The Pragmatics of Spirit: A Centenary Celebration of James's Varieties

By Lorentzen, Oz | Cross Currents, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

The Pragmatics of Spirit: A Centenary Celebration of James's Varieties


Lorentzen, Oz, Cross Currents


It is the determination to safeguard the human spirit that I wish to celebrate in James's Varieties: not the content of the book, but the motivation for the book. As I see it, the motivation behind the Varieties is to enlarge our vision of humanity, to ennoble our conception of ourselves, to ensure the dignity of the person, in short to guard against the forces that demean, belittle, and minimize the human. James's analysis of the consequences of scholarship in the academy of his day was that they undermined the possibility of the significance, the importance, of knowledge. That is, they threatened the meaningful nature of human experience. This issue is closely tied to an openness to the truth of religious experience, since an honest assessment of religion provides a counterbalance to these minimizing tendencies. There is, however, in the academic study of religion a predisposition that subsumes the voice of religious experience. James needs, then, to provide an apologetic that will create an audience for religion's particular insights. I have termed this cluster of insights the "human spirit," since it is James's desire to present a view of the human that opens it up to the possibility of transcendence. His apologetic, however, is not directed primarily to the academic world. His concern is less to convince his academic peers, since he believes this to be a fruitless debate (72), and more to make sure that the door they sought to close remains propped open for others. I for one continue to be grateful for this open door.

James sees the negative forces in academia at work in at least three distinct, but related, areas: reductionism, objectivism, and materialism. We are all familiar with the reductive arguments about religion: religious impulses can be traced to a psychological or biological mechanism. Or, more plainly said, you desire God because of unresolved conflicts with your mother or father. James deals quickly and decisively with reductionism; as Carol Zaleski puts it, "Varieties should have been the death knell of reductionism for all time." (2) James does so by pointing out that the reductive argument is susceptible to its own critique. That is, if I desire God based on my relationship with my father, then it is equally true that your lack of desire for God is traceable to your relationship with your father. James puts his insight in this way:

   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 have already
   worked out in advance some psycho-physical theory connecting
   spiritual values in general with determinate sorts of
   physiological change. Otherwise none of our thoughts and feelings
   ... could retain any value as revelations of the truth, for every
   one of them without exception flows from the state of
   their possessor's body at the time. (30)

A second and related challenge comes from the reigning dogma of objectivity, which sees neutrality as a necessary criterion of truth. Of course one cannot, and James does not, disagree with the need for objective thought--indeed, as we just saw, it is the corrective for reductionism. When objectivity, however, is made the sole criterion of thought, James takes exception. To hold such a commitment restricts knowledge to the universal, and, therefore, restricts knowledge to the trivial, as far as a human value in meaning is concerned. More importantly, as James shows more clearly in his Will to Believe, objectivism--that is, the commitment to objectivity--is not based on objective thought. Rather, the passions, or more correctly fear--the fear of error--is the motive for objectivism. James's argument against objectivism is as follows: there is no compelling reason to accept the claim of objectivism; in fact, conversely, there is better evidence to support the opposite position, the position that subjectivity is the more important condition for human knowledge. …

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