The Varieties of Religious Experience | Study Guide

William James

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The Varieties of Religious Experience | Postscript | Summary



James writes a postscript in an attempt to reveal his "general philosophical position," which he intends to elaborate on in a future work. He classifies thinkers as naturalists and supernaturalists, and supernaturalists further as either refined or "piecemeal." Most present-day philosophers are in the refined supernaturalist branch, but he classifies himself among the piecemeal variety. More specifically, James classifies himself among the dualists, who previously could mix "the ideal and the real worlds together by interpolating influences from the ideal region" among causal forces that determine what happens in the real world. James believes that "in communion with the Ideal new force comes into the world." While James admits he is "ignorant of Buddhism," he says he understands the Buddhist doctrine of karma and agrees with it in principle—that judgment is followed by execution and "operates 'causally' as partial factor in the total fact." (James refers here to the Buddhist doctrine of dependent origination, or chain of causes which brings the manifest world into being.)

For James the incursions from the subconscious that result in union with the Divine represent an ideal that "in one sense is part of ourselves and in another sense is not ourselves," but exerts influence and produces "regenerative effects unattainable in other ways." It would appear that "transmundane energies, God, if you will, produced immediate effects within the natural world to which the rest of our experience belongs."

James has not addressed immortality, in the sense of life after death, in his lectures, since he considers it a secondary point in religious discussions. He now says, "Facts ... are yet lacking to prove 'spirit-return,'" but he leaves the matter as an open question. More important, however, is the practical belief of religion that a power larger than humankind exists that is "friendly" to people and their ideals. Such a power need not be infinite or even solitary, James says, and might even be "a larger and more godlike self." For monists, such a polytheistic approach will not do, since only an absolute principle can provide a complete religious consolation in which all are saved. But in fact, "partial and conditional salvation" for humankind is a more common notion. In James's view "a final philosophy of religion will have to consider the pluralistic hypothesis more seriously ... For practical life at any rate, the chance of salvation is enough." James then reiterates that all of his statements are too brief to be satisfactory and hopes to "return to the same questions in another book."


James ends with a postscript because he feels he has not adequately covered everything he would have liked. Moreover, he feels compelled to state his own philosophical position. In distinguishing naturalists from supernaturalists he is referring to those who believe only in science and the immanent (manifest or material) world, while supernaturalists believe in both the immanent and transcendent (immaterial) world. He also wants to make it clear he is not a monist but a dualist. Monists believe in one principle of the Absolute. For example, Vedantists say that Brahman (the Absolute) is not different from atman (the Absolute as it manifests as a jiva, or individual soul embodied as a person).

While Vedanta looks like a dualistic system, it is not, since the separation between Brahman and atman occurs only because of illusion (maya). James objects to monism because if everything is imbued with divine consciousness, then how can the philosopher account for evil in the world. James would rather not mix evil with the Absolute. In the Yoga system of philosophy, as well as in Buddhism, evil is the result of avidya (ignorance or incorrect knowledge). James first raises his objections to monism in the lectures on "The Sick Soul," when he says, "In the monistic and pantheistic view, evil like everything else, must have its foundation in God; and the difficulty is to see how this can possibly be the case if God is absolutely good. This difficulty faces us in every form of philosophy in which the world appears as one flawless unit of fact." Into this category he also puts the Western philosophy of "absolute idealism," a 19th-century monistic philosophy in which the world is said to be equivalent to objective or absolute thought.

James likes the Buddhist theory of dependent origination, which holds that all phenomena in the world arise in dependence on causes and conditions. It would appear that the doctrine of karma appeals to his sense of justice, in that all action is judged because of what arises from it. The Buddhist wheel of karma begins with ignorance and ends with old age and death. But in the Buddhist system the dependence of phenomena on causes means that nothing has intrinsic being, including a self. Classical Buddhism teaches the doctrine of no-self (anatman, or no soul). Thus, phenomena lack intrinsic being, and that is also true for human beings (who are phenomena).

James says the process of "spirit-return" is not proved but remains an open question. He may be referring to reincarnation, or he may be referring to spirits who return from the dead to commune with the living. But if he is thinking about reincarnation, James needs to differentiate between reincarnation and rebirth. While the Vedantists and followers of orthodox Indian systems believe that a soul reincarnates, the Buddhists believe that action reincarnates, which is why they refer to the process of return into ignorance as rebirth and not reincarnation.

James's parting thought is that God is friendly but need not be infinite, and more than one god might exist; in fact, God might be a better version of our current selves (our better nature). Such a polytheistic view naturally changes the nature of salvation, bringing back the idea that not all are "saved," while in a monist system, salvation is guaranteed to everyone eventually. For James the idea that salvation is possible for some is more practical than the idea that all shall be saved.

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