“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
–Alfred North Whitehead

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.”




9 responses to “William James on the Philosophy of Religious Experience”

  1. Jason Hills Avatar

    I just posted about this. Someone please define their terms, “immanence” and “transcendence” and then realize that few people actually hold exactly what Levi is railing against. I figure you got this, Matt.

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      I’m not sure what Levi’s a-theology is all about. Who is he attacking, exactly? I’ve been through this with him before. He has every right, of course, to argue against a process-relational conception of God, but he never has. He instead continues to fire rounds into the long dead corpse of traditional monotheism.

      And I agree with what you’ve said in your post in regard to his leaning on Whitehead to make a point that Whitehead would disagree with. He ignores the first half of Whitehead’s famous statement, “the many become one, and are increased by one,” and uses the second half to support his position on multiplicities and external relations. Why marshall Whitehead at all if you’re going to surgically remove crucial aspects of his thought?

  2. Leon Avatar

    Let me add something please: what Levi is doing is nothing more than erecting a straw-man. No modern day theistic naturalist or “process-relational” philosopher – and I can name several: Catherine Keller, Robert S. Corrington, William Desmond – takes transcendence in any way even *remotely* close to how Levi portrays it. I have never even seen Levi accurately portray Whitehead well enough so as to attack the Whiteheadian (or for that matter process) God in any coherent let alone reasonable way. Does he even understand Whitehead?

    Jason sums up alot of my points in his latest post, but I would suggest that Levi familiarize himself with contemporary notions of transcendence and especially “ground” before, as you say, continuing to fire rounds into a dead monotheistic God which process-relational philosophers and theistic naturalists of the 20th century (and beyond) have left behind long ago, myself included.

  3. Adam Robbert Avatar
    Adam Robbert

    Just some general thoughts:

    I take it that the immanence folks like Levi are championing is derived from the Deleuze/Guattari concept of the same name, which D&G loosely affiliate with radical empiricism in What is Philosophy?. In this sense, I’m wondering if radical empiricism is not a more compelling term than “immanence”?

    I’m definitely only a D&G dabbler but the little I have read of their writings on immanence seem to center precisely on this (Jamesian) point: immanence is nearly (perhaps totally) impossible to think or experience. From this perspective, it seems like the attempt to think immanence is as much a contemplative exercise as it is a firm assertion about the metaphysical structures (this then would seem to be different that what Levi suggests).

    My favorite passages is James are those where he struggles with (paraphrase) ‘a reality that always flows into the more.’ I appreciate you bringing this aspect of James into discussion, Matt. Here its unclear to me what transcendence means in this context: just because reality flows into the more, does that mean that the ‘more’ is metaphysically transcendent? I’m not so sure. On the other hand, does something being transcendent necessarily mean that its not recursively interactive with ‘immanent’ phenomena? It seems you are raising some of these questions, Leon, and I agree I’m not sure who the straw men in some of these conversations actually are. Murky problems abound.

    I like the kind of immanence that sees immanence as the impossible struggle to think immanence, but am less fond of the attempt to interpret all phenomena in terms of a pre-defined immanence; this just seems to put the cart before the horse. So, I think radical empiricism and immanence are closely related; but I prefer the former since it affords a greater freedom of encounter with the experience of other beings, where the latter seems like it will inevitably fall prey to definitions of what ‘immanence’ means and thus seems like it might try and force experience into the wrong kinds of conceptual boxes.

    1. Adam Robbert Avatar
      Adam Robbert

      Sorry about the typos!

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