, hypotheses, and postulates are the bases for human action. According to James, human actions are the ones that transform the world and make the truth which they declare. Some scholars would say that this was the beginning of his pragmatism.
Another major writing of James in 1879 is “The Sentiment of Rationality”. In this essay, he argues that the “will” is higher than the intellect. For him, some questions can be answered through scientific facts or through logic but at some point also, other questions engage the sense of beauty and the sense of will. In other words, truth depends upon our actions and decisions.
The Principles of Psychology published in 1890 which James is famously known for was considered by many as successful. Aside from the fact that it took twelve years for him to finish the book, some scholars considered this as a rich product of the James’s scholarship since it is here where the core concepts of his psychology, physiology, philosophy, and most especially, pragmatism, converged. The book consists of exactly twenty-eight chapters which focused mainly on the stream of consciousness, habit, emotion, and the will. In the stream of consciousness, he argued that because of different experiences, human thought is like a flowing stream. This implies that our consciousness is continuously moving forward and is always alive. On the habit, he argued that individuals are the creators of habit. According to him, habits are capable of causing either good or bad and, once established, it is very difficult to change. In his theory of emotion, he argued that emotion is not the cause of bodily experiences associated with expressions but rather it is a consequence. And the last one is on the will which covers the final chapter of the book. In this chapter, James talks about the human desire on things which at the moment are not present. If there are doubts that the desired thing is impossible to attain, we simply wish. But if we believe that the end is in our power, we will that the desired thing shall be real.
In the later part of James’s life, he was still able to publish a lot of writings and some of those are Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, A Pluralistic Universe, and Essays in Radical Empiricism. In late 1907, he wrote Pragmatism which was said to be dedicated to John Stuart Mill. According to James, it is from Mill that he learned the pragmatic openness of mind. This work is actually a response to the trending philosophies of their time, such as rationalism, empiricism, theism, and materialism. According to James, all these philosophies are useless if it does not address what people need in life. Thus, he introduced pragmatism as a tool for a meaningful life.
In 1909, he delivered a lecture at Manchester College which was later published as A Pluralistic Universe. This work attacked the monistic idealism derived from his contemporaries in England and United States. Monistic idealism maintains the primacy of one or the Absolute or Nature instead of many. To my mind, this work is completely rooted in his Pragmatism because again, he goes back to human experiences. He proposed in the end a philosophy of meliorism, a belief that the world can be made better by human effort.
And in 1912, Ralph Barton Perry, James’s biographer and colleague, compiled and published James’s work on radical empiricism, which became Essays in Radical Empiricism. It is actually a collection of twelve articles that James wrote personally for his students in the general Harvard Library and in the Philosophical Library in Emerson Hall.
Given the above, we can see that all of these seminal works that James’s produced in his entire academic life clearly show how influential James was in the field of psychology and, most of all, in American Philosophy. James’s seminal works such as “Remarks on Spencer’s Definition of Mind as Correspondence”, The Sentiment of Rationality, The Principles of Psychology, Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, A Pluralistic Universe, and Essays in Radical Empiricism marks a transition of his mind from engaging in psychology to the field of philosophy.
Common Notion of Religious Experience
As I mentioned in the rationale of the study, this thesis will focus on The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature in my attempt to show that there is indeed in James a kind of existential pragmatism. But before I proceed to the discussion of the subject matter, let us first of all clarify what religious experience is from different vantage points.
A famous theologian, philosopher, and a historian of religion named Rudolf Otto argued in his work The Idea of the Holy that human beings have the a priori capacity of the mind to perceive or experience the numinous which refers to God or deity. In other words, Otto is saying that our knowledge of God is innate. According to him, there is always a tendency for an individual to feel terrified when confronted in the presence of the numinous but at the same time there is also the feeling of fascination and wonder. This kind of experience with something divine is what he called as a mystical experience or religious experience and is therefore unique and one of a kind. For sure, this is how Otto views religious experience.
Another thinker and theologian who is famous on his view of religious experience is Augustine Baker, commonly known as Fr. Austin Baker. His view on religious experience is found on his work Holy Wisdom: Directions for the Prayer of Contemplation. This book is actually divided into three treatises. The first treatise advises Christians to live an internal life with God as their guide. The second treatise describes the process of mortification, by which the ascetic person strengthens the will to overcome the desire for sin. And the third treatise focuses on the different types of prayer and meditation. Baker, as an ascetic writer and at the same time a Benedictine mystic, argues for a life that should be lived like those of the ascetics, one who withdraws oneself from the worldly pleasures in order to focus on the spiritual aspect of life. He believed that such practice can draw close to God. He then urges Christians to develop their spiritual lives with the observance of prayer, mortification, meditation, and contemplation. This is what Baker considers as a true kind of religious experience, a full spiritual life.
Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher, a German philosopher and at the same time a theologian during the 18th and 19th century, argues that utter dependence on something that is divine is the basis for the beginning of religious experience. In his work The Christian Faith, he defined religion more specifically as a feeling of absolute dependence or utter dependence on the divine or God. This means that the essence of true religion is found in one’s experience of it. Though he was not really concerned in proving the existence of God, as what other theologians would aim, but he argues that the feeling of an individual in the presence of divine is the most important. This for sure is religious experience for Schleiermacher.
As we can observe, these theologians have the same views on the nature and dynamics of religious experience. What is common to them is that their notion of a religious experience always involves a religious subject in relation to a divine being. However, this is not what James meant by a true religious experience which necessarily leads to a fuller and better life. In order to fully understand, James’s notion of religious experience, let me proceed to the engagement with James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience.
James’s Theory of Religious Experience
In James’s seminal work The Varieties of Religious Experience, he points out two ways on how individuals view reality, namely, in an optimistic and pessimistic manner. The optimistic individuals are what he called as the “healthy-minded” ones which are sometimes referred to some scholars as “once- born”. On the other hand, James called the pessimistic ones as “sick souls” or, for some scholars, “twice-born”. These two types of individuals will help us analyze further how, according to James, we can attain a meaningful life through a religious experience.
According to James, the healthy-minded individuals always view reality as good. This implies that for the healthy-minded individuals there is no room for sin, hardships, evil things, and other dark sides of life. This implies further that, according to James, healthy-minded individuals tend to find someone greater than him who can be his friend, father, or protector as a way of escaping austerity in life.
Healthy-mindedness, according to James, can be classified into two, the involuntary way and voluntary or systematic way of being healthy-minded. The involuntary way of being healthy-minded embodies the attitude of an individual who immediately feels happy in all things he sees. In this case, all things are viewed as perfect and always good, which implies the inability to feel evil in the world. One example that I would like to quote here is the life of Walt Whitman, an American poet, in which James considers as a supreme contemporary example in this case. Whitman’s disciple, Dr. Bucke writes:
…All natural objects seemed to have a charm for him. All sights and sounds seemed to please him. He appeared to like all the men, women children he saw…I never knew him to argue or dispute, and he never spoke about money. He always justified, sometimes playfully, sometimes quite seriously, those who spoke harshly of himself or of his writings, and I often thought he even took pleasure in the opposition of enemies…He never spoke of any nationality or class of men, or time in the world’s history, or against any trades or occupations – not even against any animals, insects, or inanimate things, nor any of the laws of nature, nor any results of those laws, such as illness, deformity, and death. He never complained or grumbled either at the weather, pain, illness, or anything else…He never exhibited fear, and I do not believe he ever felt it.
According to James, this kind of life is like a way of escaping the ills of reality as Whiteman is trying to invent another better world. Though we might argue that being extremely optimistic in that sense is still a better way of dealing with the reality of life but this remains not the kind of life that James is trying to emphasize, which he famously called a fuller and better life.
The voluntary or systematic way of being healthy-minded, on the other hand, are those who conceive good things as the only essential. These individuals deliberately exclude evil from their field of vision. This is different from the involuntary-minded since one is completely ignoring and shutting his eyes on the negative aspect of life. According to James, this type of religious attitude is absurd. It is like one is diverting his attention from realities such as disease and death. Like the involuntary-minded individual, the voluntary-minded individual is trying to create a handsomer, cleaner, and a better world than what really the world is.
James in his writing mentioned about some examples of this type of healthy-mindedness, one of which is the “Mind-cure movement”, also known as “New Thought”. As a religious movement, its doctrine is about oneness of life with God in an optimistic sense. Members of this movement simply believe that their life should always be directed towards God as their source of energy and true happiness. All the evil things such as sickness, weakness, depression, and all sorts of negative things are simply lies. They strongly emphasize the power of optimism of everything in life as a part of God’s will.
The other way of viewing reality, as opposed to being optimistic or healthy-minded, is the pessimistic or morbid sense. Individuals in this case are what James calls as “sick souls”. According to him, sick souls tend to view all kinds of evil as something essential to life. In other words, all the dark sides of life such as sickness, death, fear, worry, depression, sin, and others are nothing but what compose life or reality.
Just like the healthy-minded ones, there are also different levels of morbid mind. According to James, there are people for whom evil only means a mal-adjustment with things or a wrong correspondence of one’s life with the environment. This basically means that a person may experience evil due to the way in which he responds to his environment. But this is just a shallow or shall I say a natural experience of evil things since this can easily be overcome or cured. It only requires a modification between oneself and the things around us or both at once.
The other type of a morbid mind, according to James, is something formidable that no alterations of the environment or inner self can cure. Individuals of this type consider life as suffering, a reality that does not have to be done away with, but one that must be embraced. As James quoted Goethe:
“I will say nothing, “writes Goethe in 1824, “against the course of my existence. But at the bottom it has been nothing but pain and burden, and I can affirm that during the whole of my 75 years, I have not had four weeks of genuine well-being. It is but the perpetual rolling of a rock that must be raised up again forever.”
This implies that life, in general, is suffering. Looking on it as a whole, we can observe that happiness is not always guaranteed because most of the time we constantly experience pain and suffering. But we should not escape this reality of life because, according to James, all experiences of evil are essential to life.
As we can see at this point, there is really antagonism between the healthy-minded and the morbid-minded way of viewing life. On the one hand, the sick souls, may view healthy-mindedness as something shallow and blind to reality. To the healthy-minded, on the other hand, the sick souls maybe viewed as something unmanly and diseased. But for James, it is the sick souls that have the possibility to attain a fuller and better life because they are the ones who embrace the absurdities of life and draw strength from them.
According to James, the method of averting one’s attention from evil, and living simply in the light of good is splendid as long as it will work. He also believes that this type of religious solution can work far more generally to individuals. But as a philosophical doctrine, according to him, healthy-mindedness is inadequate. Even though how optimistic we are, like the healthy-minded ones, there would always be room for melancholy in our life. In fact, as we learn from the common themes in existentialism, we cannot really avoid boredom, anxiety, and other psychological categories that show life is really absurd. For example, in the case of Kierkegaard, no matter how we find pleasure in aesthetic existence, we inevitably experience boredom and melancholy. For James, these psychological categories, such as boredom and anxiety, which he calls “evil facts”, are a genuine portion of reality. He believes that evil facts may after all be the best key to life’s significance, and possibly the only openers of our eyes to the deepest level of truths. Embracing all kinds of evil facts and finding meaning in it is what James calls a true religious experience. In the Varieties of Religious Experience, James writes:
“The real core of the religious problem” is the deliverance of man from a sense of anhedonia or “loss of appetite for all life’s values,” which in its extreme form “leads to desperation absolute and complete, the whole universe coagulating about the sufferer into a material and overwhelming horror, surrounding him without opening or end.
The Existentialist Philosophers and their Notion of a Meaningful Life
In Chapter 1 of this thesis, I have argued that we can find in James’s theory of religious experience a kind of philosophy of life which is similar to that of existentialism. As we can see, James is saying that life is dejection or suffering and the only way to live a fuller and better life is to embrace its reality. This is completely the same with the existential philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Jaspers, and Albert Camus. In what follows, I will briefly present the key concepts of these existential philosophers and show there connection to James’s theory of religious experience.
Friedrich Nietzsche’s Affirmation of Life
One of Nietzsche’s best known assertions of how to affirm life is his notion of amor fati which means the love of one’s fate. The idea of fate, according to Nietzsche, should not be understood as something fixed and unchangeable such as an event whose necessary outcome is determined. Thus, for Nietzsche, fate is not the same with determinism which argues that everything in the world is already planned and determined and where there is no free will. For Nietzsche, there is no teleology in the universe and nothing comes to an end. That is why in his notion of amor fati, he insists for the need to embrace the world as it is. Fate for Nietzsche therefore is the reality that we are experiencing right now in our life which includes suffering and loss – a necessary thing to experience whether we like it or not.
Moreover, Nietzsche’s amor fati is characterized by an acceptance of the reality or the situations that occur in one’s life. Acceptance does not imply an attempt for a change or improvement. This can be further gleaned from his concept of “eternal recurrence”, also known as “eternal return”. Eternal recurrence is the idea that everything that had happened will happen again in an infinite number of times, or in other words, one will continue to live an exact same life in an infinite number of times. This means that there is no first event or last event; everything is circular. But this should not be understood as something the same with idea of reincarnation of Hinduism. The reincarnation of Hinduism is the doctrine that the soul or spirit after death can begin a new life in a new body. The central idea of eternal recurrence is the question that if we are given a chance to live our life again and again, would we still continue to affirm life despite the sufferings? According to Nietzsche, the only answer is “yes” because it is the reality and we have no choice but to continue on affirming life no matter what. This affirmation of life is manifested in his notion of the ubermensch or overman someone who lives life deliberately and consciously.
Nietzsche’s notion of the ubermensch or the overman is found in his work Thus Spoke Zarathustra. In this work, Nietzsche says that there are three spiritual metamorphoses that an individual must undergo in order to reach the state of ubermensch. The first stage is manifested on his concept of the camel. Like a camel, one must first bear many burdens. A camel does not run away from the difficulties and challenges in life such as fear, truth, death, confusion, and other aspects of human existence in the name of duty and nobility; instead, the camel bravely embraces them. The second stage is when the camel must now destroy the largest barrier to true freedom, the duty imposed by the tradition and society. In order to do this, the camel must become a lion which, for Nietzsche, symbolizes courage, tenacity, disillusionment, and even rage. This implies the utter rejection of external control and all traditional values. Thus, the lion creates its own values. And the final stage toward becoming an ubermensch, according to Nietzsche, is the transformation of the lion into a child. For him, the preying lion must become a child, one that not only accepts life but exalts it in full. The child erects to roll with life, dance and play with it.
All in all, the ubermensch is someone who wills their own destiny, creates their own values, and dances with the game of life. And for Nietzsche, everyone could be an ubermensch as long as it continues to affirm life no matter what happens.
Karl Jaspers’s on the Meaning of Life
Another existentialist thinker that talks about a meaningful life is Karl Jaspers. He argues that all human beings are constantly involved in situations or unexpected events which he famously called “boundary situation” or “limiting situation”. Boundary situations, according to Jaspers, are the inevitable events in life such as death, suffering, guilt, and struggle which cannot be dealt with objective and rational knowledge, a kind of rationality that is typically used to solve problems in everyday life. For example, we use mathematical solutions in order to solve mathematical problems, or when are sick, we immediately resort to taking medicines in order to feel better. For Jaspers, the boundary situation requires a radical change in one’s way of thinking. This implies that facing boundary situation is not through planning or calculating, or what we call scientific rationality, but by facing it squarely which entails acceptance.
One of the most specific boundary situations in human life is the inevitability of death. According to Jaspers, anticipating one’s death or anticipating the death of someone we know produces fear and anxiety as well as nihilistic despair; however, death can also bring the occasion for living authentically. In order to face this boundary situation squarely, Jaspers argues for facing death with courage without deception, profound serenity in spite of inextinguishable pain, and finding peace in realizing the finality of death. This means complete acceptance of what life is.
Another boundary situation that is constantly experienced by human beings is suffering. For Jaspers, there are only two options in confronting suffering, an option of resignation or the option of optimistic confidence despite the suffering. Jaspers, however, argues that instead of giving up in life or committing suicide to end up the suffering, we must face everything squarely because it is only in facing the reality of life that we can live a meaningful existence.
The experience of guilt is another inevitable boundary situation according to Jaspers. For him, guilt can bring a person the insight that both action and non-action always bring unforeseen and unintended consequences that will affect others. In other words, we have the tendency to feel guilty when we do something that does not yield good results. For example, our conscience would tell us that we should help poor the people in anyway but most of the time we are unable to do so. This made us feel the sense of guilt for doing nothing. According to Jaspers, the authentic moral attitude associated with guilt is one’s permanent readiness to accept the responsibility for all our actions and consequences. In other words, Jaspers is arguing for the complete acceptance of whatever consequences our actions entail because after all, we are responsible for all our actions.
The last boundary situation that Jaspers wanted to point out in order to live a meaningful life is the experience of struggle. Struggle for material ends, prestige, power, or social status in life can result in suppression and defeat of other person’s demands. As we can see, all of us in this world struggle for something in life that we want to achieve. Sometimes we use other people as a means to our ends and for this, we become self-centered or selfish. That is why Jaspers proposes a kind of struggle that is completely different from the above. He calls this a “loving struggle” for existenz which is non-violent and non-coercive form of relation to another person. This implies the consideration of other individuals in whatever we do instead of being self-centered. This is an act of choosing humanity and the dominant form of this kind of relation is solidarity.
Given the above, a meaningful existence for Jaspers is when we overcome these boundary situations. By overcoming them, we must accept the fact that we are always confronted with different events and we cannot leave a situation without entering another one. That is why acceptance of what life has to offer is very important for Jaspers as it may lead to a meaningful existence.
Albert Camus’s Notion of the Absurd
The last existentialist philosopher that I would like to introduce here is Albert Camus who argues that life is absurd or meaningless. Camus considers life as absurd because no matter how hard we try to desire for order in the world or even search for the meaning of our life, we cannot get adequate solutions or answers. Reality, as he views it, is nothing but suffering and full of debaucheries. His notion of the absurdity of life is shown in his philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus. In the myth, Sisyphus was punished by the gods to eternally push the rock to the top of the hill but the moment he reaches the top, the rock rolls down again and he repeats the process. According to Camus, the act of Sisyphus is what life is. No matter what we do to eradicate our suffering, still we cannot escape it because we would constantly experience it. Though there are some instances in life that we could experience happiness and live without pain, but most of the time, the experience of suffering would still prevail. If today, we experience happiness, then tomorrow would be sorrow and it would constantly be repeated in our life. Because of the absurdity of life, Camus argues that there are only three alternatives that a man could do, namely: 1) to commit suicide; 2) to hope; 3) to face life as it is.
Camus does not endorse the first alternative. Though it could be a possible solution to end suffering, but still it is not viable. Some individuals easily commit suicide or withdraw from the reality of life whenever they experience hardships. For him, this is an act of being coward since you are escaping the reality of life.
The second alternative pointed out by Camus is the religious hope. Because life here on earth is suffering, people tend to hope that they will have a wonderful life after death wherein pain and sorrow is no longer present. However, Camus does not believe that there is life after death or a place where heaven exists. For him, the only life that we will experience is the life here on earth. For this reason, this second alternative is also not viable because like the first alternative, it is a way of escaping the reality.
The third alternative is the only one considered by Camus as viable. For him, we must live life without escape no matter how absurd it is. Like Sisyphus, who continuously pushes the rock to the top of the hill, we should also continue to endure life by completely embracing the reality of life and draw strength from it. As we can see, Sisyphus didn’t stop even once in repeating the process of pushing the rock to the top of the hill and he never complained no matter how difficult it is. Camus even sees Sisyphus as somewhat enjoying what he is doing. In fact, Camus argues that one must see Sisyphus happy. This means that the possibility of a meaningful life happens only when we accept the reality that life is suffering. Thus, for Camus, no matter how absurd life is, we must embrace and affirm it.
Now, as we can see, William James’s notion of a meaningful life is completely the same with how the existentialist philosophers view life. James argue that the evil sides of life such as sickness, diseases, pain, loss, death, and others are essential to life. No matter how we avoid it, still they would continue to haunt us. This exactly resonates in Nietzsche’s, notions of amor fati, eternal recurrence, and the ubermensch. As I already presented above, Nietzsche argues that we have to affirm life no matter what. This same goes to Jaspers who believes that realizing the meaning of life is possible through the overcoming of the boundary situation, such as death, suffering, guilt, and struggle. And for Camus, an authentic way of existing is to embrace the reality of the absurd, that is, living life without withdrawal or escape. This is indeed what James endorsed in his theory of religious experience.
I believe therefore that all these conceptions on how to live authentically are very applicable in the contemporary society. Each one of us has its own strengths in life and also has its own way on how to live a meaningful life. But what is important is that we don’t give up no matter how hard life is and we must continue to welcome what life has to offer no matter how negative it is.
Inspired by these philosophers, I strongly believe that a meaningful existence is possible when we are able to accept both the positive and negative things in life and learn to embrace them. As James aptly puts it:
A chain is no stronger than its weakest link, and life is after all a chain. In the healthiest and most prosperous existence, how many links of illness, danger, and disaster are always interposed? Unsuspectedly from the bottom of every fountain of pleasure, as the old poet said, something bitter rises up.
What we can clearly draw from this passage is that James’s theory of religious argues for the possibility of a meaningful existence, which he calls a “fuller and better life”. Again, I argue that this key intuition in James’s theory of religious experience is no different from the core concepts in the existential philosophies of Nietzsche, Jaspers, and Camus. Therefore, I believe that we can view James’s theory of religious experience as a kind of existential pragmatism.
Summary, Conclusion, and Recommendation
In Chapter 2 of this thesis, I presented the key concepts of William James’s theory of religious experience as a means of attaining a meaningful life. I argue there that James’s notion of religious experience is completely different from the common understanding of this concept, which is for James, a true religious experience is something that can deliver us from the meaninglessness of life, thus giving way to a fuller and better one, a kind of life that is similar to the key themes in existentialism.
According to James, there are two ways on how to view life, that is, in the optimistic and pessimistic sense. On the one hand, the optimistic way of viewing life is what James called as the “healthy-mindedness”. Individuals in this sense tend to avoid the darker side of life such as suffering, pain, and hardships and instead choose only what is good for them. On the other hand, the pessimistic way of viewing life is manifested in his notion of the “sick soul”. Individuals of this sort recognize all the negative things as somewhat essential to life, something that we could not escape. Between these two, James prefers the latter since it truly embraces the reality of life. Though we could choose to be healthy-minded if it works for us, James argues that a fuller and better life is when we recognize the evil facts as a genuine portion of reality.
In connection with James’s notion of a meaningful life, the Chapter 3 of this thesis engages three seminal existentialist philosophers who also argue for a meaningful living and the manner in which it could be attained, namely, Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Jaspers, and Albert Camus. For one, Nietzsche’s affirmation of life can be seen in his notions of “amor fati”, “eternal recurrence”, and “ubermensch”. The notion of amor fati, according to him, is not the same with the common understanding of what fate is as something fixed or determined by an Absolute Being. Fate for Nietzsche is the world or the reality experienced by the individuals as it is. His notion of amorfati clearly suggests that we must love or embrace our fate. In relation to this, the concept of eternal recurrence involves a hypothetical question whether, if given the chance to live life over and over again, would we continue to affirm life despite the persistence of suffering. The only possible answer for Nietzsche is “yes”. This is because, for Nietzsche, there is no way that we can escape this telling reality of life. Thus, Nietzsche argues that no matter how absurd reality is, we must continue to affirm life. This affirmation of life is manifested in his notion of the ubermensch, someone who lives life deliberately and consciously.
Another philosopher of existence is Karl Jaspers. In his notion of boundary or limiting situations, he believes that man is always faced with different events in life such as death, suffering, guilt, and struggle. These boundary situations, according to Jaspers, must be faced squarely. For him, giving up in the form, for example, of suicide, is not an option to every problem. He argues that in order to live authentically and be able to overcome this boundary situations, the best solution is acceptance which implies drawing strength from the situation.
Lastly, Albert Camus argues that life is absurd or meaningless. He relates his notion to the “Myth of Sisyphus”. In the myth, as I mentioned previously, Sisyphus was punished by the gods to eternally push the rock to the top of the hill, but the moment he reaches the top, the rock rolls down again and he repeats the process. According to Camus, the act of Sisyphus symbolizes the reality of life. Because of the absurdity of life, Camus argues that there are only three alternatives that a man can do, namely, to commit suicide, to hope, and to live life without escape. Among these three options, only the third one is possible. For him, we must live life without escape through embracing the absurd. Like Sisyphus, who continuously pushes the rock to the top of the hill, we should also continue to endure life by completely embracing such telling reality and draw strength from it.
This clearly shows that we can really find in James’s theory of religious experience a kind of philosophy of life which is similar to the key concepts of existentialism, such as that of Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Jaspers, and Albert Camus. In this regard, I believe that James theory of religious experience must be viewed from an existential point of view. Aside from the fact that it is pragmatic since it suggests a practical living, it is also existential in the sense that it offers an alternative for living a meaningful life which is very the same with existentialism.
Because James’s theory of religious experience can add something to existentialism and vice versa, I therefore recommend that in order to have a more meaningful view on existentialism, it must also be viewed from a pragmatic sense borrowing James’s notion of religious experience. For instance, the authentic existence emphasized by the existentialist philosophers must be applied to the personal aspect of life as a practical alternative to living. On the other hand, James’s pragmatism can also be viewed more meaningfully if we relate it to the key concepts of existentialism, one that leads to a fuller and better life.
Furthermore, I am of the view that scholars must be critical enough in studying James’s theory religious experience. As what I have argued from the start of this thesis, some scholars working on William James have overlooked the role of religious experience as a means to attaining a meaningful life. James’s theory of religious experience is different from the common understanding of it. Instead, it is something that delivers man from the meaninglessness of life, indeed a pragmatic philosophy that can lead to a meaningful existence.
For some helpful guides in writing philosophical research, see Jeffry Ocay, “Handout in Philosophical Research,” http://philonotes.com/index.php/2017/11/24/handouts-in-philosophical-research/
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