[WilliamJames] Lecture 3, first chunk

Jesse Raber jesse.raber at gmail.com
Mon Feb 3 14:00:13 CST 2014

Good points! Perhaps one reason for the difference between Durkheim and
James is that James is very strictly interested in the accounts people give
of themselves, and never, as far as I can recall, tries to get "above" his
subjects and tell them what their mental states must "actually" be like. I
think there's a tremendous value in this humility of James's, although it
definitely forces him to abstain from many potentially valuable insights.

On Fri, Jan 31, 2014 at 7:44 AM, Max Shron <max.shron at gmail.com> wrote:

> I want to point out that Durkheim would vehemently disagree with the idea
> that religion is based on "nothing in the individual's past experience
> [which] directly serves as a model." Durkheim's theory of religion is that
> it is built out of ideas layered on top of (social) experiences such as the
> collective feeling one gets from actually being part of a religious group
> in the act of worship. I know that James is more interested in prophets
> than ordinary religious people, but even then, aren't they basing their
> orison of God's love on love they have already experienced, God's might on
> existing power, and so on?
> I do totally buy that the contents of religious experiences themselves
> *feel* wholly unrelated to everyday experienced, but it seems like here
> James is talking about the contents of beliefs, not feelings of experience.
> I have had a few somewhat mystical experiences in meditation and they
> definitely felt wholly apart from my normal life.
> --
> www.shron.net
> Please excuse brevity, sent on the move.
> On Thu, Jan 30, 2014 at 10:57 PM, Eric Purdy <epurdy at uchicago.edu> wrote:
>> WERE one asked to characterize the life of religion in the broadest and
>> most general terms possible, one might say that it consists of the belief
>> that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in
>> harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto. This belief and this adjustment
>> are the religious attitude in the soul. I wish during this hour to call
>> your attention to some of the psychological peculiarities of such an
>> attitude as this, of belief in an object which we cannot see. All our
>> attitudes, moral, practical, or emotional, as well as religious, are due to
>> the 'objects' of our consciousness, the things which we believe to exist,
>> whether really or ideally, along with ourselves. Such objects may be
>> present to our senses, or they may be present only to our thought. In
>> either case they elicit from us a *reaction;* and the reaction due to
>> things of thought is notoriously in many cases as strong as that due to
>> sensible presences. It may be even stronger. The memory of an insult may
>> make us angrier than the insult did when we received it. We are frequently
>> more ashamed of our blunders afterwards than we were at the moment of
>> making them; and in general our whole higher prudential and moral life is
>> based on the fact that material sensations actually present may have a
>> weaker influence on our action than ideas of remoter facts.
>> The more concrete objects of most men's religion, the deities whom they
>> worship, are known to them only in idea. It has been vouchsafed, for
>> example, to very few Christian believers to have had a sensible vision of
>> their Saviour; though enough appearances of this sort are on record, by way
>> of miraculous exception, to merit our attention later. The whole force of
>> the Christian religion, therefore, so far as belief in the divine
>> personages determines the prevalent attitude of the believer, is in general
>> exerted by the instrumentality of pure ideas, of which nothing in the
>> individual's past experience directly serves as a model.
>> But in addition to these ideas of the more concrete religious objects,
>> religion is full of abstract objects which prove to have an equal power.
>> God's attributes as such, his holiness, his justice, his mercy, his
>> absoluteness, his infinity, his omniscience, his tri-unity, the various
>> mysteries of the redemptive process, the operation of the sacraments, etc.,
>> have proved fertile wells of inspiring meditation for Christian believers.
>> [1]<http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Varieties_of_Religious_Experience/Lecture_III#cite_note-1>We shall see later that the absence of definite sensible images is
>> positively insisted on by the mystical authorities in all religions as the *sine
>> qua non* of a successful orison, or contemplation of the higher divine
>> truths. Such contemplations are expected (and abundantly verify the
>> expectation, as we shall also see) to influence the believer's subsequent
>> attitude very powerfully for good.
>> Immanuel Kant <http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Author:Immanuel_Kant> held
>> a curious doctrine about such objects of belief as God, the design of
>> creation, the soul, its freedom, and the life hereafter. These things, he
>> said, are properly not objects of knowledge at all. Our conceptions
>> always require a sense-content to work with, and as the words 'soul,'
>> 'God,' 'immortality,' cover no distinctive sense-content whatever, it
>> follows that theoretically speaking they are words devoid of any
>> significance. Yet strangely enough they have a definite meaning *for our
>> practice*. We can act *as if* there were a God; feel *as if* we were
>> free; consider Nature *as if* she were full of special designs; lay
>> plans *as if* we were to be immortal; and we find then that these words
>> do make a genuine difference in our moral life. Our faith *that* these
>> unintelligible objects actually exist proves thus to be a full equivalent
>> in *praktischer Hinsicht*, as Kant calls it, or from the point of view
>> of our action, for a knowledge of *what* they might be, in case we were
>> permitted positively to conceive them. So we have the strange phenomenon,
>> as Kant assures us, of a mind believing with all its strength in the real
>> presence of a set of things of no one of which it can form any notion
>> whatsoever.
>> My object in thus recalling Kant's doctrine to your mind is not to
>> express any opinion as to the accuracy of this particularly uncouth part of
>> his philosophy, but only to illustrate the characteristic of human nature
>> which we are considering, by an example so classical in its exaggeration.
>> The sentiment of reality can indeed attach itself so strongly to our object
>> of belief that our whole life is polarized through and through, so to
>> speak, by its sense of the existence of the thing believed in, and yet that
>> thing, for purpose of definite description, can hardly be said to be
>> present to our mind at all. It is as if a bar of iron, without touch or
>> sight, with no representative faculty whatever, might nevertheless be
>> strongly endowed with an inner capacity for magnetic feeling; and as if,
>> through the various arousals of its magnetism by magnets coming and
>> going in its neighborhood, it might be consciously determined to different
>> attitudes and tendencies. Such a bar of iron could never give you an
>> outward description of the agencies that had the power of stirring it so
>> strongly; yet of their presence, and of their significance for its life, it
>> would be intensely aware through every fibre of its being.
>> It is not only the Ideas of pure Reason, as Kant styled them, that have
>> this power of making us vitally feel presences that we are impotent
>> articulately to describe. All sorts of higher abstractions bring with them
>> the same kind of impalpable appeal. Remember those passages from Emerson
>> which I read at my last lecture. The whole universe of concrete objects, as
>> we know them, swims, not only for such a transcendentalist writer, but for
>> all of us, in a wider and higher universe of abstract ideas, that lend it
>> its significance. As time, space, and the ether soak through all things, so
>> (we feel) do abstract and essential goodness, beauty, strength,
>> significance, justice, soak through all things good, strong, significant,
>> and just.
>> Such ideas, and others equally abstract, form the background for all our
>> facts, the fountain-head of all the possibilities we conceive of. They give
>> its 'nature,' as we call it, to every special thing. Everything we know is
>> 'what' it is by sharing in the nature of one of these abstractions. We can
>> never look directly at them, for they are bodiless and featureless and
>> footless, but we grasp all other things by their means, and in handling the
>> real world we should be stricken with helplessness in just so far forth as
>> we might lose these mental objects, these adjectives and adverbs and
>> predicates and heads of classification and conception.
>> This absolute determinability of our mind by abstractions is one of the
>> cardinal facts in our human constitution. Polarizing and magnetizing us as
>> they do, we turn towards them and from them, we seek them, hold them, hate
>> them, bless them, just as if they were so many concrete beings. And beings
>> they are, beings as real in the realm which they inhabit as the changing
>> things of sense are in the realm of space.
>> Plato <http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Author:Plato> gave so brilliant and
>> impressive a defense of this common human feeling, that the doctrine of the
>> reality of abstract objects has been known as the platonic theory of ideas
>> ever since. Abstract Beauty, for example, is for Plato a perfectly definite
>> individual being, of which the intellect is aware as of something
>> additional to all the perishing beauties of the earth. "The true order of
>> going," he says, in the often quoted passage in his 'Banquet,' "is to use
>> the beauties of earth as steps along which one mounts upwards for the sake
>> of that other Beauty, going from one to two, and from two to all fair
>> forms, and from fair forms to fair actions, and from fair actions to fair
>> notions, until from fair notions he arrives at the notion of absolute
>> Beauty, and at last knows what the essence of Beauty is."[2]<http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Varieties_of_Religious_Experience/Lecture_III#cite_note-2>In our last lecture we had a glimpse of the way in which a platonizing
>> writer like Emerson<http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Author:Ralph_Waldo_Emerson>may treat the abstract divineness of things, the moral structure of the
>> universe, as a fact worthy of worship. In those various churches without a
>> God which to-day are spreading through the world under the name of ethical
>> societies, we have a similar worship of the abstract divine, the moral law
>> believed in as an ultimate object. 'Science' in many minds is genuinely
>> taking the place of a religion. Where this is so, the scientist treats the
>> 'Laws of Nature' as objective facts to be revered. A brilliant school of
>> interpretation of Greek mythology would have it that in their origin the
>> Greek gods were only half-metaphoric personifications of those great
>> spheres of abstract law and order into which the natural world falls
>> apart--the sky-sphere, the ocean-sphere, the earth-sphere, and the like;
>> just as even now we may speak of the smile of the morning, the kiss of the
>> breeze, or the bite of the cold, without really meaning that these
>> phenomena of nature actually wear a human face.[3]<http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Varieties_of_Religious_Experience/Lecture_III#cite_note-3>
>> As regards the origin of the Greek gods, we need not at present seek an
>> opinion. But the whole array of our instances leads to a conclusion
>> something like this: It is as if there were in the human consciousness a *sense
>> of reality, a feeling of objective presence, a perception* of what we
>> may call '*something there*,' more deep and more general than any of the
>> special and particular 'senses' by which the current psychology supposes
>> existent realities to be originally revealed. If this were so, we might
>> suppose the senses to waken our attitudes and conduct as they so habitually
>> do, by first exciting this sense of reality; but anything else, any idea,
>> for example, that might similarly excite it, would have that same
>> prerogative of appearing real which objects of sense normally possess. So
>> far as religious conceptions were able to touch this reality-feeling, they
>> would be believed in in spite of criticism, even though they might be so
>> vague and remote as to be almost unimaginable, even though they might be
>> such non-entities in point of *whatness*, as Kant makes the objects of
>> his moral theology to be.
>> The most curious proofs of the existence of such an undifferentiated
>> sense of reality as this are found in experiences of hallucination. It
>> often happens that an hallucination is imperfectly developed: the person
>> affected will feel a 'presence' in the room, definitely localized, facing
>> in one particular way, real in the most emphatic sense of the word, often
>> coming suddenly, and as suddenly gone; and yet neither seen, heard,
>> touched, nor cognized in any of the usual 'sensible' ways. Let me give you
>> an example of this, before I pass to the objects with whose presence
>> religion is more peculiarly concerned.
>> An intimate friend of mine, one of the keenest intellects I know, has had
>> several experiences of this sort. He writes as follows in response to my
>> inquiries:--
>> "I have several times within the past few years felt the so-called
>> 'consciousness of a presence.' The experiences which I have in mind are
>> clearly distinguishable from another kind of experience which I have had
>> very frequently, and which I fancy many persons would also call the
>> 'consciousness of a presence.' But the difference for me between the two
>> sets of experience is as great as the difference between feeling a slight
>> warmth originating I know not where, and standing in the midst of a
>> conflagration with all the ordinary senses alert.
>> "It was about September, 1884, when I had the first experience. On the
>> previous night I had had, after getting into bed at my rooms in College, a
>> vivid tactile hallucination of being grasped by the arm, which made me get
>> up and search the room for an intruder; but the sense of presence properly
>> so called came on the next night. After I had got into bed and blown out
>> the candle, I lay awake awhile thinking on the previous night's experience,
>> when suddenly I *felt* something come into the room and stay close to my
>> bed. It remained only a minute or two. I did not recognize it by any
>> ordinary sense, and yet there was a horribly unpleasant 'sensation'
>> connected with it. It stirred something more at the roots of my being than
>> any ordinary perception. The feeling had something of the quality of a very
>> large tearing vital pain spreading chiefly over the chest, but within the
>> organism--and yet the feeling was not *pain* so much as *abhorrence*. At
>> all events, something was present with me, and I knew its presence far more
>> surely than I have ever known the presence of any fleshly living creature.
>> I was conscious of its departure as of its coming: an almost
>> instantaneously swift going through the door, and the 'horrible sensation'
>> disappeared.
>> "On the third night when I retired my mind was absorbed in some lectures
>> which I was preparing, and I was still absorbed in these when I became
>> aware of the actual presence (though not of the *coming*) of the thing
>> that was there the night before, and of the 'horrible sensation.' I then
>> mentally concentrated all my effort to charge this 'thing,' if it was evil,
>> to depart, if it was *not* evil, to tell me who or what it was, and if
>> it could not explain itself, to go, and that I would compel it to go. It
>> went as on the previous night, and my body quickly recovered its normal
>> state.
>> "On two other occasions in my life I have had precisely the same
>> 'horrible sensation.' Once it lasted a full quarter of an hour. In all
>> three instances the certainty that there in outward space there stood
>> *something* was indescribably *stronger* than the ordinary certainty of
>> companionship when we are in the close presence of ordinary living people.
>> The something seemed close to me, and intensely more real than any ordinary
>> perception. Although I felt it to be like unto myself, so to speak, or
>> finite, small, and distressful, as it were, I didn't recognize it as any
>> individual being or person."
>> Of course such an experience as this does not connect itself with the
>> religious sphere. Yet it may upon occasion do so; and the same
>> correspondent informs me that at more than one other conjuncture he had the
>> sense of presence developed with equal intensity and abruptness, only then
>> it was filled with a quality of joy.
>> "There was not a mere consciousness of something there, but fused in the
>> central happiness of it, a startling awareness of some ineffable good. Not
>> vague either, not like the emotional effect of some poem, or scene, or
>> blossom, of music, but the sure knowledge of the close presence of a sort
>> of mighty person, and after it went, the memory persisted as the one
>> perception of reality. Everything else might be a dream, but not that."
>> My friend, as it oddly happens, does not interpret these latter
>> experiences theistically, as signifying the presence of God. But it would
>> clearly not have been unnatural to interpret them as a revelation of the
>> deity's existence. When we reach the subject of mysticism, we shall have
>> much more to say upon this head.
>> --
>> -Eric
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