Unity In Diversity - Essays in religion by members of the faculty of the Unification Theological Seminary - Edited by Henry O. Thompson - 1984

William James and Religion -- Joseph McMahon

I. Radical Empiricism

What is philosophy?

In Some Problems of Philosophy James says that philosophy is only man thinking about generalities rather than particulars.1 There is no special way of thinking involved in philosophy. All of our thinking incorporates observing, discriminating, classifying, analyzing, looking for causes, and developing hypotheses. But what do we think about or what data falls within the scope of philosophy? James replies that philosophy embraces all experiences actual and possible, and furthermore, it looks for a system of completely unified knowledge. In short philosophy is metaphysics.

One may say that metaphysics inquiries into the cause, the substance, the meaning, and the outcome of all things. Or some may call it the science of the most universal principles of reality (whether experienced by us or not), in their connection with one another and with our powers of knowledge.2

When James applied his definition of philosophy to the problem of being, he placed the emphasis on the question "what" rather than "why." This emphasis, without doubt, is a key factor which accounts for the particular direction found in his radical empiricism.

The question of being is the darkest in all philosophy. All of us are beggars here and no school can speak disdainfully of another or give itself superior airs. For all of us alike, fact forms a datum, gift, or Vorgefundenes, which we cannot burrow under, explain or get behind. It makes itself somehow, and our business is far more with its What than with its Whence and Why.3

Percept and concept

Now that James has defined philosophy in the framework of empiricism, he proceeds to analyze the problem of percept versus concept. His emphasis on the question "what" orients his approach to this problem. He stresses the importance of percept insofar as through perception we are directly in touch with external reality while he views the value of concept in a functional role. Such concepts as God, justice, etc., result from some sort of practical experience. Certainly, they are not innate. These concepts do have significance, but only as they relate to perceptual particulars. James can be considered a realist since he says, "The intellectual life of man consists almost wholly in substitution of a conceptual order for the perceptual order in which his experience originally comes."4 In the following passage James explains the relationship that exists between the percept and concept.

Perception is solely of the here and now; conception is of the like and unlike, of the future, of the past, and of the far away. But this map of what surrounds the present, like all maps, is only a surface; its features are but abstract signs and symbols of things that in themselves are concrete bits of sensible experience Who can decide offhand which is absolutely better: to live or to understand life? We must do both alternately and a man can no more limit himself to either than a pair of scissors can cut with a single one of its blades.5

Although James recognizes the value of conceptual knowledge, he is ready to point out its shortcomings. Reality consists of existential particulars and here conceptual knowledge finds itself inadequate to capture the fullness of reality which can be grasped only in the perceptual flux. Consequently, the concept must be put to the pragmatic test to determine whether or not it has any meaning.

The pragmatic rule is that the meaning of a concept may always be found, if not in some sensible particular which it directly designates, then in some particular difference in the course of human experience which it's being true will make. Test every concept by the question "What sensible difference to anybody will its truth make?" and you are in the best possible position for understanding what it means and for discussing its importance.6

Again, in another place, James subscribes to empiricism as the way of arriving at meaning.

I am happy to say that it is the English-speaking philosophers who first introduced the custom of interpreting the meaning of conceptions by asking what difference they make for life.... The great English way of investigating a conception is to ask yourself right off, "What is it known as? In what facts does it result? What is its cash-value, in terms of particular experience? And what special difference would come into the world according as it were true or false...? For what seriousness can possibly remain in deviating philosophic propositions that will never make an appreciable difference to us in action?7

Suppose a concept does make an appreciable difference in action. What assurance does one have whether the concept is true or false? Or in other words, by what criterion does onejudge the truth or falsity of a concept? Satisfactoriness is proposed by James as the touchstone for the validity of concepts. James is aware of the objections to his position and endeavors to answer his critics.

Humanism says that satisfactoriness is what distinguishes the true from the false. But satisfactoriness is both a subjective quality, and a present one. Ergo (the critics appear to reason) an object, qua true, must always for humanism be both present and subjective, and a humanist's belief can never be in anything that lives outside of the belief itself or antedates it. Why so preposterous a charge should be so current, I find it hard to say. Nothing is more obvious than the fact that both the objective and past existence of the object may be the very things about it that most seem satisfactory, and that most invite us to believe them.8

In the foregoing passage he fails to answer the objection concerning the truth of the concept referring to the future. Yet, he does offer an answer to this problem when he discusses the chief satisfaction of a rational creature. That which pleases us most is to know that what we believe is true. This so-called solution compounds the problem because truth seems now to be prior to satisfaction. James handles the issue by avoiding the problem of the prior and posterior in relation to truth and instead he approaches truth by appealing to the experience of consistency.

Are they (experiences) not all mere matters of consistency and emphatically not of consistency between an Absolute Reality and the mind's copies of it, but of actually felt consistency among judgments, objects, and manners of reacting, in the mind? And are not both our need of such consistency and our pleasure in it conceivable as outcomes of the natural fact that we are beings that develop mental habits -- habit itself proving adaptively beneficial in an environment where the same objects, or the same kind of objects, recur and follow "law"?9

Simply put, James rejects the theory of truth as being an "adaequatio mentis et rei." Such an outcome in his philosophy is inconceivable in the light of his definition of radical empiricism according to which the percept is the measure of the truth. Therefore, the satisfaction which he is talking about is not a return to hedonism but is a satisfaction of accord which pertains to all of man's experiences.

Theoretic truth is thus no relation between our mind and archetypal reality. It falls within the mind being the accord of some of its processes and objects with other processes and objects -- "accord" consisting here in well definable relations. So long as the satisfaction of feeling such an accord is denied us, whatever collateral profits may seem to inure from what we believe in are but dust in the balance -- provided always that we are highly organized intellectually, which the majority of us are not.10

The Jamesian problem

Although James has an affinity for the percept, yet, he is aware of the danger of succumbing to materialism. And, aware that the rationalist could fall victim to monism, he sets out to melt into one system the qualities of the tender-minded and the tough-minded philosopher. According to the empiricist or tough-minded philosopher, all that is, are experienced, possible or actual, while according to the rationalist or tender-minded philosopher there is a sense of the "more" or the "beyond." James tries to solve the problem without surrendering individualism or the reality of the here and now. He pursues his objective by opting for what he calls the graft theory which claims as its prototype of reality the here and now. Also it optimistically maintains that in the process of experimentation order is being won. The following is an account of James' theory.

His "program", James continues, is to solve these puzzles "by the principle of nextness, conterminousness, which is defined as "outer relation with nothing between." There follows a long argument for community of objects between two or more minds; and for an externality or adventitiousness of relations that shall permit of the growth of unity, without the need of assuming a preexisting and "absolute" unity of the monistic sort... "The essence of my contention is that in a world where connections are not logically necessary, they may nevertheless adventitiously 'come'."11

Here there seems to be a paradox in James' approach to future events. He shies away from the Absolute which robs us of our personal initiative. He holds to a theory about the future based on evolution. In this theory there is no guarantee that the 'more' or 'beyond' of experience is any more than a bare possibility. If this is so then man is caught up in determinism. The development featured in his system is without purpose. Belief in a non-existent 'more' or a bare possibility could not leave us satisfied. However, put the 'more' or 'beyond' already in our hands and the problem vanishes. The 'more' or 'beyond' is now being developed by us. There is only one world. "The world exists only once, in one edition, and then just as it seems. For the usual philosophies it exists in two editions, an eternal edition... and an inferior temporal edition.... "12

Therefore, James solves his problem by adopting the method of pragmatism and expounding the doctrine of panpsychism. He explains the unity of the world and avoids subjectivism by arguing for the coterminousness of minds which is their convergence in or towards the same experiences. By holding to the above tenets he fosters empiricism, personalism, democracy, and freedom. James describes his radical empiricism in his own words.

My philosophy is what I call radical empiricism, a pluralism, a "tychism", which represents order as being gradually won and always in the making. It is theistic, but not essentially so. It rejects all doctrines of the Absolute. It is finitist; but it does not attribute to the question of the infinite the great methodological importance which you and Renouvier attribute to it. I fear that you may find my system too bottomless and romantic. I am sure that, be it in the end judged true or false, it is essential to the evolution of clearness in philosophic thought that someone should defend a pluralistic empiricism radically.13

Radical empiricism and religion

In The Varieties of Religious Experience James puts religion to the test of radical empiricism. In Varieties "James is not trying to prove that God exists or that religion is true; he is only trying to prove that we have a right to believe that God exists and to act as though religion is true."14 His purpose in Varieties is to show that experience is the essence of the religious life, and that the life of religion is man's most important function. Ina letter to Miss Frances R. Morse, James professes invincible belief in his purpose for writing Varieties15

In keeping with his method James searches for the data of religion which is to be put to the test of empiricism. According to James, religion has its own direct and independent data which are not ideas but facts.

We may now lay it down as certain that in the distinctively religious sphere of experience, many persons (how many we cannot tell) possess the objects of their belief not in the form of mere conceptions which their intellect accepts as true, but rather in the form of quasi-sensible realities directly apprehended.16

James' position concerning quasi-sensible realities has its basis in his psychology. "According to the general postulate of psychology... 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."17 Religion gives man a sense of well-being and a feeling of security which is an added dimension of emotion. Consequently, man is filled with enthusiasm and a spirit of freedom which eases the former tension produced by the conflict with evil. No doubt, certain effects are produced by belief. However, what assurance is there that the object of one's belief is true or has any meaning? Perhaps belief itself extends no further than the sensible effects it produces. Or is it a matter of sensible effects producing the belief? Does belief have meaning? The following excerpt sheds some light on James' theory of meaning.

A statement is meaningful if either (a) it has experiential consequences, or (b) it has no such consequences, but belief in it has experiential consequences. In case (b) there is no explanation of what constitutes the meaning and we are left with the bare criterion of meaningfulness. This is the tender-minded view.18

Therefore, belief brings about certain consequences which produces saintliness in the person. How is this saintliness to be put to the test in order to judge the validity of the belief? The only possibility at hand will be human working principles which are consonant with moral demands and the voice of human experience within us. In short, the norm for saintliness will be common sense.19 Although he employs the empirical method, he by no means sets out on a course of wanton doubt. All beliefs must be submitted to the twist of human ideals lest in pretending to possess the truth without trial one may lose it. Consequently, the empirical method proposes no set order of beliefs.

But in our Father's house are many mansions, and each of us must discover for himself the kind of religion and the amount of saintship which best comport with what he believes to be his powers and feels to be his truest mission and vocation.20

One problem lingers on. James himself states it. "How, you say, can religion, which believes in two worlds and an invisible order, be estimated by the adaptation of its fruits to this world's order alone? It is truth, not its utility, you insist, upon which our verdict ought to depend. "21 In brief, the answer to the question is in mysticism. People in this state see the truth in a special manner. James cites numerous cases in which a sudden and almost indescribable experience accounts for an unparalleled religious insight into the truth of one's belief.

The kinds of truth communicable in mystical ways, whether these be sensible or supersensible, are various. Some of them relate to this world -- visions of the future, the reading of hearts, the sudden understanding of texts, the knowledge of distant events, for example; but the most important revelations are theological or metaphysical.22

While discussing the question as to whether or not mysticism is authoritative, he at the same time outlines the general traits of the mystic range of consciousness. "It is on the whole pantheistic and optimistic, or at least the opposite of pessimistic. It is anti-naturalistic, and harmonizes best with twice-bornness and so-called other-worldly states of mind. "23 Can such a state commend itself to us as a criterion for truth or just remain authoritative for the mystic alone? Although the mystical states wield no authority by simply being mystical states, nevertheless, they do have value for the non-mystic.

The mystical states offer us hypotheses, hypotheses which we may voluntarily ignore, but which as thinkers we cannot possibly upset. The supernaturalism and optimism to which they would persuade us may, interpreted in one way or another, be after all the truest of insights into the meaning of this life.24

Philosophy and religion

What are the criticisms James levels against philosophy in relation to religion? By philosophy James means the rationalistic approach as opposed to his own empirical approach. Throughout the Varieties James becomes more adamant in his stand on viewing religion as an experience based on feelings which are definite perceptions of fact needing no support from intellectual processes. No intellectual process can produce a religious experience. In fact, "Philosophy... is thus a secondary function, unable to warrant faith's veracity... "25 Again, he criticizes the brand of intellectualism in religion which precedes experience and which shuts the door to the possibility of a science of religions.

The intellectualism in religion which I wish to discredit pretends... to construct religious objects out of the resources of logical reason alone, or of logical reason drawing rigorous inference from non-subjective facts. It calls its conclusions dogmatic theology, or philosophy of the absolute, as the case may be; it does not call them science of religions. It reaches them in an a priori way, and warrants their veracity.26

James spells out clearly what philosophy cannot do and what it can do. In speaking of philosophy's limitations he says, "In all sad sincerity I think we must conclude that the attempt to demonstrate by purely intellectual processes the truth of the deliverances of direct religious experience is absolutely hopeless. "27 On the positive side philosophy can be a contributing factor in the study of religion if it abandons metaphysics and deduction in favor of criticism and induction. In so doing philosophy can sift out what are the common facts of religious experiences and eliminate doctrines that are scientifically absurd. She must then content herself to deal with what is left as hypothesis.28 According to lames, "Philosophy lives in words but truth and fact well up into our lives in ways that exceed verbal formulation."29 If the object of religion is God, he must be more than a word for us; he must be more than a concept; he must be experienced.

What keeps religion going is something else than abstract definition and systems of logically concatenated adjectives, and something different from faculties of theology and their professors.... What the word "God" means is just those passive and active experiences of your life. They need not be infallible. But they are certainly the originals of the God-idea, and theology is the transaction; and you remember that I am now using the God-idea merely as an example, not to discuss as to its truth or error, but only to show how well the principle of pragmatism works.30

II. Personalism

The concept of man and the needs of man

James' notion of personalism finds its expression in his notion of man which he constructs from observing man as he searches to satisfy his individual needs. In keeping with his radical empiricism he does not divide man into two parts but accepts him totally as a unit who undergoes a variety of experiences that reveal his deepest spiritual needs. No ready-made theology can forecast these unique experiences. An a priori approach to man's needs is inconsistent with the origin of these needs which spring from an ultra-rational region in man. In notes made while preparing the Gifford Lectures he speaks about the ultra-rational in the following way.

Yet I must shape things and argue to the conclusion that a man's religion is the deepest and wisest thing in his life. I must frankly establish the breach between the life of articulate reason and the push of the subconscious, the irrational instinctive part, which is more vital. In religion the vital needs, the mystical over beliefs... proceed from an ultra-rational region. They are gifts. It is a question of life, of living in these gifts or not living... 31

Therefore, a person's religious needs are peculiarly his own. We come alive as individuals by responding to these felt needs. Religion in the context of individualism means the personal response to one's experiences. Religion concerns "the way an individual's life comes home to him, his intimate needs, ideals, desolations, consolations, failures, successes!"32

Obviously, religion is individual and non-rational. Religion is not God-centered but man-centered and more particularly emotion-centered since feelings are the immediate given religious experiences of the individual. James' basis for religion calls for a personalism which may be readily identified with individualism. Perhaps it might be better to say that his ardent desire to preserve his individuality dictated the foundations for his religion. Then again in keeping with his radical empiricism it can be said that whatever experience is first will determine the course of developments. For example a strongly felt need for an ideal will impose a demand to believe in an ideal, and man will believe because he wants to believe. The core of James' personalism is to be found in the individual's will which frees a man by allowing him to believe that which he believes will make him free.

How a man's needs are known

Although we secure freedom in willing, how do we know what to will? Evidently, what we will be determined by our needs. These needs are made known to us by way of intuition and feeling. For example, if James were alive today what needs would correspond to his intuitions in the matter of religion? No doubt he would experience the coldness of the 'technopolis', the tension among nations, and the struggle for men's sentiments in the world forum. Consequently, there is need for brotherhood among us to bring security to our minds and to enable us to construct a better world. Once we have experienced this feeling we may then express our feelings in rational terms so that brotherhood becomes an ideal which demands belief. "Articulate reasons are cogent for us only when our inarticulate feelings of reality have already been impressed in favor of the same conclusion."33 Therefore, the depth of one's religion will be revealed by the quality of one's feelings.

The meaning of religion

The meaning of religion is discovered in the interest of the individual in his private, personal destiny. If we find a trysting place with the divine, we do so only in the area of our personal concerns. However, is the divine always present in personal concerns? Do we call the divine or does the divine call us? If the divine calls us through our feelings what assurance do we have that this call is authentic and not merely subjective? According to James we deal with realities when we deal with private and personal phenomena.34 When we deal with the cosmic and the general we deal with symbols of reality. Therefore, the answers to the above questions can be given only by those that have experienced the answers in a mystical state. Even then these answers may be incommunicable to the rest of us. The true meaning of religion is experienced; afterwards we try to talk about it.

The veracity of religion

James examines the veracity of religion in the context of personalism. At the expense of being redundant he points out again the limitations of philosophy. Can philosophy stamp a warrant of veracity upon the religious man's sense of the divine? James answers with an emphatic 'no.' The reason given is clear to him since religion is individualistic and private, whereas philosophy deals with the general. Any sort of theological formula is secondary. The core of religious convictions or the fact of religious experiences have their residence in the subliminal.

It (the subliminal) contains, for example, such things as all our momentarily inactive memories, and it harbors the springs of all our obscurely motivated passions, impulses, likes, dislikes, and prejudices. Our intuitions, hypotheses, fancies, superstitions, persuasions, convictions, and in general all our non-rational operations, come from it.35

Philosophy, therefore, cannot attest to the veracity of religion but must yield to radical empiricism. The veracity of religion is determined by its fruits in the individual since its origins reside in the individual's subliminal, which is impervious to philosophy. From an examination of a number of people who have experienced mystical states it may be safe to claim the following beliefs as characteristics of an authentic religious life:

1. The visible world is part of a more spiritual universe.

2. Union with a higher universe is our end.

3. Prayer is a process wherein the work of bringing about a better world is accomplished.

4. New zest takes the form of lyrical enchantment or appeal to earnestness or heroism.

5. One experiences security, peace, and love.36

III. Freedom

A person's main concern

As mentioned before under the topic of personalism, man's major concern is his private destiny. The struggle encountered in one's personal concerns reveals to the individual the call to freedom or the call to be born again. Through his individual feelings a person experiences a need for redemption which is especially evidenced in the emotion of forlornness. Simple reflection enlightens a person as to his needs.

To ascribe religious value to mere happy-go-lucky contentment with one's brief chance at natural good is but the very consecration of forgetfulness and superficiality. Our troubles lie indeed too deep to that cure. The fact that we can die, that we can be ill at all, is what perplexes us; the fact that we now for a moment live and are well is irrelevant to that perplexity. We need a life not correlated with death, a health not liable to illness, a kind of good that will not perish, a good in fact that flies beyond the Goods of nature.37

However, the importance and value of the need of redemption seize a person through emotions. If a person's emotional life is suppressed, then he is poor in value, meaning, and character. The individual simply does not exist without emotions. Emotions or feelings are the facts, the given, and need no further explanation.

And as the excited interest which these passions put into the world is our gift to the world, just so are the passions themselves gifts -- gifts to us, from sources sometimes low and sometimes high; but almost always non-logical and beyond our control.38

Therefore, the gift of passion makes us vividly aware of our need for redemption from our present state of affairs for a better life. Our uneasy state will lead us to examine the significance of our feelings.

Emotions and values

The value of emotions surfaces when considered in relation to man's main area of importance; namely, religion. The common elements in all religions are conduct and feeling. All religions have their peculiar dogmas, but people of various faiths are similar in conduct. Consequently, feeling and not thought accounts for action which leads to the conclusion that the value of emotions is determined by the difference they make in our lives. The emotions pertinent to religion may be designated as the "faith-state" which in general is an enthusiastic and optimistic feeling about lite. An optimistic feeling concerning one's private destiny produces fruitful results in daily living wherein is found the value of the emotions under the label of the "faith-state."


The full realization of redemption is experienced by us in the conversion from the sick-minded state to the state of saintliness. Our anxiety about our private destiny vanishes in our self-surrender to an ideal or over-belief. For the most part conversion is a psychological transformation. Any renewal attributed to a transcendent power is left open as a possibility but escapes the tests of radical empiricism.

Now the question may be asked, conversion and redemption from what? We are oppressed by evil. We desire freedom from this oppression. If we hold a monistic view of the universe, we must maintain that evil has its foundation in God. On the other hand we cannot live according to a naive optimism and dismiss the fact of evil while at the same time claim that our system is complete. Therefore, the burden of the solution to the problem of evil is placed totally before us. We must seek an adequate answer from the concrete situation. James provides us with the examples of Bunyan and Tolstoy.

The fact of interest for us is that as a matter of fact they could and did find something welling up in the inner reaches of their consciousness, by which such extreme sadness could be overcome. Tolstoy does well to talk of it as that by which men live; for that is exactly what it is, a stimulus, an excitement, a faith, a force that reinfuses the positive willingness to live, even in full presence of the evil perceptions that erewhile made life seem unbearable.39

The fruit of conversion is a new found freedom which occurs as the result of energy in the individual. According to James, there is no explanation for this change.

Now if you ask of psychology just how the excitement shifts in a man's mental system, and why aims that were peripheral become at a certain moment central, psychology has to reply that although she can give a general description of what happens, she is unable in a given case to account accurately for the single forces at work. Neither an outside observer nor the Subject who undergoes the process can explain fully how particular experiences are able to change one's center of energy so decisively, or why they so often have to bide their hour to do so.40

Although he cannot account for the change, he does propose reasons which inhibit the change.

Such inaptitude for religious faith may in some cases be intellectual in its origin. Their religious faculties may be checked in their natural tendency to expand, by beliefs about the world that are inhibitive, the pessimistic and materialistic beliefs, for example, within which so many good souls, who in former times would have freely indulged their religious propensities, find themselves nowadays, as it were, frozen; or the agnostic vetoes upon faith as something weak and shameful, under which so many of us today he cowering, afraid to use our instincts. In many persons such inhibitions are never overcome.41

Complete freedom is attained through the efforts of the subconscious. At this particular point it seems as if James has negotiated the full swing of the pendulum. He escapes the determinism he attributes to the Absolute, but he surrenders to an optimistic determinism inherent in human nature. Perhaps his position may be accounted for as a reaction to his Calvinistic background. He emphasizes the power of the will, and maintains that it concerns itself with the imperfect self. Complete conversion is experienced in complete self-surrender to the forces of the subconscious. "When the new center of personal energy has been subconsciously incubated so long as to be just ready to open into flower, 'hands off' is the only word for us, it must burst forth unaided!"42

Consciousness does figure into conversion but the weight of attention is given to the subconscious or subliminal which stands just outside primary consciousness. The subliminal in no way precludes the operations of a higher power within our religious experiences. On the contrary, exclaims James, "If there be higher powers able to impress us, they may get access to us only through the subliminal door. "43

The authenticity of these higher powers at work can be judged by their results which are the signs of a state of saintliness.44 The person experiences a feeling of being in a wider life which results from his self-surrender to subliminal forces. If the whole emotional center is shifted toward loving and toward embracing existence in a spirit of elation and freedom, then, enough evidence is at hand to validate the presence of higher powers.


The faith-state, the basis of conversion and, consequently, freedom, is a natural psychic complex. By surrendering to its demands we experience the jubilation of being alive as our self-centeredness fades into the shadows. In the lengthy quote which follows, James describes the abandonment of self-responsibility which results from the faith-state.

The transition from tenseness, self-responsibility, and worry, to equanimity, receptivity, and peace, is the most wonderful of all those shiftings of inner equilibrium, those changes of the personal center of energy, which I have analyzed so often; and the chief wonder of it is that it so often comes about, not by doing, but by simply relaxing and throwing the burden down. The abandonment of self-responsibility seems to be the fundamental act in specifically religious, as distinguished from moral practice. It antedates theologies and is independent of philosophies.... Christians who have it strongly live in what is called "recollection", and are never anxious about the future, nor worry over the outcome of the day.45

No one can doubt the effects produced since they are approved by the critical eye of the empiricist. The effects produced are real, and, consequently, that which produces them is real even though the cause is in another reality.

We and God have business with each other; and in opening ourselves to his influence our deepest destiny is fulfilled. The universe, at those parts of it which our personal being constitutes, takes a turn genuinely for the worse or for the better in proportion as each one of us fulfills or evades God's demands. As far as this goes I probably have you with me, for I only translate into schematic language what I may call the instinctive belief of mankind: God is real since he produces real effects.46

IV. Democracy

What kind of a universe does man inhabit?

Man is neither pessimistic nor optimistic in his view of the world, but rather he is determined to improve his situation. The kind of a world we inhabit is largely up to us to decide. This type of universe may be called melioristic, that is, it can get better. There is no preordained order that the universe obeys. In fact, the world is in the course of developing according to the direction that man charts out for it. According to James the meaning of the term "world" embraces all the areas which are significant to man's personal concerns and to the social order. The challenge ahead is to perfect the world.

"If we do our best, and the other powers do their best, the world will be perfected" -- This proposition expresses no actual fact, but only the complexion of a fact thought of as eventually possible.... The original proposition per se has no pragmatic value whatsoever, apart from its power to challenge our will to produce the premise of fact required.47

The meaning of God

James is not about to relinquish the challenge of perfecting the world by surrendering his responsibility to a God who is the almighty and omniscient Lord of the universe. What is left for us to do in the presence of such a God? James rejects the Absolute but he does not abandon the objectivity of God. Good emotions are facts which must have an objective significance. After all, religious experiences like perceptions are experiences of something.48

Therefore, the meaning of God must be discovered in the human challenge. Both man and God will labor together in developing a better world. In this spirit of democracy God becomes the superhuman consciousness of our own ideals. Indeed the meaning of God for James himself is rather hazy. However, he is not indecisive about the ideality and actuality of God. His position is clearly affirmative on this matter. James, essentially a man of faith, reveals his meaning in a letter to Professor Leuba.

My personal position is simple. I have no sense of commerce with a God. I envy those who have, for I know that the addition of such a sense would help me greatly. The Divine, for active life, is limited to impersonal and abstract concepts which, as ideals, interest and determine me, but do so but faintly in comparison with what a feeling of God might effect, if I had one.... I recognize the deeper voice. Something tells me: "thither lies truth" -- and I am sure it is not old theistic prejudices of infancy... Call this, if you like, my mystical germ.49

What is man's relation with the "more"?

The deeper voice that James recognizes may be termed the 'more' or the 'beyond.' Our connection with the 'more' blends with our concept of unity as continuity. Fundamentally, the universe is pluralistic and is in the evolutionary process of achieving unity. Enclosed within the universe of man's experience is the unity of continuity which is the absolute nextness of one part to another which we find in the minutest portions of our inner experiences.50 The preceding thoughts are found in the Introduction II of James' unfinished book The Many and The One. These ideas certainly reflect his mature thought. James does away with the dualism of object and subject and extends his theory to the field of religious experience when he claims that the beyond is part of the same continuum. He explains his position in notes he prepared for his lectures.

Remember that through a certain point or part in you, you coalesce and are identical with the Eternal... The more original religious life is always lyric -- "the monk owns nothing but his lyre" -- and its essence is to dip into another kingdom to feel an invisible order... au prix duquel the common sense values really vanish.51

In answer to our question concerning our relations with the 'more' it seems that we are in communion with the 'beyond' in the very core of our being. However, the communion takes on the aspect of dialogue in mysticism. Such communication confirms us in our personal initiative and preserves the democratic approach to the divine, since such conversation makes us more aware of our individuality.

We elect the God with whom we converse. The type of God will be chosen according to the value he represents, that is, according to whether or not he advances human progress which in turn is determined by the experimental method. There is no fixed meaning of God for all ages, a fact which can be verified from history. God must meet the demands of the day, but since the demands of the day change, so does the meaning of God.52

Beyond the subjective need

In concluding the lectures in the Varieties James comes to grips with the problem concerning the merely subjective utility of religion. He claims that there is a common nucleus in which all beliefs concur. It consists of two parts:

(1) an uneasiness; and (2) its solution.

1. The uneasiness, reduced to its simplest terms is a sense that there is something wrong about us as we naturally stand.

2. The solution is a sense that we are saved from the wrongness by making proper connection with the higher powers.53

Do we identify our real being with the wrongness we experience or is identification discovered in the germinal higher part of ourselves?

He becomes conscious that this higher part is conterminous and continuous with a MORE of the same quality, which is operative in the universe outside of him, and which he can keep in working touch with, and in a fashion get on board of and save himself when all his lower being has gone to pieces in the wreck.54

V. Conclusion

The foregoing exposition endeavored to explain why lames chose the type of God that must be if he is. The God of personal experience is the God defined by James' own personal experiences. Passionately, he labors against determinism which he attributes to a God of reason only to subscribe to another determinism, namely, the one of emotion or passion. Happily, an optimistic approach to our instincts enables us to achieve freedom and individuality by self-surrender to the germ of higher powers which are conterminous with the 'more.'

There is much value in James' approach to God. He clearly indicates man's need for redemption, and he asks for a God who is meaningful. However, if James is to be faithful to his philosophy of radical empiricism, the God that he must propose is discovered in a mystical experience, which is the only type of experience that can satisfactorily bear witness to the validity of God. James found himself wanting in mystical experience, and, consequently, he never experienced the 'more' in any intense degree.

In criticism of James it must be said that the ordinary man is left with a possible God of some indescribable nature. Furthermore, he seems to be too optimistic about man's emotions as the basis for religious belief. Suppose a man's emotion for the most part is one of apathy or enthusiastic concern for material goods; what feeling does such a person have for redemption? If the basis for God is our sentiments, and we do not care about religion, how does one tell us that God cares?


1. William James, Some Problems of Philosophy (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1911), p. 15.

2. Ibid., p. 31.

3. Ibid., p. 46.

4. Ibid., p. 51.

5. Ibid., p. 74.

6. Ibid., p. 60.

7. William James, "Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results," in Philosophy in America, Paul Anderson and Max Fisch (New York: D. Appleton-Century Company, 1939), p. 40.

8. William James, Essays in Radical Empiricism (NY: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1912), p. 253.

9. Ibid., p. 261.

10. Ibid., p. 264.

11. Ralph Batton Perry, The Thought and Character of William James (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1935), Vol. II, p. 382.

12. Ibid., p. 384.

13. Ibid., p. 373.

14. Edward C. Moore, American Pragmatism (NY: Columbia University, 1961), p. 129.

15. Perry, op. cit., p. 326.

16. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (NY: The New American Library of World Literature, Inc., 1958), p. 65.

17. Ibid., p.29.

18. Paul Henle, "Introduction", Classic American Philosophers, ed. Max H. Fish (NY: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1951), p. 126.

19. James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 259.

20. Ibid., p. 290.

21. Ibid., p. 291.

22. Ibid., p. 314.

23. Ibid., p. 323.

24. Ibid., p. 328.

25. Ibid., p. 346.

26. Ibid., p. 331.

27. Ibid., p. 346.

28. Ibid.

29. Ibid., p. 347.

30. William James, "Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results," Philosophy in America, p. 536.

31. Perry, op. cit., p. 328.

32. Ibid., p. 329.

33. James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 73.

34. Ibid., p. 376.

35. Ibid., p. 366.

36. Ibid., p. 367.

37. Ibid., p. 121.

38. Ibid., p. 129.

39. Ibid., p. 155.

40. Ibid., p. 162.

41. Ibid., p. 168.

42. Ibid., p. 122.

43. Ibid., p. 195.

44. Ibid., p. 216.

45. Ibid., p. 228.

46. Ibid., p. 389.

47. James, Some Problems of Philosophy, p. 230.

48. Perry, op. cit., p. 348.

49. Ibid., p. 350.

50. Ibid., p. 379.

51. Ibid., p. 331.

52. James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 258.

53. Ibid., p. 383.

54. Ibid., p. 384.

55. Ibid., p. 386.


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