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The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (Modern Library) [Hardcover]

By William James (Author)
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Outline Review"I am neither a theologian, nor a scholar learned in the history of religions, nor an anthropologist. Psychology is the only branch of learning in which I am particularly versed. To the psychologist the religious propensities of man must be at least as interesting as any other of the facts pertaining to his mental constitution. It would seem, therefore, as a psychologist, the natural thing for me would be to invite you to a descriptive survey of those religious propensities."

When William James went to the University of Edinburgh in 1901 to deliver a series of lectures on "natural religion," he defined religion as "the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine." Considering religion, then, not as it is defined by--or takes place in--the churches, but as it is felt in everyday life, he undertook a project that, upon completion, stands not only as one of the most important texts on psychology ever written, not only as a vitally serious contemplation of spirituality, but for many critics one of the best works of nonfiction written in the 20th century. Reading The Varieties of Religious Experience, it is easy to see why. Applying his analytic clarity to religious accounts from a variety of sources, James elaborates a pluralistic framework in which "the divine can mean no single quality, it must mean a group of qualities, by being champions of which in alternation, different men may all find worthy missions." It's an intellectual call for serious religious tolerance--indeed, respect--the vitality of which has not diminished through the subsequent decades.

Product Description
"The Varieties of Religious Experience is certainly the most notable of all books in the field of the psychology of religion and probably destined to be the most influential [one] written on religion in the twentieth century," said Walter Houston Clark in Psychology Today. The book was an immediate bestseller upon its publication in June 1902. Reflecting the pluralistic views of psychologist-turned-philosopher William James, it posits that individual religious experiences, rather than the tenets of organized religions, form the backbone of religious life. James's discussion of conversion, repentance, mysticism, and hope of reward and fears of punishment in the hereafter--as well as his observations on the religious experiences of such diverse thinkers as Voltaire, Whitman, Emerson, Luther, Tolstoy, and others--all support his thesis. "James's characteristic humor, his ability to put down the pretentious and to be unpretentious, and his willingness to take some risks in his choices of ancedotal data or provocative theories are all apparent in the book," noted Professor Martin E. Marty. "A reader will come away with more reasons to raise new questions than to feel that old ones have been resolved."

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Item Specifications...

Studio: Modern Library
Pages   608
Est. Packaging Dimensions:   Length: 7.55" Width: 5.07" Height: 1.48"
Weight:   1.19 lbs.
Binding  Hardcover
Release Date   May 31, 1994
Publisher   Modern Library
ISBN  0679600752  
ISBN13  9780679600756  

Availability  0 units.

More About William James

Register your artisan biography and upload your photo! Older brother of novelist Henry James, William James (1842-1910) was a philosopher, psychologist, physiologist, and professor at Harvard. James has influenced such twentieth-century thinkers as Richard Rorty, Jurgen Habermans, Michel Foucault, and Julia Kristeva.

William James lived in Cambridge, in the state of New York. William James was born in 1842 and died in 1910.

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Product Categories

1Books > Subjects > Religion & Spirituality > Christianity > Theology > Philosophy
3Books > Subjects > Religion & Spirituality > Religious Studies > Comparative Religion
4Books > Subjects > Religion & Spirituality > Spirituality > General
5Books > Subjects > Religion & Spirituality > Spirituality

Reviews - What do customers think about The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (Modern Library)?

The Pragmatism of Belief  Aug 28, 2007
American philosopher William James (brother of novelist Henry James) was a proponent of Pragmatism: if it works, then it has "truth". I realize such a definition, which I heard elsewhere as a definition of pragmatism, will send certain intellectual readers into orbit, but I've learned that if I couldn't explain something in simple (not synonymous with simplistic) terms, I didn't know enough about the subject. This definition works for me to describe what Mr. James asks in these lectures: Does religion 'work'?

He answers that religious belief does 'work' for a large number of people and, rather than turning them into fanatics, helps to not only get through the dark nights, but, for some, makes them joyful, kind and physically healthy. How, he asks, can this be called 'untrue'? Even if there is no God, the placebo effect, so to speak, works 'scientifically' and if we accept it in medicine, why not accept it in religion?

Mr. James, during this presentation of lectures on religion at the University of Edinburg, surveys the effects various types of religious beliefs have on the believers. It is a delightful journey, clearly written (especially notable for being written in 1902) with Mr. James charming use of examples from interviews and letters of believers of various types. I especially liked his survey of the New Thought movement of the late nineteenth century America and noted it's echoes, I assume from the blurbs I've read, in the recent book "The Secret".

I have read this book twice and now am reading certain chapters again and it remains fresh over a hundred years since he gave these lectures. I find his views on science and religion, and their interaction, especially relevant in the recent "believer vs. nonbeliever" diatribes we listen to today which supposedly pass as "discussions."

For example, Mr. James states: "Evidently, then, the science and the religion are both of them genuine keys for unlocking the world's treasure-house to him who can use either of them practically. Just as evidently neither is exhaustive or exclusive of the other's simultaneous use. And why, after all, may not the world be so complex as to consist of many interpenetrating spheres of reality, which we can thus approach in alternation by using different conceptions and assuming differnt attitudes, just as mathematicians handle the same numerical and spatial facts by geometry, by analytical geometry, by algebra, by the calculus, or by quaternions, and each time come out right?" p. 110 of my 1967 Collier ed.

Mr. James is the sort of human you feel you could discuss anything with and he would never raise his voice, make ad hominen attacks or think you a dolt no matter what lunacy you espoused. Would that we had more of such gentlemen and women today.
A Little Dry but Worth the Effort  Jan 19, 2007
The book is a series of lectures given by the author in 1901-02. The academic language takes a little getting used to, yet once accustomed the material is presented in an effective manner. This is a good book for someone who would like to explore rationale why different types of religions exist, their relation to each other, types of individuals that gravitate to each, and whether or not there is a creating spirit which resides in all. Dispells some of the notion "My way is right and if you don't believe it, ask me." Good for the person who is open-minded and seeking.
For those interested in the psychology behind religious practice  Jan 3, 2007
Warning: this book is too religious for a scientist and too scientific for a religious person. For those, like me, who have a love and interest for the study of both psychology and religion, this is THE book on the psychology of religion. This book is the fruits of William James' appointment as Gifford Lecturer. The Gifford Lectures are a series of talks that have been given for the past century on natural theology at prestigious European universities.
James eloquently outlines many, hundreds, of writings from the religious public. His list includes Jonathan Edwards, Martin Luther, Thomas Aquinas, Augustine and other prominent religious thinkers personal experience with their faith. Among these prominent members many more experiences from the common man are laid out in this book.
James leaves doctrine and creed out of his observation and focuses strictly on individuals reported experience with their religious beliefs.
James focus on experience and his use of self reports, memoirs and autobiographical writing can seem to go overboard at times. Those who follow James will find themselves skipping through the religious testimonies to hear James critique, which can be rather short at times. Nonetheless James offers a fairly objective critique of the experiences individuals have found within religious systems.
William James's Great Study of Religion  Nov 2, 2006
William James's classic "The Variety of Religious Experience" (1902) consists of the text of the twenty lectures he delivered as the Gifford Lecurer at the University of Edinburgh in 1901 -- 1902. James took has his theme the exploration of "religious feelings and religious impulses."
In great detail, he studies how people who have had deep and, to them, convincing religious experiences describe these experiences and the meaning the experiences have for their lives. The book is, in fact, a wonderful mixture of psychology, description, and philosophy. The book is beautifully written, if dense, and needs to be pondered.

James is best-known as a pragmatist, but I found it helpful to approach the Varieties through phenomenology and personalism. Phenomenology was developed by the German philosopher, Edmund Husserl, a great admirer of James and his near-contemporary. It encouraged philosophers to develop understanding by looking to the things themselves rather than be seeing them in terms of rigid and imposed concepts. The Varieties takes a phenomenological approach in that it is in large part devoted to looking at religious activities, such as conversions, mysticism, saintly behavior, prayer, and seeing what they are and what they do without making commitments regarding the causes of the behavior. Thus, James rejects both reductionism (explaining religion in psychological terms as an allegedly aberrant behavior) and theological interpretations to concentrate on exploring the phenomena themselves.

James's book is also highly individualistic. In his second lecture he limits the scope of his inquiry by defining its object as "the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine". Several things should be noted about the task James sets himself. James has little to say about communal forms of religion -- the churches, synagogues, mosques, and other institutions in which many believers practice. Indeed James is frequently criticised for skewing the range of religious activity that needs to be addressed in understanding religion. James's inquiry is also highly personal. It focuses on the response of individual men and women in their private and intimate feelings. In his concluding lecture, James writes: "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 completes sense of the term." Shortly thereafter, he says "By being religious we establish ourselves in possession of ultimate reality at the only points at which reality is given us to guard. Our responsible concern is with our private destiny, after all."

With its focus on individual belief, James's book is pluralistic and shows an openness, which I find refreshing and modern, to many practices and creeds. James's approach has room for the traditional believer as well as for people, such as James himself, who have difficulty attaching themselves to a particular creed but who have a felt need for a spiritual life. Many people struggle and continue to struggle over this issue -- spirituality without an institution -- and they will feel comfortable with James. For myself, I found James's brief mentions of Buddhism, for one example, highly insightful. Although James disclaims knowledge of Buddhism he offers important comments on it in discussing meditation, pessimism, God (he acknowledges Buddhism as an athiestic religion) and karma. There are, however, many momemnts in this book when James's Protestant background and probably biases come through -- he sometimes is condescending to Catholic experience, and there is little treatment of Judaism in the Varieties.

The earlier chapters of the Varieties are philosophical in tone as James labors to define, explain and defend the nature of his inquiry. In the concluding chapters, James considers again philosophical and rationalistic approaches to religion and offers the briefest sketch of his own philosophy of religious and theological pluralism. The body of the book consists of long discussions of personal religious experiences from a variety of individuals and eras. James does bring a great deal of psychology to bear upon the descriptions, particularly when discussing the unconscious and in analyzing the different types of conversion experiences. The Varieties is best known for the distinction it draws between healthy-minded religion and the sick soul. The former James describes as "once-born" people who tend to see the universe as good throughout and in no need of redemption. (James gives an excellent discussion of Walt Whitman as a "once-born" type of religious believer.) The "sick soul" or twice-born person sees the need of understanding suffering and abandoning delusive behavior as necessary to spiritual redemption. James himself went through difficult and agonizing personal and religious experiences, but he finds value in both approaches and in their many variants. He truly offered a pluralistic approach to religion.

The Varieties wears its age remarkably well. The book does not aim to convert its readers. But it has a great deal to say of interest to both religiously inclined and secular people about the nature of the religious life. More importantly, I think the Varieties may help readers understand themselves and find their own paths to a rewarding life.

Robin Friedman
This Edition is Fine, Contrary to One Reviewer's Misplaced Assessment  Mar 17, 2006
This edition (Modern Library, 1999, 640 pp.) of James' classic is fine, contrary to the review from "a reader" (Washington, D.C.). That reviewer is apparently criticizing a different edition, "William James and The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Centenary Celebration" (Hardcover) (edited by J. Carrette, published by Routledge in 2005). At 272 pages, the Routledge edition is seriously abridged. The Washington, D.C. reviewer's assessment of the Routledge edition may be entirely correct; however, it should have been appended to that edition's this web page, instead of this one (i.e., the Modern Library edition). Misplaced here, it could easily confuse would-be purchasers.

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