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The Varieties of Religious Experience

James, William

William James, 1842–1910, American philosopher, b. New York City, M.D. Harvard, 1869; son of the Swedenborgian theologian Henry James and brother of the novelist Henry James. In 1872 he joined the Harvard faculty as lecturer on anatomy and physiology, continuing to teach until 1907, after 1880 in the department of psychology and philosophy. In 1890 he published his brilliant and epoch-making Principles of Psychology, in which the seeds of his philosophy are already discernible. James's fascinating style and his broad culture and cosmopolitan outlook made him the most influential American thinker of his day.

His philosophy has three principal aspects—voluntarism, pragmatism, and "radical empiricism." He construes consciousness as essentially active, selective, interested, teleological. We "carve out" our world from "the jointless continuity of space." Will and interest are thus primary; knowledge is instrumental. The true is "only the expedient in our way of thinking." Ideas do not reproduce objects, but prepare for, or lead the way to, them. The function of an idea is to indicate "what conceivable effects of a practical kind the object may involve—what sensations we are to expect from it and what reactions we must prepare." This theory of knowledge James called pragmatism, a term already used by Charles S. Peirce. James's "radical empiricism" is a philosophy of "pure experience," which rejects all transcendent principles and finds experience organized by means of "conjunctive relations" that are as much a matter of direct experience as things themselves. Moreover, James regards consciousness as only one type of conjunctive relation within experience, not as an entity above, or distinct from, its experience. James's other philosophical writings include The Will to Believe (1897), The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), Pragmatism (1907), A Pluralistic Universe (1909), The Meaning of Truth (1909), Some Problems in Philosophy (1911), and Essays in Radical Empiricism (1912).

See his letters (ed. by his son Henry James, 1920); the Harvard Univ. Press edition of The Works of William James (17 vol., 1975–88); biographies by E. C. Moore (1965), G. W. Allen (1967), L. Simon (1998), and R. Richardson (2006); R. B. Perry, The Thought and Character of William James (2 vol. 1935, abr. ed. 1948) and In the Spirit of William James (1938, repr. 1958); studies by B. P. Brennan (1968), J. Wild (1969), P. K. Dooley (1974), and H. S. Levinson (1981); J. Barzun, A Stroll with William James (1984). See also studies of the James family by F. O. Matthiessen (1947), R. W. B. Lewis (1991), and P. Fisher (2008).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2013, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature
William James.
Routledge, 2002
William James and "The Varieties of Religious Experience": A Centenary Celebration
Jeremy Carrette.
Routledge, 2004
FREE! Twice-Born Men: A Clinic in Regeneration; a Footnote in Narrative to Professor William James's "The Varieties of Religious Experience"
Harold Begbie.
Fleming H. Revell company, 1909
William James and the Metaphysics of Experience
David C. Lamberth.
Cambridge University Press, 1999
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 3 "'The Varieties of Religious Experience': Indications of a Philosophy Adapted to Normal Religious Needs"
Wittgenstein and William James
Russell B. Goodman.
Cambridge University Press, 2002
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 2 "Wittgenstein and The Varieties of Religious Experience"
William James on the Courage to Believe
Robert J. O'Connell.
Fordham University Press, 1997 (2nd edition)
Librarian’s tip: "Deontology in Varieties of Religious Experience" begins on p. 150
Philosophy in the Twentieth Century: An Anthology
William Barrett; Henry D. Aiken.
Random House, vol.1, 1962
Librarian’s tip: "The Varieties of Religious Experience: Conclusions and Postscript" begins on p. 259
How Religious Experience "Works": Jamesian Pragmatism and Its Warrants
Robinson, Daniel N.
The Review of Metaphysics, Vol. 56, No. 4, June 2003
"Failure, Then, Failure!": Shame and William James's "Sick Soul"
McNish, Jill L.
Cross Currents, Vol. 53, No. 3, Fall 2003
Is Healthy-Mindedness Healthy?
Pawelski, James O.
Cross Currents, Vol. 53, No. 3, Fall 2003
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