Disclosing William James: A Tough-Minded Male Philosopher Copes with Tender Minded Women Mystics
William James is known for his broad-minded consideration of multiple viewpoints. Though he, like others, naturally desires a comforting consistency to his universe, James does not allow this desire to explain away phenomena that fail to fit a pre-conceived perceptual framework. On the contrary, he gives a sympathetic ear to voices from the periphery. For example, his Varieties of Religious Experience respectfully presents the testimonies of mystics and creative melancholics, who are considered a fringe element in any rational system of religion. Yet James believed that it is through these individuals’ moods that the world gains valuable insights.
But one wonders to what extent James’ sympathy is limited. What foreign states of mind might lie beyond his imagination? Some have questioned to what extent James understood and appreciated women. Charlene Haddock Seigfried, in Pragmatism and Feminism: Reweaving the Social Fabric, notes that her extensive study and appreciation of James’ radical empiricism and pluralism is confronted by James’ sexism, a fact which shows how sexism is woven with sophistication into the traditional pattern of philosophy. She notes that "in one respect … his sympathetic insight failed him, and that is in regard to women, whom he consistently viewed from a masculinist, or ideologically patriarchal angle of vision" (111). In particular, she cites James’ 1869 review of Horace Bushnell’s Women’s Suffrage, in which he sides with the authors view that women should be educated but not allowed to participate in government. Revealingly, this amounts to a departure from the beliefs of John Stuart Mill, whom James otherwise greatly respects.
Linda Bell encounters something similar with James when she critiques the male virtue of gallantry – examples of which include acts like holding doors for and offering seats to women – which purports to respect women but results only in "a feigned inferiority" (167). Bell refers to the Bushnell review, and notes that James agrees with Bushnell that men are essentially competitive, and that women should be graciously removed from this. A study of James’ life illustrates this. When we read that James was one of the first professors at Harvard to willingly teach women – in a Harvard annex rather than the university proper – we do not find it uncharacteristic. It is not difficult to see a heroically individualistic James choosing to distinguish himself from his fellow scholars, who are not up to what they see as a new challenge. But we can also interpret this fact another way: the gallant, Victorian James wanting to cloister women by setting them apart from the harshly competitive Harvard manhood.
Or less charitably, we can interpret this fact as James wanting to keep masculinity safe from supposedly harmful encroachments from the feminine perspective. In this case, we see the insecurity that James wishes to hide behind his gallantry. But it would be unfair to say that James was thoroughly secretive. I believe James’ attitude toward women is best understood by supplementing his public, philosophical writing with his autobiographical writing. James is perhaps consistently patriarchal in his public and philosophical writing about women. Yet, as family friend Ralph Waldo Emerson famously remarked, "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds," and there are ways of showing that James was not among the little-minded. James’ writings are the expression of an individual engaged in a pluralistic universe, and though his intellect longs for a comforting view of the whole, this view is not one of foolish consistency. In what follows I will show how, following the challenge of Seigfried, and reading both James’ life and his philosophy, one can discern beneath his tough-minded male philosophy a sensitivity to the feminine perspective. In particular, I’d like to focus on The Varieties of Religious Experience, wherein James makes some curious, derogatory remarks about medieval women mystics, and yet also makes some personal disclosures. These disclosures show that he is, after all, an inconsistent masculinist – and a thorough going pluralist.
In The Varieties, James invokes the experiences mostly of men. He has something laudable to say about a few select women, and provides harsh criticism of others, namely some medieval women mystics. But as will be seen shortly, any criticism launched at these women can refer to James himself. By looking at James’ more personal writings, one can see that James’ religious mood was not always one that would make his manly Harvard brethren proud.
James admired yet distanced himself in important ways from the women he encountered in his writing and in his world, and this attitude of engaged distance was not unprecedented. Medieval monks, given the task of writing about the experiences of women mystics, often had difficulty. Angela of Foligno, for example, was a woman of extraordinary devotion, but even her admirable life could not dissuade the scribe from putting her into her place. The man to whom the inscription of her life was entrusted says, for example, that women can be valuable as critics of church policies and practices, but "it is contrary to the order of God’s Providence … to make a woman a doctor" (Atkinson 164). In other words, men and women should have separate spheres, and though women can be useful as clamorous outsiders, they should not have any influence from within. Further indication that this scribe wanted to keep women at a distance comes from his frank admission that he was unable to write about Angela’s feminine vision without considerable self-doubt and bountiful prayer. The scribe needs God in order to transcend the gap practically – while his admitted need for divine intervention serves to preserve what is taken to be an essential gap.
William James was influenced by some of the medieval women mystics, although his reactions were mixed. For instance, he remarks with considerable disdain about the spirituality of Margaret Mary Alacoque, who he says had the kind of single-minded devotion to God that entailed an utter neglect of practical matters. Though she was peaceful, pleasant and beatific, she nonetheless was useless for any of the shared activities around the convent. So absorbed in inward devotion, she was practically dead, and in fact presumptuous schoolchildren were cutting off parts of her clothing as relics. James says, rather charitably, that such pristine devotedness is "innocent enough," but "too one-sided to be admirable," and seems to back off from the harsh conclusion that one expects from a tough-minded pragmatist. However, in describing another medieval mystic, namely Gertrude of Helfta, mild criticism seems to turn vitriolic. He coins the term ‘theopathic’ in order to describe what he sarcastically calls the "sweet excess of devotion" (375) to which cloistered mystics often succumb. In the following passage, the vituperative language, as well as the rally-cry generalizations, seems rhetorically out-of-place in the Varieties:
A lower example still of theopathic saintliness is that of Saint Gertrude, a Benedictine nun of the thirteenth century, whose "Revelations," a well-known mystical authority, consist mainly of proofs of Christ’s partiality for her undeserving person. Assurances of his love, intimacies and caresses and compliments of the most absurd and puerile sort, addressed by Christ to Gertrude as an individual, form the tissue of this paltry-minded recital. In reading such a narrative, we realize the gap between the thirteenth and the twentieth century, and we feel that saintliness of character may yield almost absolutely worthless fruits if it be associated with such inferior intellectual sympathies. What with science, idealism, and democracy, our own imagination has grown to need a God of an entirely different temperament from that Being interested exclusively in dealing out personal favors, with whom our ancestors were so contented. Smitten as we are with the vision of social righteousness, a God indifferent to everything but adulation, and full of partiality for his individual favorites, lacks an essential element of largeness; and even the best professional sainthood of former centuries, pent in as it is to such a conception, seems to us curiously shallow and unedifying. (378-379)
Is James really so disgusted with the kind of personalized devotion exemplified in Gertrude of Helfta, or is he trying rather to exploit the sentiments of an enlightened, scientific audience who would easily be prompted into a rowdy intellectual belly-laugh at this supposed instance of medieval shallowness? We ourselves should be careful not to read shallowly here. There is reason to believe that more is going on here than simple mockery of those whose lives are, as he says later, "apparently little else but sufferings and prayers and absences of mind and swoons and ecstasies" (377). James, inviting his audience into mockery, talks about the frail "tissue" of the "paltry-minded," – that is, tender-minded – writings of this puerile, perpetually insecure woman swooning over her lover. Yet when he contrasts her with all of the tough-minded scientists in the auditorium that day – among whom he himself supposedly stands – he uses words connoting similar tender things. Though they are interested in ideals rather than romantic notions, the scientists are still "smitten" over their love interest. And despite their claims of being dispassionate analysts, the scientists, like Gertrude, still maintain "intellectual sympathies." And these sympathies make scientists "grow to need" a God of a certain "temperament," albeit a temperament more for social righteousness than personal affirmation. James talks about a great gap between the thirteenth and the twentieth centuries, but this gap is bridged by the fact that each era has the need for a God. In the first part of the passage, the rational-minded scientists are encouraged to distance themselves from the cloistered medieval mystics. But then James says that "in reading such a narrative, we realize the gap between the thirteenth and the twentieth century, and we feel that …" and then James surreptitiously shows them something different, namely that they are closer to the women than they might think. Once again, we cannot forget that James is considered a scientist as well.
So James is not entirely serious in this passage. First of all, James’ own view of the religious life is individualistic and allows for practices of private devotion. For purposes of the inquiry in the Varieties, he neglects consideration of institutional religion in favor of personal religion. He defines 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" (36). James notes that most of the major religions were founded by the experiences of an individual who was given a peculiar, personal insight. Thus, in some sense, these people had a favorable position in the cosmic scene than that of others. In light of this, it can be said that James does allow for the kind of spirituality that, in a sense, "deals out personal favors."
What’s more, James’ own religious experience draws a lot on this idea of standing alone in an active relation to a higher power, and in this sense he is not unlike Gertrude and Margaret Mary, whose lives are personal conversations with God. Later in the Varieties, during a section entitled "The Sick Soul," James provides examples of melancholic souls apprehending the divine. Of particular interest is his famous ‘vastation’ experience, attributed by James to an anonymous French correspondent, though in truth written by him:
Whilst in this state of philosophic pessimism and general depression of spirits about my prospects, I went one evening into a dressing-room in the twilight to procure some article that was there; when suddenly there fell upon me without any warning, just as if it came out of the darkness, a horrible fear of my own existence.
At the moment when the man’s lonely panic struck, there also arose the memory of an epileptic patient who sat before James motionless, stupefied, placed on the infirmary bench like some kind of grotesque knick knack. The terror climaxed as a thought intruded: "That shape am I … Nothing that I possess can defend me against that fate, if the hour for it should strike for me as it struck for him" (179).
After the immediate anxiety of this revelation subsided, James was left with a decidedly new outlook on life. He was pervaded with an enormous insecurity, and a profound sympathy for the afflicted. More curiously, though, he felt a need to contrast his lingering depression with the mood of his mother:
My mother in particular, a very cheerful person, seemed to me a perfect paradox in her unconsciousness of danger, which you may well believe I was very careful not to disturb by revelations of my own state of mind.
When the pseudo-informant is questioned further about the religious significance of this event, he replies:
The fear was so invasive and powerful that if I had not clung to scripture-texts like ‘The eternal God is my refuge,’ etc., ‘Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy-laden,’ etc., ‘I am the resurrection and the life,’ etc., I think that I should have grown really insane.
Curiously, James halts discussion at this point – he decides that "there is no need for more examples" (180) – and moves to a new case. Given the fact that this writing is his own, James’ remarks regarding Gertrude, et al., are replete with hidden significance. His mother, after all, could be thought of as the kind of tender-minded theopath whom James decries: floating through life with a certain obliviousness, she is like a sufferer whose disease has not yet declared itself. And James wishes not to unsettle her routine, as if deciding that she deserves not to be burdened with any tough-minded cynicism. What’s more, James himself takes solace in the holy words of comfort to which he clings, not entirely unlike Gertrude in her swooning devotion. During a time of crisis, when there is a pervasive "fear of the universe" (180) – that is, an inconsistent universe that fails to provide meaning – James becomes the kind of pathetic devotee he elsewhere rejects. Momentarily theopathic, his ad hoc religion is that of a single-minded devotion that remedies his immediate need of verbal caresses.
There are, however, distinctions to be made, and James would be glad to gird up his loins and bring up the tough-minded aspects of his account. It should be recalled that the basis of James’ diatribe about Gertrude was the idea of God giving a person such preferential treatment, particularly in the form of ‘verbal caresses’. Yet nowhere in James’ account is there anything like an explicit conversation between God and his beloved. Comforting words come to James, but they do not arrive directly from the lips of sweet Jesus. They are more like ritual texts, which are less personal. It is this kind of textual mediation that perhaps gives James’ account a sophistication that contrasts with the oral simplicity of Gertrude’s.
But nonetheless, James must admit that an attentive devotion is not necessarily pathological, and if it is pathological, then we all are in some sense sick souls. Since James allows that a devotee can be quite emotionally invested in a deity, he is not making a wholesale denunciation of people like Gertrude – despite what his inflated tone at times indicates. James is not going to deny that religion is a critical matter, and he certainly doesn’t want to say that religion is something to be approached with intellectual abstraction, or, at most, a cautious and temperate affection. This, it seems, is what he takes to be the view of his lecture audience of scientists, whom he is surreptitiously challenging. Religion can be practiced by unstable, purportedly un-intelligent souls, since it fails to be totalizing, but rather changeable at heart. More radically, it is James’ assertion that the essence of the religious is instability. His God, in the words of Don Browning, is one "who could enter into our experience, become one claimant among many, demand from us the moral and strenuous life, hold us accountable, while all the time leaving us to grapple with the content of the moral life as free and autonomous beings" (62). Practically speaking then, he is a being that does not totalize, but rather leaves a world open for pluralism.
In the Varieties, James also derogates Catherine of Siena. But this time, there isn’t the indication of an underlying sympathy, and James is more serious when criticizing her. He says, with seeming approval, that she was "panting to stop the warfare among Christians which was the scandal of her epoch," but ultimately could "think of no better method of union among them than a crusade to massacre the Turks" (375). James had a problem with her not intelligently considering the larger picture. Her goal of unifying Christians was an appropriately passionate one, but it resulted in a bad rationalization. The fruits of her devotion were not just worthless, but poison. James seems to say that Catherine, in sticking to her God like a psychotically jealous wife, can see no other response to trouble at home than that of killing the rival neighbor who she presumes is the other woman.
Catherine’s writings, on the other hand, characterize her differently, and one wonders whether James himself is being shortsighted. For her, the principle virtue is that of charity, which negates self-interest. Far from being merely the provider of personal affirmations to insecure souls, Catherine’s God is one who demands that a soul look outward.
Since she has learned that she can be of no profit to me, nor return to me the same pure love with which she feels herself loved by me, she sets herself to repaying my love through the means I established – her neighbors. I have given you these to serve, every one, both in general and individually, according to the different graces you receive from me. (165)
It is in fact impossible to have the kind of personal relationship with God that a lonely, selfish heart desires, since one can never reciprocate the love given. One must look outward, transferring the love of God to the neighbor. Catherine is concerned about and engaged in the community’s well being, and her faith is thus more socially pragmatic than that of Gertrude, who cannot see beyond the walls of her convent. It turns out that the monastery at Helfta was occasionally vandalized, and yet the only response available to her seems to be that of private prayer. In response to such prayer, God informs her that "if you rise up in pride and anger against those who ill-treat you, threatening them of wishing them evil for evil, then, through a just decree of my judgment, they will prevail against you, injuring you and molesting you in many ways" (231). The prohibition given, namely that regarding the return of evil for evil, is generally Christian; however Gertrude’s Christ doesn’t mention the Christian duty to nonetheless stand up against evil. Not returning evil for evil does not mean one simply recedes into oneself when attacked; rather, it means that one confronts the attacker with love, a non-violent action that counteracts his violence.
But Gertrude’s naïve inwardness is in a sense harmless. She spends her days swooning over a tender-minded God who warms her confessional bath with his divine breath (168) or who maternally lifts her up as if to whisper soothing word-kisses to an injured child (226). Catherine, for her more outwardly directed partiality to God, risks doing more profound harm, and thus James is more direct and serious in his criticism. Yet is Catherine truly so passionate a defender of her Deity that her whole purpose is to kill in His name, or has James been too quick to characterize?
James provides no source for his fleeting reference to Catherine of Siena. He mentions her along with prominent historical religionists such as Martin Luther, who neglected the Anabaptist killings going on around him, and Oliver Crumble, who "praises the Lord for delivering his enemies into his hands for ‘execution’" (375). This is prominent company, so James is giving the woman a back-handed compliment. Nonetheless, James is presumptuous in his insult, since he does not fully understand the life’s work of Catherine. On behalf of Catherine, one can note her active pleas for universal salvation. Catherine’s Dialogue, more than just a diary-record of God’s personal affirmations, is in many places the record of a challenging interaction with God on the question of the good of all humankind. Her scribe says that "more hungry than ever in her hope for the salvation of the whole world and the reform of holy Church, she stood up with confidence in the presence of the supreme Father." A global advocate, Catherine does exhibit considerable broad-mindedness and heroic initiative, and the scribe notes that "she showed him the leprosy of holy Church and the wretchedness of the world, speaking to him as with the words of Moses." And talking to God in her own voice, Catherine heroically offers herself up in stead of the sinners, begging God "to take your revenge on me, and be merciful to your people," but challenging Him as well: "I will not leave your presence till I see that you have been merciful to them" (49). What’s more, Catherine thought of herself more as a diplomat than a warmonger. One of her most influential visions has Christ giving her a cross and an olive branch, the former for the Christians of her environs, the latter for the non-Christians of the extended world. Christ calls her to take both of these with her, a fact that prompts Karen Scott to conclude that, most importantly, "the vision suggested or confirmed to Catherine that the most appropriate means for her to bring peace and salvation to all of humanity was to travel and to speak" (82). Catherine’s divine duty, then, seems to be that of enacting the moral equivalent of war. It is clear that James, in saying that Catherine can think of nothing other than violence, is being unfair.
Catherine of Siena was a globally minded individual who took heroic initiative in trying to change her world. If her goal was that of attaining a peaceful pluralism, then she was similar to James. And insofar as her goal was a world made peaceful by being subsumed under one systematic religion, her project was a departure from that of James. The question is whether Catherine of Siena was able truly to imagine foreign states of mind, and see people in the world as anything other than potential Christians. A similar question can be posed to James: was he was able to see women from anything other than the masculine perspective? As Seigfried notes, James believes in a male-defined rationality that "has for its primary task the control and forcible restriction within bounds of the unbridled, irrational female element in nature and society" (133). Yet even though a masculine rationality subsumes the experiences of women, there remains the possibility of a subversion, and James, in his personal disclosures, presents that possibility.
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Bell, Linda. "Gallantry: What It Is and Why it Should Not Survive." Southern Journal of Philosophy 1984 (165-174).
Browning, Don. "William James’ Philosophy of Mysticism." The Journal of Religion 1979 (56-70).
Catherine of Siena. The Dialogue. Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1980.
Gertrude of Helfta. The Herald of Divine Love. Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1993.
James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. New
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Scott, Karen. "Catherine of Siena and Lay Sanctity in Fourteenth Century Italy." Lay Sanctity, Medieval and Modern: A Search for Models. Ed. Ann W. Astell. Notre Dame, IN.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2000. 77-90.
Seigfried, Charlene Haddock. Pragmatism and Feminism: Reweaving the Social Fabric. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996.