When we discuss religion, oftentimes we’re talking about the institution. But James wants to get at the essence of religious belief, and for him, the institution is a bit of a sideshow. He’s not interested in what lies in the psyche of an ordinary believer—the sort who prays or goes through the motions without actually experiencing anything very different from a non-religious person—but instead as it is manifests in its most acute forms. He’s interested in those who break away from the mainstream to start new religions, or at least those who write about their experiences in an especially convincing or evocative way.
It’s interesting to read about mystical experiences and conversion as they are described by people with different backgrounds and personalities. Some of these first-hand accounts, often in the form of letters or diary entries, are from famous people (Whitman, Tolstoy, Saint Theresa), others are from obscure members of the working class.
But I want to focus on James’ philosophical views, the sections of the book that provide background for his radically empirical (and perhaps phenomenological) stance toward religious experience. This may be a strange text to use for this purpose, considering he wrote books that directly address his philosophical positions. I confess I’m using this one because it’s my favorite…something about the way he handled this subject seems fair-minded. I also like that it’s a philosophical work about a subject outside of philosophy. While this makes his philosophical stance slightly less clear in one respect, in another respect it makes his ideas easier to grasp, because it shows us what his philosophical thinking does. That is a rare thing indeed.
‘Nothing-but’-ism is an overly simplistic reductionism, one that fails to account for what it purports to account for. When people say, “Religion is the opiate of the masses,” they’re implying that religion is “nothing but” a balm for stupid people.
Medical materialism is a phrase James coined to refer to a kind of nothing-but-ism that reduces religion to medical pathology, often in a vague, but science-y, way. “Religion is a such-and-such imbalance in the brain.” In this view, religion itself is nothing more than an effect of physical illness.
James criticizes this view, arguing that religious ideas and insights should be judged by their intrinsic value and in light of what real impact they may have. (He’s specific about what counts as a valuable insight, but I won’t get into it here.) In other words, religious ideas should be assessed on their own terms, just as non-religious ideas are. After all, he points out, geniuses often have unsound constitutions, and a great number of world-changing ideas wouldn’t have seen the light of day if we’d judged them by the temperaments of their authors.
But this doesn’t mean he takes issue with the actual science of seeking causal links between mental phenomena and their physical counterparts. In fact, he insists on including medical pathology in his broader assessment of religious thought—if it should happen to be the case that the extremely religious tend to be clinically psychotic, that’s something we take into account.
He goes on to say that if medical materialists were consistent, they would pull the rug out from under their own feet; instead, they employ a double standard:
Modern psychology, finding definite psycho-physical connections to hold good, assumes as a convenient hypothesis that the dependence of mental states upon bodily conditions must be thoroughgoing and complete…But now, I ask you, how can such an existential account of facts of mental history decide in one way or another upon their spiritual significance? According to the general postulate of psychology just referred to, there is not a single one of our states of mind, high or low, healthy or morbid, that has not some organic process as its condition. Scientific theories are organically conditioned just as much as religious emotions are…So of all our raptures and our drynesses, our longings and pantings, our questions and beliefs. They are equally organically founded, be they of religious or of non-religious content…
It is needless to say that medical materialism draws in point of fact no such sweeping skeptical conclusion. It is sure, just as every simple man is sure, that some states of mind are inwardly superior to others, and reveal to us more truth, and in this it simply makes use of an ordinary spiritual judgment. It has no physiological theory of the production of these its favorite states, by which it may accredit them; and its attempt to discredit the states which it dislikes, by vaguely associating them with nerves and liver, and connecting them with names connoting bodily affliction, is altogether illogical and inconsistent.
The argument of medical materialism operates no differently than the dogmatic theologies and philosophies it purports to demolish. Both sides try to validate or discredit religious experience by tracing it back to its origins, its root causes. But in doing so, both sides ignore the phenomena they purport to account for.
As I see it, traditional empiricism is the source of the medical materialist’s disdain for “spiritual judgement,” or ideas.
This matter hearkens back to the traditional rationalism/empiricism divide. Generally speaking, the rationalist prefers ideas, deduction, a priori certitude. The empiricist prefers concrete reality, specifics, observation—as does James. For him it’s a foregone conclusion that traditional rationalism is off base. He has little sympathy with this side…he launches scathing attacks on Immanuel Kant every chance he gets, sometimes to the point of being unfair. But he finds serious problems in traditional empiricism as well.
Empiricism is usually defined as the belief that knowledge derives from experience, and such a definition by itself would also describe James’ position. But it’s important to understand that, historically, empiricists took “experience” to be virtually synonymous with sensory perception. More specifically, sense data, or “atoms” of perception. These were understood to be the origin of knowledge.
But James believed that if we are to be true empiricists—what he would call radical empiricists—then we shouldn’t dismiss ideas by treating them all as private irrelevancies, or mere organizers of perception. The notion that ideas are derivative, secondary, or unreal is itself a theoretical assumption which stems from an overly narrow take on what counts as experience (and therefore knowledge).
In the chapter, “The Reality of the Unseen,” James explains just how important ideas are:
“The whole universe of concrete objects, as we know them, swims, not only for such a transcendentalist writer [Emerson], but for all of us, in a wider and higher universe of abstract ideas, that is its significance. As time, space, and the ether soak through all things so (we feel) do abstract and essential goodness, beauty, strength, significance, justice, soak through all things good, strong, significant, and just. Such ideas, and others equally abstract, form the background for all our facts, the fountain-head of all the possibilities we can conceive of. They give its “nature,” as we call it, to every special thing. Everything we know is “what” it is by sharing in the nature of one of these abstractions. We can never look directly at them, for they are bodiless and featureless and footless, but we grasp all other things by their means, and in handling the real world we should be stricken with helplessness in just so far forth as we might lose these mental objects, these adjectives and adverbs and predicates and heads of classification and conception. This absolute determinability of our mind by abstractions is one of the cardinal facts in our human constitution. Polarizing and magnetizing us as they do, we turn towards them and from them, we seek them, hold them, hate them, bless them, just as if they were so many concrete beings.”
Though he may sound a bit like a Platonist here, he’s not. (Notice the careful wording, the “as if” constructions.) What he’s actually saying is that the empiricists have not been empirical enough. Ideas aren’t just our way of gluing together sense perceptions. Ideas are directly experienced too, and perhaps—to echo Hume—with even more “force, liveliness, and vivacity” than sense data.
Empiricism had to be updated, broadened, but not abandoned.
You see that at bottom we are thrown back upon the general principles by which the empirical philosophy has always contended that we must be guided in our search for truth. Dogmatic philosophies have sought for tests for truth which might dispense us from appealing to the future. Some direct mark, by noting which we can be protected immediately and absolutely, now and forever, against all mistake—such has been the darling dream of philosophic dogmatists. It is clear that the origin of the truth would be an admirable criterion of this sort…Origin in immediate intuition; origin in pontifical authority; origin in supernatural revelation…these origins have been stock warrants for the truth of one opinion after another which we find represented in religious history…
In the end, it had to come to our empiricist criterion: By their fruits ye shall know them, not by their roots.
Unfortunately, I can only barely touch the surface here. Rather than define pragmatism as such, I’ll just say that his is characterized by an earnest attempt to search for “the fruits,” wherever they may be found.
Pragmatism is often described a philosophy that takes truth to be synonymous with usefulness, which sounds a bit like wishful thinking. But James isn’t trying to sell us a sheisty “truth is whatever you want it to be” philosophy. Such an absurd stance would be both anti-empirical and a slap in the face to common sense…and he just doesn’t seem like the sort of guy to slap common sense in the face. I prefer the word “fruitful” because it brings to mind “a fruitful discovery.” I see his approach as multi-layered and interdisciplinary.
I’ll leave you with his own words, which I think can be taken as an example of what pragmatism might look like:
Let us play fair in this whole matter, and be quite candid with ourselves and with the facts. When we think certain states of mind superior to others, is it ever because of what we know concerning their organic antecedents? No! it is always for entirely different reasons. It is either because we take an immediate delight in them; or else it is because we believe them to bring us good consequential fruits for life…It is the character of inner happiness in the thoughts which stamps them as good, or else their consistency with our other opinions and their serviceability for our needs, which make them pass for true in our esteem.
Now the more intrinsic and the more remote of these criteria do not always hang together. Inner happiness and serviceability do not always agree. What immediately feels most “good” is not always most “true,” when measured by the verdict of the rest of experience. The difference between Phillip drunk and Phillip sober is the classic instance in corroboration. If merely “feeling good” could decide, drunkenness would be the supremely valid human experience. But its revelations, however acutely satisfying at the moment, are inserted into an environment which refuses to bear them out for any length of time. The consequence of this discrepancy of the two criteria is the uncertainty which still prevails over so many of our spiritual judgments. There are moments of sentimental and mystical experience…that carry an enormous sense of inner authority and illumination with them when they come. But they come seldom, and they do not come to everyone; and the rest of life makes either no connection with them, or tends to contradict them more than it confirms them. Some persons follow more the voice of the moment in these cases, some prefer to be guided by the average results. Hence, the sad discordancy of so many of the spiritual judgments of human beings…It is, however, a discordancy that can never be resolved by any merely medical test.
[In determining the value of religious opinions] Immediate luminousness, in short, philosophical reasonableness, and moral helpfulness are the only available criteria…
As far as strong, but fleeting, religious experience goes, he doesn’t give us a pat answer on what to make of it. Perhaps in philosophical moods we would love to seize upon rules that will be true now and forever, but if we’re honest with ourselves, most of the time we accept, however provisionally, whatever seems most fruitful.
Of course, we don’t always agree on what’s fruitful. He seems strangely comfortable with conflict, perhaps even inner inconsistency, and his philosophical views might be denounced as a kind of extreme relativism. I think they escape this characterization—in his view, both the atomistic empiricist and the absolutist rationalist are wrong. And to be clear, he’s not interested in establishing personal religious truths on equal ground, but in examining them from different angles to determine which types are most valuable on the whole. (If you read the Varieties, you’ll find his answer.) In other words, what turns out to be fruitful may not necessarily be fruitful for all time, but these matters aren’t decided willy-nilly either. Fruitfulness can be argued for in the same way anything is argued for. When he says that ideas illuminate our experiences “as if” they were concrete beings, this implies it’s fruitless to obsess over their invisibility. What matters is that we can’t live without them.
He might be accused of a kind of subjectivism, but that involves a naive stance toward knowledge and reality, whereas his is an attempt to undermine the dualistic paradigm on which subjectivism stands. Whether he succeeded is another question. I read most of his works a while back, and as I recall, the Varieties was most successful, but I may have to revisit those others. In any case, in this work he manages to illuminate several opposing religious moods and practices without falling into a bland egalitarian tolerance.
This overturning of the traditional rational-empirical divide is one place where I see some overlap with phenomenology, but I’ll save that for another day. Judging by the rate of my posting lately, I’ll be lucky if I get around to it before next year.
Does “fruitfulness” succeed in establishing truth? Is experience the proper foundation for knowledge? What do you think?
And to those of you I haven’t spoken to in a long time…how’s it going? (Same ‘ol here. Geordie. Flamenco. Still working on the novel, rewriting it in omniscient. Someday, I swear, someday, it will be finished. But I will say this—I love writing in omniscient.)