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William James

The Varieties of Religious Experience

Preface, Contents and Postscript

Published on: Thursday 7 June 2007

William James, “Preface, Contents and Postscript”, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature [1902], Random House, New York, 1929.


This book would never have been written had I not been honored with an appointment as Gifford Lecturer on Natural Religion at the University of Edinburgh. In casting about me for subjects of the two courses of ten lectures each for which I thus became responsible, it seemed to me that the first course might well be a descriptive one on "Man’s Religious Appetites," and the second a metaphysical one on "Their Satisfaction through Philosophy." But the unexpected growth of the psychological matter as I came to write it out has resulted in the second subject being postponed entirely, and the description of man’s religious constitution now fills the twenty lectures. In Lecture XX I have suggested rather than stated my own philosophic conclusions, and the reader who desires immediately to know them should turn to pages 501-509, and to the "Postscript" of the book. I hope to be able at some later day to express them in more explicit form.

In my belief that a large acquaintance with particulars often makes us wiser than the possession of abstract formulas, however deep, I have loaded the lectures with concrete examples, and I have chosen these among the extremer expressions of the religious temperament. To some readers I may consequently seem, before they get beyond the middle of the book, to offer a caricature of the subject. Such convulsions of piety, they will say, are not sane. If, however, they will have the patience to read to the end, I believe that this unfavorable impression will disappear; for I there combine the religious impulses with other principles of common sense which serve as correctives of exaggeration, and allow the individual reader to draw as moderate conclusions as he will.

My thanks for help in writing these lectures are due to Edwin D. Starbuck, of Stanford University, who made over to me his large collection of manuscript material; to Henry W. Rankin, of East Northfield, a friend unseen but proved, to whom I owe precious information; to Theodore Flournoy, of Geneva, to Canning Schiller of Oxford, and to my colleague Benjamin Rand, for documents; to my colleague Dickinson S. Miller, and to my friends, Thomas Wren Ward, of New York, and Wincenty Lutoslawski, late of Cracow, for important suggestions and advice. Finally, to conversations with the lamented Thomas Davidson and to the use of his books, at Glenmore, above Keene Valley, I owe more obligations than I can well express.

Harvard University, March, 1902.


 Introduction: the course is not anthropological, but deals with personal documents— Questions of fact and questions of value— In point of fact, the religious are often neurotic— Criticism of medical materialism, which condemns religion on that account— Theory that religion has a sexual origin refuted— All states of mind are neurally conditioned— Their significance must be tested not by their origin but by the value of their fruits— Three criteria of value; origin useless as a criterion— Advantages of the psychopathic temperament when a superior intellect goes with it— especially for the religious life.

 Futility of simple definitions of religion— No one specific "religious sentiment"— Institutional and personal religion— We confine ourselves to the personal branch— Definition of religion for the purpose of these lectures— Meaning of the term "divine"— The divine is what prompts SOLEMN reactions— Impossible to make our definitions sharp— We must study the more extreme cases— Two ways of accepting the universe— Religion is more enthusiastic than philosophy— Its characteristic is enthusiasm in solemn emotion— Its ability to overcome unhappiness— Need of such a faculty from the biological point of view.

 Percepts versus abstract concepts— Influence of the latter on belief— Kant’s theological Ideas— We have a sense of reality other than that given by the special senses— Examples of "sense of presence"— The feeling of unreality— Sense of a divine presence: examples— Mystical experiences: examples— Other cases of sense of God’s presence— Convincingness of unreasoned experience— Inferiority of rationalism in establishing belief— Either enthusiasm or solemnity may preponderate in the religious attitude of individuals.

 Happiness is man’s chief concern— "Once-born" and "twice-born" characters— Walt Whitman— Mixed nature of Greek feeling— Systematic healthy-mindedness— Its reasonableness— Liberal Christianity shows it— Optimism as encouraged by Popular Science— The "Mind-cure" movement— Its creed— Cases— Its doctrine of evil— Its analogy to Lutheran theology— Salvation by relaxation— Its methods: suggestion— meditation— "recollection"— verification— Diversity of possible schemes of adaptation to the universe— APPENDIX: TWO mind-cure cases.

 Healthy-mindedness and repentance— Essential pluralism of the healthy-minded philosophy— Morbid-mindedness: its two degrees—The pain-threshold varies in individuals— Insecurity of natural goods— Failure, or vain success of every life— Pessimism of all pure naturalism— Hopelessness of Greek and Roman view— Pathological unhappiness— "Anhedonia"— Querulous melancholy— Vital zest is a pure gift— Loss of it makes physical world look different— Tolstoy— Bunyan— Alline— Morbid fear— Such cases need a supernatural religion for relief— Antagonism of healthy-mindedness and morbidness— The problem of evil cannot be escaped.

 Heterogeneous personality—Character gradually attains unity—Examples of divided self—The unity attained need not be religious—"Counter conversion" cases—Other cases—Gradual and sudden unification—Tolstoy’s recovery—Bunyan’s.

 Case of Stephen Bradley—The psychology of character-changes— Emotional excitements make new centres of personal energy— Schematic ways of representing this— Starbuck likens conversion to normal moral ripening— Leuba’s ideas— Seemingly unconvertible persons— Two types of conversion— Subconscious incubation of motives— Self-surrender— Its importance in religious history— Cases.

 Cases of sudden conversion— Is suddenness essential?— No, it depends on psychological idiosyncrasy— Proved existence of transmarginal, or subliminal, consciousness— "Automatisms"— Instantaneous conversions seem due to the possession of an active subconscious self by the subject— The value of conversion depends not on the process, but on the fruits— These are not superior in sudden conversion— Professor Coe’s views— Sanctification as a result— Our psychological account does not exclude direct presence of the Deity— Sense of higher control— Relations of the emotional "faith-state" to intellectual beliefs— Leuba quoted— Characteristics of the faith-state: sense of truth; the world appears new— Sensory and motor automatisms— Permanency of conversions.

 Sainte-Beuve on the State of Grace— Types of character as due to the balance of impulses and inhibitions— Sovereign excitements— Irascibility— Effects of higher excitement in general— The saintly life is ruled by spiritual excitement— This may annul sensual impulses permanently— Probable subconscious influences involved— Mechanical scheme for representing permanent alteration in character— Characteristics of saintliness— Sense of reality of a higher power— Peace of mind, charity— Equanimity, fortitude, etc.— Connection of this with relaxation— Purity of life— Asceticism— Obedience— Poverty— The sentiments of democracy and of humanity— General effects of higher excitements.

 It must be tested by the human value of its fruits— The reality of the God must, however, also be judged— "Unfit" religions get eliminated by "experience"— Empiricism is not skepticism— Individual and tribal religion— Loneliness of religious originators— Corruption follows success— Extravagances— Excessive devoutness, as fanaticism— As theopathic absorption— Excessive purity— Excessive charity— The perfect man is adapted only to the perfect environment— Saints are leavens— Excesses of asceticism---- Asceticism symbolically stands for the heroic life— Militarism and voluntary poverty as possible equivalents— Pros and cons of the saintly character— Saints versus "strong" men— Their social function must be considered— Abstractly the saint is the highest type, but in the present environment it may fail, so we make ourselves saints at our peril— The question of theological truth.

 Mysticism defined— Four marks of mystic states— They form a distinct region of consciousness— Examples of their lower grades— Mysticism and alcohol— "The anaesthetic revelation"— Religious mysticism— Aspects of Nature— Consciousness of God— "Cosmic consciousness"— Yoga— Buddhistic mysticism— Sufism— Christian mystics— Their sense of revelation— Tonic effects of mystic states— They describe by negatives— Sense of union with the Absolute— Mysticism and music— Three conclusions— (1) Mystical states carry authority for him who has them— (2) But for no one else— (3) Nevertheless, they break down the exclusive authority of rationalistic states— They strengthen monistic and optimistic hypotheses.

 Primacy of feeling in religion, philosophy being a secondary function— Intellectualism professes to escape objective standards in her theological constructions— "Dogmatic theology"— Criticism of its account of God’s attributes— "Pragmatism" as a test of the value of conceptions— God’s metaphysical attributes have no practical significance— His moral attributes are proved by bad arguments; collapse of systematic theology— Does transcendental idealism fare better? Its principles— Quotations from John Caird— They are good as restatements of religious experience, but uncoercive as reasoned proof— What philosophy CAN do for religion by transforming herself into "science of religions."

 Aesthetic elements in religion—Contrast of Catholicism and Protestantism— Sacrifice and Confession— Prayer— Religion holds that spiritual work is really effected in prayer— Three degrees of opinion as to what is effected— First degree— Second degree— Third degree— Automatisms, their frequency among religious leaders— Jewish cases— Mohammed— Joseph Smith— Religion and the subconscious region in general.

 Summary of religious characteristics— Men’s religions need not be identical— "The science of religions" can only suggest, not proclaims a religious creed— Is religion a "survival" of primitive thought?— Modern science rules out the concept of personality— Anthropomorphism and belief in the personal characterized pre-scientific thought— Personal forces are real, in spite of this— Scientific objects are abstractions, only individualized experiences are concrete— Religion holds by the concrete— Primarily religion is a biological reaction— Its simplest terms are an uneasiness and a deliverance; description of the deliverance— Question of the reality of the higher power— The author’s hypotheses: 1. The subconscious self as intermediating between nature and the higher region— 2. The higher region, or "God"— 3. He produces real effects in nature.

 Philosophic position of the present work defined as piecemeal supernaturalism— Criticism of universalistic supernaturalism— Different principles must occasion differences in fact— What differences in fact can God’s existence occasion?— The question of immortality— Question of God’s uniqueness and infinity: religious experience does not settle this question in the affirmative— The pluralistic hypothesis is more conformed to common sense.


In writing my concluding lecture I had to aim so much at simplification that I fear that my general philosophic position received so scant a statement as hardly to be intelligible to some of my readers. I therefore add this epilogue, which must also be so brief as possibly to remedy but little the defect. In a later work I may be enabled to state my position more amply and consequently more clearly.

Originality cannot be expected in a field like this, where all the attitudes and tempers that are possible have been exhibited in literature long ago, and where any new writer can immediately be classed under a familiar head. If one should make a division of all thinkers into naturalists and supernaturalists, I should undoubtedly have to go, along with most philosophers, into the supernaturalist branch. But there is a crasser and a more refined supernaturalism, and it is to the refined division that most philosophers at the present day belong. If not regular transcendental idealists, they at least obey the Kantian direction enough to bar out ideal entities from interfering causally in the course of phenomenal events. Refined supernaturalism is universalistic supernaturalism; for the "crasser" variety "piecemeal" supernaturalism would perhaps be the better name. It went with that older theology which to-day is supposed to reign only among uneducated people, or to be found among the few belated professors of the dualisms which Kant is thought to have displaced. It admits miracles and providential leadings, and finds no intellectual difficulty in mixing the ideal and the real worlds together by interpolating influences from the ideal region among the forces that causally determine the real world’s details. In this the refined supernaturalists think that it muddles disparate dimensions of existence. For them the world of the ideal has no efficient causality, and never bursts into the world of phenomena at particular points. The ideal world, for them, is not a world of facts, but only of the meaning of facts; it is a point of view for judging facts. It appertains to a different "-ology," and inhabits a different dimension of being altogether from that in which existential propositions obtain. It cannot get down upon the flat level of experience and interpolate itself piecemeal between distinct portions of nature, as those who believe, for example, in divine aid coming in response to prayer, are bound to think it must.

Notwithstanding my own inability to accept either popular Christianity or scholastic theism, I suppose that my belief that in communion with the Ideal new force comes into the world, and new departures are made here below, subjects me to being classed among the supernaturalists of the piecemeal or crasser type. Universalistic supernaturalism surrenders, it seems to me, too easily to naturalism. It takes the facts of physical science at their face-value, and leaves the laws of life just as naturalism finds them, with no hope of remedy, in case their fruits are bad.

It confines itself to sentiments about life as a whole, sentiments which may be admiring and adoring, but which need not be so, as the existence of systematic pessimism proves. In this universalistic way of taking the ideal world, the essence of practical religion seems to me to evaporate. Both instinctively and for logical reasons, I find it hard to believe that principles can exist which make no difference in facts. [1] But all facts are particular facts, and the whole interest of the question of God’s existence seems to me to lie in the consequences for particulars which that existence may be expected to entail. That no concrete particular of experience should alter its complexion in consequence of a God being there seems to me an incredible proposition, and yet it is the thesis to which (implicitly at any rate) refined supernaturalism seems to cling. It is only with experience en bloc, it says, that the Absolute maintains relations. It condescends to no transactions of detail.

I am ignorant of Buddhism and speak under correction, and merely in order the better to describe my general point of view; but as I apprehend the Buddhistic doctrine of Karma, I agree in principle with that. All supernaturalists admit that facts are under the judgment of higher law; but for Buddhism as I interpret it, and for religion generally so far as it remains unweakened by transcendentalistic metaphysics, the word "judgment" here means no such bare academic verdict or platonic appreciation as it means in Vedantic or modern absolutist systems; it carries, on the contrary, EXECUTION with it, is in rebus as well as post rem. and operates "causally" as partial factor in the total fact. The universe becomes a gnosticism [2] pure and simple on any other terms. But this view that judgment and execution go together is that of the crasser supernaturalist way of thinking, so the present volume must on the whole be classed with the other expressions of that creed.

I state the matter thus bluntly, because the current of thought in academic circles runs against me, and I feel like a man who must set his back against an open door quickly if he does not wish to see it closed and locked. In spite of its being so shocking to the reigning intellectual tastes, I believe that a candid consideration of piecemeal supernaturalism and a complete discussion of all its metaphysical bearings will show it to be the hypothesis by which the largest number of legitimate requirements are met. That of course would be a program for other books than this; what I now say sufficiently indicates to the philosophic reader the place where I belong.

If asked just where the differences in fact which are due to God’s existence come in, I should have to say that in general I have no hypothesis to offer beyond what the phenomenon of "prayerful communion," especially when certain kinds of incursion from the subconscious region take part in it, immediately suggests. The appearance is that in this phenomenon something ideal, which in one sense is part of ourselves and in another sense is not ourselves, actually exerts an influence, raises our centre of personal energy, and produces regenerative effects unattainable in other ways. If, then, there be a wider world of being than that of our every-day consciousness, if in it there be forces whose effects on us are intermittent, if one facilitating condition of the effects be the openness of the "subliminal" door, we have the elements of a theory to which the phenomena of religious life lend plausibility. I am so impressed by the importance of these phenomena that I adopt the hypothesis which they so naturally suggest. At these places at least, I say, it would seem as though transmundane energies, God, if you will, produced immediate effects within the natural world to which the rest of our experience belongs.

The difference in natural "fact" which most of us would assign as the first difference which the existence of a God ought to make would, I imagine, be personal immortality. Religion, in fact, for the great majority of our own race MEANS immortality, and nothing else. God is the producer of immortality; and whoever has doubts of immortality is written down as an atheist without farther trial. I have said nothing in my lectures about immortality or the belief therein, for to me it seems a secondary point. If our ideals are only cared for in "eternity," I do not see why we might not be willing to resign their care to other hands than ours. Yet I sympathize with the urgent impulse to be present ourselves, and in the conflict of impulses, both of them so vague yet both of them noble, I know not how to decide. It seems to me that it is eminently a case for facts to testify. Facts, I think, are yet lacking to prove "spirit-return," though I have the highest respect for the patient labors of Messrs. Myers, Hodgson, and Hyslop, and am somewhat impressed by their favorable conclusions. I consequently leave the matter open, with this brief word to save the reader from a possible perplexity as to why immortality got no mention in the body of this book.

The ideal power with which we feel ourselves in connection, the "God" of ordinary men, is, both by ordinary men and by philosophers, endowed with certain of those metaphysical attributes which in the lecture on philosophy I treated with such disrespect. He is assumed as a matter of course to be "one and only" and to be "infinite"; and the notion of many finite gods is one which hardly any one thinks it worth while to consider, and still less to uphold. Nevertheless, in the interests of intellectual clearness, I feel bound to say that religious experience, as we have studied it, cannot be cited as unequivocally supporting the infinitist belief. The only thing that it unequivocally testifies to is that we can experience union with SOMETHING larger than ourselves and in that union find our greatest peace. Philosophy, with its passion for unity, and mysticism with its monoideistic bent, both "pass to the limit" and identify the something with a unique God who is the all-inclusive soul of the world. Popular opinion, respectful to their authority, follows the example which they set.

Meanwhile the practical needs and experiences of religion seem to me sufficiently met by the belief that beyond each man and in a fashion continuous with him there exists a larger power which is friendly to him and to his ideals. All that the facts require is that the power should be both other and larger than our conscious selves. Anything larger will do, if only it be large enough to trust for the next step. It need not be infinite, it need not be solitary. It might conceivably even be only a larger and more godlike self, of which the present self would then be but the mutilated expression, and the universe might conceivably be a collection of such selves, of different degrees of inclusiveness, with no absolute unity realized in it at all. [3] Thus would a sort of polytheism return upon us—a polytheism which I do not on this occasion defend, for my only aim at present is to keep the testimony of religious experience clearly within its proper bounds. [Compare p. 130 above.]

Upholders of the monistic view will say to such a polytheism (which, by the way, has always been the real religion of common people, and is so still to-day) that unless there be one all-inclusive God, our guarantee of security is left imperfect. In the Absolute, and in the Absolute only, ALL is saved. If there be different gods, each caring for his part, some portion of some of us might not be covered with divine protection, and our religious consolation would thus fail to be complete. It goes back to what was said on pages 129-131, about the possibility of there being portions of the universe that may irretrievably be lost. Common sense is less sweeping in its demands than philosophy or mysticism have been wont to be, and can suffer the notion of this world being partly saved and partly lost. The ordinary moralistic state of mind makes the salvation of the world conditional upon the success with which each unit does its part. Partial and conditional salvation is in fact a most familiar notion when taken in the abstract, the only difficulty being to determine the details. Some men are even disinterested enough to be willing to be in the unsaved remnant as far as their persons go, if only they can be persuaded that their cause will prevail—all of us are willing, whenever our activity-excitement rises sufficiently high. I think, in fact, that a final philosophy of religion will have to consider the pluralistic hypothesis more seriously than it has hitherto been willing to consider it. For practical life at any rate, the CHANCE of salvation is enough. No fact in human nature is more characteristic than its willingness to live on a chance. The existence of the chance makes the difference, as Edmund Gurney says, between a life of which the keynote is resignation and a life of which the keynote is hope. [4] But all these statements are unsatisfactory from their brevity, and I can only say that I hope to return to the same questions in another book.

WILLIAM JAMES (1842-1910)

The road by which William James arrived at his position of leadership among American philosophers was, during his childhood, youth and early maturity, quite as circuitous and unpredictable as were his father’s ideas on the training of his children. That Swedenborgian theologian foresaw neither the career of novelist for his son Henry, nor that of pragmatist philosopher for the older William. The father’s migrations between New York, Europe and Newport meant that William’s education had variety if it did not have fixed direction. From 13 to 18 he studied in Europe and returned to Newport, Rhode Island, to study painting under the guidance of John La Farge. After a year, he gave up art for science and entered Harvard University, where his most influential teachers were Louis Agassiz and Charles W. Eliot. In 1863, William James began the study of medicine, and in 1865 he joined an expedition to the Amazon. Before long, he wrote: "If there is anything I hate, it is collecting." His studies constantly interrupted by ill health, James returned to Germany and began hearing lectures and reading voluminously in philosophy. He won his medical degree at Harvard in 1870. For four years he was an invalid in Cambridge, but finally, in 1873, he passed his gravest physical and spiritual crises and began the career by which he was to influence so profoundly generations of American students. From 1880 to 1907 he was successively assistant professor of philosophy, professor of psychology and professor of philosophy at Harvard. In 1890, the publication of his Principles of Psycholog brought him the acknowledged leadership in the field of functional psychology. The selection of William James to deliver the Gifford lectures in Edinburgh was at once a tribute to him and a reward for the university that sponsored the undertaking. These lectures, collected in this volume, have since become famous as the standard scientific work on the psychology of the religious impulse. Death ended his career on August 27th, 1910.

View online : Lecture I: Religion and Neurology


[1Transcendental idealism, of course, insists that its ideal world makes THIS difference, that facts EXIST. We owe it to the Absolute that we have a world of fact at all. "A world" of fact!—that exactly is the trouble. An entire world is the smallest unit with which the Absolute can work, whereas to our finite minds work for the better ought to be done within this world, setting in at single points. Our difficulties and our ideals are all piecemeal affairs, but the Absolute can do no piecework for us; so that all the interests which our poor souls compass raise their heads too late. We should have spoken earlier, prayed for another world absolutely, before this world was born. It is strange, I have heard a friend say, to see this blind corner into which Christian thought has worked itself at last, with its God who can raise no particular weight whatever, who can help us with no private burden, and who is on the side of our enemies as much as he is on our own. Odd evolution from the God of David’s psalms!

[2See my Will to Believe and other Essays in popular Philosophy. 1897, p. 165.

[3Such a notion is suggested in my Ingersoll Lecture On Human Immortality, Boston and London, 1899.

[4Tertium Quid, 1887, p. 99. See also pp. 148, 149.

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