CODE:  TP-13

James on Faith and the Diversity of Religious Standpoints

In this paper, I argue that despite an effort to merely report various religious standpoints in The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James implicitly advocates a standpoint.  I derive an outline of the kind of religious standpoint that his criticism of healthy-mindedness implies.  I relate that criticism and the discussion of good and evil to James criticism of dualisms in his works describing pure experience.  There, I argue that a standpoint espousing pure experience is implicit in his discussion of the experience of knowing.  I find further support for this perspective in James' understanding of faith and inquiry in "The Will to Believe."  The evidence from a number of works besides The Varieties suggests that James favors a religious standpoint of commitment the world, which acknowledges and fully engages good and evil, and in which faith plays as much a role as reason, but cannot be displaced by reason.

James on Faith and the Diversity of Religious Standpoints

In this paper, I argue that despite an effort to merely report various religious standpoints in The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James implicitly advocates a standpoint which can be more fully explained with reference to other works.  After explaining his criticism of the religion of healthy-mindedness, I derive an outline of the kind of religious standpoint that such criticism implies.  This standpoint acknowledges evil in the world as much as good, whereas the former focuses almost solely on the good.  I relate the discussion of good and evil to James criticism of dualisms in his works describing pure experience.  There, I argue that a standpoint espousing pure experience is implicit in his discussion of the experience of knowing.  Furthermore, I suggest that this standpoint parallels the one derived from James' criticism of healthy-mindedness.  I find further support for this religious perspective in James' understanding of faith and inquiry in "The Will to Believe."  I also briefly relate these standpoints to that of the religious saint, expressed in The Varieties.  The evidence from a number of works besides The Varieties suggests that James favors a religious standpoint of commitment to the world, which acknowledges and fully engages good and evil, continuous and discontinuous, in all that it experiences, and in which faith plays as much a role as reason, but cannot be displaced by reason.

In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James describes several religious temperaments, concluding that no one of them is paramount.  Each has a value and function for specific people: "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.  Each attitude being a syllable in human nature's total message, it takes the whole of us to spell the meaning out completely."[1]  In the face of this, James argues against relativism and skepticism.  There is little real value in merely studying and acknowledging the diversity of religious standpoints.[2]  A reasoned analysis of religion, by itself, misses the heart of the experience.  Nevertheless, since we are beings exercising reason as well as feelings, desires and commitments, our faith should grow from all of these sources.

So James, in the Varieties and other works, will report on the diversity of religious temperament, but also compare and critique these standpoints.  Despite concluding that each has a value to particular people, James implies that religious standpoints should be weighed against the criterion of engaging the diversity of life as fully as possible.  Scientific analyses of religion overlook the personal involvement of belief and desire, and so fail to engage life fully.  This criterion is also suggested in his criticism of healthy-mindedness, which appears in the chapter of the same name, but also resurfaces in chapters dealing with other temperaments.  Healthy-mindedness fails to satisfactorily acknowledge the experience of radical evil, seeing only the good and happy in everything.

James describes the religion of healthy-mindedness as a tendency toward optimism which overrides and ignores experiences that others would deem evil.[3]  People of this stripe are not merely happy; James asserts that "when unhappiness is offered or proposed to them, [they] positively refuse to feel it..."[4]  Their overflowing love of everything cannot admit real evil, and James suggests that they turn a blind eye to it. 

While James is being descriptive, he is also passing judgment.  He regards Walt Whitman as the best example of healthy-mindedness, especially for his "inability to feel evil."[5]  Whitman persuades readers that "men and women, life and death, and all things are divinely good."[6]  In contrast, James describes the Homeric Greeks as keeping "all their sadnesses and gladnesses unmingled and entire."[7]  They had no desire to interpret evil as a misunderstanding of the good; to claim "that what immediately appears as evil must be 'good in the making,' or something equally ingenious."[8]  The contrast suggests admiration for the temperament of the Greeks and discontent for healthy-mindedness.

By contrast, then, James is supporting a temperament that acknowledges both good and the evil in the world.  It does not turn away from evil or cleverly redefine it as good; to do so overlooks and marginalizes life in all its diversity.  Instead, he points toward a standpoint of understanding that experience cannot be separated into good and evil.  It is important to distinguish good and evil in the context of our individual lives, but experience itself cannot be defined as a mixture of discrete bits of good and evil, some of which we can acknowledge and others overlook.

In James' writings about pure experience, there is support for this implied criterion.  Just as he implies acknowledgement of evil in the world, as well as good, James argues that while we can distinguish a 'knower' from a 'thing known,' experience itself is neither a combination of both nor the reduction of one to the other.   In "Does 'Consciousness' Exist?" James asserts that "there is only one primal stuff or material in the world, a stuff of which everything is composed, and if we call that stuff 'pure experience,' then knowing can easily be explained as a particular sort of relation towards one another into which portions of pure experience may enter."[9]

Many people are in the habit of understanding the world in dualistic manners. Matter and spirit, body and soul, good and evil, are a few such dualisms.  James argues that pure experience itself is not dualistic.  We can understand that pure experience plays different roles in different contexts, but he explains that "a given undivided portion of experience, taken in one context of associates, play[s] the part of a knower...while in a different context the same undivided bit of experience plays the part of a thing known."[10]  It does not have an internal dualistic structure.  Pure experience is not composed of 'knowers' over here and 'things known' over there.  It is both at once.

He suggests that we can better understand pure experience if we consider a kind of experience that is somewhere between it and bifurcated, dualistically-orientated experience.  He calls this middle class of experience 'appreciations.'  Appreciations are experiences which James feels we often regard both as pure experiences and as examples of dualistic thinking.  He explains: "Experiences of painful objects, for example, are usually also painful experiences."[11]  On the one hand, I regard the object as a painful object, separate from other objects and myself.  On the other hand, I regard my experience as a painful experience, one of a variety of experiences in my life.  Appreciations are regarded both ways, as James suggests: "Shall we speak of seductive visions or of visions of seductive things?  Of wicked desires or of desires for wickedness?...Of good impulses, or of impulses towards the good?"[12]

If we can agree with James' characterization of appreciations, we can better accept his position that pure experience is the more original condition, and that dualistic thinking, which he calls "the psychical,"[13] must be a move away from a focus on pure experience.  He suggests that "a lot of originally chaotic pure experiences became gradually differentiated into an orderly inner and outer world."[14]  Appreciations, which he defines as "the esthetic, moral and otherwise emotional experiences,"[15] are still somewhere between dualistic judgments, on the one hand, and "the bosom of the physical,"[16] on the other.

Here, though he uses the term 'physical,' James does not mean to assert a thorough-going materialism.  While he states, at the end of "Does 'Conscioiusness' Exist?" that "thoughts in the concrete are made of the same stuff as things are,"[17] his language suggests a source of vitality and sustenance which can be physical but is not limited to the physical.  The dualism of thing and thought, like other dualisms, is a prejudice we are in the habit of imposing on pure experience.

In "A World of Pure Experience," James further develops this standpoint as it concerns knowing.  Knowing is a kind of path or series of experiences, which has a beginning and an end.  The beginning is called the knower and the end is called the known thing.  They are different only in their order, and not different in substance or 'stuff.'  He explains: " made; and made by relations that unroll themselves in time....their starting point thereby becomes a knower and their terminus an object meant or known.  That is all that knowing...can be known-as."[18] Knower and known are different only in their order, and not different in substance or "stuff."  In their "state" of pure experience, they are the same.   Do we reach this state anytime we "know" something?  Or, is "knowing" a more profound and rare activity?  Is "knowing" equivalent to "loving god with all your mind and heart and soul?"

He suggests that various philosophical traditions impose dualistic judgments on this 'stuff,' i.e. pure experience: "Rationalism tends to emphasize universals and to make wholes prior to parts in the order of logic as well as that of being.  Empiricism, on the contrary, lays the explanatory stress upon the part, the element, the individual, and treats the whole as a collection and the universal as an abstraction."[19]  They presume experience to be either continuous or discontinuous.  Continuous experience is expected and predictable.  Discontinuous experiences, however, are much like a bump in the road, or rapids in a river.   They force us from our routine way of living.  Sometimes they are even painful and considered evil.

James asserts that empiricists generally note the discontinuous and hold that things are fundamentally individual or disjoined, while rationalists emphasize the union and connection of the continuous.[20]  He disagrees with both traditions and argues that the universe is neither fundamentally continuous, nor fundamentally discontinuous.  It is both.  As he states: "conjunctions and separations are, at all events, co-ordinate phenomena which, if we take experiences at their face value, must be accounted equally real."[21]  The radical empiricism that James is outlining "is fair to both the unity and the disconnection.  It finds no reason for treating either as illusory."[22] the universe; stuff, is neither fundamentally continuous, nor fundamentally discontinuous.  Pure experience is neither.

The status of discontinuous experience is important for relating these writings to James' more plainly religious philosophy.  In a sense, he equates discontinuity with chance and the appearance of radical evil.  In "The Dilemma of Determinism," he explains that many people in his day were so impressed with the capabilities of the human mind and the scientific method, that they refused to believe in the possibility of anything other than what can be predicted by the laws of a purely material, determined universe.  They implied that there is nothing left to chance in the universe.  Chance is just another word for nothing left to say, but according to their view, there is a perfectly good reason which explains the experience for us.  They assume an underlying continuity, just as those who affirm the religion of healthy-mindedness assumed an underlying good.We could talk about chance, or talk about the plurality of the universe, the existence of other paradigms.Ho–hum

But James reports that there are plenty of discontinuous experiences in life.  He notes the Brockton murder[23] as an example of a disheartening and tragic experience.  These and other discontinuous experiences stun us.  They throw our lives into temporary disarray.  To a lesser extent, small inconveniences and confusions are similar.  Our usual way of living, our habits, allow us to live comfortably as long as our experiences fit a certain mold.  Discontinuous experiences break that mold so that our habits are no longer helpful.  These experiences inform us, in a dramatic way, that we are not prepared for life as well as we had thought, and that is not good.Like the recognition of other paradigms stuns us.  Epistemological crisis.

If discontinuous experiences are not always good, are they evil?  The Brockton murder was ghoulish and seemed evil indeed.  However, in The Varieties of Religious Experience, James notes examples of people who experience a continuity of pain and evil.[24]  How could we call their lives discontinuous since their suffering and anguish never seemed to end?  So equating the discontinuous with evil is unwise.

Indeed, discontinuity is sometimes pleasant.  When we experience an act of heroism, whether it is the courage of a stage-frightened girl trying to sing her solo at the Christmas Chorus concert, or the bravery of a mother who charges into a blizzard to find her lost child, we are generally surprised, if not stunned.  We may call it shock, pity or awe, but it is a disruption of our usual way of living.  Especially when we make the admission that "I could never do that" or hear the hero admit "I don't know what came over me," we feel that we are shackled to a standpoint that is no longer useful.  Yet, we admire the hero.  In this sense, the discontinuous cannot be called wholly bad or evil. The discontinuous can be like the silver

Instead he asserts that we experience transitions "which, whether disjunctive of conjunctive in content, are themselves experiences, and must in general be accounted at least as real as the terms which they relate."[25]  Similarly, whether or not evil exists in itself, we have experiences of evil, and plainly, those experiences exist.  I believe that the world view James is expressing in his writings about pure experience, his radical empiricism, can be applied to his treatment of faith and religious diversity.  As such, it is a standpoint that acknowledges both good and evil experiences in the world, but it also advocates the espousal of pure experience generally.  By this, I mean that people who live from this standpoint do not shy away from experience, whether good or evil, continuous or discontinuous. 

I believe he means that pure experience is an undeniable presence in our lives though it can be overlooked and misunderstood.  We are confronted with a full-bodied view of it all the time, but out of habits and prejudices, pure experience becomes flat and unambiguous.  Instead of seeing the various qualities and judgments and skills and memories in a person, we can see him or her as only friend or foe, desirable or undesirable.  But just because pure experience cannot be pinned down to a neat definition, does not mean it is any less important in our lives.  Just because it is neither good nor bad does not mean our lives are without purpose or direction.  Indeed, James is urging his readers to actively participate in pure experience.  He calls for espousal of pure experience, but espousal is more than acknowledging a relationship and then withdrawing.  Engagement with pure experience often means stepping away from our habits and prejudices, even if we are unsure of the results.  This espousal is a friendship, a relationship, and as such, it calls for personal involvement.

This is the import of James' statement in "The Will to Believe," that "faith in a fact can help create the fact."[26]  My faith, my commitments, desires, actions, etc..., play roles in the world of pure experience.  They are not heteronymous to pure experience.  Pure experience is the person beside me on the bus, or in the check-out line at the grocery store.  He or she could be a friend, a helper, a thief, a clown, or all of the above.  But those possibilities depend, at least in part, on another element in pure experience.  In order that the stranger could be a friend, I have to act on a desire to greet this person.  My faith in their reciprocity is necessary for striking up a meaningful relationship.  That faith is included in pure experience as well.  My actions and inactions, the roles I desire to play, are integral aspects of all of those possibilities.  The way I talk and comport myself will affect which possibilities surface at this time and which may surface later, or not at all.

James is arguing against the habits and prejudices of a standpoint which deters us from such engagement and espousal of pure experience.  In "The Will to Believe," this standpoint of aloofness (as I will call it) is expressed in that of Clifford.  It is one of two standpoints, two laws, that shape how we make decisions.  As James notes, "We must know the truth; and we must avoid error,--these are our first and great commandments as would-be knowers; but they are not two ways of stating an identical commandment, they are two separable laws."[27]  The standpoint of Clifford gives priority to the avoidance of error.  Clifford wants to know the consequences before he participates.  On the one hand, there is merit in urging some degree of caution, gentleness and sensitivity to potential consequences of our actions.  But Clifford overemphasizes this at the expense of any participation and any belief at all.  The other standpoint, which James clearly favors, gives priority to knowing truth, even though it thereby risks error on occasion.  This standpoint is willing to take risks and make ventures; it does not withdrawal, but engages experience.

In The Varieties of Religious Experience, the standpoint of aloofness is represented by Renan and others who equate a moral order with a universe of reason and necessity.[28]  Whatever happens is somehow related to the moral order, and is best.  The standpoint assumes that there are rational explanations which support it's contention that the way things happen is necessarily in harmony with the moral order.  James refers to the same attitude, I believe, when he addresses monistic philosophy.  In "The Dilemma of Determinism" he equates these views with those of subjectivism which, he feels, leads to "every sort of spiritual, moral, and practical license."[29]  If whatever happens is not just rational, but moral, then anything I do is moral.  For James, this fosters "ethical indifference."[30]

James feels that these attitudes imply that morality is not something we have to strive for.  We can resign ourselves to the material conditions around us and just give up trying to look for morality.  James sees this in the literature of Renan and Zola, which he feels glorifies "the facts of human sensibility"[31] whatever they are, without affirming any higher purpose.  He feels that this "quitter's attitude" can be shallow and petty, and characterizes it further as "vain chatter and smart wit."[32]

The arguments of the standpoint of aloofness merely assert the futility of arguments.  Renan is more worried that he may be incorrect about a judgment, than that he may be doing evil.  Experience has played a trick on us, and if we play along and try to live meaningful lives, someone, or something, will be laughing at us.  Therefore, we should not take the world seriously.[33]  We should not attempt meaningful action unless we are certain we will bring about the results we intend.  In the absence of that certainty, it is better not to attempt the action.  This standpoint parallels that of Clifford, noted above.

Furthermore, any happiness or sadness in our lives, any good or evil, from this standpoint, is all part of a rational order.  Good and evil both have their place in that order, so from this standpoint, we need not be overly concerned about them.  James is somewhat repulsed by this languid ambivalence toward the world.  Indeed, he suggests that those who take up the standpoint of aloofness can follow ethical codes, but they do so without zeal.  When compared with the second standpoint, which I will address a little further below, the standpoint of aloofness lacks passion.

I think James means that the aloof standpoint lacks strong feelings toward, and interaction in, the world of pure experience.  It has so conceptualized the world that nothing is very meaningful.  It lacks gravity and a solemn state of mind which James defines as joy with some bitterness.[34]  So, by contrast, the state of mind James praises suggests a powerful, meaningful regard for the world of pure experience that the standpoint of aloofness overlooks or disregards.

James describes the standpoint of the religious saint as just such a regard for pure experience.  The religious saint recognizes the tragic, but then moves on.  The standpoint does not dwell on regret, nor does it hide and pretend not to see regretful events.  Indeed, there are times for happiness, and the religious saint recognizes these as wholeheartedly as he acknowledges tragic times.  However, it strives for a different kind of happiness.  Not a happiness for the desired–world, but for the world of pure experience, an espousal of the world of pure experience.   I could write a paper on this, and try to relate it to baseball: William James and the pure experience of Baseball; or Religion, Science, and the World of Pure Experience.In a game, such as baseball, distinguishing knower from known becomes an unimportant exercise.  The activity of knowing, in the game, is not passive, but a continual adjustment, continual knowing, in which the conscious self is sort of lost.  When you are continually knowing, you are in synch with the game.  You are making decisions, but and they are your decisions, stained with your personality and your free choice, and yet they are coming out of you effortlessly; as if all calculation and planning had been swept aside, as if you were free is a more profound sense; free to act without your own bad habits interferring.  You are conscious, but focused on the self that is free from the influence of the desired–world, the self that is focused on the spirit of the game, the game itself.This is "an enthusiastic temper of espousal, in regions where morality strictly so called can at best but bow its head and acquiesce."[35]  The standpoint of aloofness engages in the kind of ironic happiness which thinks that the world is a meaningless joke.  Therefore, happiness is found in escaping from the real world.  Moralist standpoint tries to turn away from the world, but has nothing toward which to turn.The religious saint on the other hand, does not try to escape from the world.  He or she finds happiness in the world despite the "regions" that are discouraging or painful. 

This kind of happiness is related to that which we feel when we act unselfishly.  We may spend time with a neighbor who needs some company, regardless of their religious or ethnic background.  This happiness is recognized and sought in the standpoint of the religious saint, but not in that of aloofness.  From the religious saint's standpoint, we espouse the world of pure experience.  That does not mean that we pretend that suffering does not exist.  The experiences of pain and evil exist, but the quality of their existence is contingent upon the quality of my participation.  Furthermore, while my faith is part of that participation, it does not exclude or overlook the value and role played by other people's faiths in the world of pure experience.


[1]. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, (New York: Penguin Books USA Inc., n.d.) 403

[2]. Ibid., 404

[3]. Ibid., 90

[4]. Ibid., 94

[5]. Ibid., 87

[6]. Ibid., 88

[7]. Ibid., 90

[8]. Ibid., 90

[9]. William James, "Does 'Consciousness' Exist?" in The Writings of William James: A Comprehensive Edition, ed. by John J. McDermott (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1977) 170

[10]. Ibid. 172

[11]. Ibid., 182

[12]. Ibid., 182

[13]. Ibid., 182

[14]. Ibid., 182

[15]. Ibid., 182

[16]. Ibid., 182

[17]. Ibid., 183

[18]. James, "A World of Pure Experience" in Writings, 201

[19]. Ibid., 195

[20]. Ibid., 197-199

[21]. Ibid., 199

[22]. Ibid., 197

[23]. James, "The Dilemma of Determinism," in Writings, 607

[24]. James, Varieties, 134-144

[25]. James, "A World of Pure Experience" in Writings, 203

[26]. James, "The Will to Believe," in Writings, 731

[27]. Ibid., 726-7

[28]. James, Varieties, 54

[29]. James, "The Dilemma of Determinism" in Writings, 603

[30]. Ibid., 603

[31]. Ibid., 604

[32]. Ibid., Varieties, 51

[33]. Ibid., 50

[34]. Ibid., 59

[35]. Ibid., 58-59