Encyclopedia of Religion
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William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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(1842-1910) Psychologist and philosopher; considered by some the "father" of American psychology and also of American pragmatism.

Born in New York City, the son of theologian Henry James, Sr. (1811-1882), William James had a wideranging education that began with home schooling by his unconventional father and included studies in England, France, Switzerland, and Germany between 1855-1860 (often with his younger brother, Henry, the novelist). After trying his hand as a painter, James studied chemistry, anatomy and physiology, and psychology at Harvard University, where he received his medical degree in 1869. His medical education included a nine-month expedition in Brazil with zoologist Louis Agassiz in 1865-1866. Such a vast array of experience, according to Ralph Barton Perry (1948:71), stimulated and revealed in James "a mind as energetic and acquisitive as it was voracious and incorrigibly vagrant."

James never practiced medicine, becoming instead a professor at Harvard, where he taught from 1872 to 1907 on a variety of topics including anatomy and physiology, psychology, and philosophy. A leading figure in experimental psychology, James established a laboratory at Harvard—one of the first such laboratories in the world—to study the subject. During this period, he befriended the philosopher C. S. Peirce and was greatly influenced by Peirce's pragmatism.

James attained considerable notoriety with the publication, in 1890, of The Principles of Psychology , but it was The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature —his Gifford Lectures delivered at Edinburgh in 1901-1902—that established James as one of America's leading philosophers and religious thinkers. Indeed, The Varieties has been called "the most famous of all American treatises on religion" (Clebsch 1973: 153). Although James called his lectures a "descriptive survey" of the varieties of religious experience, they in fact represent an early defense of his pragmatic view of religion. James sought to articulate a defense of the religious impulse of human beings, arguing against "medical materialism," which would reduce religion to abnormal states of mind rooted in physiology; transcendental idealist and neo-Hegelian philosophies, which threatened to reduce religion to an intellectual exercise; and institutional religions, which sought to place ritual and dogma ahead of individual experience.

Against those who would dismiss religious experience as psychologically or physiologically pathological, James argued for an assessment of its value in terms suggested by his conception of the pragmatic theory of truth: Beliefs or ideas are true if they "work," that is, if they are useful. Thus, in The Varieties , James claims that religion should neither be arbitrarily privileged nor dismissed but should be judged according to its usefulness in achieving some valued end. Religious experiences and beliefs, in James's well-known words, should be judged "by their fruits . . . not by their roots."

In James's view, beliefs—like scientific hypotheses—are always conditional, fallible, and subject to experimental testing. This is true of religious beliefs no less than other beliefs. As James succinctly put it in the Preface to The Will to Believe (Dover 1959 [1897]: xi-xii),

If religious hypotheses about the universe be in order at all, then the active faiths of individuals in them, freely expressing themselves in life, are the experimental tests by which they are verified, and the only means by which their truth or falsehood can be wrought out. The truest scientific hypothesis is that which, as we say, "works" best; and it can be no otherwise with religious hypotheses.

This pragmatic view of truth is sometimes referred to as "experimentalism."

In The Varieties , James found the greatest "fruits of the religious life," and therefore the greatest justification for religion, in saintliness . Typical of the individual "regenerate character" and indicated by charity, modesty, piety, and happiness, saintliness is "present in all religions." Recalling the subtitle of The Varieties , James finds in saintliness a key insight into human nature: the possibility that religious experience might regenerate the original "rightness" of human being.

James the psychologist is also amply represented in The Varieties , especially in distinctions he made early in the lectures between two types of religious experience: the "religion of healthy-mindedness" and the "sick soul." The religion of healthy-mindedness is exemplified by the "once-born" person who is cheerful and optimistic (James's exemplar was Walt Whitman), while the sick soul possesses a "divided self" characterized by pessimism and anguish (James's exemplar seems to have been himself). The sick soul must be "twice-born," the "divided self" reunified and renewed through a process of conversion to achieve happiness. Although he considers a variety of emotions and interpretations of religious experience in The Varieties , the type of religious experience he considers most often is the twice-born conversion of the sick soul—which is not surprising because that best fit his own personal experience.

James is rightfully considered a "founding father" of the psychology of religion. Indeed, he is the most frequently cited individual in the field. Arguably his greatest enduring contribution has been his legitimation of the study of the experiential dimension of religion. By invoking James—especially his delineation of the four characteristics of mysticism (ineffability, noetic quality, transiency, and passivity)—later scholars could study religious experience with less fear of being dismissed for studying the esoteric or the extreme.

Definitive scholarly editions of James's work have been published by Harvard University Press with the support of the American Council of Learned Societies under the general editorship of Frederick Burkhardt, Fredson Bowers, and Ignas Skrupskelis as The Works of William James , including The Varieties of Religious Experience (volume 15, 1985, with an introduction by John E. Smith). The text of The Varieties has been published by many presses, including editions by the Library of America and the Modern Library. Most frequently cited is the original Longmans, Green edition (1902)—or editions produced from those plates (e.g., the Penguin Classics edition)—which is cross-referenced in the Harvard edition. An exemplary biography of James is Gerald E. Myers's William James: His Life and Thought (Yale University Press 1986). For the intellectual context of James's thought, see Bruce Kuklick's The Rise of American Philosophy, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1860-1930 (Yale University Press 1977).

See also Experience, Mysticism, Religiosity

David Yamane


W. Clebsch, American Religious Thought (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973)

J. E. Dittes, "Beyond William James," in Beyond the Classics? ed. C. Y. Glock and P. E. Hammond (New York: Harper, 1973): 291-354

H. S. Levinson, The Religious Investigations of William James (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1981)

R. B. Perry, The Thought and Character of William James (New York: Harper, 1948).

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