A Centenary Celebration of James’s Varieties

by Oz Lorentzen

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. In addition, as James argues, a commitment to objectivity closes off potential avenues of truth.

A more subtle challenge represented by a commitment to materialism is the moral and cultural climate that is engendered by such a view. Primarily in his discussion of Saints, James shows how society needs the influx of the ethical imperatives drawn from religious insight in order to stay healthy: in order to thrive, there must be a vehicle for the expression of the human spirit in society. He critiques his own culture for failing to live up to the human ideal by valuing the comforts and trappings of materialism. This is really an implied critique in James’s Varieties and one that seems to logically follow from his other criticisms of the reigning ideology. In following a reductive analysis of the human spirit and the attainments of the human spirit, we lose the ability to appreciate the value of the religious dimension of the human person, or for that matter, we lose the ability even to ask the question of the value of this dimension. Further, in following a blind commitment to the criterion of objectivity in our thought we lose the ability to be open to a whole class of important truths. If both of these are true, then it is no surprise that culture as a whole fails to reflect or demonstrate these values or sets of truth. That is, it follows that society understands itself in the light of the “truth” about the human as understood and communicated by its academic leaders. These consequences of the policies of objectivism and materialism are an important motivation for James’s argument.

One hundred years later, these critiques are still necessary. Though others have joined with James in this critique (the ranks of postmodernists for instance), to all appearances materialism still reigns in academia. To find celebrations of the human spirit we must go to confessional writings and/or others just barely within the pale of the academic realm. And with materialism persist the same reductive tendencies and the demand for objectivity in all our thinking. The confidence that James’s contemporaries had in reductive theories and the headiness with which they were received are perhaps understandable at that time. Since, however, James put the spiritual on an equal playing field with materialism, today such naiveté would be laughable, if its consequences were not so tragic.

What is tragic about the consequences of objectivism, reductionism, and materialism? First, there is the loss of truth. This loss implies more than a loss of our spiritual truths. For we not only lose the set of truths which belief, or a willing receptivity, opens up to the human; more importantly, the functional outworking of the policies of objectivism and materialism is to close one off to truth in general—this because objectivism claims to know more than it can know. Here we see the psychologist James at work as he reiterates a timeless observation (or at least one that goes back to Socrates): “I fear to lose truth by this pretension to possess it already wholly” (261). Second, there is the loss of moral nerve, or the loss of character. Materialism undercuts the rationale or motivation for embracing life’s discomforts and challenges as opportunities for growth: for example, James writes, “it is certain that the prevalent fear of poverty among the educated classes is the worst moral disease from which our civilization suffers” (285). Third, there is a loss of real understanding. Materialism misunderstands reality since, at best, it only deals with the skin of reality:

In spite of the appeal which this impersonality of the scientific attitude makes to a certain magnanimity of temper, I believe it to be shallow, and I can now state my reason in comparatively few words. The reason is that, so long as we deal with the cosmic and the general, we deal only with the symbols of reality, but as soon as we deal with private and personal phenomena as such, we deal with realities in the completest sense of the term. (376-7)

A final consequence, and from my perspective the most tragic, is that we lose the ability to be profound. Although this charge could be made against much of contemporary scholarship, we need to bring it closer to home in order to develop James’s particular insight, since this critique is especially true of the study of religion. James refers to a view of religion that sees it as an evolutionary throwback, destined for extinction as reason and progress eliminate the source of religion (fear and superstition) in society. This view, a product of reductive materialism, and one still with us today, James calls the “survival-theory.” In response to this theory, James writes:

The contention of the survival-theory that we ought to stick to non-personal elements exclusively seems like saying that we ought to be satisfied forever with reading the naked bill of fare. I think, therefore, that however particular questions connected with our individual destinies may be answered, it is only by acknowledging them as genuine questions , and living in the sphere of thought which they open up, that we become profound. ” (378, my emphasis)

James’s critique of scholars of religion is particularly pointed since religious experience represents the corrective to the deficiencies of a materialist outlook. The materialist grid fails to grasp what is truly human, our particularity. The consequence is that our greatest insights become trivial—they are unable to sustain us. Since, however, religious experience enfranchises the individual, its insights offer ample human sustenance. Here James “leaves off preaching and begins meddling,” as the saying goes, since he is talking to you and me. I say James is particularly pointed in his critique because these scholars of religion, not wishing to enter in themselves, have succeeded in barring the gate to others. That is, if religion offers a corrective to the deficiencies of the materialist view, then the study of religion must be wrested from the control of materialist academics. In a telling and eerily relevant observation, James says:

The consequence is that the conclusions of the science of religions are as likely to be adverse as they are to be favorable to the claim that the essence of religion is true. There is a notion in the air about us that religion is probably only an anachronism, a case of ‘survival,’ an atavistic relapse into a mode of thought which humanity in its more enlightened examples has outgrown; and this notion our religious anthropologists at present do little to counteract. (371)

The result of this “survival theory” is that we lose the depth dimension in our understanding of the human. Further, since, as James states earlier, “the best fruits of religious experience are the best things that history has to show” (207), this inability to understand religion and to safeguard its place in human society is a serious, if not potentially fatal, flaw. Again, the corrective is to return to religion itself, not to its learned pundits. Using the analogy of the menu, James points out that we can recover the impetus for, or the openness to, profundity.

To describe the world with all the various feelings of the individual pinch of destiny, all the various spiritual attitudes, left out from the description...would be something like offering a printed bill of fare as the equivalent of a solid meal. Religion makes no such blunder. (377, my emphasis)

An honest study of the phenomenon of religious experience provides a corrective to the reductive tendencies and the consequences of materialism. Religion champions the irreducible, the particular, the incommensurable. In this, the only possible place to study reality from the inside, James says we encounter the possibility of knowing something important. Since it retains the notion of the human spirit, the study of religion allows us to seek a vision of the human that enlarges and expands human possibility.

James arrives at his critiques of academia and his understanding of religion as a corrective to the lacks of academia through his pragmatic method. Before we can really feel the pinch of James’s argument, or before we can celebrate the spirit of the Varieties , we need to ask if pragmatism is a sound method. This is really a re-visitation of the epistemological debate between science, as material- ism’s showcase, and other knowledge claims—or the debate in The Will to Believe . To answer this question we must return to an earlier point: that there is no objective reason to insist on objectivity. According to James, the knowledge claims of religion have the same basis as those of science—experiential verification! In fact, it is the religious skeptic, the cultured despiser, the “rationalist,” (or the “denier” as James calls him) who is intellectually dishonest. It is the “rationalist” who denies the facts in the situation, the “rationalist” who is biased, the “rationalist” who limits inquiry, not the religious believer: “It is the rationalist critic . . . who plays the part of denier in the controversy, and his denials have no strength, for there never can be a state of facts to which new meaning may not truthfully be added, provided the mind ascend to a more enveloping point of view” (327).

Pragmatism is the radical notion that what works is what is “true.” James argues convincingly that the term “truth” can only mean that knowledge which allows its possessor to confirm his/her knowledge by acting upon it. For instance, if I have true knowledge of how to get to Washington, DC, that can only mean that I will be able to get there . Pragmatism’s account of truth is that we should call true that which leads to predictable outcomes! Thus, it proceeds in the same way as the scientific method. Both base their truth claims on demonstrable evidence, that is, on experiential confirmation. James can claim, therefore, that both science and religion are “genuine keys” to understanding the universe (107). This makes the conflict between science and religion, or between objectivism and pragmatism, a sibling rivalry. There is a familial connection in the nature of the claims that ground their respective systems of truth. Consequently, at this level, there is a fundamental inability to decide between the two options.

Owing perhaps to the influence of James, to our postmodern sensibilities this conclusion may strike us as obvious, pedantic, or even trivial. What is not so easily swept aside, however, is the implication of this conclusion. If science and pragmatism are equal, how can we account for the motivation that continues to promote and inscribe a view of the human that is basically de-humanizing? I think we need to ask what motivates us as academics to create, promote, and endorse a view of humanity that makes us “littler.” If there is an equal playing field for knowledge claims, if “God is real since he produces real effects” (389), what tips the scale in favor of materialism?

Perhaps, as some of our postmodernists have shown us, the motivation comes from a real, a deep-seated, inability to appreciate the undecidable. As James suggests, our penchant towards objectivity belies our need for security, our uneasiness with ambiguity or uncertainty. Not only do we fail to appreciate or understand the value of the indeterminate, we actively resist even the possibility of its value. Therefore, the materialist, the atheist, the scientist is the fearful one, the one motivated by concern for security: not James, or the religious adherent. Instead, as Charles Taylor puts it, “James is our great philosopher of the cusp” who “stands so nakedly and volubly in this exposed spot that his work has resonated for a hundred years” (4, 5). Because the human spirit represents the possible, the transcendent, it threatens what is. By maintaining a view of human reality that opens out onto the possibility of God, James unsettles and unseats human confidence. Yet, he does so —and this is important to note— he does so in order to resist premature closure on our assessment of the human. James sustains the truly human act of free creative possibility by risking, by endangering, by doubting and questioning, by believing. As Bergson recognizes, James’s interest is in the indefinite (250), the yet-to-be determined, the possible— for in this lies the hope for humanity. One hundred years later, I celebrate this hope. And it is this insight that makes James very much our contemporary, for isn’t this the great postmodern discovery: it is in losing ourselves that we find ourselves.


Henri Bergson, The Creative Mind . Tr. Mabelle Andison. New York: Philosophical Library, 1946.
William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience. [s.l.]: The New American Library, 1958.
Charles Taylor, “Risking Belief: Why William James Still Matters”. Commonweal , 129:5, Mar. 8, 2002.
Carol Zaleski, “A Letter to William James,” Christian Century 119:2, Jan.16, 2002.}

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Source: Cross Currents, Fall  2003, Vol. 53,  No 3.