William James on the Philosophy of Religious Experience

William James was the first psychologist to de...

I must begin by quoting that “adorable genius” (as Whitehead called him in Science and the Modern World), William James. This from The Varieties of Religious Experience:

“In all sad sincerity I think we must conclude that the attempt to demonstrate by purely intellectual processes the truth of the deliverances of direct religious experience is absolutely hopeless […] Philosophy lives in words, but truth and fact well up into our lives in ways that exceed verbal formulation. There is in the living act of perception always something that glimmers and twinkles and will not be caught, and for which reflection comes too late. No one knows this as well as the philosopher. He must fire his volley of new vocables out of his conceptual shotgun, for his profession condemns him to this industry, but he secretly knows the hollowness and irrelevancy…In the religious sphere, in particular, belief that formulas are true can never wholly take the place of personal experience” (p. 457, Penguin Classics version).

James’ reference to that “something” in each living act of perception that shines forth and yet cannot finally be seen is, I want to suggest, the inscendent. This is Thomas Berry‘s word meant to convey the way in which divine transcendence is woven throughout the world of daily life. Berry’s experience of the ultimate nature of the universe is similar to Whitehead’s: It is a universe in which Creator and Creation are always already caught up in the infinite process of creativity, each mutually conditioning the other through endless epochs of time.

Our experience of the reality of things (and for James, reality is the flowing together of drops of experience) is haunted by a sense of excess, of open-endedness, of numinosity. Reality cannot be contained, measured, or defined. Total immanence is an illusion, for what could the world be sealed off from but something transcendent? To speak of immanence is already to implicate oneself in a discourse of transcendence.

We do no live on a flat plane: the universe has depth.

Depth is the fertile tension that emerges between spirit and matter, between the beyond and the here and now. It is the metaxy, that which holds together the infinite and the finite, the transcendent and the immanent, in an irrevocable way. The taking place of actual life–our concerete personal experience–is deep in the sense that, precisely because it often seems to take place within a limited horizon, it makes us all the more aware of our really being sublimely swallowed up within an encompassing Beyond.

Like Plato before him, who wrote often of the importance of divine madness, James the philosopher and psychologist took religious experience of That which encompasses us seriously as the source of many of life’s most valuable truths:

“The whole drift of my education goes to persuade me that the world of our present consciousness is only one out of many worlds of consciousness that exist, and that those of other worlds must contain experiences which have a meaning for our life also; and that although in the main their experiences and those of this world keep discrete, yet the two become continuous at certain points, and higher energies filter in” (p. 519).

Exactly how this filtering works is difficult if not impossible to express in clear terms. Such descriptions are usually beyond the pay grade of philosophers, too slippery for even the most sophisticated conceptual nets to catch. Perhaps this is why some philosophers, like Coleridge, are lead to leave prose behind in search of the songs of angels:

O! the one Life within us and abroad,
Which meets all motion and becomes its soul,
A light in sound, a sound-like power in light,
Rhythm in all thought, and joyance every where—
Methinks, it should have been impossible
Not to love all things in a world so fill’d;
Where the breeze warbles, and the mute still air
Is Music slumbering on her instrument.

And thus, my Love! as on the midway slope
Of yonder hill I stretch my limbs at noon,
Whilst through my half-clos’d eye-lids I behold
The sunbeams dance, like diamonds, on the main.
And tranquil muse upon tranquillity;
Full many a thought uncall’d and undetain’d,
And many idle flitting phantasies,
Traverse my indolent and passive brain,
As wild and various as the random gales
That swell and flutter on this subject Lute!
And what if all of animated nature
Be but organic Harps diversely fram’d,
That tremble into thought, as o’er them sweeps
Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,
At once the Soul of each, and God of all?

(excerpt from The Eolian Harp)

James was not as ready to give up philosophical prose, through he wrote evocatively and for the common ear. His pragmatic response to religious events and experiences–that is, to religious facts–is an attempt to give the human psyche room to breathe again in an increasingly disenchanted, caved in world, where the elevating winds of spirit have been nearly sealed out by systematic materialism.

Nearly, I say, for transcendence haunts the unacknowledged shadows of even the most atheistic philosophies. The mind cannot think truly but while immersed in the deep, pulled taut by the transcendental tension binding the here and now to the beyond. Every conceptual system, no matter how snug the logic of its arguments, will show cracks.

“There is a crack in everything,” say Leonard Cohen. “That’s how the light gets in.”